Why media critics so often miss the point

Richard Posner is a frustrating writer because he has moments of brilliant insight but otherwise doesn’t convey any sense of knowing his topic. I picked up his book Public Intellectuals because the thesis as I understood it — that academics need to do a better job of sharing their expertise in day-to-day life — sounded great. What I read of the book wasn’t awful, but it’s been relegated from the top of the nightstand to the lower drawer.

(A full list of the lower-drawer books is at the bottom of this post.)

I don’t know exactly what possessed me to go back and read Posner’s take on the state of the media, which The New York Times published a few months ago. A few weeks later, we saw something I don’t think I’ve ever seen — the Times published a response letter (one of several) … from its own editor. And he said just about everything I would have said.

Posner puts himself on solid ground, showing that he doesn’t buy the party line one way or the other. One beautifully expressed thought: “The public’s interest in factual accuracy is less an interest in truth than a delight in the unmasking of the opposition’s errors.”

Sadly, he still takes some of the cranks too seriously, especially on the right. Why dismiss Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? as “hyperbole” while taking partisan hacks Bernard Goldberg and Brent Bozell seriously? I think Alterman’s a partisan hack, too, especially after reading his juvenile smearing of well-intentioned blogger Brendan Nyhan. But Alterman often manages to back up his arguments with actual research instead of mere perception — just check out his letter in the same collection of responses above.

At times, it’s hard to believe the same person is writing every paragraph in this piece. He shows, quite accurately, that journalists preserve “objectivity” by presenting two sides to arguments that really don’t have two sides. Then he adds this clunker: “(A)lthough individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do.” I don’t buy it. Myths are allowed to proliferate and take root in the blogosphere, in part because bloggers and commenters spend a lot of time talking past each other.

Posner misses the mark by the widest margin in his conclusion: “(T)he increased polarization of the media provides a richer fare than ever before.”

No. No, no, no, no.

Consider the history of cable news. CNN once featured a vibrant international news-gathering organization. To an extent, it still does, though you have to tune in for a major news event or check CNN International to see it. Fox realized you didn’t need such an expensive organization to make money with cable “news.” Just crank up the pundits and hire a bunch of people to wear their hearts on one sleeve and snark on the other. In the small pond of cable news (compare the ratings of prime-time cable news with NPR’s Morning Edition — or even American Idol, which is undoubtedly more important in American culture today), they became a big fish.

CNN, to my horror, has started copying Fox. Their anchors are “looser;” their reporters more emotive. The result is a bit like watching white suburban kids copping a gangsta attitude — it’s a bad copy of a bad idea.

The “journalists” who shout, grimace and strike poses are winning. The journalists who do the vital work of helping us understand our world are losing.

That, to me, is hardly “richer.”

As promised, the rest of the bottom drawer:

  • The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society, by A.L. Rowse. I should get to this one. The History of Britain series made me wonder how Britain made so much progress despite being overrun by various violent usurpers.
  • The Unfinished Presidency, by Douglas Brinkley. A look at Jimmy Carter and his productive quarter-century since leaving office.
  • Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam. Should get to this one, too.
  • The Crusades: A Short History, by Jonathan Riley-Smith. It’s not that short.
  • And finally, Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? Do I really need more polarization in my life?
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