March 2008

Is media slant determined by the market?

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

In “Lean Left? Lean Right? News media may take cues from customers” by Chicago School professor Austan Goolsbee, we are given yet another argument for market determinism, this time with regard to the slant of the media.

One of the most interesting things coming out of research on the economics of the media industry has been the notion that media slant may simply reflect business rather than politics.

The author then cites a few Chicago School studies that analyze the media in terms of slant of articles vs. readership. They find that readership is a stronger indicator of slant than ownership or big corporate donations. But then the dangerous conclusions begin.

[...] there is certainly good news in the finding. If slant comes from customers, then the views of the owners and the reporters do not matter. We do not need to fear that some partisan billionaire will buy up newspapers and use them for propaganda.”

This is a little presumptuous. Of course there is a fear of a partisan billionaire buying up all the newspapers. In history, we had William Randolph Hearst. In modern times, we have Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. He owned all the media in that country, slanted it, and then maintained control over it while presiding as Prime Minister. The market, for all its virtues, cannot solve these problems.

Let’s take one angle. Partisan billionaires can control the slant of their writing just by controlling the kinds of journalists they hire.

For example, let’s assume Rupert Murdoch would not hire very many bleeding-heart liberals to work as financial reporters in the WSJ. WSJ’s staff becomes more right-leaning, therefore there is a partisan slant. I’m not saying this is actually true, but it’s quite absurd to claim it isn’t likely, or that reporters only choose their slant based upon their readership’s expectations.

So although politicians from both sides tend to accuse the news media of partisanship and negativity, the data suggests that they ought to blame the public. The papers basically reflect what their readers want to hear.

Ick. This is the classic chicken and egg problem. It assumes that the public exists in a vacuum, and that the public’s opinions are not influenced by the media. Of course, this vacuum does not exist. The public may have views in alignment with the newspaper precisely because the newspaper shaped the views of the public. In other words, if I read the WSJ every morning on my way to work, I may very well start voting Republican. It’s not that the WSJ reflects my opinion: it’s that my opinion and the WSJ’s start to converge, since the WSJ is influencing my opinion.

The whole point of propaganda is that you don’t realize it’s propaganda while you’re reading it. Did Pravda just “represent what the worker’s wanted to hear”? According to this analysis, it certainly could have: I’m sure workers would have declared that their personal views were in line with Pravda’s slant.

As much as researchers of the Chicago School of Economics would love to believe the market can explain the media’s slant, I don’t buy it. That said, the market is certainly a factor — just not the only one, and IMO, not the primary one.

Joe Conason thinks Ralph Nader “loves” McCain

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

Conason writes for Salon,

… the evidence suggests another possible motive for Nader to run this year — namely, that he hopes to help his longtime ally John McCain, to whom he owes at least one big favor

I just did a search for Nader on Salon, and found this article in the old “Brilliant Careers” section. It was written in 1999. You know, before the Democrats pathetically lost the 2000 election, and then blamed it all on one of the greatest progressives to ever have lived.

I think we forget that in 2000, Nader’s reputation was essentially flushed down the toilet by the Democratic Party. We should all be outraged that the Democratic Party, and all of its members, blamed the loss of 2000 on Nader, rather than blaming it on itself. If the Democratic Party had blamed 2000 on itself, it might have had a chance at winning 2004, by realizing it wasn’t the party it should have been.

To suggest that Nader, after years of taking nothing short of principled stands on every issue, would run a presidential campaign just to “return a favor” to John McCain. C’mon, Joe, give me a break.

I guess all partisan Democrats — like Eric Alterman in “An Unreasonable Man” — just can’t get over the fact that they lost in 2000 and 2004. Admit it, the Democratic Party has become the spineless, least-worst party of American politics. In many ways, I have more respect for Republicans nowadays, who, despite being wrong on almost every issue, aren’t afraid of radical change, and can get people excited about the radical-ness of deregulation, tax cuts, and wedge issues. Nothing about the Democratic Party excites me nowadays, except that it isn’t the Republican party.

Could a modern “New Democrat” have implemented a progressive policy that was as sweeping/radical as the Republican “hollowing out of government” described in Naomi Klein’s book, “The Shock Doctrine”? At least the Republicans follow through on their ideology. What progressive reform did Bill Clinton get us? NAFTA? DMCA?

Do you think corporations would support Clinton and Obama if they were actually progressive? Take a look at articles like the following:

There you’ll see how it’s “politics as usual”, even for the Democrats. Sure, they rile you up with their health care plans. But do you think they’ll actually implement them, if they are not even considering any cuts to, say, the military budget?

In 2000, Al Gore ran a bland campaign that didn’t even mention global warming, even though it was supposedly the cause of his life. In 2004, Kerry tried to out-commander-in-chief George Bush, instead of pointing out his war crimes and calling the Iraq war a sham.

And, mark my words, it’ll happen again in 2008 if the Democrats don’t get their act together and stop apologizing for being liberal. Obama wants to expand the military by tens of thousands of troops. Clinton thinks she’s the fittest on day one to be commander-in-chief. I’m sorry, but if the Democrats don’t shape up, here is my prediction: McCain is perceived as a better commander-in-chief by average Joe Americans, Conservatives turn out their base against “Barack Hussein Obama,” true progressives stay home, and Democrats lose. Eight more years of Republicans. Are they going to blame 2008 on Nader, too? When will they ever take responsibility? You’re trying to tell me sixteen years of a paucity of progressive politics will be the fault of one man?

Update: A letter from Robert Franklin points out the paradox in “supporting progressive movements” while still voting Democratic:

…I voted Dem for years [...] By 2000, I was fed up with the DLC and turned my back on the Democratic Party. It was a fascinating experience [...] Once I stepped outside the Dem Party, it became obvious that they are as deeply in hock to big money interests as the Reps are and govern accordingly. All the things that are not part of the public debate but should be became obvious too. When looking at politics in America, don’t just think about what’s going on and ask why, think about what’s not going on and ask why not. When you do that, you realize just how narrow the range is of policies and discourse that are deemed appropriate by political elites. And “political elites” includes Dems.

[...] Look at the elections of 2006. The country overwhelmingly voted Reps out of – and Dems into – office. That was almost universally attributed to popular discontent with the Iraq War. So what did Dems do about that, given their enormous popular support? Not one damned thing. So now it’s two years later and your advice is Vote Democratic!

Your first prescription is to encourage grass roots support for progressive policies. Look at the platform of the Green Party and you’ll see that that’s exactly what that is – grass roots support for progressive policies. But for some reason you deem every sort of support for progressive policies to be appropriate except electoral support. Nader and the Greens are actually progressive, which I believe you think you are as well, but you adamantly refuse to vote that way. I just can’t buy that approach.

Your second prescription is to help the Dems win and then point out your contribution [...] That’s naive. If you do that, as liberals have been doing all along, what you get from Dems is “Thank you very much. See you in two years.” You don’t get anyone in office to pay attention to you if they know that you will never penalize them for acting against your interests. It’s Politics 101, and liberals haven’t learned it. Again, the Christian Right is far smarter than liberals on this subject, which is why the Reps give them a lot more stroke than Dems give liberals.

Finally you say what Democrats say every single election year – “not this year!” Here’s another election and Dems are telling liberals that, once again, we can’t vote our principles. I’ve been hearing that from Dems every election year for the past 8 years. You say “for the time being,” we must vote for Dems so that Reps don’t win. The problem is that, by that logic, it’s never time. According to that reasoning, the time is never right for liberals to vote liberal. And if you never vote liberal, what does that make you?

The real solution to this problem has nothing to do with voting your conscious. It’s called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), and is described in 3 minutes by this video.