While reading this post by Paul McGreal over at Faculty Lounge about the rising costs of legal education, I was struck by the unexpected relevance of political scientist John Zaller‘s work on media politics. First, something about Paul’s post. Paul underscores the argument that “the cost of legal education bears no necessary connection to what it would cost to provide a quality legal education in an efficient manner.” He implicitly takes on a prominent theme in the scamlaw narrative that costs are driven up by the faculty “‘stealing’ from students for their own selfish desires” by engaging so much time and energy on academic scholarship. Scholarship and even the related teaching of legal theory, according to a common narrative, diverts law school resources from the type of practical training—often argued to be applied skills and black-letter law—most valued by students as helpful to them in a challenging labor market.
I leave aside a defense of scholarship for the time being, but I think John Zaller would say that this debate over the place of legal scholarship is characteristic of a chronic tension that defines every professional field. In his forthcoming manuscript A Theory of Media Politics, Zaller posits that members of a professional field seek to produce a more sophisticated product, based on their own professional values, than the typical consumer actually demands and is willing to purchase. According to Zaller, “Every professional group wishes, if possible to have as much business as possible. Yet they typically wish to offer products that are more sophisticated than what the clientele wants.”
As a result, professionals always confront a basic tension between market pressures from the typical consumer on one hand and their own desires to produce a more sophisticated product on the other hand. Applying this notion to television news, Zaller finds that media markets with greater market competition among news outlets tend to feature “lower quality” local news (e.g., more tabloidish, less high-level reporting) compared to media markets with weaker market competition. Zaller postulates a basic Rule of the Market—that increases in market competition lead to lower news quality—but that in the absence of competition, “journalists seem to be able to persuade owners to cast their fates with respectable ‘high-quality’ news.” In my view, Zaller nails the dynamics of big city news media by astutely capturing this active tension between professional and market values.
You can see how Zaller’s ideas generalize to academic scholarship. Read More