Editor’s note: In light of the “Janesville” issue, I asked economic sociologist Gabriel Rossman to share his thoughts on fact-checking, market structure, and media bias, and he very generously agreed.
You sometimes see accusations that journalists are biased, especially when they allegedly engage in double-standards in assessing different sides of a debate. This is an old critique but you can see it in refined form as applied to the novel genre of “fact-checking.” I tend to be less interested in the merits of a particular accusation of bias than in the broader question that it’s even considered an accusation. We take the ideal of media objectivity as a baseline because it was the baseline for most of the 20th century. Regardless of whether you think the media ever accomplished the goal of objectivity, it’s pretty clear that they engaged in some pretty elaborate genre conventions in pursuit of that goal (and moreover, that these genre conventions make for awkward prose.) This was an anomalous situation historically and only ever really existed because a combination of printing technology and geography created a situation with tremendous economies of scale at the local level, at least in the United States. (See Starr’s Creation of the Media and chapter 4 of Schudson’s Sociology of News.)
Economies of scale tend to imply natural monopolies, but there is still the question of who will be the monopolist, or more precisely, what market position the monopolist will take. The Hotelling theorem tells us that in a monopoly or even an oligopoly you’ll tend to get products targeted at the median consumer. In the context of news this means a sort of bland apolitical centrism. The reason is that, as Gentzkow and Shapiro have argued, consumers assess media quality relative to their ideological priors. We don’t know whether press coverage is actually objective in the eyes of God but only whether it accords with our own beliefs. By targeting news coverage at the median voter you minimize the number of people feel the content so discordant with their views of reality that they have to cancel their subscriptions. Hence we see the 20th century model of the newspaper as one or two papers per town with most of them having no strong ideological leanings, which is quite a contrast from the 19th century model of multiple newspapers per town with most of them having an explicit partisan or ideological identity (and often being connected to patronage systems). The origins of objectivity on broadcasting are less commercial and more political than those of print, but I like to think that the emerging norms in print provided the cultural backdrop for policies like “equal time” and “the fairness doctrine” that were instilled as part of Commerce/FRC/FCC’s efforts to drive out “propaganda” stations and establish radio on a commercial and nonpartisan basis.
Of course all this assumes that you have a narrow pipe and/or huge economies of scale. Technological change (e.g., the development of cable and the internet) and to a lesser extent legal change (e.g., the FCC’s repeal of fairness doctrine) change this. When there were only three networks nationwide and one newspaper in every town it’s easy to understand why they would converge on bland nonpartisanship as expressed through the genre conventions of “objectivity.” But we’ve been rapidly moving away from that world since the 1980s. We now find a world with effectively unlimited spectrum space and with much reduced effects of distance and it’s not surprising that in such a world we see news organizations either launching with a strong ideological position (e.g., Fox News) or repositioning themselves away from the center to attract a more loyal audience (e.g., MSNBC and Newsweek).
This is not an issue that is unique to news but a general pattern that economic sociologists call “niche partitioning.” The idea is that as an industry matures, economies of scale lead to the dominance of “generalist” firms who provide a bland product that is acceptable to everybody but exciting to nobody. Eventually however a combination of consumer dissatisfaction with such pablum, technological innovations, and legal developments allows the emergence of “specialist” firms who compete with generalists by providing products with narrow but intense appeal. For instance, in the mid-1950s creative stagnation of Tin Pan Alley and changes in the radio industry in reaction to television created an opportunity for independent record labels to put out rock, country, and blues music that displaced Broadway showtunes as the core of American popular culture. Likewise, in the 80s and 90s deregulation and dissatisfaction with pilsners brought us microbreweries offering ales that tasted like everything from lox to pumpkins to just a whole lot of hops. (Recent versions of the theory allow for “robust” firms, which are basically firms that offer a diverse portfolio of specialist products, like a record company with a punk label, a rap label, a bluegrass label, etc. The journalism equivalent would be something like an op-ed page that includes both Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat.)
To return to the issue of fact-checking, there are a few ways to look at it. In one sense, it’s a desperate rear-guard action of the “objectivity” form of journalism. Notably it comes out of dailies and other traditional journalistic institutions. I’d add that it’s possible to see fact-checking as “objective” in the sense of genre conventions even if you think it is implemented with bias (or even malice). More interesting is how fact-checking is treated by opinion journalism and other more partisan actors. Last night and this morning there was a great back and forth over the “Janesville” issue in Ryan’s address to the Republic National Convention, with various actors on one side or the other “correcting” the fact checkers by arguing that they were either too generous or too skeptical in evaluating Ryan’s argument about the plant. The new journalistic subgenre of “fact-checking” and the criticism is engenders are a microcosm of a decades-long trend in journalism away from objectivity and back to the historic trend of opinion journalism.