This is the time we bit-stained wretches compete to identify “the cause” of the election debacle. Hillary was a bad candidate; no, Comey put his thumb on the scale; no, racism/sexism… Stop it; when your house burns down because you left something on the range frying instead of boiling, and the grease ignited, and your kitchen fire extinguisher was out of date and didn’t work, and the fire department got there late, there are just multiple ’causes’: if any had been otherwise, the outcome would have been different.
This doesn’t mean nothing mattered; everything did. One of those was completely atrocious coverage in print and video, as well as the ‘off-the-books’ discourse on social media, and that has mattered so much that if we fixed everything else we would still be in terrible trouble. “The media”, wrapping up facebook, blogs, real newspapers, and tweets, created an uninformed electorate voting in the dark from the heart instead of the head, and from fear and anger instead of hope and reflection. TV news, and print media, uncritically peddled Trump’s nonsense hour after hour as though it were the considerable discourse of a basically serious person; wallowed in vacuous ‘damn email stuff’ and horserace opining rather than policy; and so on. These are sound criticisms, but it’s not Wolf Blitzer’s fault or the New York Times‘ that they didn’t do better. All the media are deep in a downward spiral not of their making, and it will get worse before it gets better. There may be incompetent journalists, cynical meretricious tweeters and bloggers, and venal production company execs, but even Edward R. Murrow could not have fixed this.
[An aside: Trump’s particular relationship to the truth exploited a traditional journalistic virtue faster than the media could respond, aggravating the dysfunction I discuss below. The idea that news should tell us what candidates said and did, and let us figure out what to make of it, keeping opinion to features and columns, was a creation of the wire services a century ago when they wanted to sell stories to all sorts of different outlets. But that only worked (and never perfectly) when candidates observed some obligation to relate what they said to evidence and reason. Reporting what Trump said without clearly identifying lies and nonsense–what the old tradition gave us for months– put lipstick on a pig, wrapping a new and vicious sort of discourse in the trappings of responsible debate.]
Back in the day, there was plenty wrong with the social and economic structure of news and comment. Publishers were rich business people who had their own interests, usually right-wing interests, that perfumed the newsroom and the editorial page. If you didn’t have a printing press or a TV station, you could not make yourself heard. And yet, things were better. The old arrangements had five important elements:
(1) Some content was delivered in a physical chattel like a newspaper, that could only be read by one person at a time and for which publishers could charge a quarter, and it was packaged with advertising that merchants found useful. Publishers sold the eyes of their readers to advertisers; big city papers had ads for Macy’s, small-town sheets advertised the local laundromat: revenue streams from sales and from ads.
(2) Other content was delivered as broadcast television from news divisions of three big networks, that spliced advertising into time streams. There were no TIVOs; you could pop into the kitchen for a beer during commercials, but if you missed a story on the evening news or a question on a quiz program you missed it. People mostly saw the commercials (and sometimes enjoyed them; anyone remember Bob and Ray selling Piel’s Beer?) and advertisers therefore found them worth buying: revenue streams from advertising were big enough to support the news operation.
(3) Strong, durable (not perfect) industry cultures divided the news and entertainment divisions of the networks, and the advertising and editorial offices of newspapers and magazines. All three TV networks lost money on their news operations but competed to maintain quality out of pride–yes, and, a sense of social obligation–and could afford to do so because they made money on Howdy Doody and Your Show of Shows.
(4) Government enforced, more or less, a fairness doctrine of “equal time” for “sides” of issues on TV, because the electromagnetic spectrum was viewed as a scarce common property resource that had to be shared.
(5) When people gathered at work water coolers and church socials, they had, and knew they had, all seen a lot of the same news and read the same paper that morning.
There was plenty wrong with this kludgy system, but it was economically viable and threw off revenues that could be used to hire reporters, editors, and nationally respected columnists.
Enter the web, and in the space of a couple of decades, everything has changed. Most importantly, content has become a public good in the technical sense: it is (i) non-rival, meaning that if I consume it there’s no less for you, and (ii) close to non-excludible, meaning that while I might pay for a subscription to the on-line newspaper (and I do), some kid in Bulgaria or Finland is even now figuring out how to crack the latest paywall. And once I get the story on my screen, I can copy it, and send it to my thousand closest friends free; Microsoft Edge now has a really simple clip and share tool. The first property has the fell and unarguable implication that the correct price to the consumer for anything in digital form is zero (economists of all stripes agree that everything should be sold at marginal cost, period, end of story). It also has a powerful subconscious moral implication: because I know I’m not using anything up when I share content, I don’t feel guilty about doing it. When I woofed at my kids, who would not dream of shoplifting a CD, for sharing songs, they said “…but Dad, it doesn’t feel like stealing”.
How we will pay content creators in a world where consumers are paying the correct zero price is a long story; the outlines of a workable scheme are known but it doesn’t exist. Hint: how did we arrange to have a sidewalk, and a cop protecting you when you walk on it, without charging you a toll to walk down the street? But it’s a story for another time. What we need to recognize now is how the failure to make a viable economic model for content has affected our politics.
The important fact about public goods is that they will not be supplied by the free market, especially not at the right (zero) price: no-one can pay the rent doing so. That’s why the sidewalk has to be supplied by the city government. In some cases, like our great art museums when they were founded, and some parks, they might be provided by a rich philanthropist. The Guardian is a nonprofit foundation, but it’s tottering financially just like other newspapers. I’m OK with the Gotrocks family giving their city a little museum, or a skating rink. But news is different: rich philanthropists are not like you and me: mostly they are like the Koch brothers, and believe me, they and their golfing buddies are looking for ways to “give” us the content they think we should have.
The big thing about the press and TV news today is that their starvation, right before our eyes. Seattle and San Francisco used to have two newspapers each, now they have one. Every daily in the country has less content–fewer editorial column inches–than it used to when the economy was actually smaller, by half or more. Newsroom staffs have collapsed by as much as two thirds, and editors similarly. Small-town papers that could stay on top of locally important dirty doings, and cover local elections, have simply disappeared, and there is no small-market television in a world where everyone has cable. Here’s today’s news from the bonfire, just more of the same. Boston music organizations are passing the hat to pay the Globe to keep its classical music critic. If you want a deep dive into the wasteland from which all creative workers, not just journalists, are trying to scrape a living, read Timberg’s Culture Crash. There is simply not a revenue stream that can pay the professionals needed to find and write up the news we need to know, especially as more and more people record TV and skip all the commercials. I watched a lot of election coverage, but almost none of the commercials in the constantly growing breaks.
At the same time the machinery of social media has exploded. This looked like a wonderful technological gift at first; all sorts of minority and divergent voices could reach small and large audiences. A distinctive band could have listeners all over the world instead of having to build an audience in its home town. But it exploded with so many streams spraying out without the services of professional editors (you’re reading one now) that it has no real weight as evidence, and it displaces attention that might be paid to real journalism for a quick hit of shock (sex and violence are good) to the lizard brain. Add this to the gradual decline of our attention spans owing to ubiquitous email and messages and tweets, and it’s no wonder voters are working off a combination of pure affect (“smash the rigged system”) and a flutter of fragmentary factlets, many simply false (“email scandal! pay-to-play!”). [added 12/XI: Finally, it has to be important that for all of history, it was very difficult to speak anonymously and indelibly to very large numbers of people, but now any idiot or hater can spam out absolutely anything to thousands and millions, for free, without indicating where it came from.]
The third leg of the formerly serviceable stool to give way was the fairness doctrine that any single radio or TV news conduit had to present multiples sides of issues. Spectrum (on cable) is now unlimited, and this or that perspective will presumably be available somewhere–if Fox News peddles reaction, MSNBC will have a different ideological tilt, so all sides are presented. Presented, yes, but no single citizen encounters them, because we turn on Fox (or MSNBC, not to mention Alex Jones) to play all day and receive a comforting stream that constantly reassures us that we are right about pretty much everything. Epistemic closure plus ideological narrowcasting, what could go wrong?
Rail at the media for the bad job they did this year if it makes you feel better, but you might as well rail at the winds. Radically reconstructing the economics of the content industries [12/XI: and possibly respecifying the first amendment’s scope for social media] is the most important work our society needs to do, because as the next four years seem likely to show, whatever else you care a lot about (climate, income equality, health care, whatever) cannot be fixed until we do. And don’t think tip jars, or crowdfunding, or even your digital subscription payment, is anything more than rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking ship. Radical reconstruction.