Blog #57 – “Public” opinion and the innocent media.
N. Gregory Mankiw, professor of economics at Harvard. writes:
“Media owners generally do not try to mold the population to their own brand of politics. Instead, like other business owners, they maximize profit by giving customers what they want.”
“These findings speak well of the marketplace. In the market for news, as in most other markets, Adam Smith’s invisible hand leads producers to cater to consumers. How likely is it that we as citizens will change our minds, or reach compromise with those who have differing views, if all of us are getting our news from sources that reinforce the opinions we start with?”
Fine as far as it goes. But four further points need to be made.
1. Multiple markets, multiple “publics.” Sure, media cater to their markets. But which markets? No media outlet can cater to all markets at once. Even if somehow media owners were devoid of any opinions of their own and scrupulously avoided injecting even the suspicion of injecting whatever opinions they had into their media – hardly likely given the strong personalities and convictions most of them have. And even if they were guided only by purely market concerns, that is, maximizing their profits, they would take into account the sources of their revenues, which include advertising. Advertisers recognize that there isn’t just one market out there, but many, and they cater to the one that will produce their own greatest profit. Newspapers, most media, looking to maximize their ad revenue, will thus cater to the audience to whom their advertisers cater. Advertisers professionally try to influence their potential markets; they don’t work on the idea that buyers will keep the preferences they start with, but try to mold those preferences to suit their clients And that pressure to please the particular pre-selected market inevitably caries the actions of the media with it.
2. The vicious circle of media and opinion. Sure thy go along with, and try to reinforce, the opinions that their selected part of the market members already holds. That indeed makes it harder for them to change, if they are only fed back what they already believe. But where did the “opinions they started with” come from? Surely they did not come from their experience in the womb, but were influenced from an early age, by what they heard, saw, were told by the media. They didn’t “start with the opinion” that ObamaCare was wrong; they got that from the media to which they were exposed. It’s not only had for them to change their opinions, as Mankiw correctly point out, it was the media that shaped those opinions to begin with. It’s indeed a classically vicious circle. The media should not be exonerated from their responsibility in what they do.
3. The innocence of media owners. It is hardly a sustainable contention that the the “brand of politics” of media owners does not affect what the media they own produces – think of Murdoch, think of Hearst, think of Sulzberger.
4. Journalistic ethics. Is it time to admit that there is no such thing as an ethics of journalism that plays any role in the media as they are in the real world, or should we perhaps recognize that reporters vary widely in their views of journalism as a profession with a set of ethics, and vary widely in the freedom they have to write their own stories without interference from the higher-ups controlling the business in which they work, with the power to hire and fire. The media is not simply another producer of a commodity on the market likes shoes and cars, but of something special, with a special public responsibility. ? Jefferson and Paine certainly thought so.