I was sitting at lunch the other day when I noticed the feed from a cable news network; flashing on the screen was the now ubiquitous “Breaking News”. That the story which filled the screen was hours old seemed of little importance…the network had nothing new to report anyway. And which cable news feed isn’t an important fact, as all news (and all sports as well) have adopted the same template for filling 24 hours of programming. That moment of typically lazy corporate reporting was emblematic of the dire threat facing our democracy. Rather than using the time available to explore a broad range of issues in depth, these 24 hour networks focus instead on going shallow on a narrow range of issues.
I believe this is a case where less is most assuredly not more.
But the outlets where Americans get their information are governed by the same rules of perverse incentive as all other aspects of our economy. And in the 21st Century, every information entity outside of PBS and NPR are owned and operated by for-profit corporations. Now I am a capitalist, and I embrace and endorse the need for corporate structures in our economy. But we the people must begin to understand and accept the true challenges faced by the convergence of democracy and capitalism.
Freedom of the press is considered so vital to our democracy that the Founding Fathers enshrined it at the very top of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The First Amendment establishes nothing less than freedom of communication; with ourselves, with our elected government, with our God. The amendment protects us from retribution or censor directed by the elected government (although not from private entities.) One primary reason for the success of the American model for democracy has been the freedom and diversity of the press. The state-run news agencies found in many other nations have too easily been used to shield governments from the people, and shield powerful elements friendly to governments.
Critically, that diversity is leaving our press, as more and more of our news comes from a shrinking pool of corporate owners. But the problem with our news is less about ownership than it is about incentive. Perverse incentive is a condition of the marketplace in which the success of organizations within an economy tend to damage that economy. As an example, in the ten years leading to the collapse of the housing bubble and unraveling of the O.T.C. derivatives market which drove our nation into the Great Recession in 2007, individuals chasing the artificial equity in their homes and businesses combined with Wall Street traders chasing manufactured wealth to destroy the economy.
Modern American economics, dominated by conservative thought for almost 40 years now, rewards the use of capital markets as wealth engines rather than facilitators. And we the people reward home owners for consumer spending funded by home equity. In isolation, these concepts are not terribly dangerous. In real world application, these concepts give incentives for risk-taking, incentives which have only one natural consequence. Thus, we call these incentives perverse, and in the world of information, we see the same situation.
In corporate media, the ultimate goal is the growth of shareholder’s value. As with any other enterprise, owners/investors provide funds as an investment they expect will grow faster than the economy as a whole. This incentive is not dangerous in and for itself. But there are only two methods a corporate media entity can use to grow shareholder value, and neither of them involves integrity or depth of coverage. These organizations can grow value by growing ratings and by purchasing new markets. The natural results of these perverse incentives are ratings-driven reporting (sensationalism) and the shrinking pool of corporations controlling the information.
Both of these situations are exacerbated in the non-profit market. PBS and NPR have an obligation to compete simply to justify civic investment at a time when civic investment is dwindling. And those two entities are increasingly reliant on major donations from a shrinking pool of major donors. Donors who, like the corporations controlling most media, can choose to exercise editorial rights. The end-result of this process is easily predicted by the market; all monopolies are bad for consumers. Monopolies drive prices up and service levels down. Our current market for information is characterized by rising costs (the four providers in the no cost marketplace provide less than 1 1/2 hours of news per day including local outlets) and storytelling. The free access media tries to homogenize the news as much as possible; like in national chain restaurants, the character of the offering is less important than the number of potential customers who can accept the dish.
The model makes for boring cuisine, and storytelling is something we do for our children, not something our democracy is able to rely upon. But when “Breaking News” is scrolled across the screen, the phrase “the story we are following right now…” follows soon after. Modern journalism, in sports, business, politics, and crime is about the plot rather than the reporting. Every network follows the same premise; catch the consumer’s attention, develop the characters (usually accomplished by trotting a panel of pundits out of the wings), and go for the big finish. This type of storytelling cannot live without a villain, and villains are never accepted unless the proper punishment is prescribed and administered.
This formula is fine for entertainment, but devastating to democracy. Black and white, good and evil, heroes and villains; the elements of storytelling are poor role models for democracy because they rely on the concept of the absolute. Democracy only lives when the concept of the absolute is repudiated. On any given issue, the democracy only survives when the minority is prepared to live with most of the desires of the majority, and when the majority is prepared to live with some of the desires of the minority. When Nancy Grace or Sean Hannity or Keith Olbermann are building and then eviscerating a villain, the absolute is reaffirmed. And the free social platforms where news is discussed in our democracy largely eschew reasoned discussion about these stories, choosing more and more to distill them into ever more shallow and virulent memes.
If our democracy is to survive, news reporting and news sharing must be about more than just the label. All of us are capable of finding elements in the character of most people we know that makes us uncomfortable or angry, and it is far easier to be immediately shocked and angry, and to share that shock and anger, than it is to really search for information and give thought to the issue. Until we demand real reporting from our media, and until we supplement the reporting we have now with our own toil and consideration, our democracy…our nation…will live under dire threat.
The Rational Middle is listening…