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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Adversarial Journalism

Dan Solove writes, quite pessimistically, about the death of newspapers and a collateral effect of the death of newspapers: the loss of serious, objective, neutral journalism, being replaced by a largely partisan press. Dan cites the argument that this marks the return to the journalism of the early Republic--when there was a Federalist press and Republican press--and away from what really was a late-19th century/20th century development. But Dan argues that the result is "We're being overloaded with talk radio, cable TV shout fests, endless tirades in the blogosphere -- what strikes me as endless blather, screeching, shouting, ranting, and raving."

At least for the moment, I am a bit more sanguine. Dan's complaints about blather, etc., are well-taken, but they are not uniquely by-products of a partisan press. They are by-products of infotainment and the desire to make news entertaining. But I am not convinced that journalism cannot be partisan without also be good, thoughtful, and rational. We rely on adversarialism in so many other contexts--the legal system and judicial process, the political system; only in journalism have we adopted the notion of the essential neutral investigator. Can the system work if, rather than The New York Times as the "paper of record" (and I am not suggesting that The Times is perfectly neutral or objective in its news coverage, only that it is trying harder than Fox News or TPM), we have a competition between partisan-but-high-quality news sources--such that public debate looks a little more like adversarial litigation? Will the public be sufficiently informed? Will the government be sufficiently watched and checked against abuse? Can and does the "truth" emerge from the collision of competing arguments in the press the same way (we presume) it emerges from the collision of competing parties in litigation?

A commenter on Dan's post makes the good point that partisan press outlets (especially on the web) typically lack the resources and skill to do the difficult investigation and information-gathering that newspapers historically have done. That is true now; but maybe they will have the capacity in five years. So the question is: if partisan outlets eventually develop the ability to investigate and uncover and check and report, does the media work if reporting is a competition between rational and quality (not screaming blather) adversarial outlets?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 29, 2009 at 05:07 PM in Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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The description of "adversarial journalism" sounds dead right to me, and it's a great post. Maybe one other problem with it (in addition to what Dan says above) is that on many issues, there are many sides. If we just have Republican channels and Democratic channels, who has incentives to dig up news and do research on issues where both parties agree but are wrong? I've already been struck by this point -- how the news media now focuses on very narrow issues where the parties disagree and completely ignores broad issues where the parties agree. (Could we trust anyone, for example, to report honestly on the drug war?)

In litigation, the court is needed to resolve differences between the parties. If that's all the media does -- assess the validity of differences between the two dominant political factions in our country -- I think that's a problem.

Posted by: Chris Lund | Apr 30, 2009 7:44:21 PM

I'm not much of a believer that the adversarial system is a particularly effective truth-finding mechanism, so that's why I'm not much in favor of more adversarialism. The idea that the truth emerges from the collision of competing parties in litigation strikes me as a quaint and unjustified assumption.

TV news does do longer investigatory stories. They typically end with cameras being shoved into people's faces and "shout at 'em" interviews from the street.

It is certainly possible to be partisan and reasonable, but if you throw in the trend toward sensationalization, the blurring between news and entertainment, and the increasing political polarization of the nation, it doesn't seem like a good recipe for reasonableness.

Posted by: Daniel J. Solove | Apr 30, 2009 11:11:15 AM

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