January 14, 2005

The New Media Landscape

Over the last few years I've written several times abut the evolution of the modern media. These observations have come during discussions of media bias. With the advent of the Internet and cable television, the rise in popularity of conservative talk radio, and the easy accessability of alternative media, the main stream media (MSM) has lost traction. Many believe the media has become increasingly polarized. Others claim it is not. Many fingers have been pointed, blaming this and that and the other. They're mostly all wrong. The polarization of journalism is a natural result of market forces and changing technology.

What we think of as a neutral national media is an artifact of the advance of technology. A century and a half ago there was no discussion of media bias. It was simply a fact of life. Radio and television did not exist. ALL media markets were local. Newspapers served their markets and blatantly pandered to the politics of their readers. They were often even named The Democrat or The Republican. If the market was big enough there would be more than one paper so that minority views could also be served (and profited on). Even the rise of the media moguls such as Hearst did not change this--it simply consolidated the independents. National reporting was done by national chains, and by local papers selling each other articles for reprint. Even smaller cities had more than one newspaper.

By the 1970's that still applied only to large cities. When radio came along after WWI, followed by television after WWII, the nature of news reporting changed. Suddenly there was a market for standardized national news that could be profitably served, and the business success of a national media outlet was dependent on attracting the largest audience possible. This meant that news had to become more neutral and impartial, less biased, less slanted to the opinions of local markets. News became homogenized. And so began the journalistic tradition of neutral reporting as a standard, rather than an exception.

What resulted was a market oligopoly of national news. The big broadcast networks and the big newspaper chains ruled. Many local papers remained independent, but still relied on the wire services for their national news. Economics and technology had shaped the market--and the neutrality of journalistic ideology. Business is business, and in a capitalist economy formative forces lead to maximum market-seeking.

But once a market is seized, if there are no alternative sources of supply the oligopolist or monopolist can pretty much do what they want. And political bias began to creep back into the news. Not by leaps and bounds, but slowly, like water through a crack. By the late 1970's the national media establishment was solidly centrist to liberal, and conservatives began to grumble and complain and tune it out.

Time and technology march on. Along comes cable TV, and suddenly the barriers to entry in the national media market are much lower. Ted Turner leaps into the fray, not on ideological motives but pure profit motives, and CNN begins to erode the bottom lines of the Big Three. Rush Limbaugh hits the scene, demonstrating that there is a HUGE untapped market for right-of-center news and views. And along comes the Internet, with almost no barriers to entry at all. In steps Fox. And the Big Three begin to flounder.

The result of this was all predictable, and I've gone on at length about it here and in other places over the last few years. Having lost their oligopoly and under severe market pressures the media, ALL media, have begun to seek market niches to serve profitably. One-size-fits-all is simply not a profitable formula at the moment. The obvious result is that media news outlets have become more ideologically polarized as the news markets fragmented, and the ideal of objective and impartial journalism has taken a big hit.

As I mentioned there is much finger-pointing in the discussion of media bias, disagreement about who is biased how, the origins of bias, even the denial that this outlet or the other has a bias. But the fact is that the media do not shape the markets. The markets shape the media.

This long-winded background review of what I've said for years is leading into something, as you may have guessed. The release of the CBS report has brought the discussion of media bias back into the limelight. But for once, there are signs that some of the media are finally seeing beyond the spitball-throwing of the moment and noticing what has happened, and even figuring out the consequences, and starting to look ahead at what might be.

Some hate it--Howard Fineman, for example. Some like it--Peggy Noonan makes that case. And some, including Noonan and former CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter, see an opportunity for the phoenix to rise from the ashes. A chance for news media to re-assess their market positions and aim for the Big Prize of a stronger, healthier, less partisan reporting ethos that serves more than ideological niches and can capture the big central market through clear, fair, and accurate reporting.

Here's hoping they're right.

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