The Dull Art of Problematizing Everything

Here’s an essay for Areo Magazine, a very fine place to go if you like to read interesting things:

Few things in life are certain. Some will populate a short list of inevitabilities with death and taxes, but really, only the former is guaranteed—just ask the sitting president of the United States. If you have spent any amount of time on the internet, however, I’d wager a lofty sum that you’ve seen plenty of headlines of the “Why Blank Is Problematic” variety. More often than not, these aren’t essays that offer insight or clarity. Instead, they simultaneously monetize a boring fact about the world—that everyone’s conception of it is necessarily incomplete—while snidely sidestepping all efforts to understand the intent behind a given act of communication or creation and empathize with its originator.

Read more here.

Media Bias Isn’t Right or Left – It’s in the Very Nature of the Market

“The media is biased.”

The above might be one of the most common refrains on the modern political landscape. Conservatives decry the selectivity of the liberal media and the limitless capacity of left-wing pundits to find offense in the mundane. Likewise, liberals bemoan the pernicious influence of the conservative echo chamber and the accompanying spread of the poisonous white victimhood narrative. The details vary, but the core complaint is the same. Indeed, that news outlets do an incredibly poor job at fulfilling their journalistic mandate – to deliver a detached and accurate presentation of the facts – is one of the few points of near unanimous bipartisan consent. The only thing people can’t agree on is where that bias comes from. Is the spin right or left?

The answer, paradoxically, is both and neither. It’s hard to argue that the quagmire of vitriol and misinformation that populates conservative talk radio and Fox News isn’t tainted by ideological bias. Likewise for outlets like MSNBC and the Huffington Post – to their credit, they’re not engines of white grievance culture, but they add their fair share of spin to their reporting.

Deep down, however, the problem is more insidious. It doesn’t stem from journalists and media moguls with an ideological agenda. On a more fundamental level, the desultory lows of modern reporting are an inevitable outworking of a system that makes profit the final arbiter of success, dictating what does and does not work in an industry tasked with contributing an invaluable public good to society. Most of the sensationalism, hyperbole, and misinformation that characterises the 24 hours news cycle and your Facebook news feed is attributable to the fact that outlets are concerned with making money before and above any interest in presenting the public with reliable information and thoughtful analysis.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

For decades – maybe even centuries – the studied doctrines of neoclassical economics have been the closest thing America has had to a national religion. The free market is a sacred institution, ever wise and all-knowing, securing the best outcomes for the most people by letting their acquisitive impulses guide them to success. It doesn’t matter the partisan affiliations of the congress or presidency – neoclassical thinking and neoliberal policy has dominated government agendas for decades.

Truly, markets are extraordinary engines for innovation. This is hardly controversial. But there are severe flaws inherent in the central dogmas of traditional economic theory. For over a century, economic research has been dominated by a program aimed at deducing theoretical expectations from logical axioms about what people ought to do get the most bang for their buck. Lacking a strong observational or experimental basis, it has come to entail a number of assumptions that run contrary to what people actually do in the real world. That humans are perfectly rational and all-knowing, for one. If the economy were comprised of millions of Lt. Commander Datas or Mr. Spocks, this would make sense. Unfortunately, it’s comprised of humans with severe limitations on time, knowledge, and attention, along with deep psychological biases that inhibit their ability to behave with perfect rationality.

Here’s another flaw in traditional economic thinking: it treats the economy like a closed equilibrium system. In less arcane terms, that means economists have tended to model the economy as something that exists in isolation – i.e., the only inputs are economic inputs like supply and demand – tending in the long run to seek balance and stability. Neither assumption is true. What happens in the economy affects the social and political world, and vice versa, often in unpredictable ways. The downstream consequences of a firm’s decision to produce a product or adopt a marketing strategy echo well beyond the pocketbooks of its employees and shareholders.

In economics parlance, down-the-road or outside effects of market behavior are termed “externalities”. They can be good or bad, positive or negative. Think of a business that moves into a community, creating new jobs, increasing wages and providing a new source of tax revenue, perhaps allowing residents to afford needed improvements to languishing school facilities. Or think of an industry that, as a byproduct of production, creates hazardous waste materials, some of which leach into the local water supply. These are externalities.

On a policy level, externalities generate a lot of the conflict over how much of a hand governments should have in policing the behavior of economic agents. Market fundamentalists – i.e. the most devout adherents to the neoclassical paradigm – argue that economic agents can react to externalities by changing their market behavior, rewarding or punishing companies depending on the full range of social, economic, political and ecological changes they generate. If a company poisons the local water supply, consumers can punish it by buying from a competitor.

Critics argue that this view isn’t very realistic. What if the company poisoning the local water supply does most of its business overseas? How are local consumers to wield their buying power to induce the local factory to adopt better waste management procedures when the vast majority of the revenue supporting that factory comes from India or China? Perhaps they can prevail upon the Chinese to stop buying the product, but since the traditional paradigm also assumes economic agents are infinitely selfish, this seems unlikely. As rational agents, the overseas consumers are buying that product because it is the best option among available alternatives. They aren’t going to change their behavior because some people in a small town thousands of miles away are feeling sick. It’s difficult to see how the market contains any mechanism for correcting the problem.

Profit and the Press

Now, consider the problem that emerges when businesses are tasked with producing a product that is primarily intended as a social or political good. This doesn’t have to be weighed as some kind of nebulous abstraction. There is a real-world example, and this is where we get back to the news media.

Think of the purposes of journalism. Make a quick list. Read it off. Where, on your list, did you put “to generate a profit”? Not very high, I suspect, if it even came up. You probably listed things like “encourage and maintain an informed citizenry” or “discover truth” or “present information” or “record history” before you got around to “make money for owners/shareholders”. And, contrary to the views of free market fundamentalists, you weren’t wrong in your assessment.

Journalism, from the inception of the American experiment, has been widely understood as essential to the successful function of government. Participatory governance – by the people, for the people – is impossible absent an informed citizenry. News outlets do the important work of keeping people apprised of world events, helping them make smart decisions when it comes time to choose which candidates or policy initiatives to support in the voting booth. In economics terms, most of their value exists in the form of externalities.

In the traditional paradigm, this doesn’t really represent much of a problem. The vast majority of people don’t have the time or the resources to keep an eye on all the events that might be pertinent to their choices as a consumer or a voter, so they outsource that work to the media. The value of any journalistic endeavor rests primarily in its relative capacity to edify its audience, so according to the rational actor theory of economics, people should subscribe to the news outlets that do the best job of delivering quality, reliable information. It’s in their own best interest to do so.

But in the real world, we’re faced with the question – what exactly is the market for high quality information? Most of the issues voters face are complicated. Understanding and interpreting them requires nuance and sophistication, prolonged attention and careful analysis. How many cable subscribers are there who would rather sit through a three-hour presentation on the causes and consequences of climate change than watch a football game? I would, but I’m a weirdo. Most people would prefer the football game – and all the attendant spectacle – to the lecture.

Media outlets invested in providing journalistic coverage face stiff competition. Not only do they have to compete against other journalistic entities, they have to compete against every other piece of entertainment jockeying for our attention. Given the predilections of the audience, it’s no surprise that this leads to situations where something like an inelegant but accurate description of Donald Trump’s voting base can be exploded into a point of vicious contention. Controversy sells – a mundane reporting of the facts does not. People are more likely to pay attention to strife and sensationalism than they are to raw information, nuanced discussion, and considered analysis. The market responds accordingly. We get the news media we deserve, not the news media we need.

Governing Blind

The myriad failings of modern news media can be boiled down to a simple disparity between the goals of journalism and the goals of the market. Journalism is principally meant to inform and enlighten, but economic agents sink or swim by their ability to make money. In the rational utopia described by traditional economic thinking, this wouldn’t be a problem. People would recognize that they stand to benefit from searching for and zeroing in on the news outlets that do the best job of providing them with reliable information and thoughtful analysis. Ideological biases would be immaterial, because people would be compelled by raw economic self-interest to look beyond partisanship and uncover the truth. The reporting strategies of CNN and Fox would be eradicated by consumers rationally pursuing their parochial monetary interests.

Problem is, we don’t live in that world. That’s a world where people know exactly what is in their own best interests and act accordingly. But we know, as a matter of incontrovertible fact, that people don’t actually behave that way. Most people don’t save as much money as they should. Many people use credit cards and high interest loans to buy giant flat-screen TVs and impractical cars. Diabetics eat candy bars and alcoholics continue to drink alcohol. Rarely do people have the information necessary to create an accurate forecast of the downstream consequences of their buying choices, and even in cases where people do, they still often make the wrong decision. Irrationality pervades individual decision-making and entire markets (which are, of course, the emergent result of hundreds, thousands, and millions of individual decisions). 

It has been understood for decades that human rationality is, at best, extremely bounded. People are significantly more inclined to satisfy short-sighted emotional impulses than they are to act on a carefully calculated assessment of the costs and benefits of each decision they make. So, where it would certainly be best for people to seek out deeply reported, scrupulously sourced journalism, they instead choose to lend their attention to stories about a grossly unqualified candidate’s latest blunder, distant murders with no real relevance to their day-to-day lives, or vapid celebrity gossip. People gravitate to the macabre and the outrageous. The news media, seeking to profit before they inform, is eager to indulge.

In a participatory democracy, this presents a severe problem. Absent good information, the will of voters is nearly impotent, easily hijacked by charlatans and hucksters who appeal to their extant ideological biases and unsavory prejudices. For evidence, one need look no further than the desperate state into which the right-wing media echo chamber – putative news outlets like Drudge and Breitbart and Fox News – has driven the Republican party: millions of conservatives have been driven to a point of ideological lunacy by the blustery voices of media pundits who get rich selling fear and rage and conspiracy. The ramifications of this are manifest every time a poor voter punches the ballot for a candidate who will enact policies virtually guaranteed to worsen her economic prospects, simply because they present a facade of family values or down-home traditionalism they she appreciates.

Democracy does not work without an informed electorate. People need to have a basic understanding of the issues they face if they are to have an effective voice in addressing them. Productive action on problems like climate change and the nation’s precipitous slide toward plutocracy is impossible when large segments of the population are in the dark about their causes. Already, a disinterested and uninformed electorate has allowed the legislative process to be captured and bent to the parochial whims of special interest groups. Voter influence on the shape and function of laws is virtually nonexistent.  But there are still domains where the will of voters is decisive, and it is becoming increasingly clear that their profound ignorance about a host of important issues hobbles their power to help sculpt a functional government.

King Dollar

There are plenty of people who think that an urge to promote a political agenda has corrupted news media. They aren’t entirely wrong. Outlets like Fox News and Breitbart are, to be both fair and inclusive, purveyors of politically motivated garbage. But the entire apparatus of modern news media represents the market’s unequivocal failure to secure an optimal outcome in an industry built to do something more important than sustain itself and make money. Fox and Breitbart exist because the public, contrary to their own practical best interests, has an appetite for partisan rancor and misinformation. Those outlets exist, above all else, to pay tribute to King Dollar.

Consider the reality of our world. By almost any metric, we occupy a segment of human history safer and more stable than any preceding generation. More people have access to basic healthcare and infrastructure than at any point in history. Interpersonal violence has been declining for years. Minority rights are more broadly recognized. Fewer people die preventable deaths. Accessing information – about practically any subject – is easier than it has ever been.

Yet the news media – obliging its audience’s thirst for the ominous and prurient – has done an outstanding job of convincing everyone that the world is tottering on the brink of destruction. People see harm in the most unlikely of sources and dismiss real hazards that are difficult to put into everyday terms. Parents think their children will be kidnapped if they play outside unsupervised. Nearly everyone overestimates their chances of being a victim of a terrorist attack. People across the political spectrum think GMOs are threatening and vaccines are dangerous, despite substantial evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, conservatives consistently dismiss legitimate concerns over anthropogenic climate change as part of some perverse liberal ponzi scheme and large segments of the public remain oblivious to the patterns of regulatory and legislative capture that are rapidly eroding their democratic voice. 

In each case, the weight of evidence is clear, but the news media has assiduously cultivated an impression of discord and debate. Why? Two reasons: First, an acrimonious atmosphere attracts more attention. Second, those outlets that opt for a careful reporting of facts risk alienating the portion of their audience that subscribes to the relevant brand of nonsense.

The failings of modern journalism are perhaps the starkest illustration of the market’s inability to generate optimal outcomes in any industry with loftier ambitions and more profound implications than the accumulation of wealth. We expect more of news outlets than an ability to pay the bills or enrich shareholders. But the need to do both while appealing to the basest predilections of short-sighted, fickle humans – competing for attention with Dancing with the Stars and Keeping up with the Kardashians and the Walking Dead – pulls the media off course. There’s simply more ad revenue in a story about a celebrity meltdown, a controversial candidate, or the nefarious backroom dealings of the political opposition than there is in insightful, rigorous reporting about how the world actually operates.

Saddeningly, this is not a bug in the system. Since its inception, professional journalism has been shackled to the yoke of markets, ceaselessly bent to the task of generating revenue through the sale of subscriptions, individual newspapers, or advertising space. From the yellow journalism of the 19th century to the scandal-mongering of modern news networks, the entire enterprise has shown an unfortunate – but predictable – tendency to drift away from its purpose as a social good, perpetually guided off-course by the narrow incentives imposed by capitalism. In this light, it is clear that the paragons of journalistic professionalism are aberrations. As long as King Dollar rules, bad journalism will remain unavoidable.

To market fundamentalists, this is heresy. Already conservative politicians and pundits who recognize the corrosive influence right-wing media has had upon their base are positing that a market correction is on its way. There’s really no indication that this is actually a reasonable expectation. It’s simply a desperate recitation of an old article faith: that the market always know best. That would be true in the market of Homo economicus – that cold, rational, calculating beast with perfect knowledge and infinite foresight. Not so, in the world of Homo sapiens, who have limited time and attention, extremely faulty and myopic foresight, and are plagued by a variety of cognitive biases that reliably pull them off course.

Brass tacks, this is a massive problem. But it’s also a solvable one. I can think of a number of useful measures, but for the time being, let me suggest just two: turn off the 24 hours news networks, permanently, and be a little more discriminating in your Facebook clicks. Think of what you want in your journalism and act accordingly. This means mastering our impulses – and that’s no simple trick. In the long run, however, we’ll need to rework journalism from the ground up.

For now, if you’re still inclined to think of the media is biased, so be it. Just remember that the bias isn’t so much Red or Blue as it is shades of green.