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Tang For Your Brain

Mar
15
2004

Some days I pick up the newspaper and steam starts coming out of my ears.
Then I remember: I have a web log.
On Saturday, The New York Times published a graph of book sales. It told you something you might have already guessed: Conservatives buy books that tell them their world view is correct and righteous. Sadly, forsaking the very thinking they claim to embrace, Liberals do the same. Books in the middle ground aren’t read. In no small part, it seems, because there are none.


The story didn’t bother addressing that issue in any detail as Salon’s Scott Rosenberg notes in his web log take. I wasn’t alone in my Saturday morning scowling. He has some good objections to the story and the graph that are worth reading.
Rosenberg aside, there’s something else going on here. The easiest – and the hardest – to understand is the effect of media consolidation on the media itself. And in this case, I’m not talking about TV or radio or Rupert Murdoch or Viacom. I’m talking about newspapers.
The New York Times is just about the last newspaper on earth to decide to write a serious in-depth story about media consolidation and its effects outside the television business. The paper is benefiting from that very thing, attracting readers from all over the country to what used to be, only 15 years ago, a lame national edition of slack writing and wire copy. Today’s New York Times national edition is exactly that, a lively take on what’s going on around the country filling the gap that chain-owned newspapers from Dallas to Bangor, from Seattle to Miami, have created as their owners and managers concentrate on keeping salaries low, margins high and ad sales healthy. Local papers are becoming what we in the business call the “second read,” the paper you look to after you’ve gotten your daily digest. And, as a report out today says, that’s really only for a very small percentage of the population.
Meanwhile, most Americans get their news from TV which is doing just about as well keeping and interesting viewers. Maybe that’s because TV debates and discussions are ruled by the desire to make things “lively” and “interesting.” That often means contentious and loud. Look at Ann Coulter. Her career is based on saying outrageous, often hurtful and sometimes untruthful things, to television cameras. Television producers love her. She looks good on camera and she’ll say anything. She’s interesting.
Now here’s the killer: Since Coulter is on TV so often, she gets book deals. And her books are pretty much like her TV appearances: hurtful, outrageous and filled with half-baked theories and weak arguments. Ya gotta think when the very scholars you cite in your argument repudiate your work, you have a problem. So who reads Coulter’s books? People who agree with her. Same, by the way, with Michael Moore and Al Franken. They’re not writers. They’re celebrities who produce books.
Something similar, but not as obnoxious – in terms of guests, anyway – happens all the way down the food chain. When CNBC or MSNBC wants someone to talk about business, it pulls pretty much exclusively from The Wall Street Journal staff of reporters and editors. CNN likes to get folks from its family magazines – they’ll get other Time Warner employees from Time or Fortune. Slate, the on-line magazine, has a deal with National Public Radio and so on down the line. Almost every local TV station has a deal with the local newspaper for commentators and promotion.
What’s this got to do with the book business? Publishers, particularly non-fiction editors, don’t want to take books from unknowns. They prefer people with name recognition, or enough of a prestige job so the writer’s status will help move the book with a WSJ or Fortune emblem out front. You see where this is going, right? Only the known – whose ideas are familiar – get to speak their minds and in many cases, the audience already agrees with them or knows what they’re going to say. That’s more true of political books like the stuff Moore, Franken and Coulter produce but it trickles down to almost all non-fiction. No book editor can take a risk on an unknown – i.e., not working at any of the big newspapers or magazines – writer.
The Internet, since it’s new and since it allows people to select for themselves what they want to read, gets the blame for all this polarization – at least that’s what the NYTimes seemed to be trying to say in its story. But that’s overdone, as Rosenberg points out. Media concentration – and its insidious and little-examined effects like the one outlined above – are really at fault here.

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