How “Rigged” Is The Major Media? (#media, #economics, #politics, #journalism, #fraud)

By way of the Articles of Style blog comes an anecdote on more media rigging, this time of a commercial nature:

The thing about magazines is that they are full of paid advertisements. Not just the pages and pages of “ads”, I mean the articles and editorials themselves. I have a colleague who works for a major magazine (both of which will remain nameless) who was in LA about a month ago for a celebrity interview in Hollywood. As we usually do, we had a long dinner and drinking session where we shared our thoughts and practices on all things regarding the business of editorial and publishing.

Over some fire grilled fish tacos he basically tells me that (at the major menswear magazine) they don’t begin a story until they have a paid sponsor. “We have a list of high-level editorial ideas, lined with fitting potential sponsors, and the sales team hits the phones to see who’s willing to pay the most for the product placement or mention. Once the money is there and we the product from the brand is confirmed…then we hire the stylist, model, writer, etc. to bring the story to life”.

This reminds me of a similar anecdote shared with me by a friend in the financial industry. He was explaining to me the relationship between PR firms and the financial news media. He explained that much of the “news” we consume in publications like the WSJ, NYT, etc., are actually drafted by PR firms who do the research and assemble the voices in the articles, most or all of whom are their paid clients. When the media need coverage of some event or recent development, they turn to the PR firms for ready-made stories complete with expert testimony strewn throughout. The media company will edit the article where necessary and then slap its journalist’s by-line on the article. Oftentimes, they don’t even edit the stories and publish them as provided.

The media outlets like this because they’re trying to reduce their costs and keep up with the 24-hour news cycle. The PR firms serve special, niche interests (their paid customers) and so can “be everywhere” news is happening, whereas it isn’t economically scalable to have paid journalists complete with intelligent source-networks all around the world where news might be happening. Meanwhile, the PR firms like this because it gets their clients exposure as an “expert” in a major public forum. Not only does it add credibility to a resume and generate search interest in the client mentioned, it could also subtly sway the agenda on the topic du jour which might be desirable for the client to have readers thinking a certain way.

If it really works the way it’s mentioned in the AoS blog post, and as my friend related to me (and I think it does), it puts the “news” in new light and certainly complicates the gatekeeper role of the media and the idea of an informed electorate. At least, it complicates it for statists who believe in this fantasy system and the way it supposedly functions. It doesn’t complicate anything for me.

What I Remember From Journalism Classes (#education, #college, #politics, #RiggedSystem, #media)

One of the Trump mantras in the current US presidential election cycle is that the system is “rigged.” Part of what Trump includes in the rigging allegation is the behavior of the US media in being bitterly, but not openly, partisan. The reputation of the media in American political theory is that it is a non-governmental check on official political scheming which serves the vaunted public interest in educating Americans on fact and fraud alike. Through the media, the American people, especially as an electorate, can make an informed decision as they exercise their democratic muscle.

A problem with this theory is that the “gatekeeper” role for the media introduces the same risk of regulatory capture that faces an official government agency. If X is the watchdog of Y, then Y has an incentive to exercise influence on X, up to and including implicit or covert control of X, to ensure Y has the maximum opportunity to pursue its own interest without restraint. If journalists are the watchdog of politicians, or of government and the political process as a whole, than people interested in exercising power without restraint via the political process have a strong incentive to try to control journalists.

There’s plenty of evidence, scandal and recent revelations of such influence and control that has come to light recently, mostly via alternative media “institutions” such as bloggers and not-for-profits like WikiLeaks, such that anyone interested in evaluating claims of a “rigged” system can run a simple search and make up their own mind. I don’t really want to go there with this post. Instead, I want to share some brief reflections and anecdotes from my undergraduate education, which included substantial coursework in journalism.

When I went to college, I initially thought I wanted to be a professional journalist. I later came to the conclusion that the system I would be participating in was “rigged”, and that I couldn’t find any heroes to emulate and that it’d be very unlikely for me to profitably, and safely, practice the kind of truth-telling journalism I was interested in, so I decided to abandon that ambition after completing most of the coursework necessary (I did end up completing the degree). Part of my disillusionment came through my experience in my journalism classes.

The very first class I took was an “ethics of journalism” class, which explored this very issue of the role of journalists in a free society, and the special status as gatekeeper assigned to the profession in American political theory. Unfortunately, most of my classes were disrupted that semester because the graduate assistants in the journalism department were on strike and my professor decided not to hold our classes on campus to avoid crossing the picket lines, a decision she made out of perceived solidarity with their plight. On one occasion, class was cancelled entirely because she decided to participate in a protest. While I doubt all journalism graduate students are on strike all the time at all universities in the US, I also would imagine this experience was not entirely unique, and certainly the ethical or political predilections of my professor at the time were not unusual. If this is the mindset and behavior of people teaching introductory ethics courses to aspiring journalists, what do you think might be the impact on journalism as a system in this country?

Another class I remember taking was something like “topics in media criticism”. I think what I imagined the course would be was something like studying news reporting and investigative journalism pieces and looking at how members of the media critically covered certain issues and people, and also how they responded to criticism from those they targeted. Instead, we ended up writing essays about pop culture media through the lenses of things like Marxism, feminism and sexuality.

Things I found memorable and descriptive about the majority of my classmates: few, if any, were double majoring in or had pursued an independent course of study in economics, so they were unfamiliar with even the most watered-down official market-lite basic instruction on the topic, thus making them unfit to cover 95% of what is newsworthy; while they weren’t ascetics, they seemed to accept that they were unlikely to have lucrative careers and seemed suspicious of people who had higher income-earning potential than they; they were definitely not the sharpest, most ambitious students in the school and were closer to being art students than business school students if you could set those things up as two opposite characteristic poles; they were animated by “social justice” issues and assignments, rather than questioning their premises or the validity of that approach; for those who had double majors, they were typically in subjects such as political science, sociology, psychology and occasionally history (ie, philosophically wishy-washy, non-concrete and dominated by Marxist leftover academics); in physical appearance they were often sickly or weak looking, had more body piercings than average and were often disheveled looking, as if they didn’t much care about how they looked to other people; few if any came from true poverty backgrounds, and few came from any wealth, they all seemed “securely” lower-middle class in background.

Putting these three pieces together, a picture emerges. These journalism students were being instructed on their special ethical status and duties while learning from the example of a person whose behavior and loyalties were compromised; they were receiving explicit ideological instruction in their coursework under the guise of some kind of creative criticism curriculum; finally, their personal backgrounds, interest, capabilities and knowledge probably made them unsuitable, on average, for thinking very deeply about key “public interest” issues and their personal circumstances made it potentially easy to tempt or incentivize them in various ways.

Under conditions like these, is it difficult to imagine how journalism, as a profession, might cater to the kind of people who could willfully do the bidding of special interests in a “rigged” system and either not realize how they were being manipulated, or else be eager to take part in such capers?

Of course, it didn’t work on me, but then I decided not to become a journalist!

Crude Economic Analysis: Government Student Aid Edition (#affordability, #highered, #studentaid)

This is a funny headline from the WSJ.com:

College Tuition Hikes Slow, but Aid Falls
The rate of tuition increases at colleges has slowed for the second year in a row, but government aid has fallen, continuing a cycle of rising costs and debt for students.

There seems to be a correlation in the data here. As government aid lessens, rate of tuition increase lessens.

But it would be crude to jump from here to the conclusion that there is a necessary causation in the data. Right?

“But” implies there is no causation and that the status of aid availability is a separate problem.

“And” or “As” would imply causation. Interesting how the WSJ editors chose their words on this one.