Monday, August 01, 2005

Good News Gone Bad?

Why do the vast majority of people watch the news? To become "informed"? To become "good citizens"? To become policy wonks? Surely some do, but according to what I think is a highly enlightened cover story on this week's New York Times Book Review, most watch the news for more primitive reasons.

People watch the news for the same reasons - make that with the same feelings or urges - as they watch sports: to see sound bite, slo mo point-counterpoint skirmishes of right and wrong, them and us, Democrat and Republican, home team and invader, humans vs. nature, good and bad, left and right. Some might complain about "polarized" and even combative news coverage, but most news consumers crave (or at least are drawn to) the standoffishness. They want the dueling drama of "Crossfire, " the confrontations of "60 Minutes," in general and ad nauseum, the hyped rhetoric of dangers, disasters and dystopia.

The vast majority of people turn to the news for emotional reasons, not for unresolved issues but for reaffirmation, resolution, reassurance - NOT generally to educate themselves, not to weigh their ideals and prejudices against alternate and opposing views to take stands or push their agendas. Thus, with the media slaves to the freemarket - they are all for profit enterprises, after all - democracy and the common good may suffer, though nothing is sure yet, because of wild cards like the advent and onslaught of blogs, etc. The market changes more than the consumers do.

So argues Richard A. Posner in this absolutely brilliant analysis of the news media, "Bad News," published in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

Rarely have I read anything lately that seemed so profound and right on. Posner challenges the well-meaning and well-informed among us who think everybody else pays attention to the news for the same high brow reason we do - to form substantive opinions. Posner says few are reading and watching for content so as to judiciously assess policies, programs, plots and history. Not so, says Posner, whose media analysis is like George Lakoff's "framing" paradigm; it will change the way you think about why we're where we are.

Posner is so good at this, I feel I've got to quote him at length. Speaking to the heart of common misconceptions about the function of news and thus the production and end product of news in our culture, Posner turns the tables on " of the points on which left and right agree - "

...that people consume news and opinion in order to become well informed about public issues. Were this true, liberals would read conservative newspapers, and conservatives liberal newspapers, just as scientists test their hypotheses by confronting them with data that may refute them. But that is not how ordinary people (or, for that matter, scientists) approach political and social issues. The issues are too numerous, uncertain and complex, and the benefit to an individual of becoming well informed about them too slight, to invite sustained, disinterested attention. Moreover, people don't like being in a state of doubt, so they look for information that will support rather than undermine their existing beliefs. They're also uncomfortable seeing their beliefs challenged on issues that are bound up with their economic welfare, physical safety or religious and moral views.

So why do people consume news and opinion? In part it is to learn of facts that bear directly and immediately on their lives - hence the greater attention paid to local than to national and international news. They also want to be entertained, and they find scandals, violence, crime, the foibles of celebrities and the antics of the powerful all mightily entertaining. And they want to be confirmed in their beliefs by seeing them echoed and elaborated by more articulate, authoritative and prestigious voices. So they accept, and many relish, a partisan press. Forty-three percent of the respondents in the poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center thought it ''a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news.''

Being profit-driven, the media respond to the actual demands of their audience rather than to the idealized ''thirst for knowledge'' demand posited by public intellectuals and deans of journalism schools. They serve up what the consumer wants, and the more intense the competitive pressure, the better they do it. We see this in the media's coverage of political campaigns. Relatively little attention is paid to issues. Fundamental questions, like the actual difference in policies that might result if one candidate rather than the other won, get little play. The focus instead is on who's ahead, viewed as a function of campaign tactics, which are meticulously reported. Candidates' statements are evaluated not for their truth but for their adroitness; it is assumed, without a hint of embarrassment, that a political candidate who levels with voters disqualifies himself from being taken seriously, like a racehorse that tries to hug the outside of the track. News coverage of a political campaign is oriented to a public that enjoys competitive sports, not to one that is civic-minded.

It is important for us to remember that this media machine is a Frankenstein of our own creation, a monster of our own market-forces, of not just hype but human nature. Not everything is as it seems. We've got some testing of our media prejudices to contend with before, during and after we "catch" the news. I highly recommend the entirety of "Bad News," to you.

Richard A. Posner is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and, along with the economist Gary Becker, the author of The Becker-Posner Blog.


At 8/01/2005 6:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, you are the expert on everything?
What a loser!

At 8/01/2005 6:37 PM, Anonymous Steve P. said...

In this case, anonymous, I would suggest taking that up with Judge Posner.


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