Bruce Bartlett

I confess that I am fascinated by the CBS documents scandal. It reminds me of the last gasp of the "scientists" who were certain that the sun revolved around the earth, rather than the other way around, before finally being forced to accept the truth. Historians call this a "paradigm shift," when the intellectual support for a long-held but incorrect idea finally collapses under the weight of contrary data.
 
CBS is clearly operating under the old paradigm, in which only a chosen few media outlets were allowed to present the news. Economists call this an oligopoly --a market with only a few sellers who can set prices in a quasi-monopolistic manner.

 In this case, however, what was being set is not prices, but a single mindset of what constitutes "news." This mindset has been the same for about 50 years, from the time at which meaningful newspaper competition began to decline and television became the dominant news source for most people.

 It used to be that newspapers were the principal disseminators of news. In all major cities, there were at least two newspapers -- one or more in the morning and at least one in the afternoon. This created competition for ideas as well as readers.

 In any town with more than one paper, one would tend to be liberal and one conservative for purely competitive reasons. In practice, this usually meant that the major paper (usually the morning paper) was liberal and the secondary paper (usually the afternoon paper) was conservative.

 Changing work schedules, rush hour traffic and the advent of evening television news broadcasts killed the afternoon paper. I don't know of a single one left in the country. Unfortunately, this tended to kill off the conservative paper in most markets.

 Another factor was the changing economics of newspapers, with large advertisers choosing to advertise only in the dominant paper. This created one-newspaper towns in most markets. The number of major cities with more than one paper is now very small.

 Sadly, the achievement of one-paper status has tended to neuter the political edges of every paper that has achieved it. Those papers that once were proudly liberal or conservative are now mostly mushy centrists. All their editorials seem to be of the "on the one hand, but on the other hand" variety, with no firm conclusion. One wonders why they bother publishing editorials at all.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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