- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

I confess I am fascinated by the CBS documents scandal. It reminds me of the last gasp of “scientists” who were certain that the sun revolved around the Earth, rather than the other way around, before finally having to accept the truth. Historians call this a “paradigm shift,” when the intellectual support for a long-held but incorrect idea finally collapses under the weight of contrary data.

CBS clearly operates under the old paradigm, in which only a chosen few media outlets were allowed to present the news. Economists call this an oligopoly — a market with but a few sellers who can set prices in a quasimonopolistic manner.

Here, however, being set were not prices but a single mindset of what is “news.” This mindset has been the same about 50 years, from the time meaningful newspaper competition began declining and television became the dominant news source.

Newspapers once were the principal disseminators of news. In all major cities, there were at least two newspapers — one or more in the morning and at least one in the afternoon. This created competition for ideas as well as readers.

In any town with more than one paper, one paper would tend to be liberal and one conservative for purely competitive reasons. In practice, this usually meant the major paper (usually the morning paper) was liberal and the secondary paper (usually the afternoon paper) was conservative.

Changing work schedules, rush-hour traffic and the advent of evening television news broadcasts killed the afternoon paper. I don’t know of a single one left in the country. Unfortunately, this tended to kill off the conservative paper in most markets.

Another factor was the changing economics of newspapers, with large advertisers choosing to advertise only in the dominant paper. This created one-newspaper towns in most markets. Very few major cities now have more than one paper.

Sadly, this one-paper status has tended to neuter the political edges of every newspaper that has achieved it. Those papers that once were proudly liberal or conservative are now mostly mushy centrists. All their editorials seem to be of the “on the one hand, but on the other hand” variety with no firm conclusion. One wonders why they bother publishing editorials.

Finally, the newspaper industry has been consolidated into a few large chains — with Gannett the largest. The chains’ principal editorial goal, it seems, is to avoid offending anyone, especially advertisers. Editorial policies are homogenized so they little more than echo the conventional wisdom.

Of course, there remain a few trendsetters, such as the Wall Street Journal on the right and the New York Times on the left. But this is a poor substitute for the dynamic local newspaper markets of years past.

Everything bad about the newspaper market goes double for television news. At least newspapers allow dissenting voices and publish corrections. TV news operations never air dissenting opinions and never admit error. They cite time constraints, but that’s just an excuse. They could, for example, use their Web sites far more creatively than any now do.

This “we-know-the truth-and-we-are-never-wrong” attitude is destroying CBS News, once the very best in the business. When confronted by compelling evidence against its documents regarding George W. Bush’s National Guard service, it simply refused to acknowledge their legitimacy. The Nixon White House never circled the wagons so tightly.

In the old days, this might have worked. But today there is cable news, C-SPAN, talk radio and the Internet to raise questions and disseminate raw material to millions no longer bound by the quasi-monopoly of three television networks and one-newspaper towns. They can now get news that otherwise would be suppressed or ignored, check original sources for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

I have long been mystified why major televisions networks (and CNN) decided to broadcast exactly the same thing exactly the same way with the same liberal spin. It might seem that purely competitive reasons would have one of them appeal to conservatives just to get an edge and make an extra buck. Instead, they all decided to be exactly the same, varying only in the degree of their contempt for Republicans and anything remotely conservative.

To his credit, Rupert Murdoch saw this opening and created Fox News, which was rewarded by beating every other network during the Republican Convention. The imminent collapse of CBS News as a serious news operation will only boost Fox and the alternative media still more.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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