Saturday, July 23, 2011

Journalism and Politics

Here is a key bit from a post by the economist Tim Harford on his blog:
If price is not the issue, then what we are really concerned about is that newspaper readers get access to informative news about the key issues of the day – the kind of thing upon which our democracy depends. But it is foolish to expect this from competition alone. Sadly, we do not value information about how to vote nearly as much as information about which car to buy. We probably value shots of celebs in swimwear more than either.

True, competition can encourage certain kinds of quality journalism. For instance, the economists Jesse Shapiro and Matthew Gentzkow have pointed out that certain stories – of abuses by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib, for instance – are promoted by media pluralism. CBS had the story and sat on it at the request of the US government (the story was said to be dangerous to US hostages) before broadcasting after it became clear that the story would emerge in The New Yorker.

But competition also promotes gutter journalism and it probably promotes opinionated journalism, too. Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s hugely influential TV news channel, seems to have become popular by staking out ground as the source of right-wing rabble-rousing, and MSNBC has gained ground as it has moved to the left. Competitive markets give people what they want rather than what is good for them.

Gentzkow and Shapiro have studied this question in the US. Using an objective (if imperfect) measure of bias, they found that newspapers closely match the political biases of their potential readers, as measured by votes cast in the 2004 presidential election, and by the source of campaign contributions to each party. No doubt the causation runs both ways, but one striking result is that the proprietor’s identity seems to make no difference to the bias. The media barons tell us what we wish to hear.

The most disturbing aspect of the phone-hacking scandal, it seems to me, is the reluctance of politicians to challenge Murdoch’s empire, and in particular its cosy relationship with the police. If more competition dispels that sense of fear in future, it will be all to the good. But don’t expect every journalist to suddenly start working on the next Watergate.
I worry most about the media acting as a microphone for fanatics. Seems to me the 1920s & 30s were an era where fanatics came to power through their control of the media. That led to WWII and a huge loss of life and a real setback for civilization. Currently we are 20 years into a war of "ideas" from fanatical fundamentalist Muslim terrorists (and on a smaller scale, but still very deadly, from fundamentalist Christian terrorists, witness Norway's mass killings).

I don't have any solutions, but I was thinking this morning of how we now put warning labels on cigarette packages along with graphic pictures to shock people. I'm thinking we probably should require by law that similar signs be put up on religious buildings warning people that the ideas propagated by the religious -- especially the fundamentalists -- can be very hazardous to their health, but even more hazardous to the innocent victims of their cruel "religious" acts.

OK, I know that 99% of religious people are reasonable, gentle, moral people, but there is something crazy at the heart of religion and it needs to be tamed. I don't know how, but we should at least talk about it. Ultimately you can't stop the determined crazy person, but we should find techniques to limit their ability to spew hate-filled speech. The media is a good place to start. I find Fox "News" to be offensive. I can't link any killings to their crazy distortion of reality, but I worry that they are spreading the seeds of fanaticism.

Again, I have no answers. Maybe the only answer is for civilization to stagger on hoping to get to happier times when the fanatics thin out and the wider population can relax and stop worrying about madmen attacking from out of the blue over some crazed idea of "injustice" or "mandate of heaven" or whatever.

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