The Rise of Partisan Media

Below you’ll find a post on the evolution of the news media into an endless barrage of clashing Weltanschauungen. If that doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t know what will.

As computing evolves into a utility, a shift Nicholas Carr chronicles in The Big Switch, it will, as Carr argues, likely has as dramatic an impact on the shape of the economy as electrification. Electrification, in turn, drove the Great Compression far more than the policy levers of the New Deal or the Great Society. Fordist political economy, the mass middle class, simply could not have happened without electrification. Thus far, of course, the rise of the “World Wide Computer” has accelerated the “Great Dispersion.” White collars are, as Paul Krugman predicted, turning blue.

This phenomenon is of particular interest to working journalists, who follow the transformation of their own industry with obsessive interest. I’m no exception. A number of entrepreneurial journalists, like Jeff Jarvis and the aforementioned Carr are among its leading chroniclers. But other less optimistic voices can be heard in every newsroom. I vividly recall being told, after joining a venerable news organization some years ago, that I was “one of the rats jumping on the sinking ship.” I left for another large news organization, where the gallows humor was no less dark. This clashed against my native optimism, but of course there is more than a grain of truth to it. The structure of opinion journalism in particular, a narrow and solipsistic world that represents a tiny slice of the infotainment complex, which is itself a medium-sized and shrinking slice of the entertainment complex, will change quite dramatically.

But I think opinion journalism and investigative journalism will flourish, in a manner of speaking. This might sound insane. It will flourish in a manner that a lot of us will find profoundly unattractive, namely as an arm of political combat. Foundations and wealthy individuals will expand their already considerable influence. The shrinking handful of for-profit opinion outlets will find themselves under unrelenting pressure. Theoretically non-party groups, in contrast, will finance extensive muckraking operations dedicated to undermining their ideological antagonists. Patrick Ruffini had a brilliant post on this subject several months back, in which he called on the right to perfect its message machine.

The so-called MSM will suffer by comparison, but large swathes will adapt to the new circumstances. As a friend told me recently, George Soros could magnify his influence dramatically by purchasing one of the great national newspapers. The same can’t really be said of, say, a right-wing billionaire bent of acquiring the New York Times to turn into his own personal Pravda. Why? “Bias” is primarily a response to market demand. You can’t stray too far from what your public wants, which is why the right-wing alternative media emerged in the first place: to meet an underserved market.

So why will partisan media flourish? As government grows, the stakes for controlling the regulatory apparatus will also grow. What my friend Chris Hayes calls the Revolt of the CEOs is essentially the same thing as the call for net neutrality and the banning of incandescent light bulbs — a way for one set of powerful corporate actors to use the power of government to screw a less powerful set of corporate actors. Granted, that doesn’t mean these regulatory interventions are necessarily bad. They certainly sound great. And of course some powerful corporate actors are more fashionable than others, which helps. (What I find most depressing is that most advocates of, say, banning incandescent bulbs have no inkling that however sincere they are, they are seen as useful idiots by those who stand to profit from their ingenuousness.) But the point stands. Billions of dollars are at stake in this struggle for power, and billions of dollars stand to be made by access capitalists of all political stripes. Insofar as the “war of ideas” can be brought to bear, it will. If that involves spending chump change on a more journo-lobbying, so be it.

This might sound like a jeremiad against the rise of partisan media. It’s not. In some respects this is a return to the Weltanschauung public sphere of, say, interwar Europe. Okay, that sounds bad, but it’s not intrinsically bad.

Perhaps you’ve all drawn this conclusion independently. I actually don’t think this is a foregone conclusion, and of course my thoughts on the future of media extend well beyond this. I won’t bore you, as this is one of my main areas of professional interest. I do think the rise of partisan media poses a thorny challenge to people who instinctively resist playing for a team.