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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Pos' and the MSM

One thing I want to commend about Posner's post, which I discuss below, is that it doesn't adopt the all-too-common blogosphere meme of demonizing the so-called MSM -- it's terrible, it's too liberal/conservative, it's on its last legs, etc.  He does suggest that "a conventional journalist's career appeals disproportionately to liberals," an assertion that he does not substantiate but that, based on personal experience, I don't find implausible (for the major urban print media he and I both read; I can't vouch for broadcast, or for media outlets in further flung locales).  But that's the extent of his dismissal.  I find the MSM meme questionable for two reasons.  First, as is typical of other Internet bubble moments, it is vastly over-enthusiastic about the nature and importance of the blogosphere (Posner's description of almost instantaneous correction may be an example of this enthusiasm), even while it probably fails to appreciate the full applications and implications of the phenomenon.

Second, whether the MSM are bad and/or getting worse is an empirical question, and it is, for the most part, sloppily addressed in the blogosphere.  Is the error rate higher for the mainstream media now than it used to be -- and is it increasing, in a way that corresponds to the heated complaints made on-line about the bankrupt nature of the enterprise?  Maybe, although I doubt it.  But anecdotal evidence won't go far toward proving the point; indeed, given the availability heuristic and other cognitive limitations, it is likely critics will focus unduly on high-profile mistakes, and that they will tend to underplay the error rate in prior eras.  The shouting about the MSM will be just that -- shouting -- unless and until it is backed up by far harder data.  If the shouting speaks to anything, it speaks to the phenomenon of political polarization in the blogosphere and the larger society, and the

My intuition, based on my experiences and on some facts, is that the print media, at least -- both the major papers and many of the smaller ones -- are probably higher-quality institutions now, because of the general increase in the intelligence of the public, the increased educational level of the reporters and editors, the increased professionalization of the press and its ethical standards (as compared to, say, Chicago newspapers of the 1920s), and the fact that major print outlets are competing for an increasingly sophisticated and smaller readership.  I could be wrong.  In either event, these are empirical questions, as I say. 

Not that I think the blogosphere hasn't an important role to play in monitoring and competing with the conventional mainstream media; I just think that role can be played without a spate of increasingly cliched denunciations.  There is surely some irony involved in the fact that, in my reading, the blogs that cry the loudest about the MSM are the ones -- blogs that discuss current affairs, rather than fan sites, etc. -- that rely most heavily and parasitically on the MSM, including print opinion journals but also lots of standard MSM reporting, for their material. 


Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 26, 2005 at 10:27 AM in Culture | Permalink


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[I]Is the error rate higher for the mainstream media now than it used to be -- and is it increasing, in a way that corresponds to the heated complaints made on-line about the bankrupt nature of the enterprise? [/I]

That’s not really the point. Now there is a check on the media where before there essentially was none.

So whether it was a mistake or not, when a commentator files what is supposed to be an objective news report and slips personal conjecture into the story, the blogs are only too willing to point this out.

There was for a long while, the notion that biased journalism ceased to exist in the days of Pulitzer and Hearst. In truth, they cleaned up their act a bit, but the bias never went away. With talk-radio and then the internet, this bias is simply being shown in its full form.

So I would agree, the error rate is probably not any higher.

Posted by: Ray | May 26, 2005 11:17:16 PM

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