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The Market Is the Message

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Richard Posner is the only federal judge I can think of with a major blog. Besides his day job over at the Seventh Circuit, he writes all the time - articles, op-eds, book reviews and books of his own. Since last December, he’s been writing a regular blog with economist Gary Becker.

So Posner's unique background makes his views on blogs, politics and the media particularly significant, and he shares his take in a long essay in Sunday’s New York Times. He reviews eight books of media criticism, from Eric "Liberal Media" Alterman to Bernard "CBS Insider" Goldberg, and he finds the mainstream media is disrespected, embattled and rattled.

Posner argues that conservative and liberal media critics agree on more than they realize. They both want a media that educates the public and transcends profit pressures. They resent bias in the newsroom; they lament any polarization that obstructs their agenda; and they like blogs that advance their views. Yet while both crowds have focused on bias and politics, Posner argues economic trends are actually realigning the media. The proliferation of media outlets, cable news and blogs have increased competition, and Posner provides several examples of how that competition has inevitably led to polarization. Thus he concludes the most crippling biases are not pundit-driven, but market-driven:

A market gives people what they want, whether they want the same thing or different things. Challenging areas of social consensus, however dumb or even vicious the consensus, is largely off limits for the media, because it wins no friends among the general public. The mainstream media do not kick sacred cows like religion and patriotism.

This is an important point, and it’s lost on many partisans and journalists alike. If market-driven coverage is designed to avoid offense, we will miss a lot of important news and uncomfortable facts.

Then Posner turns to the blogosphere, where he finds information is efficiently pooled and the "error-correction machinery" is better than the "conventional media." That's high praise from an old-school writer, but he has some sharp criticism too.

"Bloggers are parasitical on the conventional media," he explains, since they copy traditional news and opinion. (Exhibit A: This blog entry about his New York Times essay!) Posner continues, "The degree of parasitism is striking in the case of those blogs that provide their readers with links to newspapers articles," since they can be read "without buying the newspaper." This is a ridiculous claim, since only the newspapers decide whether to offer free content. You can't blame bloggers for a newspaper's distribution decisions. And when newspapers do offer free articles online, the blogs are providing a free promotional service by directing their readers to a paper's website. The biological analogy for that relationship is symbiosis -- not "parasitism."

Posner concludes that blogs have a positive impact on media because they increase competition and lead to a "better matching of supply to demand." He readily admits this means more polarization and sensationalism, but that's okay because the media should just "give the consumer what he or she wants."

In the end, this libertarian faith in the market is the great failing of Posner's essay. We cannot simply reduce all news choices to consumer demand, with different events and realities reported according to consumer preferences. As the late Sen. Pat Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” If the fractured, market-driven media continues to pander to an increasingly polarized electorate, it will be nearly impossible to attain consensus on any major debate. And if that kind of impasse doesn't worry Posner on its merits, he should at least consider the costs such gridlock might force on the market.