Though it's looking less likely than it was a few weeks ago, John Kerry could still pull off a win in this presidential election. But there's already one clear loser: the so-called "mainstream media" of network television and major newspapers. Whoever winds up in the White House next year, the position of these traditional media outlets (or "legacy media" as some call them) continues to decline.
That decline is partly technological in origin. Monopolistic or oligopolistic newspapers and broadcast outlets were the result of technology: economies of scale and scope that rewarded consolidation and led to virtually no competition among newspapers and very little among broadcasters. Now that's changing, as alternative outlets like talk radio, cable television, and, especially, the Internet, have almost completely removed the traditional barriers to entry and allowed competition.
But the loss of those barriers isn't the biggest problem faced by the mainstream media. The biggest problem is that, like most monopolists, they've spent so many years enjoying their position and not worrying about quality that they're left floundering now that competition is exposing their faults. Like the folks at GM who couldn't understand why people were buying Toyotas all of a sudden back in the 1970s, today's Big Media folks are shocked to see ratings and circulation numbers falling while readership for Internet sites skyrockets. And, like the auto executives, they're even starting to mumble about the need for protection.
...One problem is that even the pretense of evenhandedness has vanished, as members of the press -- who increasingly share the same left-leaning political views and who increasingly live in what Mickey Kaus calls the press "cocoon" -- have let their bias show. In an admirable display of forthrightness, Newsweek's Evan Thomas remarked:
"There's one other base here, the media. Let's talk a little media bias here. The media, I think, wants Kerry to win and I think they're going to portray Kerry and Edwards I'm talking about the establishment media, not Fox. They're going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and there's going to be this glow about them, collective glow, the two of them, that's going to be worth maybe 15 points."
The press has been in the tank for Kerry to a degree that is, I think, without precedent in recent history. But it's now, as another law professor/blogger, Ann Althouse, notes, beginning to change its tune: "The media are looking ahead and imagining how the history of the 2004 presidential campaign will read and how their performance will measure up."
I think that's right. But while the media's willingness to side with Kerry has been striking, it's also like the proverbial thirteenth chime of the clock -- not only wrong itself, but calling into question everything that came before. The loss of credibility that has come with that, coupled with the press's poor performance on all sorts of topics (don't these people know how to use Google? don't they realize that we do?) will be a long-lasting blow.