Inconvenient View, Free Press Edition
Scott Sumner recently posted on the importance of holding views that are inconvenient to your larger beliefs. I agree – it’s important for good intellectual hygiene to be aware of these things. In his excellent book Governing Least: A New England Libertarianism, Dan Moller makes a similar point, using constitutional law as a framing device:
With only slight exaggeration, I can say that when Obamacare was being challenged in the Supreme Court, knowing someone’s opinion on whether government should be more or less involved in health care predicted their belief about the constitutionality of Obamacare with a 100% success rate. Similarly, if I know someone believes the impact of private gun ownership is negative, I can make money all day long betting on what their view is about the meaning of the Second Amendment. In theory, it should be possible for someone to hold the belief that widespread gun ownership is bad, and should be curtailed by government, but also believe that such action is inconsistent with the Constitution, and therefore the Second Amendment should be repealed in order to permit such laws. In practice, I’ve had fewer encounters with such a person than I have with Bigfoot (if a vivid dream during a bout of sleep paralysis involving Bigfoot in your room counts as an encounter, anyway). What a remarkable coincidence that what the Constitution allows or forbids seems to always perfectly line up with what the advocate wants to permit or ban!
But this post isn’t just here for me to make fun of motivated reasoning (or at least not just for that reason). I wanted to talk about a view I hold which is very inconvenient for me but, unfortunately, seems to be true. Much of what I find to be dysfunctional about the news media environment in America is being driven by market incentives.
If I had to sum up my reasoning in a single soundbite, it would be something like this. The same incentives that led to the creation of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week also led to the news media’s Summer of the Shark.
The Discovery Channel airs Shark Week because doing so is a proven way to draw ratings. And the mainstream media hypes up rare but sensational events like shark attacks for the same reason – it’s an effective way to fish for ratings (no, I will not apologize for that pun). Media is, at bottom, a business – it makes its money by getting clicks, shares, views, selling subscriptions, and so forth. If there is a conflict between “produce content that provides a well-researched, nuanced, and thoughtful analysis of an important issue” and “produce content designed to get as many views as possible,” most news organizations have every incentive to go for the latter over the former. Like most businesses, success depends on producing something your customers wish to consume. Normally, that’s a great thing! But if most people want insubstantial piffle that flatters their existing political biases and confirms everything they already believe, media organizations that are most effective at providing that will get the most views, the most clicks, the most shares, and the most subscriptions.
I don’t like this situation. I am a fan of the market mechanism and incentives, and I also think a free press is important. But I can’t deny that much of the sensationalism, the hype, and the echo chamber creation we see makes sense as a rational response to market incentives. And I don’t have a great solution for this either – as bad as I think things are, I believe attempting to counter it with government control of the news would be even worse. The best I can do is vaguely gesture at the need for a cultural, bottom-up solution where political loyalties are de-emphasized and viewed as less important, but that’s a pretty thin reed. Personally, I’d love to be convinced I’m all wrong about this, because I find this view very inconvenient – but at the same time, I’m aware that the fact that I want to be talked out of this belief probably makes me more susceptible to accepting bad arguments against it. As Richard Feynman once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Still, by all means, try to convince me in the comments I’m wrong.
Mar 23 2023 at 7:14pm
I’m not going to be the one to offer arguments against on the news, I think you’re right. Like you, I’m not going to argue for government provided news, the incentives on the surface seem even worse. But, worth pointing out that, at least on television, PBS News Hour and the BBC provide news that feels heads and shoulders above the others (although that might just be an aesthetic preference of mine for news that feels calm and collected and not sensationalistic over actual content differences)
Mar 23 2023 at 7:33pm
Abortion is a good example. FWIW, I favor making abortion legal, but also believe that abortion bans are constitutional. In other words, I think Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided.
Mar 24 2023 at 12:07pm
In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.
Mar 24 2023 at 2:20pm
The second amendment is an interesting issue for me. I used to be in favor of gun control. I have spent enough time around libertarians, and Tom Palmer in particular, to become more of an agnostic on it. Even when I favored gun control, though, I always thought the second amendment was pretty clear. For the US, my suggestion was we needed another amendment to cancel the 2nd.
On the media issue, if you had asked me 15 years ago, I would have said we needed more diversification. Now, with a plethora of youtube influencers and podcasters and blogs and substacks and social media and medium and twitter, we have it. The results have not be entirely pretty. The diversification has allowed crackpots with extreme viewpoints to attract audiences, fueling polarization. Viewing the landscape that way is also an inconvenient view, so would love to be convinced otherwise. Of course, the presence of econlib is a counter-point. 🙂
Thomas Lee Hutcheson
Mar 24 2023 at 6:41pm
I think _unregistered_ gun ownership (and carrying them around in public) is bad and do not think the 2 Amendment guarantees either right. It arguably does protect an individual right to ownership.
Mar 25 2023 at 7:30am
There is no reason why one’s subjective beliefs cannot be consistent with the drive to make money by promoting those beliefs. There is is also no reason why one’s monetary or political self interest can have nothing to do with whether one even has beliefs.
The concept of a constitution is critical for a well functioning political society——even if there is great disagreement as to what the constitution actually means under defined conditions.
The most important feature of a constitution is the will of the people to “obey” it—-including the methods for changing it——especially if they disagree with it.
The recent freak out about abortion (it’s just easy to uses abortion as an example) did not prohibit or out law abortion ——-for all practical purposes. I find it interesting how little people care about the details of how one can obtain one—as long as they can.
Does it matter if a biological male believes they are a biological female? (I am not sure the question even makes sense——-as the definitions have become so vague.)
My main point is I think we care less about such ideas than we think we do. Just stare at the sky for a few days and let me know what you believe.
Mar 25 2023 at 12:43pm
A cautious defence of “motivated reasoning”:
It’s possible that the causation runs the opposite way (or more likely, that there’s a logical back and forth). The people who end up being committed supporters of gun control are naturally drawn from the set of people who find the wording of the 2nd amendment hazy enough to support restrictions. Or the people who believe that rights in general can be discovered by courts naturally end up more likely to support abortion, therefore the abortion activists you meet are often drawn from this pool.
I’m not entirely convinced by my own argument, but ascribing all of the correlation to motivated reasoning may be too much.
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