News has to be subsidized because society’s truth-tellers can’t be supported by what their work would fetch on the open market. However much the Journalism as Philanthropy crowd gives off that ‘Eat your peas’ vibe, one thing they have exactly right is that markets supply less reporting than democracies demand. Most people don’t care about the news, and most of the people who do don’t care enough to pay for it, but we need the ones who care to have it, even if they care only a little bit, only some of the time. To create more of something than people will pay for requires subsidy.
-Clay Shirky, Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic
There are few contemporary thinkers that I respect more on matters of media and the Internet than Clay Shirky, but his comment about how much reporting “democracies demand” has bothered me since he wrote it nearly a year ago now. I think the point of view implied in the quoted section above misunderstands what reporting really is, as well as how democracies actually work.
To understand the former, it helps to step away from the hallowed ground of politics and policy and focus instead on reporting in those areas considered more déclassé. The more vulgar subjects of sports, technology, and video games should suffice.
One of the most entertaining things about The Verge’s review of the Lumia 900 was not anything editor-in-chief Joshua Topolsky said in the review itself. No, what I enjoyed most was the tidal wave of wrath that descended upon him from the Windows Phone fanboys, who it seemed could not be satisfied by anything less than a proclamation that the phone had a dispensation from God himself to become the greatest device of our time. The post itself has over 2,400 comments at the moment I’m writing this, and for weeks after it went up any small update about Windows Phone on The Verge drew the ire of this contingent.
The fanboy phenomenon is well known among tech journalists, many of whom have been accused of fanboyism themselves. It’s a frequent complain among the Vergecast’s crew that when they give a negative review to an Android phone, they are called Apple fanboys, when they give a negative review to an Windows Phone device, they are called Android fanboys, and so on.
To the diehard brand loyalist, the only way that other people could fail to see their preferred brand exactly the same way that they see it is if those other people have had their judgment compromised by their loyalty to some other brand. So Joshua Topolsky’s failure to understand the glory that is the Lumia 900 stems from the fact that he uses a Galaxy Nexus, an Android device, and his Android fanboyism makes it impossible for him to accurately judge non-Android things.
There came a certain moment when I realized that fanboy tribalism was a symptom of something innate in human nature, and that you saw it in every subject that had news and reporting of some sort. It may have become cliché to compare partisan loyalty with loyalty to a sports team, but the analogy is a valid one. Just as there are brand fanboys, there are sports team fanboys and political party fanboys.
Back in Middle School, I got really wrapped up in this–as a Nintendo fanboy. I had a friend that was a really big Playstation fanboy, and we had the most intense arguments over it. I don’t think I’ve ever had arguments that got as ferocious as those since–not about politics, not about morality, not about anything. We would each bring up the facts we knew that each of us thought should have made it obvious which console was superior and then get infuriated that the other side didn’t immediately concede defeat. I personally always came prepared with the latest talking points from Nintendo’s very own Pravda, Nintendo Power Magazine.
Cognitive Biases and Group Dynamics
Cognitive science has a lot to say about why people act this way. A lot of progress has been made in cataloging the various biases that skew how human beings see the world. Acknowledging that people have a confirmation bias has become quite trendy in certain circles, though it hasn’t really improved the level of discourse. My favorite trope in punditry these days is when one writer talks about how a different writer, or a politician they disagree with, can’t see the obvious truth because of their confirmation biases. Ignoring the fact that the writer himself has the very same bias, as all humans do!
Most of the discussion around cognitive biases centers on how they lead us astray from a more accurate understanding of the world. The more interesting conversation focuses on what these biases emerged to accomplish in the first place, in the evolutionary history of man. The advantages to cementing group formation in hunter gatherer societies is something that has been explored by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his recent book The Righteous Mind. Arnold Kling has an excellent essay where he applies Haidt’s insights to political discourse.
The fact is that even in our modern, cosmopolitan world, we human beings remain a tribal species. Only instead of our tribes being the groups we were born among and cooperate with in order to survive, we have the tribe of Nintendo, the tribe of Apple, and the tribe of Republicans.
When the Apple faithful read technology news, they aren’t looking for information, not really. They’re getting a kind of entertainment, similar to the kind that a Yankee fan gets when reading baseball news. Neither have any decision that they are trying to inform.
Political news is exactly the same. When a registered Democrat reads The Nation, we like to think that there is something more sophisticated going on than our Apple or Yankee fan. But there is not. All of them might as well be my 13-year-old self, reading the latest copy of Nintendo Power. The Democrat was already going to vote for the Democratic candidate; it doesn’t matter what outrageous thing The Nation article claimed that Republicans were doing lately.
Information as Rhetoric
I think that the fear that there might not be enough truth-seekers out there fighting to get voters the salient facts about the rich and power is misplaced for a few reasons. For one thing, in this day and age, it is much easier to make information public than it is to keep it secret. For another, it is rarely truth-seekers that leak such information–it is people who have an ax to grind.
The person that leaked the emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia wasn’t some sort of heroic investigative journalist type with an idealistic notion of transparency. They were undoubtedly someone who didn’t believe in anthropogenic global warming, and wanted to dig up something to discredit those who did. He was a skeptic fanboy, if you like, and he wanted to discredit the climate fanboys.
The people that get information of this sort out to the public are almost always pursuing their own agendas, and attempting to block someone else’s. It’s never about truth-seeking. That doesn’t invalidate what they do, but it does shed a rather different light on getting as much information as “democracies demand”. Democracies don’t demand anything–people have demands, and their demands are often to make the people they disagree with look like idiots and keep them from having any power to act on their beliefs.
To satisfy either their own demands or that of an audience, some people will pursue information to use as a tool of rhetoric.
How Democracies Behave
Let us think of this mathematically for a moment. If information is the input, and democracy is the function, then what is the output?
I’m not going to pretend to have a real answer to that. There’s an entire field, public choice, with scholars dedicating a lot of research and thought to understanding how democracies and public institutions in general behave and why. My father has spent a lot of time thinking about what impact information in particular has on political and social outcomes. I am no expert on any of these subjects, and will not pretend to be.
I will tentatively suggest, however, that people do not vote based on some objective truth about what benefits and harms us as a society. I think people vote based on their interests. That is, narrow material interest–such as whether a particular law is likely to put you out of work of funnel more money your way. But also their ideological or tribal interest–whether it advances a cause you believe in, or a group you consider yourself a part of.
So I don’t really see a reason to insist on subsidizing journalism. All that will accomplish is bending those outlets towards the interests of the ones doing the subsidizing.