A winner-takes-all market in infamy

Gibson and Stephanopoulos are the unlucky winners.

In the marketplace, products often emerge as big winners even though they were only a little better (or in some cases actually worse) than their closest rivals. Sony’s Blu-ray high-definition DVD technology, for example, recently won a bitter format war with Toshiba’s competing technology, even though experts found no compelling reason to favor one over the other.

Similar winner-take-all outcomes also permeate the world of ideas. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of “gotcha” journalism. The Washington Post’s respected television commentator Tom Shales described the questions posed by the moderators of Wednesday night’s debate as “specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news.”

As Shales is surely aware, Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos were hardly breaking new ground in this respect. Yet a few simple principles of cognitive psychology all but guarantee that the journalistic reputations of the two will be forever sullied by their conduct Wednesday evening.

One of these principles is that mental shelf space is limited. Few ideas and issues ever rise to sufficient prominence to become the subject of widespread attention. Although negative reactions to gotcha journalism had been building for some time, they had been too diffuse to land on most people’s radar screen at the same moment. Wednesday’s debate, however, drew more than 10 million viewers, and millions of others watched excerpts and read news coverage of it. And by the standards of past televised debates, their reactions were both intense overwhelmingly negative. Some of these have been dismissed as partisan whining, but many others were voiced by neutral media experts.

Another important principle is that people’s receptiveness to an idea depends on the context in which they encounter it. Since he launched his campaign more than a year ago, Barack Obama has been speaking out forcefully against the pernicious effects of gotcha journalism. So when examples of it appeared in staccato succession in Wednesday’s debate, many viewers were already receptive to the possibility that it might be a bad thing.

In short, the sheer size of the event, the fact that people had been primed to consider the negative consequences of gotcha journalism, and the resulting intensity of the public’s reaction, pushed the issue over the threshold necessary for starting a national conversation about it. Gibson and Stephanopoulos will be the subjects of that conversation for as long as it continues.

Their best hope is that the conversation will die out quickly. But another principle of cognitive psychology makes that hope seem an empty one. For any subject to be discussed more than briefly, events must continue to call it to people’s attention. From the perspective of Gibson and Stephanopoulos, the current context is inauspicious. No one imagines that Senator Obama, the overwhelmingly likely Democratic nominee, has confronted his last gotcha question. No, he will hear many more such questions as the campaign unfolds. And each time he is asked, for example, why he doesn’t wear a flag lapel pin, he will seize the opportunity to remind voters that such questions divert attention from the substantive issues that concern them. Each of these exchanges will remind us of the questions posed by Gibson and Stephanopoulos on April 17.

In a just world, the pictures of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly would appear in the margins next to future dictionary entries for gotcha journalism. But winner-take-all markets are not fair, and that distinction will almost surely go to Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos.

Author: Robert Frank

Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management and the co-director of the Paduano Seminar in business ethics at NYU’s Stern School of Business. His “Economic View” column appears monthly in The New York Times. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos. He received his B.S. in mathematics from Georgia Tech, then taught math and science for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Nepal. He holds an M.A. in statistics and a Ph.D. in economics, both from the University of California at Berkeley. His papers have appeared in the American Economic Review, Econometrica, Journal of Political Economy, and other leading professional journals. His books, which include Choosing the Right Pond, Passions Within Reason, Microeconomics and Behavior, Principles of Economics (with Ben Bernanke), Luxury Fever, What Price the Moral High Ground?, Falling Behind, The Economic Naturalist, and The Darwin Economy, have been translated into 22 languages. The Winner-Take-All Society, co-authored with Philip Cook, received a Critic's Choice Award, was named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times, and was included in Business Week's list of the ten best books of 1995. He is a co-recipient of the 2004 Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. He was awarded the Johnson School’s Stephen Russell Distinguished teaching award in 2004, 2010, and 2012, and its Apple Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005.