The real problem with the media is . . .

Of course, I would have to turn in my MSM Secret Decoder Ring if I did not follow up my criticism of Glenn Greenwald's take on "What's Wrong With the Media" with . . . my own take on "What's Wrong With the Media". Caveat Emptor.

Some of my current readers will no doubt be surprised to hear that I actually share Glenn Greenwald's frustration with the "Obama: Hot or Not?" coverage the often dominates campaign news cycles. I just disagree with his diagnosis of the underlying causes. Mr Greenwald locates the problem in a corrupt journalistic culture that wants to protect itself and the powerful by denying readers vital information. I think the problem is a side effect of powerful structural changes in the marketplace.

100 years ago, readers had three choices if they wanted news. They could actually be there. They could talk to someone who had actually been there. Or they could read about it. Print media has been in decline since radio offered a fourth competitive source. I don't expect that to reverse any time soon.

The golden age of news, as far as many journalists are concerned, was the 1950s-1970s, when serious, wonky anchors led America through the news from 5-7 every evening. I have my doubts as to whether this was actually as wonderful as many people think; oligopolies set off my libertarian bat-signal. But I am in agreement that we have certainly lost something since then.

The fragmentation of media is good for people like me and Glenn Greenwald, since we get to go deeper into issues than any television station, maybe any news outlet, ever could. But it has had funny effects on the MSM news cycle. The news cycle is now dominated by television because everything is so fragmented. Even though television stations are losing viewers, the decline of the print press and the fragmentation of the web mean that television's role in forming the "common narrative" is growing even as television itself becomes less common.

Television news is very hard to produce--I've guest hosted a show, and it left me with giant respect for what it takes to do well. And television news is very, very good at certain kinds of coverage--war footage is more compelling than war correspondence. But there are lots of stories that television is really, really, really bad at. Stories like John Yoo, or the subprime crisis.

Complicated policy stories that involve a lot of reading make terrible television. The three networks used to force those kinds of stories on their readers, at least to some extent, because they could; between the hours of five and seven you could watch stories about John Yoo, or, well, I guess you could finally regrout that bathroom tile.

Proliferating competition from other news outlets, and from all the non-news entertainment on the television, the web, the DVD player, and the video game console, mean that viewers are much harder to retain. Thus, more and more television coverage focuses on the stories that are easy to cover--the Jeremiah Wright story, for example, which looks much different when you read the speeches than when you watch incendiary clips. Or John Edwards' hair. Or Hillary's tears.

Unfortunately for print journalists, what television will cover drives the major narratives of the campaigns--this may be why campaigns seem, at least to me, to be ever more focused on personality than on substance. We have to write about Obama's bowling score, because the fact that television covers it makes it important. If this is one of the things that will decide the election, it's news, even if it's completely stupid. Most non-journalists don't realize this, but the New York Times' gigantic power as a media outlet doesn't come from its readership, which is not that huge. It comes from the fact that television news directors often take stories off the Times.

The other sad truth is that readers--even readers of the New York Times--like those stories. Whether or not we should, we care tremendously about the ordinary things that signal to us what kind of politicians our leaders are.

I'd argue that whether George Bush became president had a lot more to do with what happened over the last eight years than John Yoo did. Presidential candidates are big stories. And because trivial details of their lives matter tremendously in the elections, those trivial details are big stories. Not because journalists think that they're metaphysically important, but because they drive political outcomes.

What Mr Greenwald sees as malign influence, I see as a structural problem that I don't know how to solve. And in some sense, I'm not sure that we should solve it. Mr Greenwald accuses me of being elitist for saying that Americans are morons who don't care about torture memos. I think there's something elitist about that claim--that people who don't care about what Greenwald and I want to write about must therefore be morons. I figure most of them are people who've had a long day with work and kids, and just don't have the energy for parsing complicated, troubling stories. Some people derive energy from reading political news that makes them angry, but most people don't. They just want to relax and have a few hours of enjoyment before they get up and do the whole thing again tomorrow.

I don't know that this diagnosis is right either, of course, but the main thing is that I don't see something judgemental in observing that most people don't want to read what Mr Greenwald and I would most love to write. I think that it's rather more elitist to assume that failing to share the burning interests of a handful of hypereducated wordsmiths necessarily means that there's something wrong with you.