How Democrats May Lose Their Media Edge

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Yesterday saw a spate of stories arguing that Republicans are -- quietly, off the record -- a bit worried about their ability to hold the House of Representatives come 2014. Not panicking, by any means; the electoral map still looks challenging for Democrats. But a mite anxious. After all, they underperformed in 1998 and 2006; what if the same thing happens this time around?

I don't have a useful answer to this worry, I'm afraid. Still, it does give me an excuse to discuss something I've been noodling around for a bit: With the news media landscape rapidly fracturing, should the Democrats be worried about losing their own electoral edge?

Those of us in Washington live in an era of Democratic triumphalism. Most of the Democrats I talk to are convinced that their destiny is almost upon them. To be sure, they thought that before, in 2008, and that turned out to be incorrect. But ultimately, they expect changing U.S. demographics to deliver the sort of rock-solid control of the political process that they enjoyed between 1932 and 1968.

If the Republican Party isn't worried about this, they should be. But should Democrats be worried too?

To see why, consider Jack Shafer's excellent article on the history of "hard news" and why it never made any money:

Washington news is a loss leader for most mainstream newspapers. The same is largely true of international and national news. No mass audience is willing to directly pay for such news outside of the one already served by the New York Times (combined daily print and digital circulation, 1,865,318). Even at the Times, subscribers now contribute more revenues than advertisers, indicating that they value its mission more than Madison Avenue does.

Were harder forms of news ever commercial? Gerald J. Baldasty's book, "The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century," makes a case clear as spring water that hard news has almost never been a mass commercial enterprise. The American newspapers of the 1820s and early 1830s were creatures of political parties, edited by zealots. Essentially propaganda sheets, these newspapers were "devoted to winning elections," as Baldasty wrote well before (1992) the Web invasion. Without newspapers, top political organizer Martin Van Buren once said, "we might as well hang our harps on willows."

Political parties supported the papers financially, and when editors strayed from the party line into independence, the parties would dump their newspapers. For instance, Andrew Jackson's supporters helped start the Washington Globe after the editor of the U.S. Telegraph, a Jackson loyalist, was thought to have betrayed their cause. Political office-holders steered printing contracts and payments for official notices their way. In those years, members of Congress used their franking privilege to send newspapers at no cost through the postal system and doled out patronage jobs, typically postmaster positions, to their favorite newspaper editors. "Many subscribers simply did not pay for their newspapers," Baldasty wrote. "In 1832, one North Carolina editor estimated that only 10 percent of his 600 subscribers had paid for the paper."

Changes in technology -- faster, cheaper presses; and more important, the telegraph, the Internet of its day -- throttled the monopoly power Washington newspapers held over federal news. By the late 1840s, the hinterlands no longer had to wait days or weeks for federal, national, and international news to be freighted in from outside. Timely news now came over the wire and could be printed contemporaneously with events. All this helped newspapers declare independence from the parties, and as they did many enlisted a new patron, the advertiser, who "preferred news free from unpleasantness," in Baldasty's nice construction.

Political and international news really came into its own in the early-to-mid 20th century ... ironically, because radio and television killed off the competition in most places, turning almost all of America's cities into one-paper towns. The last paper standing effectively had a license to print money. They spent a lot of that money establishing an elaborate system of reporting norms that emphasized "objectivity" -- and building up reporting capacity on the prestige beats. They did this in much the way that companies in another industry might fund a large, impressive building or a charitable trust.

Don't get me wrong: I am very glad of this capacity. I think that hard news reporting is a great social good. But as the Internet has unbundled news, it has become clear that this isn't a social good for which many people are willing to pay. Reporters who thought that political and international news reporters, plus a few people who write long reported series about poverty and related "serious" subjects, constituted the apex of their profession, have been humbled to learn that readers considered us a moderately interesting freebie to thumb through on the way to the important stuff in the sports section.

That's a big problem for my profession, as Shafer points out:

As philanthropists take the seat in the story room once held by politicians, we should be glad. But not too glad, because there will never be enough philanthropists to restore the status quo ante. Nor will the market create enough billionaires like Jeff Bezos who are willing to rescue drowning newspapers like the Washington Post. Wishful thinkers -- I'm one -- can hope for media giants like Bloomberg and ESPN, now the most valuable media property in the United States, to be persuaded to add noncommercial news to their bundles. (Perhaps ABC News, which is owned by one of ESPN's co-owners, could be repositioned as the noncommercial face of ESPN.)

If summoning additional philanthropists doesn't work, can we stomach asking the political parties to re-enter the journalism business? To a limited extent, they already have, with the establishment of Fox News Channel and the retooling of MSNBC. As for me, I'm counting on the winds of technology to blow a fresh miracle through the news business. A Hyperloop for journalism!

But what does this have to do with the Democrats, you may ask? Haven't we gotten off topic?

Why, no, we haven't. See that last sentence there, about political parties re-entering the news business? I think Shafer is exactly right about where we're heading. While outlets like my employer, and Jack's, and maybe ESPN, may invest in commercial news, most of the political and international journalism that we're used to seeing is going to be ideological, if not explicitly partisan. People will come to the news assuming that the people making it have an agenda -- and they will seek out outlets that match their own agenda, if they see political news at all.

This matters for Democrats because, of course, the majority of people in the news media right now are Democrats, whose sympathies naturally lie with social liberalism, government programs and so forth. A more ideological media will be hiring more conservatives, and that will change what a large portion of the country gets as news.

Note that I'm not saying that my liberal colleagues in the media deliberately distort what they report -- while I'm sure that happens, because no profession is 100 percent angels, I don't think it happens very often. Rather, it's a matter of worldview. During the last election, I took to watching the "700 Club" occasionally because their reporting on elections was so out of step with what I saw on the rest of the news networks. Not because they were broadcasting falsehoods, or because they were uncovering the stories CNN didn't want you to see. Rather, it was a matter of emphasis. They took for granted that to most of their audience, it actually mattered who had the best pro-life credentials on the Republican side, and they put quite a bit of effort into investigating their records.

The rest of the news media treated these arguments as some sort of purely symbolic issue, like who had the biggest flag pin, unless they treated it as a sign that Republicans were totally out of touch with women. These embedded assumptions matter a lot -- particularly for low-information voters who might be lukewarm pro-lifers, but willing to vote against someone if a long evening news segment revealed the guy to be a total hypocrite or ineffective bumbler on abortion.

How much does this matter? In his pretty convincing book, "Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind," Tim Groseclose of UCLA argues that it matters a lot. Here's how he lays out recent research on the question of media effects:

I) Barack Obama claimed that Fox News caused his vote totals to decrease by 2 or 3 percentage points. = > Media lambda = 2.44 or 3.66.

II) Evan Thomas claimed that the liberal bias of the establishment media gave John Kerry a 15-percent advantage in the 2004 presidential election. = > Media lambda = 3.31.

III) Evan Thomas retreated from the 15-point claim, instead claiming that the establishment media gave John Kerry "maybe" a 5-point advantage. = > Media lambda = 1.10.

IV) UC Berkeley economists Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan found that when Fox News was available to a region, this raised the vote share for George W. Bush by 0.43 percentage points. = > Media lambda = 0.87.

V) In their field experiment, Yale researchers Alan Gerber, Ethan Kaplan, and Daniel Bergan found that the vote share for the Democratic candidate was 3.8 percentage points higher among their Washington Post-subscribing subjects than among their Washington Times-subscribing subjects. = > Media lambda = 1.73.

VI) In their laboratory experiment on "strategic information transmission," Professors Hongbin Cai and Joseph Wang found that the "Senders" sent biased "signals," which on average were 0.894 units greater than the truth. This fooled the "Receivers" into choosing policies, which on average were 0.282 units higher than they would have chosen if they had known the truth. = > Media lambda = 0.32.13

The concept of media lambda is a bit technical, so I won't explain it here; check out Groseclose's book if you're interested. What this summary suggests is that a large number of people, from political professionals to academics who have studied the matter, think that the media's ideological composition has a substantial effect on elections.

As I say, a more ideological media will probably also be a more conservative media, because there are a lot more conservatives in the donor class, and in the audience, than there are in the media. Which means that this edge will probably slip.

How far it will slip is impossible to say. For starters, we don't even have a reliable estimate of the edge Democratic politicians get from having most of the media and the entertainment industry in their ideological camp. It's safe to say that right now this does give Democrats an edge, and that that edge will probably get smaller in the future, unless conservative donors simply refuse to fund journalism for "their side."

Even if the demographic decline is larger than the edge they gain from media change, this may at least keep Republicans in the game, meaning they only need to peel off a few voters from a few demographics to keep competitive. If I'm right, we may be a 50/50 nation for some time to come. We may also be a much angrier one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net