TCS Daily

Gore Gets OutFOXed

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 4, 2002 12:00 AM

Al Gore got a lot of grief for his comments about the media in a recent New York Observer interview. But while it may be hard for most people to believe that the media are tools of a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, Al did - halfway - hit the nail on the head with this remark:

The introduction of cable-television news and Internet news made news a commodity, available from an unlimited number of sellers at a steadily decreasing cost, so the established news organizations became the high-cost producers of a low-cost commodity. . . . Now, especially in the cable-TV market, it has become good economics once again to go back to a party-oriented approach.

Gore is arguing that FoxNews is serving as a shill for the Republican party, unlike earlier media, as a savvy marketing strategy in response to changes in the television markets, and the news market more generally.

Gore's half right. The news market has certainly changed, and Fox certainly is to the right of Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, and even of CNN. Of course, Fox must not just be right, but be doing something right, as it's also beating out its cable competitors by a healthy margin. And it's winning praise even from non-right-wing viewers for the quality of its news coverage: the New York Times quotes Leslie Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, as saying that Fox presents a "fairer picture, a fuller version of the different parts of the arguments" over world affairs. (Full disclosure: I write a biweekly column for FoxNews.Com. I also worked for Gore's 1988 Presidential campaign. I disclose - you decide.)

But what Gore's analysis misses is the nature of the change in the news market. And, by missing that, he ensures that he misunderstands his own situation, something that is likely to have bad consequences for his Presidential ambitions.

What seems to be going on - especially given that Fox, which Gore calls right-leaning, is gaining viewers while the more liberal CNN and MSNBC are losing them - is that the introduction of competition into the news business is doing what competition usually does: giving people what they want, instead of what sellers want to sell. And Gore's right: that's a big, big change, and one with important political implications, though he seems not to have fully grasped those.

When there were three television networks, consumers of television news had to take what they offered - and with all three producing their news almost exclusively from the East and West Coasts, there wasn't much variety to be had, nor much desire on the part of the rather homogeneous group producing the news to offer variety. Television news in the "golden age" was in fact a classic oligopoly product, with little difference among producers. Those who didn't like it could shout back at the television, but that was their only outlet. This suited politicians like Gore - whose mainstream Democratic liberalism fits well with the traditional network-news mindset - well enough, but left a lot of viewers unsatisfied.

But technology changed all that, as broadcast networks were augmented by cable and satellite. Now viewers have a choice, and Fox's share is growing while its competitors' shares are shrinking. The same is true in other areas: talk radio, where liberal hosts have failed to get the kind of audiences enjoyed by conservative and libertarian hosts, and the Internet, where conservative/libertarian voices predominate to the great frustration of, well, guys like Al Gore. In fact, it seems that the greater the competition in a medium, the more that medium leans away from traditional establishment liberalism.

In other words, instead of a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy at work, we are seeing the market, now freed from anticompetitive constraints, serving a large group of customers who were dissatisfied with earlier offerings and who now have some options. Not surprisingly, those who benefited from the old system aren't happy with the results.

But while grousing about how things have gone downhill since the Good Old Days has its pleasures, it won't win elections. A savvy politician might take note of these changes, as evidence of public preferences that were concealed by the biases in the old, monopolistic media but that are now revealed by the more competitive market of today, and adjust his positions accordingly. Gore, on the other hand, seems to have moved to the left, introducing new policy proposals like national health insurance that seem tailor-made for old-style establishment-liberal media. It remains to be seen whether his views will be rewarded by the political market.



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