The democratization of the media -- really its fragmentation -- has encouraged ideological polarization. Princeton University professor Paul Starr traced this process recently in the Columbia Journalism Review. After the captive audience for network news was released by cable, many Americans did not turn to other sources of news. They turned to entertainment. The viewers that remained were more political and more partisan. "As Walter Cronkite prospered in the old environment," says Starr, "Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann thrive in the new one. As the diminished public for journalism becomes more partisan, journalism itself is likely to shift further in that direction."
Cable and the Internet now allow Americans, if they choose, to get their information entirely from sources that agree with them -- sources that reinforce and exaggerate their political predispositions.
And the whole system is based on a kind of intellectual theft. Internet aggregators (who link to news they don't produce) and bloggers would have little to collect or comment upon without the costly enterprise of newsgathering and investigative reporting. The old media dinosaurs remain the basis for the entire media food chain. But newspapers are now expected to provide their content free on the Internet. A recent poll found that 80 percent of Americans refuse to pay for Internet content. There is no economic model that will allow newspapers to keep producing content they don't charge for, while Internet sites repackage and sell content they don't pay to produce.
I dislike media bias as much as the next conservative. But I don't believe that journalistic objectivity is a fraud. I was a journalist for a time, at a once-great, now-diminished newsmagazine. I've seen good men and women work according to a set of professional standards I respect -- standards that serve the public. Professional journalism is not like the buggy whip industry, outdated by economic progress, to be mourned but not missed. This profession has a social value that is currently not reflected in its market value.
What is to be done? A lot of good people are working on it. But if you currently have newsprint on your hands, thank you.
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