Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What's Happened to the Press

From Ezra:
I think one aspect of the modern press that doesn't get enough attention -- either among folks in the media or folks critiquing it -- is the transition from the fundamental scarcity being information to information being in abundance and the fundamental scarcity being mediation. For instance, the attitude on display in this Marc Ambinder post is fully understandable if you take a newspaperman's attitude towards the whole thing. If everyone got a newspaper once a day, and there were eight political stories, and all of them were different each day, and one of them had pointed out that Palin actually did support the Bridge to Nowhere, then the press would indeed have done its job. The job was to report the story, and they reported it.

But cable news and blogs and radio sort of changed all that and now there's too much information, and so consumers largely rely on the press to arrange that information into some sort of coherent story that will allow them to understand the election. And the press assumed that role -- they didn't create some new institution, or demand that the cable channels be credentialed differently and understood as "political entertainment."

They fill this new role through the methods storytellers have always used to tell stories: the repetition of certain key themes and characters, which creates continuity between one day's events and the next and helps the audience understand which parts to pay attention to. It's sort of like a TV show: If Friends had had an episode where Ross and Rachel hooked up, but never mentioned it again, that would've been weird, but their tryst wouldn't have been a big part of the story. Since they mentioned it all the time, and came back to it, and fit future events into that context, it was a big story. Similarly, if the press reports something and never mentions it again, the public knows to forget it. It's not important. If they mention it constantly -- "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it" -- they know it is important. The job of the media, in other words, is now to also emphasize the right parts of the story.
He's right about the transition between scarce information and scarce mediation. The problem is that there's little difference between mediation and commentary, and, worse, between commentary and advocacy.

So the press has a pretty common business problem: the product that they're selling has become commoditized. As with other industries, the way they've chosen to add value to the commodity product is to bundle it with a service. Unfortunately, they've positioned the bundle as, "Buy our information and we'll do the thinking for you." That's terrific in Ezra's world, because there are all sorts of things where he thinks that elite thought is properly substituted for popular thought. (See any of his zillion posts on healthcare.)

In certain instances, this may be correct, but the fundamental problem of such a substitution is that it chokes off the "wisdom of crowds," which generates emergent behavior out of a chaotic sea of opinions. In this way, Ezra's model of the press has the same weaknesses that I've talked about previously. When polarization occurs with efficient information flows, rapid dissemination of information allows groups to form and harden positions so rapidly that there isn't enough time for emergent behavior to generate novel views or solutions of the raw informational events.

Ezra has identified a systemic problem. He thinks that the solution is obvious and harmless. I agree that he's framed the issue in a way where there is at least one viable, profitable solution. While I'm pretty sure that that's fine ultimately to restore the press to financial health, I'm also pretty sure that it isn't enough to restore the public to electoral health.

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