03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Media are Schrodinger's Cat

The media today are like the visitor (a dybbuk?) in the opening scene of the Coen brothers' new movie, A Serious Man - no one knows if it's alive or dead. Or, it could be, like Schrodinger"s Cat, (a mathematical problem referred to in the Coen movie) in a state of being simultaneously alive and dead.

The Schrodinger's Cat paradox is a problem of quantum mechanics and exceptionally difficult to get your mind around. When applied to the media landscape today, it brings to the fore a number of puzzling and complex questions: Are newspapers alive or dead? Are the main-stream media fair and balanced or hopelessly biased? Is the New York Times too liberal or not liberal enough? Is the NPR business model fair to competing commercial radio stations and does its programming skew liberal?

The Scrodinger's Cat paradox is a thought problem meant to demonstrate that the superposition (simultaneous inert and moving) properties of quantum particles collapse into a definitive state (inert or moving) only at the exact moment of quantum measurement.

Applied to media, this would mean that a particular media outlet (cable network, newspaper Web site, or blog) is simultaneously fair and balanced and hopelessly biased, and that a newspaper is simultaneously dead and alive until they are examined; then they become one or the other. Two specific examples come to mind: Fox News and The New York Times.

Such Fox News vaudeville (Neil Postman's label in Amusing Ourselves To Death) performers such as Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity are clearly hopelessly biased entertainers whose emotional appeals attract an uneducated or incurious audience. On the other hand, Fox News reporter Major Garrett and anchor Shepard Smith seem to be as advertised - fair and balanced.

The New York Times newspaper, if not dead, is clearly dying. This week it laid off another 100 people from its newsroom, and advertising revenue continues to tank. The Times Company announced it wasn't going to sell the Boston Globe, not because of kindness to its staff or a desire to do a public service but because it couldn't find a buyer willing to take the dying paper off its hands. We'll have to wait and see if its San Francisco edition can make it. On the other hand, the Web site is flourishing. It's the best newspaper site and best, most innovative news Web site. It's very much alive.

There are many other examples of media in a simultaneous state of life and death, fairness and bias, and left and right that become one or the other when examined by critics, which, of course, simplifies their complexity and leaves out multiple nuances.

It took a brain as huge as Einstein's to conceive of quantum physics and someone as thoughtful as Schrodinger to help us to begin to understand the concept. Today understanding the media is almost as difficult as understanding quantum physics.

The problem is that everyone in America today isn't thinking about the media as Schrodinger's Cat, but about the Balloon Boy, or who won on "American Idol," or texting their friends. So who are the modern media Schrodingers who can help us understand the media?

Certainly not the self-absorbed gossip mavens such as Vanity Fair's Michael Wolff and most other popular, superficial, celebrity-obsessed media critics. On the other hand, pay attention to The New Yorker's Ken Auletta (subscribe on iTunes). Never miss a broadcast or podcast of Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone's "On the Media" (subscribe on iTunes). Subscribe to Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody's blog, and keep up on what Jeff Jarvis writes, on this Buzz Machine blog, even though he will probably infuriate you, as he often does me. Finally, read Neil Postman's 1985 book Amusing Ourselves To Death because it's still scarily relevant today.