Keller Bashes "Bad News":

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller is none too happy with Richard Posner's recent review of several books on the media, calling the essay "tendentious and cynical." The catch? The Posner review appeared in Keller's own paper — as does Keller's letter to the editor.

Was Posner's review so bad? Readers can judge for themselves. Here is the review essay, titled "Bad News," and here is Keller's letter, along with reponses from Bill Moyers and Eric Alterman, among others.

UPDATE: Powerline's Big Trunk comments here. Of note, Keller complains that Posner discounts the ability of "conscientious reporters and editors" to set aside their personal beliefs to produce fair and honest journalism. Yet it was not so long ago that Keller himself observed that "even sophisticated readers of The New York Times sometimes find it hard to distinguish between news coverage and commentary in our pages."

UPDATE: Dan Drezner has more thoughts here. [Link should be working now.]

lucia (mail) (www):

tendentious \ten-DEN-shuhs\, adjective:
Marked by a strong tendency in favor of a particular point of view.

What a bizarre criticism.

Posner wrote a review of books; book reviews are opinion pieces. When did it become inappropriate for an opinion piece to favor a particular point of view? Don't columnists published on the editorial pages of the NYT write articles that favor their particular point of view? Isn't that what everyone expects them to do?

Why would an experienced publisher of a large newspaper suggest there is something improper Posner expressing a point of view in an opinion piece?
8.20.2005 5:55pm
Something I often see in any critique of the mainstream media (including Posner's) is the accusation that journalists try to appear balanced by saying good and bad things equally about both sides of whatever issue the story is about, or finding truth in both sides of the partisan spin, regardless of where the truth actually lies. (For example: A has financed a series of attack ads accusing B of treason. On the other hand, one of B's loony friends has been going around telling people that A is the reincarnation of Hitler.)

So what does Posner think about the media? He finds truth in both sides of the partisan spin!
8.20.2005 6:06pm
Jack Sprat (mail):
Tellingly, Posner anticipated and answered all of the charges now levied against him in that very essay. I quote:

"Yet what of the sliver of the public that does have a serious interest in policy issues? Are these people less well served than in the old days? Another recent survey by the Pew Research Center finds that serious magazines have held their own and that serious broadcast outlets, including that bane of the right, National Public Radio, are attracting ever larger audiences. And for that sliver of a sliver that invites challenges to its biases by reading The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, that watches CNN and Fox, that reads Brent Bozell and Eric Alterman and everything in between, the increased polarization of the media provides a richer fare than ever before.

So when all the pluses and minuses of the impact of technological and economic change on the news media are toted up and compared, maybe there isn't much to fret about.
8.20.2005 6:16pm
erp (mail):
even sophisticated readers? Does he mean both of them?
8.20.2005 10:29pm
cwb (mail):
two things lept out as me as i read all posner's review and the moyers/alterman responses, thinking that each doth protest too much:

moyers cited a littany of issues "covered" by the msm and the importance of each to the social fabric of the nation. and yet each of the issues he cited was reported and covered exhaustively from a left/liberal point of view and glancingly if at all from the any other perspectives. Hmmm.

and i almost choked on my baskin-robbins when i read alterman's laughable and absurd claim that conservatives "dominate commercial tv."

Um....ok. example, please. just 1.
8.20.2005 11:30pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
CWB: you've got to remember that Alterman is a leftist -- I say this not as an ad hominem, but to provide context. When you're on the far left, mainstream liberalism seems conservative to you. (Alterman has called Clinton a conservative.) So by that standard, I'm sure Alterman's claims are true.
8.21.2005 12:55am
ArtD0dger (mail):
Poor Richard Posner. He got both barrels of pent up frustration that had been brewing since long before he penned his article. It's not just the ability to write the narratives that interpret current events that is slipping away from these old-school journalists; it's the meta-narrative that they are a rent-owning class due the role exclusively.

Perhaps Keller is on-target with one point -- Posner seems to betray a rather low opinion of the news-consuming public. More accurately, I think, it is the distributed knowledge and spontaneous self-organization of that very public that is disturbing the status-quo of centralized opinion making.
8.21.2005 4:59am
When one sees one's profession as a "higher calling," it is understandably upsetting to read it being described in terms of supply and demand. Keller's quote below seems to reflect this.

"Judge Posner's market determinism leaves no room for the other dynamics I've witnessed in my 35 years in newspapers: the idealism of reporters who think they can make the world better, the intellectual satisfaction of puzzling through a complicated issue, the competitive gratification of being first to discover a buried story, the pride in striving to uphold a professional code of fair play, the quest for peer recognition and, yes, the feedback from attentive and thoughtful readers. He makes no allowance for the possibility that conscientious reporters and editors are capable of setting aside their personal beliefs or standing up to their advertisers (and the prejudices of their readers) to do work they believe in."

I assume that Posner would say that, in the aggregate, these things are factored in. If a newspaper's reporters showed themselves to be unable to deal with complicated issues, constantly lagging behind the others in "discovering" stories, unconcerned about ethical standards, ignorant of their readers' demands, trashed by their peers, and puppets of their advertisers, then the newspaper wouldn't last long.

In the aggregate, they're just rational actors like everyone else. Sometimes the truth hurts. All Keller's opinion amounts to is him saying "ouch"
8.21.2005 1:07pm
Goober (mail):
Hmm. Posner's review was pretty dumb, if I recall. The ordinary half-thought-out supposedly economic analysis that doesn't really do any actual descriptive work. And if I recall, he opined that the success of Fox News made CNN become more liberal, which was rather striking.

And it's certainly not only allegience to the media that would motivate disagreement with Judge Posner; it's entirely possible to despise the mainstream press and still think Posner's being ridiculous. Indeed, I think it's probably the only responsible conclusion.
8.21.2005 2:07pm
CWB, is it that you don't watch commercial TV? Because... where can I find a prominent liberal who is given a platform to advance his or her political views? O'Reilly? Scarborough? Hannity? The bully pulpit is handed almost exclusively to people on the soft to hard right.
8.21.2005 2:59pm
erp (mail):
... the idealism of reporters who think they can make the world better ...

Talk about hubris? If they want to make the world better, they should run for office. As reporters, they report, i.e., they tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about their beat.

In this way, those who are tasked with running the world will be armed with the facts and figures they need to make the right decisions.
8.21.2005 3:28pm
trotsky (mail):

and yet each of the issues he cited was reported and covered exhaustively from a left/liberal point of view and glancingly if at all from the any other perspectives.

Exactly what is the right/conservative point of view on troops being "sent to war with inadequate armor, while billions are spent on exotic and expensive Pentagon weapons that don't work"? On conflicts of interest? On the evisceration of the Freedom of Information Act? (Judicial Watch has some thoughts on that topic.) On offshore tax havens? On overpricing at Halliburton and chicanery on K Street?

If you check the opinion-mongers, anyway, the right/conservative perspective is to try to ignore wrongdoing in the government (which is found in full measure no matter which party is in power) when your guy won the last election.
8.22.2005 7:45pm