Thursday, August 25, 2005

Judge Posner's provocative book review

from the New York Times, Section 7; Column 1; Book Review Desk; Pg. 1
(July 31, 2005) by Judge Richard A. Posner:

The conventional news media are embattled. Attacked by both left and
right in book after book, rocked by scandals, challenged by upstart bloggers, they have become a focus of controversy and concern. Their audience is in decline, their credibility with the public in shreds. In a recent poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, 65 percent of the respondents thought that most news organizations, if they discover they've made a mistake, try to ignore it or cover it up, and 79 percent opined that a media company would hesitate to carry negative stories about a corporation from which it received substantial advertising revenues.


Just like in the patent reform discussion (H.R. 2795), we have mention of a decline in quality:

At this point the diagnosis splits along political lines. Liberals,
including most journalists (because most journalists are liberals),
believe that the decline of the formerly dominant ''mainstream'' media has caused a deterioration in quality.


The news media have also become more sensational, more prone to
scandal and possibly less accurate. But note the tension between sensationalism and polarization: the trial of Michael Jackson got tremendous coverage, displacing a lot of political coverage, but it had no political valence.


Being profit-driven, the media respond to the actual demands of
their audience rather than to the idealized ''thirst for knowledge'' demand posited by public intellectuals and deans of journalism schools. They serve up what the consumer wants, and the more intense the competitive pressure, the better they do it.


Challenging areas of social consensus, however dumb or even vicious the consensus, is largely off limits for the media, because
it wins no friends among the general public. The mainstream media do
not kick sacred cows like religion and patriotism.

Not that the media lie about the news they report; in fact, they
have strong incentives not to lie.


The limited consumer interest in the truth is the key to
understanding why both left and right can plausibly denounce the same media for being biased in favor of the other. Journalists are writing to meet a consumer demand that is not a demand for uncomfortable truths.

Journalists minimize offense, preserve an aura of objectivity and
cater to the popular taste for conflict and contests by -- in the name of ''balance'' -- reporting both sides of an issue, even when there aren't two sides. [LBE note: recall Bob Park's discussion of reporting of science in Voodoo Science. CBS presented scientists who appeared to endorse the Mississippi perpetual motion machine.]

This means that corrections in blogs are also disseminated
virtually instantaneously, whereas when a member of the mainstream media catches a mistake, it may take weeks to communicate a retraction to the public. This is true not only of newspaper retractions -- usually printed inconspicuously and in
any event rarely read, because readers have forgotten the article being corrected -- but also of network television news. It took CBS so long to acknowledge Dan Rather's mistake because there are so many people involved in the production and supervision of a program like ''60 Minutes II'' who have to be consulted. [LBE note: hmm, why, in the face of criticism, were denials made by CBS well before the "facts" used by CBS were re-evaluated?]

The above-noted review received responses from Keller, Moyers, and Alterman.

Moving from the "press media" to the law review media, I wonder why there are so many inaccuracies in law reviews that are not corrected. For example, although Lemley and Moore in the Boston University Law Review falsely stated that Clarke assumed every continuation led to a patent (Clarke said no such thing), there has not been any correction by the authors or by the law review. In the absence of this (false) statement, Lemley and Moore offered nothing to distinguish Quillen/Webster from Clarke, yet Lemley and Moore still cite to the Quillen/Webster numbers. Also, the erroneous 97% patent grant rate number of the first Quillen and Webster paper is still cited in law reviews, which is something like citing the fraudulent work of Jan-Hendrik Schon in 2005. Perhaps some of the issues mentioned by Judge Posner as to the press extend to law reviews.


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