However badly the one-time pillars of the American news industry misunderstand economics, they cannot escape it. The law of supply and demand, like the gods of the copybook headings, will assert itself. This is very bad news for the industry, which in turn is struggling to cope.
Supply creates demand (or, better, creates offers to exchange). The fundamental error of Keynesianism is the bizarre assumption that demand can create its own supply. But demanders with nothing to offer in exchange – demanders who have not yet created “supply” – are simply toddlers screeching for more candy. They have created nothing but annoyance, and will be offered what others can supply only at sufferance. Only those who have already created goods or services, who have created some supply, can be meaningful demanders, and then will sensibly make “demands” only of those who have themselves created some supply, something to exchange.
Contra Keynes and all of his wearying adherents, then, supply creates legitimate demand. But what the supplier offers can’t just be any old rubbish. It has to be something that other people want, and want in the quantities and at the price that satisfies the supplier. If there’s too much supply of things that aren’t much wanted, even the dimmest of suppliers will eventually start to supply something else, or will stop producing simply because demanders are offering too few resources to keep the supply operation in business.
This is where the companies that once provided the republic’s news now find themselves. It’s hardly a revelation that the left had increasingly taken over the commanding heights of “old media” for decades before 2016, and that after the ascent of Trump the takeover – not only by the left but now by a particularly virulent brand of leftism – became largely complete.
In the hard left’s conquest of the old media, it sacrificed standards (about reporting true things, about reporting at all instead of simply emoting, about maintaining any objective and neutral rules) that many of them had taken decades to establish – along with the reputations that adherence to such standards had created. The New York Times had once been “The Gray Lady” – perhaps a bit dull, but impeccably respectable: the American “newspaper of record.” The Washington Post had been the home of Woodward and Bernstein, those legendary (in all the senses of that word) Watergate reporters. CNN invented rolling news, and had reporters where they needed to be.
These organizations leaned to the left even in the best of days, but in leaning they did not topple over. Ed Morrow, William Shirer and the storied Walter Cronkite at CBS were often-bitter lefties, but the news was generally reliable. NBC and ABC had their Brokaws and their Jenningses, but they shared also that beacon of amused and bemused rectitude, David Brinkley. Bernie Shaw in CNN’s early days was a liberal, but a reasonably reliable one.
For the better part of a decade, none of that has been true. The last vestiges of honesty, objectivity, propriety: all have long since been scoured away, in ways too well known to require recital here. The result, as these outlets have discovered, is that they are no longer meaningfully distinguishable. Each of them got some of the biggest stories of the past six to ten years wrong in the same way, and for the same reasons: the Steele Dossier, Russian collusion, the Hunter Biden laptop, the Clinton campaign’s deceit of the FBI, the efficacy of masks and lockdowns, the origins of COVID, the propriety of the Cuomo brothers and Tony Fauci, the effects of massive government spending at a time of crashing productivity, and on and on.
They all succumbed to these errors and sacrificed their reputations and standards for the same reason: they wanted to “get” Donald Trump and to bring down his administration. And since their success they have felt obliged to prop up his successor with ever-increasingly transparent nonsense.
As just one example, consider the claim that an administration that shut down carbon-energy development in myriad ways as a “whole of government” initiative from its first day, and whose various departments – including the SEC – are still waging all-out war against affordable and relatively very clean energy production, is somehow both not responsible for spiraling energy costs and unable to do anything about them. Presidents, by and large, get the energy prices they want. Recall that the intellectual guide of this hobbled administration himself glibly declared at the advent of his own administration that under his plan energy prices “would necessarily skyrocket.” Just so.
In fully surrendering their purposes and their standards to political imperatives, the outlets also have surrendered themselves into the hands of people who have drunk deep of the heady notion that “the personal is political,” and of the trophies-for-all and helicopter-parenting dictate that everything is personal to their very special selves. And so one-time newsrooms have transformed themselves into romper rooms, as witness the serial meltdowns at the New York Times over the past few years (“How dare you run an op/ed from a United States senator if it hurts our tender feelings!”) and the recent fracas at the Bezos Blog (nee the Washington Post).
In the latter instance, a lefty who had pretended first to be a libertarian at Reason magazine and then pretended to be a conservative at the Post (making him, perhaps, the ur-Rubin, no one’s idea of a compliment) retweeted an ancient joke, got attacked publicly by Post “colleagues,” groveled, and then was suspended for a month (without pay). This led to a very online intra-Post rhubarb that management very obviously shut down by requiring all of the squabbling children to make rote declarations before the Twitter class that working at the Post was super-duper double-plus good, and by all means entirely “collegial.” The original objector to the joke, though, the “reporter” who set off this most recent firestorm, continued to rail against anyone who dared disagree with her, and so got canned.
These once great – well, at least respectable – outlets have thus become indistinguishable in their aims, purposes, tactics, errors and dysfunctions. And it turns out that dozens of suppliers of this sort of hysterical hash are too many for the American public. CNN and MSNBC now offer effectively the same service at pretty much the same level of shrill breathlessness and with the same record of error and failure. That turns out to be at least one too many suppliers, with the result that each channel’s ratings are atrocious.
CNN’s new owners have responded to the problem like businessmen. They are trying to move CNN out of an oversaturated market into one in which CNN can create supply to meet a real demand that’s not being satisfied. This appears to be the “honest, objective news” market, one that has certainly been underserved in recent years. John Malone, one of the new owners, has called for the network to once again hire “actual journalists” and to provide real news, which he acknowledged had become rare on the network.
That’s bad news for Brian Stelter, Don Lemon and rather a lot of the current CNN “talent,” but it could work. While I fear I’m in a sad minority remembering Shaw as a CNN anchor and the channel’s fascinating coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, most people can remember when the network at least tried to cover news, however blatant the left-wing slant had become. So it has a tradition, a reputation to work back to, to re-earn.
If it is serious about becoming an honest supplier of true, corroborated and unbiased news, it will of course have to replace most of its current staff, as the new owners seem to have recognized. But it will need to do more than that. It must not only be objective and rigorous, but be seen to be so.
It should therefore publish for the public its style guide and rules for its reporters, so that everyone can see that it has developed objective and neutral standards – and then it must stick to them rigorously. Given the depths to which “news” reporting in this country has descended, this will have to be a pretty capacious guide. It will have to establish when the party of an elected official is related, in all cases. It will have to ban the use of “pounce,” or its synonyms, as a way of deflecting the effects of negative news (e.g., “Republicans pounce on Speaker Pelosi’s refusal to provide security to Justices faced with assassination attempts”). It will have to determine when potential illegality by presidential family members is covered, and when not, and with what intensity. It will even have to include meticulous rules for chyrons, so that, for instance, “without evidence” appears neutrally or not at all.
In short, it will not be easy for CNN to resurrect its reputation, but if the network is sufficiently dedicated and transparent, it could provide a reliable supply of what a significant number of consumers seek, and so survive.
For many other outlets, the way forward is far less clear. As the recent contretemps at the Post reveals, hysteria and insanity are not an acceptable business plan even for a billionaire’s vanity blog. (Even in that field there is more supply than demand. Did you know that Time magazine still technically exists, as Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s vanity project? It briefly flickered to attention in 2021 because of a story exalting the left’s “fortification” of the 2020 election before disappearing again. But it’s still out there, shoveling pixels to no one.)
The Post also has a reasonably respectable tradition to return to, but recent events suggest that it would have to pretty much dissolve the current newsroom and hire a new one to begin its recovery, and there’s very little indication that it has any such intent. Ditto the serially disgraced and disgraceful New York Times.
Then there’s MSNBC. It has no proud tradition to hearken back to; it has always been rubbish. Things over there are grim. It’s losing money, hemorrhaging viewers, and has a rounding error from no one in the “demo” watching it at all. Even if CNN were to change markets by offering viewers real news again, MSNBC isn’t likely to benefit too much, given all the quasi-substitutes for its offerings that remain. This might explain an odd exchange on Morning Joe last week, in which Dan Pfeiffer, former senior advisor to Barack Obama, declared that “[i]f you go to Facebook on a daily basis, the posts with the most engagement are from Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, and Candace Owens. It is right-wing media content. It dwarfs progressive content. It dwarfs mainstream media content — which is actually, should be the part that should scare us the most, that Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire has more followers and engagement — many times more — than the New York Times or CNN. That is a problem for democracy.”
Pfeiffer, and the solons of Morning Joe, are eager to regulate Facebook in order to crush dissent from “progressive content.” This isn’t surprising from any of them, given that progressivism has come to mean pretty much exclusively the elimination of longstanding liberties and inalienable rights. It is well to consider that Joe Scarborough was once not only a congressman, but a Republican congressman, and thereby to understand quite a lot about American history since the end of the Cold War.
Scarborough should take note, though: repressing non-progressive voices and outlets will do nothing to increase his ratings, or those of MSNBC or the rest of the indistinguishable mass that was once the American news industry, for the simple fact that the two “goods” are not substitutes. Crushing non-progressive outlets will have no more effect on demand for what Scarborough produces than would burning down a hair salon raise bread prices.
The simple fact, Joe, is that too few people want what you’re selling anymore. You can’t force them to. There’s no way around the laws of economics.