Richard Posner, the hardest-working Federal Judge in the public-intellectual business (and co-author of the increasingly influential Becker-Posner blog) thinks out loud about the news media in Sunday's New York Times (already available on the Web.)
Being profit-driven, the media respond to the actual demands of their audience rather than to the idealized ''thirst for knowledge'' demand posited by public intellectuals and deans of journalism schools. They serve up what the consumer wants, and the more intense the competitive pressure, the better they do it. We see this in the media's coverage of political campaigns. Relatively little attention is paid to issues. Fundamental questions, like the actual difference in policies that might result if one candidate rather than the other won, get little play. The focus instead is on who's ahead, viewed as a function of campaign tactics, which are meticulously reported. Candidates' statements are evaluated not for their truth but for their adroitness; it is assumed, without a hint of embarrassment, that a political candidate who levels with voters disqualifies himself from being taken seriously, like a racehorse that tries to hug the outside of the track. News coverage of a political campaign is oriented to a public that enjoys competitive sports, not to one that is civic-minded.It's a long piece, and something of a "thumbsucker," as I understand they call it in the trade, but well worth reading.
Oh, one more short excerpt. Can't resist.
Confession: Posner has always been kind of a personal hero of mine, though I certainly don't always agree with him. The guy is a whip-smart Federal judge and law school professor who also somehow manages to find the time to crank out one or two really well thought-out, beautifully-written books a year, and now he's blogging as well. (When does he sleep? Does he, in fact, sleep?)
The public's interest in factual accuracy is less an interest in truth than a delight in the unmasking of the opposition's errors. Conservatives were unembarrassed by the errors of the Swift Boat veterans, while taking gleeful satisfaction in the exposure of the forgeries on which Dan Rather had apparently relied, and in his resulting fall from grace. They reveled in Newsweek's retracting its story about flushing the Koran down a toilet yet would prefer that American abuse of prisoners be concealed. Still, because there is a market demand for correcting the errors and ferreting out the misdeeds of one's enemies, the media exercise an important oversight function, creating accountability and deterring wrongdoing. That, rather than educating the public about the deep issues, is their great social mission. It shows how a market produces a social good as an unintended byproduct of self-interested behavior.
Since he has staked out positions, over the years, on just about every controversial issue under the sun, the likelihood of him ever, say, getting the nod for the Supreme Court is slim to none.
That's all right. From the look of things, he's having a lot of fun doing exactly what he's doing right now.