28 juli 2005

State of the media (The Flemish Beerdrinker)

In a notable article for the New York Times, Richard Posner surveys the state of the media. His basic message, i think, is this. Due to lower costs, entry is much easier than before, thus the mediamarket is more competitive than ever. The result is that the media have to give consumers what they want. If, say, a liberal newspaper doesn’t wants to loose it’s readers, it will have to become more liberal, or else it will loose readers to a new and more liberal competitor. So we have an increased polarization. Lower costs and easier entry are not the only causes of the increased polarization, however. According to Posner we also have a consumer who in fact has only a limited interest in the truth and a limited thirst for knowledge. Searching for truth and knowlegde is costly as well and these costs appear not to have been diminished. So many consumers are happy to stick with media which are coloured but which nevertheless have the right colour. What’s the role of the blogger in this? Bloggers essentially have no costs. And the time they lose by blogging can be compensated with different kind of revenues like fees, donations, royalities and the like. So we should have here an vast array of different views, from extreme right towards extreme left, with everything in between. But do we have an honest reporting of facts? Posner writes:

What really sticks in the craw of conventional journalists is that although individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust. Not only are there millions of blogs, and thousands of bloggers who specialize, but, what is more, readers post comments that augment the blogs, and the information in those comments, as in the blogs themselves, zips around blogland at the speed of electronic transmission. This means that corrections in blogs are also disseminated virtually instantaneously, whereas when a member of the mainstream media catches a mistake, it may take weeks to communicate a retraction to the public. This is true not only of newspaper retractions - usually printed inconspicuously and in any event rarely read, because readers have forgotten the article being corrected - but also of network television news. It took CBS so long to acknowledge Dan Rather’s mistake because there are so many people involved in the production and supervision of a program like ’’60 Minutes II’’ who have to be consulted. The charge by mainstream journalists that blogging lacks checks and balances is obtuse. The blogosphere has more checks and balances than the conventional media; only they are different. The model is Friedrich Hayek’s classic analysis of how the economic market pools enormous quantities of information efficiently despite its decentralized character, its lack of a master coordinator or regulator, and the very limited knowledge possessed by each of its participants. In effect, the blogosphere is a collective enterprise - not 12 million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs. It’s as if The Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising.

The big worry with blogs essentially is that blogs are "unfiltered". There always is the risk that extreme views will dominate, thus tearing apart our social fabric. But if this is true, what to do? Censorship? Posner says to relax:

The argument for filtering is an argument for censorship. (That it is made by liberals is evidence that everyone secretly favors censorship of the opinions he fears.) But probably there is little harm and some good in unfiltered media. They enable unorthodox views to get a hearing. They get 12 million people to write rather than just stare passively at a screen. In an age of specialization and professionalism, they give amateurs a platform. They allow people to blow off steam who might otherwise adopt more dangerous forms of self-expression. They even enable the authorities to keep tabs on potential troublemakers; intelligence and law enforcement agencies devote substantial resources to monitoring blogs and Internet chat rooms. And most people are sensible enough to distrust communications in an unfiltered medium. They know that anyone can create a blog at essentially zero cost, that most bloggers are uncredentialed amateurs, that bloggers don’t employ fact checkers and don’t have editors and that a blogger can hide behind a pseudonym. They know, in short, that until a blogger’s assertions are validated (as when the mainstream media acknowledge an error discovered by a blogger), there is no reason to repose confidence in what he says. The mainstream media, by contrast, assure their public that they make strenuous efforts to prevent errors from creeping into their articles and broadcasts. They ask the public to trust them, and that is why their serious errors are scandals.

In the past we had the one big truth that invariably was situated in the middle, or center. Sometimes that truth was center-left, sometimes center-right, but center nevertheless. Most people only got (and wanted?) to hear that one big "truth". Now we get a scala of "views", sometimes, but mostly not situated in the center, and a splintered audience, choosing among those different views and sticking with it. They only get (and want?) to hear that one (extreme, centrist...) view. Which is better? I really don’t know. The way blogs work, as described by Posner, is some cause for optimism. But what probably really is important is that we should find ways to lower the costs of searching for truth and knowledgde - to lower the costs for consumers, not for the media. Someday i hope that blogs really can make a contribution to this goal.

<<Oudere berichten     Nieuwere berichten>>