“How does Richard A. Posner do it?”ask the editors of the New York Times Book Review in the July 31 issue. By “it” the editors aren’t inquiring about Judge Posner’s bed-sports style but to his prolific way with words—” 38 books, more than 300 articles and book reviews … and almost 2,200 published judicial opinions”—as they introduce his 4,600-word assessment of modern journalism for the Book Review, “Bad News.”
If “Bad News” is any example of Posner’s technique, he does it as fast as he can, takes five minutes and a cigarette to recharge, and repeats. Posner’s essay diagnoses the “conventional news media” as “embattled,” “rocked by scandals, challenged by upstart bloggers” and the “focus of controversy and concern.” Deploying four words where one will do (perhaps that’s the secret to his productivity), Posner asserts that the arrival of the new media (by which he means cable news networks, Web sites, blogs, et al.) has forced the established media to move stories faster, hence sacrificing accuracy. Also, in a panic to attract a share of the fractured audience, the conventional media have embraced sensationalism, he writes. Likewise, economic pressures posed by the new media have caused media polarization, “pushing the already liberal media farther to the left.”
He ignores journalistic history as he spots emerging “trends” and gets basic facts wrong. A 4,600-word piece about the decline of journalism should cite numerous specific transgressions, yet Posner is too lazy to collect the evidence. He names only Newsweek’s Quran retraction, CBS News’ mishandling of the Air National Guard story, and the media’s saturation coverage of the Michael Jackson trial. Dismissing as horse-race coverage most of the press corps’ speculations about who would replace Sandra Day O’Connor, he doesn’t bother to name the offenders.
Take, for example, Posner’s blind assertion that the fear of getting scooped by new media has made the press more inaccurate. What is the baseline year for his comparison? Is it 1980, when CNN launched? Or is it the mid-’90s when Fox News, MSNBC, and major Web news sites debuted? Or is it two years ago, when blogs began to emerge as a media force? (Practically everything Posner frets about here was laid out when radio was the new media.)
Next, what metric would he suggest we use to document the alleged rise in inaccuracy? Is it the total number of newspaper corrections printed? Or is it the number of newspaper corrections filed per word printed? How would his measurement of lower accuracy take into account the increased vigilance by most newspapers and magazines about correcting errors of fact? No newspaper can correct an error of which it hasn’t been made aware; now that readership of newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post has increased by the millions thanks to online news consumers (and bloggers) around world, more errors are caught and rectified than ever before. Should that count against or for modern media?
Again, when Posner cites a rise in press sensationalism, what is his baseline year? Surely he’s familiar with the journalistic circuses run by such press titans as William Randolph Hearst, Col. Robert R. McCormick, Joseph Pulitzer, Harry Chandler, and press midgets like Walter Annenberg. Does the name Walter Winchell ring a bell in Posner’s ears? If he really thinks the destructive saturation coverage of celebrity court cases began with Michael Jackson, allow me to refer him to the Chicago Black Sox, Lindbergh, Chessman, Sam Sheppard, Errol Flynn, and Manson trials.
When Posner declares that media competition has pushed the established press to the left, he gives only one example: Fox News making CNN more liberal. Has Posner lost his cable connection? The success of Fox News convinced CNN of the opposite. CNN realized that the demographic that has the time and interest to watch a lot of cable news tends to be older and more conservative, as this Pew Research Center report indicates. If anything, the one-worldist CNN of founder Ted Turner has been vectoring right in recent years. Lou Dobbs, for one, now blabs a Buchananesque position on trade and immigration five nights a week. Over at MSNBC, which dumped overt liberal Phil Donahue in 2003, they’ve given every nonliberal listed in the Yellow Pages a show in hopes of boosting ratings (examples: Michael Savage, Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlson, Jesse Ventura, and now, Rita Cosby).
Another scary statistic flung by Posner to support his media-in-crisis thesis is the decline in daily newspaper readership from 1990 (52.6 percent of adults) to 2000 (37.5 percent of adults). But what’s so magical about that period? The authentic media maven understands that newspapers have been “dying” since the advent of radio in the 1920s, with the number of titles dwindling steadily with the rise of every new media (television, cable, the Web) and their share of the audience shrinking.
Yet as Paul Farhi explains in a persuasive American Journalism Reviewfeature, newspapers may be dinosaurs but “dinosaurs walked the earth for millions of years.” Newspapers still set the news agenda, he notes. Even with reduced readership and circulation, they still have the largest number of paying customers, who are much coveted by advertisers. And they are phenomenally profitable. Farhi writes, “[T]he mistake the newspapers-are-dead crowd makes is believing that trend lines continue in the same direction forever. It pays to remember that new communications media rarely eliminate the old ones; the old simply adapt to accommodate the new. So movies didn’t eliminate novels and TV didn’t eliminate movies or radio.” Who is more deeply invested in new media, especially the Web, than the old media? If they can turn a buck, they’ll willingly plow their newspapers into Web sites. In his rush to complete the piece, Posner also ignores the fact that millions more read quality journalism from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times because they’re available on the Web. The ability of these news organizations to profit off their Web presence might be lagging, but not their influence.
Posner reveals the sort of rigor he applied to this piece of hackwork in his conclusion, where he notes that a survey by the National Opinion Research Center recorded the public’s confidence in the press declining from 85 percent in 1973 to 59 percent in 2002 “with most of the decline occurring since 1991.” He writes:
So it seems there are special factors eroding trust in the news industry. One is that the blogs have exposed errors by the mainstream media that might otherwise have gone undiscovered or received less publicity. Another is that competition by the blogs, as well as by the other new media, has pushed the established media to get their stories out faster, which has placed pressure on them to cut corners.
How could blogs have played any role in eroding public trust by 2002 when almost nobody in the mainstream had heard of them? The press loves to seize on new trends, especially techno-trends, but the word “blogs” doesn’t appear in a Nexis search of all U.S. newspaper and wire stories until 2000, when it was mentioned in 22 stories. In 2001, the word appeared in 67 stories. In 2002, the concluding year of the survey cited by Posner, it appeared in 359 stories. That’s too few by a factor of about 100,000 to have had an impact on the public’s view of the press.
Sloppy writing like Posner’s is enough to erode my trust in American jurisprudence.
Maybe Posner should stop composing his essays with a paint roller and switch to a Sanford Uniball Micro. Send your recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)