Reflections on the Actual Media

by Conor Friedersdorf

The Democracy in America blog at The Economist:

There hasn't yet been a country in which the task of cultural formation and reproduction was so thoroughly delegated to the entertainment industry as today's America. In a media-centric economy, the wages of contrarianism are fat. As are the wages of bombast. If sober, responsible analysis pulled in viewers, PBS and C-SPAN would be the titans of American broadcasting. Instead we have Fox News and MSNBC.

Are the wages of contrarianism really so fat? Feast your eyes on the most popular magazines in America.  They aren't contrarian. Now look at the most popular television shows. You've got to scroll through a lot to find any nonfiction, and Oprah, 20/20 and Dateline NBC surely have their flaws, but they don't exactly resemble what you find on Twitter under the hash tag "Slate pitches." And while I'd defend the Slate as a first rate Web magazine that publishes lots of worthwhile writing, it isn't as though their content is attracting the most eyeballs on the Internet -- most obviously, they're orders of magnitude smaller than AOL, Yahoo News, and the New York Times Online.

This isn't to say that there isn't any excessive bombast or contrarianism-gone-wild going on in the media. But I do think it is too simplistic to say that it exists because "sober, responsible analysis" doesn't pull in viewers. The fact is that it is difficult and expensive to produce material that is both enjoyable and substantive -- or, for that matter, to produce films that are entertaining and have artistic merit. Producing bombast is comparatively cheap, and excessive contrarianism is often the puzzling complaint of a subset of America that a) reads Slate daily; b) imagines it is representative of American media; c) mocks one of the few publications they actually read regularly for certain of its articles, though the complaints are actually as often about headlines that don't even particularly track the article.

On a tangentially related subject, I see that a critic of mine at True/Slant is asserting that "when a pundit or political thinker betrays his ideological brethren – at least rhetorically – he is heralded as a 'brave truth teller' and enjoys riches and fame" -- this in a post that cites Andrew, Kathleen Parker, Chris Buckley and myself as the beneficiaries of this supposed bounty.

Every time I hear this argument, which is a lot, I am struck by its utter disconnectedness from reality. If a young pundit wants riches and fame, the surest approach is to find a belief system with a lot of adherents, and to creatively repackage those beliefs in various ways that affirm what they already believe. Perhaps it is too much to expect outsiders to realize that is how things work in the ideologically funded world of political publications and DC think tanks, but is it too much to expect folks to look at the New York Times bestseller list, or to notice who appears on television, or to recognize that obscure writers like me have never even made close to a six-figure income, while various group loyalists earn 7 figures and up for their output, whether they are in politics like Rush Limbaugh, or religion like Rick Warren, or reaffirming some subset of consumer and cultural norms, like Martha Stewart?

It is also worth mentioning that Kathleen Parker was a very successful columnist and an often heterodox thinker long before she trashed Sarah Palin -- since the True/Slant blogger read Kerry Howley's excellent profile, it is strange that he terms Ms. Parker's writing on the former Alaska governor a betrayal -- and that Andrew Sullivan built his own audience of heterodox thinkers from the beginning: he didn't rise by being and then betraying conservatives, he rose by being his unclassifiable self all along.

Getting back to the Democracy in America post, it notes:

Clearly, the Washington Post prints opinion pieces by Sarah Palin in large measure because they attract attention. With plummeting revenues in almost every corner of the media business due to a crisis of overproduction, the imperative to attract attention is becoming irresistible. You attract attention through contrarianism and bombast.

But the problem with Ms. Palin's op-ed wasn't bombast or contrarianism. It was a dearth of qualifications to write the piece, and a lack of persuasive reasoning within it. What plagues public discourse in America is an audience that mostly wants its beliefs reinforced. That is a far bigger problem than bombast -- if Fox News stayed bombastic but departed from what now passes for conservative orthodoxy its audience would flee. It is downright strange to cast contrarianism or ideological disloyalty as grave problems, given the ongoing trend toward cocooning.