Lovecraft, Sutter, and the Media
By Bryan Caplan
The master of horror is of course not Stephen King, but H.P. Lovecraft. (My personal favorite is “The Dunwich Horror”). Lovecraft lived a life of aristocratic penury, and he wasn’t too happy about it: “He who strives to produce salable fiction is lost as an artist, for the conditions of American life have made art impossible in the popular professional field.” (“The Professional Incubus”)
But did he blame the Big Bad Media Trust of 1920 for his wretched standard of living? Not on your life:
Editors and publishers are not to blame. They cater to their public, and would suffer shipwreck if they did not… If any magazine sought and used artistically original types of fiction, it would lose its readers almost to a man. Half the people wouldn’t understand what the tales were about, and the other half would find the characters unsympathetic… (ibid)
Lovecraft’s words are current, for they cut against popular mockery of “the liberal media.” If the public opposes liberalism, won’t market forces impel the media to oppose it too?
The easy way out is to deny that the media is competitive. But for economists like me, who scoff at the notion that you need lots of firms to get competitive outcomes, that escape route is closed.
What are the alternative positions? Economist Daniel Sutter of the University of Oklahoma is, in my view, thinking harder and clearer about the economics of media bias than anyone else out there. I’ve read the draft of his book on the subject, and it’s excellent. And while Sutter hesitates to give The True Answer, I won’t. Ready?
Liberal media bias is real, and on certain topics is substantial. It persists under competition because (a) Most viewers value entertainment value over ideological compatibility; (b) The best (i.e. most entertaining) journalists just happen to be unusually liberal, a self-reinforcing situation since non-liberals don’t want to be occupational pariahs; and (c) Journalists are willing to work for a little less money in order to inject their values into their work.
Consider the case of John Stossel. He’s vastly more libertarian than his typical viewer. How does he stay on the air? (a) Millions of people who don’t want to legalize drugs love his personality; (b) Stossel happens to be very libertarian, and arguably likes being a pariah; (c) He was and is willing to risk his career to promote his ideology. (Admittedly, he is probably richer now than he would be if he were just another liberal anchorman. But he’s been lucky, too!)
Bottom line: If you want to end liberal media bias, trust-busting won’t work. What we need is human cloning. A few thousand John Stossels ought to do the trick.