Tim Rutten, an old media columnist and sometime critic of the blogosphere, likes to lead with his chin--a chin raised so high in condescension in today's article that it becomes an easy target. In the recent election, mainstream media did not define the debate as they would have only a few years ago. This is a major development, quite separate from partisan wrangling. It was clear to a number of journalists. Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Report, quoted by Rutten, opines:
It was a bad election for the Old Media... The problem for the Old Media is that it no longer has the kind of monopoly over political news that it enjoyed a quarter century ago...
Rutten, who simply does not get the blogosphere, quotes the Pew Research Center to refute Barone (although his main target appears to have been Peggy Noonan). Even though a sizable percent of respondents (21%) listed the internet as one of their two primary sources for news, and even though the respondents who chose television tended to prefer cable news to network news, Rutten doesn't seem to see that the new media played a significant role in this election. Why? Because he gets lost, hopelessly lost, in a fit of partisan sniping. Note that that the proposition under scrutiny has little to do with Democrats vs. Republicans: The proposition was that the old media was a loser, of sorts, in this election. So what is Rutten's enlightened take?
1) He notes that CNN was almost as popular as Fox to the Pew respondents.
This is irrelevant, of course, except to raving partisans.
2) He notes that a large share of Bush supporters made up their minds over a year before the election.
Yes, and a large share didn't. Does this mean the new media didn't influence the debate, didn't bring to light issues that would never have been discussed, didn't fact-check the old media and break its former monopoly on what gets reported and what doesn't?
3)He notes that many people chose to get news from both new media outlets and old media outlets.
Yes, obviously. Because that's what it means to break a monopoly. It means people have more than one set of sources for information. It does not mean that a new monopoly has replaced the old one.
4) He suggests that from the Pew survey the composite portrait of someone who relied most heavily on news from the Internet was a liberal Democrat.
Again, it doesn't matter who was getting their news from the Intenet. This is not, in essence, a partisan question. The same blogosphere that led to the removal of Trent Lott exposed the shoddiness of CBS and Dan Rather. And even if it were a partisan issue, most of the comments Rutten pretends to refute make no claim that voters got their information exclusively from new media sources. They claimed only that the new media was now an important counterweight to the old media. If, say, Bush supporters read Internet news and watched ABC, does this mean that Internet news somehow had less impact?
5) He mentions that online divisions of old media were the main source of Internet news for a large share of Pew respondents. He also notes that the percent of respondents who received their news from newspapers was up from the prior election.
Fair enough. This at least as some substance. But here's the huge central point that Rutten misses completely. Virtually, everyone who received their news from the old media was influenced profoundly by the new media. Why? Because the Internet played a major role in defining what it was the old media talked about and how news from the old media was recieved. One need look no further than Rather's forgery scandal. The story would have played out much differently had it not been for the fact-checking of the blogosphere.
Old media used to have a free hand in setting the agenda. Now blogs can correct a false story before it becomes conventional wisdom and can drive neglected stories until they are forced into the mainstream.
Rutten's is a classic error-- an example of the shortcomings of applying partial equilibrium analysis in a setting that absolutely demands a general equilibrium framework. A general equilibrium framework would consider the effects of new media on the old media, not just the direct effect of new media on voters.
My take? A monopoly (or more properly, an oligopoly) has indeed been broken in the past few years. Some of us believe this is good news for both parties. It may be the real story of the election. There are new sources of information. Moreover, these sources have an impact beyond their readership.
Ossified critics of the blogosphere who use shallow partisan logic to flail blindly against that verdict will be corrected.
(Perhaps even by a graduate student.)
(Stranger things have happened.)