Friday, December 3, 2010

The Free Market and The Role of Media

The role of the press in a democratic state is to provide information to the public such that they can make informed decisions. However, as it stands now it is currently not selected for by the wonderful pseudo-genetic algorithm called market economics. (The rough equivalence of the market economy and a genetic algorithm will be discussed in a later post.) As our understanding of human psychology grows beyond the concept of the rational tabula rasa, the lessons learned by advertisers and content producers through the trial-and-error process of market economics come into clearer focus, and with it, the perils of abusing these quirks of human thought.

However, there are many cases where rate of consumption has little relation to the net societal value of a good. In the case of information, this disconnect can be easily demonstrated by examining trends in news stories; the dry, non-personal details of economic policy and of the more subtle findings of scientists do not appeal to the highly social human animal, whereas creating an illusion of intimacy with powerful or famous people via inspection of their personal habits draws a wide viewership. Policy and politics do not interest people nearly as much as politicians, the plot and production intricacies of films do not interest them as much as the actors and directors behind them. The human element is what draws people into cable news and, to a certain extent, print news, not the naturalist observation of humanity that would be required for sound thinking about the issues which these individuals have a hand in.

While this observation is somewhat obvious, the fact that this hasn't been accounted for by free market ideologues in their passionate attack on the idea of state-funded media is somewhat telling. Many people of all ideological stripes acknowledge the problem posed by a media with dwindling standards for journalistic substance and objectivity, but few are willing to offer solutions, or even are willing to call out the causes aside from blaming consumers.

Of those who do complain about causes, oftentimes, those who are inclined towards free market ideologies will blame the perceived "plague" of reform-liberalism thinking as a direct result of the market impulses they extol as virtuous, invoking the impact of business and special-interest groups upon the state and media to declare the illegitimacy of the views and policies of both, ignorant to the irony of their complaints. Surely it is the right of "Big Labor" to supply money to whomsoever they want? What should stop news organizations from accepting money in return for favorable coverage of politicians or businesses? What should stop a business like News Corp or Disney from using stations and news outlets they own as their own personal mouthpieces? Expressing outrage against this is surely inconsistent if you take a classical liberal standpoint, and certainly if you take a modern libertarian stance on the matter. If you give people the right to say whatever they want, however they want, and at whatever scale they want, you should be surrendering the ability to complain about impropriety when they do so.

The business models of mass media have remained largely unchanged, and are unfortunately both tied directly to consumption, not quality. Advertising, and subscription revenue (either directly or indirectly through service carriers) are in essence the only way to monetize the press. Subscription revenue (particularly, print media ones) have the benefit of providing enough latency that people aren't repeatedly questioning their choice of news source, and are thus less likely to change on a whim to something "more interesting." The fallacy of sunk cost winds up working in our favor, as people read "boring" content because they've already paid for it. Advertising-driven revenue from free services, on the other hand, provides little incentive for a consumer to suffer through content that might not tickle their emotional and social centers. They can simply flit between these services on a whim, seeking the juiciest celebrity gossip and the most apocalyptic-toned political punditry. The market responds, advertisers shift to the more "interesting" sites to get better numbers, and we're a poorer culture for it.

The death of investigative journalism has been lamented at length by other authors, and so I won't expound upon it here. But to summarize the arguments I've heard elsewhere, fickle revenue streams combined with aggressive profit drive and concerns about time-to-press minimize the incentive for outlets to publish well-researched pieces, and instead often just regurgitate press releases and official statements as a side effect.

While I think that state and state-regulated media should be approached with great caution, I posit that some of the worst effects of state media have easily already happened in a slightly different form with private media. The market response is not the fault, nor are consumers. We are all human, and a finger-wag to "be better consumers" does not do much to override our innate tendency to consume what we desire, especially if doing so has no obvious detriment to others. The media responding to financial incentives, however, has created the conditions for media bias, factual inaccuracy, and sheer vacuous coverage to plague our airwaves. Some action needs to be taken, and relying on the markets to correct it is clearly not the solution.

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