Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Mom and Dad, Stop Fighting!

Let’s not play pretend boys and girls, both Republicans and Democrats have it wrong (in different—and in similar—ways). We’re told by pundits, politicians and sometimes parents that one side is good and other is bad. This kind of black and white view of the world is one of the deadliest poisons in our society. Like politics itself, it encourages name-calling instead of respect, yelling instead of listening and bickering instead of discourse.

Of all the shows on television, few capture this mentality better than CNN’s Crossfire. They should know. Jon Stewart told them Friday. Here’s the transcript.

I love Jon Stewart. I don’t always agree with him, but I love him anyway. Mostly because he’s willing to tell the mainstream media that they could do a much better job than they are now and their current trend it hurting the country. During his Crossfire interview, he told Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson their show is “theater.” It’s a debate show in the same way as pro wrestling is an athletic competition. He’s completely right.

The media is the most relevant example of a market failure—people could be getting so much more for their time. Instead of shallow entertainment, we could have knowledge creation. Instead of Jerry Springer, we could more have Bill Maher. In economics, this is particularly important as virtually every “economist” on television is replaced by what Paul Krugman so kindly calls “policy entrepreneurs,” or sell-outs: economists who now work for political parties. They spit out the (often protectionist and/or isolationist) party platforms and dress it up as sound economic policy. Bad media is bad economics but good politics.

There are exceptions, of course. News networks don’t hold a monopoly over information. We have our HBO and our Daily Show. The Internet is stuffed with blogs (I particularly like this one). But this makes just a small dent in the American psyche.

The core problem is information. People simply don’t know what they are missing. How can you, a consumer, really say if what you are getting as news is “worthy” if you don’t know what was cut? Do people even know that bi-partisanship and rational debates are actually possible?

I don’t really have an answer to this market failure. A law, of course, won’t work. The last thing we want to do is have politicians decide what should and should not be covered. Subsidize bloggers so they can advertise? I like that as a blogger, but not as an economist; we’ve just get a flood of partisan blogs. Break up the media giants into smaller companies? I’ve often thought about that but I doubt there would be much change.

The only real way to ensure our media smartens up is if the politicians do, too—that’s where the most discourse is needed (and where it’s most scare). If political parties start saying that they are tired of the endless bickering and actually want to start making real progress, the media would have to follow suit. Most of their guest speakers are from the parties.

So this is a shout out to all those party leaders out there. George, John, John, Dick, Donald, Condoleezza, Bill, Zell (especially Zell)—I know you guys read LL&L religiously and I know we haven’t had the best opinion of you over the short time the blog’s been active. But both sides have important stories to tell, and more important ones to listen to. You guys have your flaws and your strengths. I’m not asking for a marriage, just a talk. A real one. Come on you two, for the country?


Chris said...

Speaking of Bill Maher, I saw him last night at my university (where he was doing stand-up.) VERY FUNNY!!!
I'll have more to say on my blog.

Anonymous said...

One solution is to promote public television, nonprofit news magazines and public radio. These are underutilized institutions. If, when a man came home from work and wanted to hear some news, and he had the option of going to PBS or NPR for it at any given part of the day we would be better off. Currently his only options are CNN and FOXNEWS, both of which do pretty shallow reporting. One problem is that PBS and NPR aren't 24 hour news networks. I wouldn't want them to be standard 24 hour news networks. Instead they could show rotating broadcasts of the hour long daily news, and in depth programs. Think of it as the history channel for the past 5-10 years.

David said...

Public television is a nice idea but how to you plan to "promote" it? I hope your solution isn't giving them tax payers money; there's no guarentee these sources would be better, there's no way of knowing how much is the "right amount," it's subject to political distorations and preverse incentives and, most of all, it's saying that the private sector cannot possibly do anything about it and will crowd out private attacks on the media. You think Jon Stewart would have chewed out the Crossfire guys if public television was the standard? Sure, capitalism can be a little messy because there's so much trial and error, but at least there's trial. Governments tend to focus on error.

Anonymous said...

David: Did you know that in the United States, there is a corporation for public broadcasting that sponsors both national public radio and television? Yes, public television is a nice idea, and in fact we have it in the U.S.A. In fact, we even have two networks designed solely for political purposes, payed for presumably by our United States government, called C-Span and C-Span 2. In wisconsin at least there are also two public education channels that play strange music videos and SCOLA televesion(and occasionally a college level lecture).

I agree that we should shy from entangling the government too much with public broadcasting, but public broadcasting is a viable option for fixing our media problems.

Public broadcasting is great because it is not part of the market. In your post you said that our media is a clear example of a market failure, and this is true. Media outlets(24 hour news networks) are far more concerned with entertaining, and pulling down ad revenue than actually educating the public. Public broadcasting can do better reporting because there are no commercials. The news hour with Jim Lehrer is one hour in length. None of the public's time is wasted. Interviews with people on the ground level of our nation's current events go on fully, and in depth. On NPR's Fresh Air over the past 3 days there have been three stories about the Supreme Court's role in the 2000 election from the perspective of A) Al Gore's laywer, B) George Bush's Lawyer, C) The supreme court staffers who broke their nondisclosure agreement to illuminate the event.

What maintains the integrity of NPR and PBS? That is a complex question, but I can tell you one thing that's never allowed to lower it's integrity, and that's profiteering.

Now when I say "promote" public broadcasting, I mean promoting it's consciousness in the general public. A lot of people have never listened to "To the best of our knowledge", seen "Now with Bill Moyers" or a "This American Life" or a "Morning Edition". It should be seen as an option in the American consciousness right along CNN, FOXNEWS, and MSNBC.

Now, go ask Jon Stewart wether he thinks public broadcasting is a good or a bad thing. I hear him lambasting politics and journalism in America in a 10 minute phone interview on WPR's "To the best of our knowledge" last week, at his most husky, candid and acid.