Partisan Media: An Economic Analysis

A friend sent me Matt Continetti’s LOL-worthy summary of the recent history of ideological media, penned as a launch essay for a new conservative news site, and it’s definitely worth clipping for your humor pages. The idea that the pre-Murdoch Wall Street Journal was an example of left-wing bias is particularly amusing. But it also serves as both a reminder and demonstration of the fact that different accounts of the journalistic method are best understood as business strategies.

The Grand Old Days of American journalism were characterized first and foremost by severely curtailed competition. There were three television networks, and outside of New York each city had basically one newspaper. The dominant business strategy in a climate like that is to try to be inoffensive. A person living in Baltimore was either going to subscribe to the Sun or else not subscribe to the Sun, so the important thing was to try not to put anything in the Sun that would unduly alienate and embitter readers or advertisers. An ideology of journalistic “objectivity” grew up around this that by design did not suit the needs or agendas of political activists of various stripes. At the same time, over in the United Kingdom a much more competitive newspaper market existed in which the headlines were much more sensationalistic and different papers would cater to different ideological or sociological niches to try to generate reader enthusiasm. What’s happened to the United States over the past 30 years is that cable, talk radio, and the Internet have created a more competitive media market that’s much less dominated by geographically segmented quasi-monopolies. In this new environment, the kind of rah-rah go-team-go cheerleading exhibited by Continetti’s piece makes a lot of sense as a business strategy.