"My strong sense is that contrarianness reached its apogee in the 1990s when a general sense took over that politics was basically silly and that punditry should be seen as basically akin to the college debate circuit wherein the idea is to construct the most clever possible argument rather than to actually hit on the truth."I think there's clearly something to this. But I think it's also difficult to stand out in the media by offering sober, reasoned analysis. But offering crazy interpretations of things can do that. Back when Mickey Kaus was a regular journalist during the 90s he was largely unknown. And then he becomes Mr. Contrarian and suddenly he's one of the most famous bloggers there is, with a large readership within the media and the ability to push memes with ease. It doesn't matter that those memes are completely wrong. Kaus is merely reacting to incentives here. He's entertaining to read, but you actually get dumber reading strained metaphors and far-fetched arguments, supported by anemic evidence. Basically, he's the blog version of Transformers: entertaining perhaps, but he will make you dumber.
But there's obviously a lot of ego and status stuff too. I think that most MSM figures see it as important as being seen as impartial, but one can be impartial while actually observing facts and forming reasonable conclusions. One need not be partial to reject Sarah Palin, for example. As a matter of fact, going easy on her is very much a form of partiality, it seems to me. My sense is that the MSM would rather be seen as being partial to the right rather than partial to the left in order to defuse the "liberal media" tag, though this seems to lean very closely to classic cases of spousal abuse, in which the wife feels that taking enough abuse will somehow make the husband realize just how much she really loves him. It's nonsense, it's enabling, and usually it's because the husband is a master manipulator preying on someone who requires validation--sounds like the press corps, no? See also: Anonymous Liberal.