A news revolution

Posted: Sep 16, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

 Finally, there has been the consolidation of the newspaper industry into a few large chains -- Gannett being the largest. Their principal editorial goal, it seems, is to avoid offending anyone, especially advertisers. The result is a homogenization of editorial policies so that they all do little more than echo the conventional wisdom.

 Of course, there are still a few trendsetters, such as The Wall Street Journal on the right and The New York Times on the left. But this is a poor substitute for the dynamic local newspaper markets of years past.

 Everything bad about the newspaper market goes double for television news. At least newspapers allow dissenting voices and publish corrections. Television news operations not only never allow dissenting opinions to be aired, but never admit error, either. They say it is because of time constraints, but that's just an excuse. They could, for example, use their websites far more creatively than any of them now do.

 This "we-know-the truth-and-we-are-never-wrong" attitude is in the process of destroying CBS News, once the very best in the business. When confronted by compelling evidence against its documents regarding George W. Bush's National Guard service, it simply refused to acknowledge their legitimacy. The Nixon White House never circled the wagons as tightly.

 In the old days, this might have worked. But today there is cable news, C-SPAN, talk radio and the Internet to raise questions and disseminate raw material to millions of people who are no longer bound by the quasi-monopoly of three television networks and one-newspaper towns. They can now get news that otherwise would be suppressed or ignored, check original sources for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

 It has long been a mystery to me why the major televisions networks (and CNN) decided to broadcast exactly the same thing in exactly the same way with the same identical liberal spin. One would have thought that for purely competitive reasons, one would have appealed to conservatives just to have an edge and make an extra buck. But instead, they all decided to be exactly the same, varying only in the degree of their contempt for Republicans and anything remotely conservative.

 To his credit, Rupert Murdoch saw this opening and created Fox News, which was rewarded by beating every other network during the Republican convention. The imminent collapse of CBS News as a serious news operation will only boost Fox and the alternative media still more.