January 19, 2005,
Reading the reaction of Patrick Ruffini and blogger Ginnyto David von Drehle's excursion to The Red Sea red states in the Washington Post, I began to wonder whether many of the mainstream media's problems stem from having too many outlets competing for the same readers/viewers.
Look over at Mickey Kaus, who is mocking CNN's Jonathan Klein for what Kaus finds to be lame ideas about how to catch up with Fox News. (Klein is ditching the debate show Crossfire and pledging more "roll-up-your-sleeves storytelling.")
It's interesting that CNN has lagged behind Fox for a couple of years now, and tried a variety of approaches (remember the ads touting Paula Zahn as "a little sexy"?). There's one approach that CNN hasn't tried, as far as I know. Nor has CNBC tried it, or MSNBC: Emulating Fox by trying to attract the right-of-center audience.
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the results of this year's presidential election represent the news-watching and news-reading population as a whole. This would mean that 51 percent or so of the public is right-of-center in one way or another, and 49 percent is left-of-center in one way or the other.
If you're a conservative, chances are you prefer Fox News. You often sense that the "mainstream" networks don't give a fair shake to your leaders, your party, your views, or your beliefs.
If you're a liberal, maybe you prefer your media to be a little more pugnacious Air America, or the columns of Paul Krugman or Molly Ivins. But by and large, you find the mainstream media's tone and coverage choices to be preferable to Fox.
But if you're a liberal, or at least a non-conservative, your attention is the target of CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and all the major-network news operations basically, every one except Fox News. Fox will welcome you and tout their fair and balanced approach and their room for such liberal commentators as Alan Colmes, Juan Williams, and Mara Liasson, but by and large they're well-established as the network of choice for conservatives.
In the print world, the major newsweekly magazines, and almost every major city newspaper is clamoring for your attention if you're a non-conservative. In fact, most of the coverage is written from, and for, your viewpoint. You can read the New York Times nationally, or the Los Angeles Times, or Reuters wire copy. Both Chicago and Philadelphia have two major papers, neither of which is conservative. At the magazine rack, you have The New Republic, The Nation, The American Prospect, The Progressive, Mother Jones, Washington Monthly, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harpers, the post-Michael Kelly Atlantic Monthly, and Slate and Salon on the web. (This list isn't exhaustive, I'm just trying to give a sense of the breadth and depth.)
On the radio dial, you've got Air America, as well as much of NPR's programming.
That's a lot of media competing for the attention of the 49 percent.
Meanwhile, on cable, Fox News pretty much has the 51 percent to itself, unless you want to count Joe Scarborough, Dennis Miller, and about half the Capitol Gang.
It's a similar situation in print: You have a few conservative magazines, NR, The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, and The American Conservative, as well as the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, and some alternative newspapers like the Washington Times, the New York Post, New York Sun, Boston Herald, etc. The radio dial gives you a decent slew of options.
But by and large, the right-of-center "alternative" media outlets are courting the 51 percent, while the many more mainstream media outlets are courting the 49 percent.
In light of this, doesn't it seem likely that the mainstream media will face consolidation in the coming years? And will some news network that's struggling with one of the smaller fractions of the blue-state audience decide to take on Fox News directly by competing for their red-state audience?
This media-saturation phenomenon also recalls the Onion headline, "Nation's Liberals Suffering From Outrage Fatigue":
"For a while, I wanted more fuel for the fire, to really get my blood boiling," said Madison, WI resident Dorothy Levine, a reproductive-rights activist and former Howard Dean campaign volunteer. "I read the policy papers on the Brookings web site. I subscribed to The Progressive. I clipped cartoons by Tom Tomorrow and Ted Rall. I listened to NPR all day. But then, it was like, while I was reading Molly Ivins' Bushwhacked, eight more must-read anti-Bush books came out. It was overwhelming. By the time they released Fahrenheit 9/11, I was too exhausted to drag myself to the theater." "It used to be that I would turn on Pacifica Radio and be incensed at the top of every hour," Levine added. "Now, I could find out that Bush plans to execute every 10th citizen and I'd barely blink an eye, much less raise a finger."The saturation of each side's market also helps explain the changing tone of some media voices. If there are only so many anti-Bush publications and shows that the average liberal is willing to read, watch, or listen to, then the competition for that audience is fierce. One of the ways to stand out is to be the angriest, the shrillest, the most outrageous. (And the same phenomenon is not unheard of on the right.)
One would suspect based on circulation figures and ratings, as well as voting trends that the right-of-center alternative media has some room to grow, while the left-of-center audience has more media options than it can support indefinitely.
The mainstream media could attempt to expand its audience by reaching out to conservatives. But if you're sending a veteran political correspondent to Nebraska and Texas to cover the natives as if they were a bizarre and mysterious foreign culture like the Washington Post just did, then you have essentially written them off as potential readers.