Friday, 25 April 2014

Back to the future - the return of the partisan press

An interesting interview on the Quartz website with University of Chicago economics professor Matthew Gentzkow who recently won the John Bates Clark Medal which the American Economic Association bestows on the American economist under the age of 40 who “who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.” Quartz described Gentzkow's work as "an interesting mix of the history and micro-economics of the media world."
For instance, he’s studied the drivers of political “slant” in American newspapers. (Short version: Political slant tends to play to the views of readers, not owners.) Along with his frequent collaborator and University of Chicago colleague Jesse Shapiro, he’s investigated tendencies among consumers to read only online news sites that square with their own ideological biases. (Short version: They found no evidence that segregation among consumers of online news was becoming more pronounced.) His research has also found that television—and the television news which supplanted politics-heavy newspapers—has helped drive down US voter turnout.
The part of the interview that intrigued me most concerned the return of the partisan press. You’ve looked a lot at the history of American newspapers, he was asked, going back to their roots as ideological party organs in the 19th century, as well as the advent of television, and more recently online news. Is there some sort of grand unified theory or thread running through all that work that you were surprised at?
In some ways, the US media today looks increasingly like the US media of the 19th century. Back in the day we had fiercely competitive, partisan newspapers going after each other, wearing their ideological views on their sleeve … not pulling any punches talking about scandals and using all kinds of inflammatory language. That is very much like what we see if you turn on cable TV or you look at political blogs.
And really the exception, historically, is the period that I grew up in and the period that many people grew up in. We had three broadcast networks and everybody got their news from the same places. People would argue about the political slant of the broadcast networks, [but] they certainly presented themselves as very objective and sort of partisanship-free. That was really the unusual period. When you go back and look at partisan newspapers in the past, things look awfully similar to what we see today.
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