Monday, February 26, 2007

Our Distracted Media

James Joyner at Outside the Beltway has a very thoughtful post, "The News Business is a Business," in which he writes:

Austin Cline laments the fact that the news media is giving an “undeservedly large amount of attention” to the death of Anna Nichole Smith and the ensuing legal wrangling and to trivial matters such as Britney Spears’ decision to shave her head. While our politics are virtually 180 degrees apart, we agree on the relative merits of these stories.

The bottom line, though, is that the business of journalism is business. That for-profit businesses lead with the news that they believe, correctly it turns out, that their audience is most interested in should hardly be surprising. That’s how they sell advertising, keep and expand their audience, and ensure their employees can feed their families and pay their mortgages. The fact that “corporations are now pretty much in control of the network news divisions” is nothing new. Further, General Electric and Time Warner are more able to absorb losses than would be a small group of private owners.

More importantly, these fluffy stories pay for the stuff Cline and I find interesting. There’s hardly a dearth of good reporting on matters of war, international affairs, and domestic public policy. Indeed, there’s more of it than most of us can keep up with.

I think that's a pretty reasonable analysis of what's going on, including the appeal to a tradeoff at the end that naturally resonates with an economist. But I think there is something more to it. Even if there is "no dearth of good reporting" (a point on which I do not agree), so-called news organizations are drowning it out with their pre-occupation with non-newsworthy events. We cannot find the signal amidst the noise.

The news media help set a national agenda in this country for topics of broad conversation. Being on that agenda increases the amount of discussion in the public. Being off the agenda decreases the amount of discussion. More discussion leads to more information being made public.

When I read this post at OTB, I found myself thinking back to the summer of 2001, when, with the benefit of hindsight, the news media might have been usefully employed in aggregating up the disparate pieces of information that led to 9/11. Instead, what were the big stories that summer? The ones I remember most were the mania associated with the TV show "Survivor" and, even more so, the disappearance of Chandra Levy. The question is not so much what these so-called news entities were showing, it's what they were not showing because they were showing this other stuff.

The preoccupation with Chandra Levy's disappearance that summer was so consuming for these so-called news organizations that some people have theorized that her disappearance must have been related to 9/11. Want to convince yourself? Do a Google search for "Chandra Levy." As of this writing, the top five hits are the entry in Wikipedia, two stories at about her body being found, and then these two from conspiracy theorists.

There is another problem. The news business is a business, to be sure, but it is supposed to be a serious business. These sagas of missing or crazy people just don't rise to the level of seriousness required of a news organization. It is beneath them, and they should recognize it as such. And people notice this lack of seriousness--they begin to impart that lack of seriousness to the whole brand, even when something big happens and we really then do need a serious news organization. And we are all worse off for it.


Tom said...

Andrew, I'm struck by a similar chord running between your last 2 posts...both involve a sense that people are unwilling to sacrifice their own welfare for a greater public good.

Interestingly, you're clearly in favor of evacuating public schools so that people can make more "choices" whereas in the second case it's clearly bad that people make choices (hoping to see a picture of Anna Nicole) that crowd out the public good. I see the 2 as closely related...and we need more mature adults calling on Americans to leave behind some of their 'choices' (not "rights") in favor of better public accommodations.

Andrew Samwick said...

I am not in favor of evacuating public schools. For 30 years I have seen the worst schools poorly serve the children most in need of a good education. I hold educational bureaucracies in large part responsible for this. If the bureaucracy will not hold itself accountable, alternatives providing more accountability should be encouraged, not suppressed.

In the case of the media, I simply refuse to accord these so-called news organizations the respect that I would accord them if they pursued a mission more in keeping with the public good. And I particularly regret that they have not fought harder to stay true to that mission, which conventional wisdom holds that they did decades ago.

Tom said...

The thing is, school choice doesn't affect only bad schools. It would be hard to write a law that treated Vermont differently, say, from Texas (please see No Child Left Behind as a perfect example) -- all schools are covered, no matter whether it's practical or not.

Many people who live in small Vermont towns hold grudges or have "theories of education" that make them unhappy with their public school. I assume this was true 40 years ago, as well. They will choose on criteria that are well away from school achievement, and aimed more at a fake sense of self-esteem.

The first affect would be to harm the schools where people leave, as a loss of one or two students per class cannot result in any expense savings -- a teacher can teach 17 or 15, but not 30. But soon, the "accepting" school will be harmed, with class sizes that will then make it hard for them to continue the success they formerly had.

School choice laws would be a huge driver of "uninteded consequences" as well. For example, as a school board, we would have to allocate money for advertising and promotion, both positive for our school and negative for the surrounding the survival of our school will be our #1 priority. There's 3-6% of our budget we currently don't spend. It would, for example, be simple for a school to offer a rebate for people who switch...if we get $10k, and marginal cost is around $1k, it makes sense for us to offer a kickback, no? (We would not be so obvious...but there are ways)

I fully agree that schools that fail for 30 years should be changed. We have success models all over the country that should be emulated. But school choice, whether between public schools or including private schools, is a blunt instrument with many unintended consequences. How about we try the simple way first: vote the clowns out?

Andrew Samwick said...

If I disagree with both my local school board and with my fellow constituents, then I'm stuck in a system that doesn't serve me well with no recourse except to move or pay property taxes to support the public school and tuition at some other place.

Even if many of us disagree with our local school board, the presumption that there is only one public school in an area gives market power to the providers that can be misused. This is one of the reasons why schools that do a poor job for decades are still around, despite the availability of successful models that could be emulated.

I don't believe that a larger federal role in education necessarily serves me well--it may be serving those in the worst school districts better, but not in a district like Hanover/Dresden that's actually doing a pretty good job.

In my town, there are about 100 students per grade in the public schools. I don't think economies of scale are so important that we couldn't have four separate schools that served about a quarter of that number. And I would certainly be willing to pay more in tuition/property taxes to get more of what I want in my kids' educational experience.