Man Without Qualities

Friday, November 29, 2002

The Why of It

Soon after the November elections, Roll Call reported that Democrats were "eager to make inroads" in talk radio and cable television, which they believe Republicans have "dominated" in recent years. Senator Dick Durbin (Ill.), the assistant Democratic floor leader, said: "The conservative establishment in this country really has a lock on the airwaves. ... You really have to work the regular news coverage and hope that the real issues and real stories break through."

So it is hardly surprising or sinister that within a short time the nation was presented with Tom Daschle's complaints about Rush Limbaugh - witlessly seconded by the increasingly oblivious and personally vain John McCain, who apparently just could not let the chance to jab a media critic go by unexploited, even one occasioned by a Democratic team effort. This was followed hard apace by Al Gore conjuring up a conspiracy centrally controlled from the very physical premises of the Republican National Committee and "exploding" into the national zeitgeist through Limbaugh, the Washington Times and Fox News. [For the record: Why did Mr. Gore omit the Wall Street Journal? Is he trying to upset them?] The man who has repeatedly said that he "won" the election said that "there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party."

Senior Democrats have been embarrassingly crude in their execution, but there may be a serious, focused effort here on the Democrats' part. The Democrats may be trying to shore up the willingness of their base constituency of liberal "regular news" television reporters and media executives to sacrifice some of the ratings and profitability of their companies in service of their personal, liberal political agendas.

These recent statements of Messrs. Daschle and Gore have struck most American voters as exaggerated, even extreme. But exaggerated statements by mainstream politicians are normally intended to stimulate some political "base," not to reach ordinary voters. To understand what "base" these Senior Democrats might be trying to reach, Senator Durbin's seminal assertion that Democrats"really have to work the regular news coverage" seems apposite. As demonstrated by any number of polls and other indicia, most "regular news" television reporters and media executives hold strongly liberal personal political views. That is: the many liberal "regular news" television reporters and media executives form a "base" of the Democratic Party. This Democratic "base" seems to need stimulating - and these recent statements of Messrs. Durbin, Daschle and Gore are consistent with such an effort.

Many such people have used their professional positions to advance their personal, normally liberal, agendas, practices which have in the past generally aided Democrats in both campaign coverage and in the spin given to coverage of politically sensitive news generally. But the old ways are changing. A prior post discussed Al Hunt's observation that television stations have already stopped most news coverage of political campaigns - which works to the disadvantage of the Democrats:

Across America, television stations are engaged in two pervasive phenomena: severely cutting back on campaign coverage while jacking up rates candidates must pay to advertise. ... A University of Southern California study of the 1998 governor's race in that state surveyed thousands of hours of news coverage in major markets; considerably less than 1% was devoted to the governor's race. This year USC and University of Wisconsin researchers examined almost 2,500 newscasts in 17 major markets a month ago and found that over half contained no campaign coverage at all; many of the rest only offered short, fleeting coverage.

Coverage of political campaigns by the "regular news" is significant. But the success of Fox News has placed additional pressure on traditionally liberal media outlets, such as CNN, to reign in the liberalism of their "regular news" coverage generally. In television, ratings means revenue. Various commentators have even raised the question of whether public media company management betrays its shareholders by tolerating a political bias which suppresses network news ratings in favor of advancing the personal agendas of liberal television reporters and executives. For example, the former head of NBC owner GE, Jack Welch, was asked this question at a shareholder meeting - but avoided addressing the issue by claiming it was "immaterial." As the networks and their ratings continue to weaken, such matters become more material. But regardless of whether any securities regulators care to take up the matter, the market is increasingly demanding profitability from media companies - and punishing their stock prices.

Most recently, the always unintentionally hilarious Paul Krugman awkwardly admits the issue:

[M]y purpose in today's column is not to bash Fox. I want to address a broader question: Will the economic interests of the media undermine objective news coverage?

He then proceeds to admit the unsurprising fact that general economic laws and considerations operate on media companies just as they do everywhere else. But for some reason he just forgets to discuss what is perhaps the most important issue raised by corporate economic activity: agency costs. That is, the inclination of corporate "agents" - here, liberal television reporters and executives - to use their positions to advance their personal agendas. In one sense this is a surprising omission, since the entire "corporate reform" dustup beginning with the collapse of Enron, is exactly a consequence of alleged conversions of corporate assets and opportunities to instead serve the personal agendas of corporate "agents." Professor Krugman's omission might be seen as even more surprising since he, personally, has repeatedly claimed that "corporate reform" issues, especially as reflected in Enron's agency cost catastrophe, are far more significant than, say, the War on Terror or the events of September 11. Professor Krugman might also have taken a little space to discuss how it was that during the pre-1994 half-century, a perpetually Democrat-dominated Congress coincided with the rise of three and only three liberal, national Democrat-friendly television networks - a situation which ended only with the prominence of Fox News. These senior Democrats are complaining that conservatives have any broadcast and cable news outlets sympathetic to them. The inclusion of the Washington Times with the tacit exemption of the Wall Street Journal from Mr. Gore's tirade is also curious. Yet Professor Krugman just forgets about such history and all those economic principles that once seemed so important to him. Odd, that.

Instead of seeing the operation of general economic laws and a healthy unraveling of a once overly-cuddly relationship between Democratic Congresses and the three heavily regulated television news networks that those Congresses spawned, Professor Krugman sees Fox News' relative conservatism and a possible desire on its part to influence political events as evidence of the very conspiracy pre-cooked-up by Al Gore: "The reaction from most journalists in the "liberal media" was embarrassed silence. I don't quite understand why." What media person or company doesn't have desires to influence political events? Are Professor Krugman, the New York Times or any of the three "old" networks claiming they have no such desires? Now if Professor Krugman had taken the time to ask a few of those "other journalists in the 'liberal media,'" they might have told him that their reaction to Mr. Gore's conspiracy theories "was embarrassed silence" because what Mr. Gore is saying bears an uncomfortable similarity to what one hears emanating from the washing machine crates that house some of New York's more colorful midtown residents. But that, as discussed above, seems to be a matter of clumsy execution - Bill Clinton probably could have made the paranoia sing. But it's no secret that Professor Krugman is always up for a juicy conspiracy theory! Heck, he is rumored to keep a copy of every single X-Files episode in his Princeton University office.

UPDATE: Stuart Buck ably addresses the "fairness doctrine" subplot in Professor Krugman's screed. The "fairness doctrine" was one of the most notorious bits of federal news regulation with which Congress was comfortable for decades, and Professor Krugman apparently still is. The doctrine was so awful that its 1987 demise considerably predated 1994 Republican control of Congress. Reaganites were able to expunge it during his presidency.

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