Media and politics
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In May 2016, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, “The Republican Party has been CONNED by Trump, and I just can’t support him.” This claim has gained substantial credence from more recent revelations like the October 1 publication of Trump's 1995 loss of almost a billion dollars.
To what extent might this and similar problems be avoided in the future with the following two reforms:
- Require all candidates for public office, or at least those for President of the US, to authorize the Internal Revenue Service to release all their tax returns and to support reasonable requests for independent audits of such.
- Increase the choices of media available to citizens.
The first should be obvious and will not be discussed further here, except to note that it should fix one but not all of the problems with the US political system.
The second is a response to the conflicts of interest that the media have in honest reporting on politics.
This essay first discusses these conflicts of interest. It then reviews research on how humans make decisions that explains how we can be too easily conned. This is followed by a discussion of two examples of better media that provide models that can be used to fix this and other problems.
Media conflicts of interest in honest reporting
A comment by Les Moonves, CEO of CBS to an investor conference 29 February 2016 included a disguised admission that CBS has a conflict of interest in honest news: He said that the Trump campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS .... The money's rolling in and this is fun”.
Every media organization in the world sells changes in the behaviors of its audience to its funders. If it doesn't have an audience, it won't have funding for very long. If the audience doesn't change its behaviors in ways that please the funders -- or, worse, if it changes behaviors in ways that displease the funders -- the money will go elsewhere.
|Organization||2015 Revenue (billions US$)|
ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox are all major publicly traded companies or major subsidiaries of such. Their total revenue in 2015 was $124 billion. That's roughly two thirds of a percent of the total US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $18 trillion.
Some of that $124 billion came from advertising (including hidden advertising like product placement), some from payment for content like movie ticket sales and cable fees. Beyond just ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, total advertising in the US in 2015 exceeded $180 billion. This amounts to 1 percent of GDP.
We can translate these numbers into something everyone understands by noting that 1 percent of GDP is equivalent 1 percent of everything you buy and 1 percent of your work life if you live in the US. If you work 40 hours per week, then 1 percent is 0.4 hours or 24 minutes per week. Or it's 5 minutes out of every 8 hour work day. This part of what you earn is in essence a tax collected by non-governmental agencies and used to pay for advertising -- and for the distortions in the selection of acceptable news and entertainment that created the conflicts of interest in honest reporting that Les Moonves described in his comment to investors mentioned above.
A major point of this essay is that the US body politic can decide to redirect those 24 minutes per week to news about issues that concern them without having that media content filtered to downplay information likely to offend advertisers. To support this, we note the following:
- Advertising rates are proportional to the audience. Donald Trump has attracted large audiences. Therefore, media executives would be foolish (and perhaps fired) if they slew the goose that lays the golden eggs. Nearly all the negative information that has come out about Trump since he got the Republican nomination for President could have come out a year earlier, and much of it could have come out 10 or more years earlier.
- The profits of the major media conglomerates in the US are substantially higher in election years, especially in presidential election years, than in other years. That's because the lowest advertising rates go to organizations with long-term contracts, and no election campaign can take advantage of those lower rates. This system provides the major broadcasters in the US with a major conflict of interest in providing honest information about anything political: Doing so could make it easier for candidates or initiatives not favored by the big money to win an election with a smaller campaign budget.
- To what extent is progress on every substantive issue blocked, because a plausible countermeasure threatens a major advertiser? Informing the public regarding favors big businesses obtain from government would require media organizations to bite the hands that feed them. Media organizations do that if doing so helps retain or expand their audience enough to compensate for a likely loss of advertising.
More on these second two points is available in the Wikiversity article on “Media and corruption.”
The remainder of this essay will review (a) research on why people limit the media they consume, and (b) proposals for increasing the choices of media available.
Why people limit their media choices
Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for seminal research in how people think. He's not an economist. He's a psychologist. He won the 2002 Economics prize, because his research showed that the traditional economics models of the “rational person” do not reflect how people actually think.
In his 2011 book on Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman said that humans have two modes of thinking. The first mode, which he calls "system 1," is an intuitive brain that makes decisions quickly and effortlessly. His "system 2" is a rational brain that is capable of looking for more information and thinking through difficult problems before acting. The problem, Kahneman wrote, is that our intuitive brain is excessively swayed by our preconceptions and our most recent experiences. Our rational brain is often too lazy to search for more information when we should, he said.
This helps explain why people are not more discriminating in their choice of media, why they too seldom look for alternative sources of information, why they generally place too much credence on their preconceptions, and why they are too willing to believe that people who think differently are stupid, ill informed, or even evil. Without saying anything about the media, Kahneman explains why we are excessively confident in what we think we already know, and why it's so hard to communicate with others with different perceptions.
The substantial concentration of media ownership in the US and elsewhere exploits this natural human weakness by making it harder for people to hear views that might offend major advertisers.
This helps explain why we need the cacophony of voices that the Internet offers. But we need more than just access to more opinions. We need substantive investigative journalism. For this we review two success stories, starting with building free and independent media in Japan and Germany after World War II.
Free press and nation building
The US has one success story in nation building, and that's Germany and Japan after World War II. After the German surrender, Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied and Expeditionary Forces in Europe, "called in German reporters and told them he wanted a free press. If he made decisions that they disagreed with, he wanted them to say so in print. The reporters, having been under the Nazi regime since 1933, were astonished that the man who had directed their conquest could invite such criticism. ... Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur [Supreme Commander in Japan] -- with muscular encouragement from [then-president of the US] Harry Truman -- used the authority and resources of the US government to establish media systems with competitive, at times combative, newspapers and independent broadcasting networks. At the heart of the project was an understanding that a free press and broadcasting system were essential to the renewal and maintenance of a healthy democracy, and that the core of that system had to be independent, well-trained and well-compensated journalists who understood their communities and countries, responded to the concerns of their readers and listeners and were prepared to challenge official and commercial propaganda and censorship. ... In the years following World War II, the United States essentially governed a portion of Germany (other sections of the defeated nations were controlled by the British, French, and Soviets) and all of Japan. These occupations had as their stated purposes the 'reconstruction' of formerly fascist states 'on a democratic basis.' Essential to the project, Eisenhower and MacArthur both understood, was the establishment not just of constitutional protections for a free press but of an actual free press", according to McChensey and Nichols.
Writing in 2010 they continued, "While the circulation of U.S. newspapers has dropped more than 15 percent in the last decade, it has slipped just 3.2 percent [in Japan]. Japan's five biggest dailies have kept nearly all their readers. ... [Moreover,] Megumi Tomita, director of management and circulation at the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association [said], 'We haven't seen any decrease in the number of journalists.'"
Other US interventions in foreign governments have been less successful from almost any perspective. As the Arab Spring in Syria was evolving from nonviolence to the current civil war, Obama "asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much."
We need serious research into the impact of the media on democracy and economic development. This research should consider the history of other US efforts at regime change. This research would consider the levels of public subsidies and the independence of the media from both "official and commercial propaganda and censorship," in the words of McChensey and Nichols cited above. If the empirical results match our naive perceptions, we might find a substantial contribution of a free press to democratization and through that to literacy and economic development.
We next consider the US Postal Service Act of 1792 and proposals for media reform.
Media diversity early in US history
The leaders who won the American Revolution were frustrated and concerned with the censorship they experienced from King George III's postal service. They understood that their new experiment in republican government would not survive without an educated electorate informed by a diversity of newspapers.
Therefore, in the US Postal Service Act of 1792 they provided postal subsidies, so a publisher could mail a newspaper to a subscriber for a penny up to 100 miles away and 1.5 cents over 100 miles. Printers could send their newspapers to other newspaper publishers for free. Postage for letters, by contrast, cost between 6 and 25 cents depending on distance.
This may have been one of the most important pieces of legislation enacted in US history: It likely encouraged literacy and reduced political corruption. Both of these probably contributed to the relatively high rates of economic growth that the US has enjoyed since. Many research reports have claimed that increasing education, especially the quality of education, increases economic growth.
Regarding corruption, in 1914 shortly before Louis Brandeis was selected to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States (in 1916), he famously wrote, "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."
Media experts McChesney and Nichols wrote, “If the United States government subsidized journalism in the second decade of the twenty-first century as a percentage of the GDP to the same extent it did in the first half of the nineteenth century, it would spend in the area of $35 billion annually.” That's 0.2 percent of GDP and just over US$100 per person per year.
How can we redirect this to improve the quality and responsiveness of our democracy?
Increasing media options
There are several proposals to involve individual citizens in deciding how to distribute subsidies for investigative journalism. The distribution decisions could be achieved with a tax rebate system or Internet news vouchers or by counting appropriate Internet clicks. With tax rebates or Internet news vouchers each person could give their ~$100 to one organization or distribute it in unequal amounts to several organizations.
Some proposals would restrict the recipients of these funds to non-commercial investigative journalism organizations with transparent funding that put everything they produce on the web in the public domain.
The total would be roughly 0.2 percent of GDP. That's just over US$100 per year or $2 per week per person. These options are discussed further in the Wikiversity article on media and corruption.
To repeat the question opening this essay, have we been conned by Donald Trump? The answer was given indirectly by the CEO of CBS mentioned above: "The money's rolling in, and this is fun." If Trump had been exposed earlier, the mainstream commercial media would likely have lost audience and profitability.
It's possible to have much better media than what the US has today. This is shown by the experience of the US from (a) the Postal Service Act of 1792 and (b) building democratic traditions in Germany and Japan after World War II.
- McChesney, Robert W.; Nichols, John (2010), The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again, Nation Books, pp. 141--154, ISBN 9781568586052.
- McChesney, Robert W.; Nichols, John (2016), People get ready: the fight against a jobless economy and a citizenless democracy, Nation Books, p. 167, ISBN 978-1-56858-522-2
- Lindsey Graham: The Republican Party has been CONNED by Trump and I just can’t support him, The Right Scoop, 2016-05-06, retrieved 2016-10-11
- "Pages From Donald Trump's 1995 Income Tax Records", The New York Times, 2016-10-01, retrieved 2016-10-11
- Collins, Eliza (2016-02-29), Les Moonves: Trump's run is 'damn good for CBS', Politico, retrieved 2016-10-06
- Statistics and facts about the Advertising Industry in the United States, Statistica: The statistics portal, retrieved 2016-10-09
- Media executives have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders to conceal violations of the law by a major star unless their company would likely suffer greater losses from attempts at covering up the problems.
- John Nichols; Robert Waterman McChesney (2013), Dollarocracy: How Billionaires Are Buying Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It, Nation Books, ISBN 978-1-56858-711-0
- In countries with substantial state-owned media, progress can be similarly blocked when a plausible countermeasure threatens someone with power over the funding of the media. For example, the 2003 Hutton Inquiry concluded that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had erred in disseminating reports claiming that British officials had 'sexed up' reports of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to obtain public support for British participation in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan along with BBC's chairman Gavyn Davies, and director-general Greg Dyke. They were effectively vindicated by the publication 6 July 2016 of the Iraq Inquiry, which concluded 'the process of identifying the legal basis was "far from satisfactory", and that a war in 2003 was unnecessary.'
- Daniel Kahneman (25 October 2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4299-6935-2. Retrieved 8 April 2012.
- McChesney and Nichols (2010, p. 243)
- McChesney and Nichols (2010, p. 252)
- Remnick, David (January 27, 2014). "Annals of the Presidency: Going the distance -- On and off the road with Barack Obama". New Yorker. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
- Mazzetti, Mark (2014-10-04). "C.I.A. Study of Covert Aid Fueled Skepticism About Helping Syrian Rebels". New York Times. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
- As of 2016-10-14, Wikipedia has articles on United States involvement in regime change, History of the Central Intelligence Agency, and United States support of Authoritarian regimes. These cite other articles on individual interventions, including several cases where the US Central Intelligence Agency successfully organized coups that destroyed democracy. In this we should consider cases where elections were canceled with the support of the US. For example, the US supported a 1952 military coup by Fulgencio Batista that canceled elections scheduled for that year. Fidel Castro was running for a seat in the Cuban House of Representatives in those elections, and petitions the courts to have the coup declared illegal. When the courts sided with Batista, Castro turned to armed revolution. A crudely similar story played out in Vietnam: By 1954 US President Eisenhower had been advised that the Communist Ho Chi Minh would get 80 percent of the popular vote in free and fair elections scheduled for 1956; see Eisenhower, Dwight David (1963), "XIV. Chaos in Indochina", The White House Years: Mandate for Change, Doubleday. This was the height of the McCarthy era in the US, and it likely would have created difficulties with Eisenhower's 1956 reelection campaign. To prevent this from happening Eisenhower moved behind the scenes to get Ngo Dinh Diem appointed as head of state in South Vietnam, and supported him in making sure that Communist were not allowed to compete in elections held that year.
- Historian, United States Postal Service (June 2010). "Postage Rates for Periodicals: A Narrative History". usps.com. United States Postal Service. Retrieved 2016-10-09.
- Hanushek, Eric A.; Jamison, Dean T.; Jamison, Eliot A.; Woessmann, Ludger (Spring 2008). "Education and Economic Growth: It's not just going to school, but learning something while there that matters". Education Next 8 (2): 62--70. http://educationnext.org/education-and-economic-growth/. Retrieved 2016-10-13.
- This research is somewhat controversial, at least with people in positions of power who might be threatened by an excess of democracy.
- McChesney and Nichols (2016, p. 167)