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Do not judge a book by its cover essay

Internet Explorer 9 or earlier. Go to the do not judge a book by its cover essay page to see the latest top stories. THE conventional news media are embattled.

Attacked by both left and right in book after book, rocked by scandals, challenged by upstart bloggers, they have become a focus of controversy and concern. Their audience is in decline, their credibility with the public in shreds. In a recent poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, 65 percent of the respondents thought that most news organizations, if they discover they’ve made a mistake, try to ignore it or cover it up, and 79 percent opined that a media company would hesitate to carry negative stories about a corporation from which it received substantial advertising revenues. The industry’s critics agree that the function of the news is to inform people about social, political, cultural, ethical and economic issues so that they can vote and otherwise express themselves as responsible citizens. They agree on the related point that journalism is a profession rather than just a trade and therefore that journalists and their employers must not allow profit considerations to dominate, but must acknowledge an ethical duty to report the news accurately, soberly, without bias, reserving the expression of political preferences for the editorial page and its radio and television counterparts.

The critics further agree, as they must, that 30 years ago news reporting was dominated by newspapers and by television network news and that the audiences for these media have declined with the rise of competing sources, notably cable television and the Web. The audience decline is potentially fatal for newspapers. Not only has their daily readership dropped from 52. 6 percent of adults in 1990 to 37. 5 percent in 2000, but the drop is much steeper in the 20-to-49-year-old cohort, a generation that is, and as it ages will remain, much more comfortable with electronic media in general and the Web in particular than the current elderly are. At this point the diagnosis splits along political lines. Rush Limbaugh’s radio talk show and right-wing blogs by Matt Drudge and others.

But they do not spare the mainstream media, which, they contend, provide in the name of balance an echo chamber for the right. To these critics, the deterioration of journalism is exemplified by the attack of the “Swift boat” Vietnam veterans on Senator John Kerry during the 2004 election campaign. The critics describe the attack as consisting of lies propagated by the new right-wing media and reported as news by mainstream media made supine by anxiety over their declining fortunes. Critics on the right applaud the rise of the conservative media as a long-overdue corrective to the liberal bias of the mainstream media, which, according to Jim A. Kuypers, the author of “Press Bias and Politics,” are “a partisan collective which both consciously and unconsciously attempts to persuade the public to accept its interpretation of the world as true. Fourteen percent of Americans describe themselves as liberals, and 26 percent as conservatives.

The corresponding figures for journalists are 56 percent and 18 percent. This means that of all journalists who consider themselves either liberal or conservative, 76 percent consider themselves liberal, compared with only 35 percent of the public that has a stated political position. The right points to the “60 Minutes II” broadcast in which Dan Rather paraded what were probably forged documents concerning George W. Strip these critiques of their indignation, treat them as descriptions rather than as denunciations, and one sees that they are consistent with one another and basically correct.

The mainstream media are predominantly liberal — in fact, more liberal than they used to be. But not because the politics of journalists have changed. Rather, because the rise of new media, itself mainly an economic rather than a political phenomenon, has caused polarization, pushing the already liberal media farther left. The news media have also become more sensational, more prone to scandal and possibly less accurate.

But note the tension between sensationalism and polarization: the trial of Michael Jackson got tremendous coverage, displacing a lot of political coverage, but it had no political valence. The interesting questions are, first, the why of these trends, and, second, so what? The why is the vertiginous decline in the cost of electronic communication and the relaxation of regulatory barriers to entry, leading to the proliferation of consumer choices. Thirty years ago there was no Internet, therefore no Web, hence no online newspapers and magazines, no blogs. To see what difference the elimination of a communications bottleneck can make, consider a town that before the advent of television or even radio had just two newspapers because economies of scale made it impossible for a newspaper with a small circulation to break even.

Each of the two, to increase its advertising revenues, would try to maximize circulation by pitching its news to the median reader, for that reader would not be attracted to a newspaper that flaunted extreme political views. There would be the same tendency to political convergence that is characteristic of two-party political systems, and for the same reason — attracting the least committed is the key to obtaining a majority. One of the two newspapers would probably be liberal and have a loyal readership of liberal readers, and the other conservative and have a loyal conservative readership. That would leave a middle range.

To snag readers in that range, the liberal newspaper could not afford to be too liberal or the conservative one too conservative. The former would strive to be just liberal enough to hold its liberal readers, and the latter just conservative enough to hold its conservative readers. If either moved too close to its political extreme, it would lose readers in the middle without gaining readers from the extreme, since it had them already. But suppose cost conditions change, enabling a newspaper to break even with many fewer readers than before. So the liberal newspaper will tend to become even more liberal and, by the same process, the conservative newspaper more conservative. If economies of scale increase, and as a result the number of newspapers grows, the opposite ideological change will be observed, as happened in the 19th century. The current tendency to political polarization in news reporting is thus a consequence of changes not in underlying political opinions but in costs, specifically the falling costs of new entrants.