January 25, 2006
The Antique Media
By Thomas Lifson
The power structure
of the American media is undergoing a convulsion that surpasses
even the revolution wrought by the advent of television broadcasting
sixty years ago. At first, television was politically neutral,
and neither party took comparative advantage of it. When John
F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon held their famous televised debates,
television came of age as a power-granter in the electoral sphere.
But television also contributed
to the rise of a new concept of “mainstream media”
- ostensibly neutral voices, reporting the objective news in a
detached manner. Because of bandwidth limitations in VHF broadcasting,
only three national television networks emerged, and rather than
segmenting the market with politically distinctive news reporting
and analysis, each network positioned itself as the “mainstream”
outlet, so as to appeal to a broad plurality of viewers. The race
for advertising dollars in a three-member oligopoly makes such
behavior the only rational management policy if all three players
have a reasonable chance at gaining the biggest market share by
playing to the dominant middle of the market.
Television news in turn
destroyed the afternoon newspaper industry. Nobody needed or wanted
an after-work news update that had been edited and printed around
noon at the latest, when television could provide a much fresher
update free of charge. Live (at first) and in color (a bit later).
This creative destruction
left all but a handful of cities with only one newspaper. The
monopolist press lords also embraced the “mainstream”
approach – supposedly detached and neutral reporters and
editors reporting reality as it is to Americans awaiting the word
Thus was born the Mainstream
Media (MSM), a label beloved of bloggers, who consider themselves
challengers to it.
As American education
came to be dominated by the Left, and as the Washington Post demonstrated
the power to take down a sitting president via investigative reporting
(with Richard Nixon once again playing the loser’s role
in marking a new era in media history), the journalism establishment
as a whole moved sharply to the left.
Young idealists pursued
careers in journalism to “make a difference” instead
of report the news. And as the monetary stakes involved in ratings
for network and local news grew, top jobs as news anchors and
even star reporters became lucrative and glamorous. The oligopolies
at the network and local news market levels made news a profit
center of great significance, as well as a chance to get pre-remote
control viewers to leave their televisions on one station for
As Hollywood demonstrates
on a daily basis, activism, glamour and money are a dangerous
The emergence of talk
radio, cable television and especially the internet changed everything.
When Rush Limbaugh created
modern talk radio, most cities of any size had at least two or
three dozen radio stations. In search of a niche audience, radio
stations were happy to latch on to the under-served market of
conservative listeners. Rush demonstrated the concept when the
FCC “fairness doctrine” was repealed, and stations
could air a political view without having to offer free time to
As television viewing
options proliferated with the arrival of numerous cable networks,
while the American electorate polarized further into liberal and
conservative spheres, a huge market niche emerged, and was spotted
by Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, undoubtedly cognizant of Rush
Limbaugh’s enormous following.
Conservatives were alienated
by not just the three broadcast networks but by CNN, which adopted
the same leftist faux-neutral political style. Even if only 30%
of the electorate defines itself as conservative, that group could
be the largest market share in a five-player national television
news environment. MSNBC made it a six-player environment, with
CNBC and other cable networks offering degrees of competition
Fox News Channel spent
an enormous amount of money breaking through barriers to entry
in distribution. Persuading cable systems to add Fox News Channel
to their line-ups was expensive. As much as ten dollars per subscriber
household in some deals publicly revealed. But it was worth it
to News Corporation. The profits reported by FNC have amply rewarded
shareholders in recent years.
The term for what Ailes
and Murdoch accomplished is “market segmentation.”
It is a phenomenon that regularly occurs in markets as they grow
and mature. But so far, the other television news competitors
are stuck in the old mode of thinking. It is a loser’s game,
though they haven’t figured out that point quite yet. Much
as General Motors continued to offer bland middle of the road
vehicles intended to please everyone while BMW spotted the performance
car market, the competitors of FNC have not figured out the new
rules of the game.
The once dominant broadcast
network news divisions are no longer mainstream, they are antique.
Their assumptions and instincts are based on technologies and
resulting market structures that no longer define the state of
the art. But their antique character is far surpassed by that
of the daily newspaper industry.
of course, are in a death
spiral, a case I made almost two years ago. The expense, time,
and resources consumed in leveling forests to put ink on paper
and transport heavy newspapers to readers’ hands are simply
not sustainable when news consumers can look at their computer
screens and find far more printed information, far more usefully
displayed, at much lower cost.
Someday, people will
regard the yellowing remnants of long gone daily newspapers as
charming reminders of an era when production was much more costly,
requiring much more labor and craftsmanship, and took much longer
to accomplish. Antiques have great charm, and they embody nostalgia
for bygone eras.
Those newspapers which
survive will be analogous to knockoff Louis XIV chairs, produced
with more modern technology by very different purveyors, serving
very different markets than the original craftsmen who produced
the genuine antiques.
Internet websites like
blogs are an even deeper challenge to the antique media than Fox
News Channel was to the antique networks. There are no serious
barriers to entry for bloggers. The capital requirements are low
to non-existent, and global distribution takes place with no pesky
distributors, longshoremen, retailers, or other encumbering interests
in the way.
Some day a new industrial
structure will emerge for the internet-based media, but the shape
and characteristics of that structure will remain unknowable for
some time to come.
The antique media are
run by bureaucracies. Their hierarchies check (edit) and make
decisions based on a daily work cycle. After a certain number
of hours, they go home, and re-start the cycle the following day.
is run by networks of like-minded people, who anxiously check
and correct each others’ work on an ongoing basis. Call
it peer review, call it “the
wisdom of the many” or call it the contest of ideas.
It is bracing, lightning fast, and cannot be equaled by any bureaucracy
as a means of checking and improving information flow.
The blogosphere never
sleeps. It works 24/7. An individual blogger may log off, and
when he or she returns, find email and links criticizing what
was previously posted. An immediate response, not defined by work
hours or news cycles, is demanded. And usually happens. Or else
the blogger loses audience to other entrants in the free-for-all
marketplace of ideas.
will never be the same. It will take a long time for antique practices
to die out, but die out they will. The antique media are on their
Call them what they are.
Lifson is the editor and publisher of The