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:

In theory, there ought to be a gap between one’s substantive position on abortion, or capital punishment, or gun control, or flag burning, or campaign spending, and what the Constitution says about these things, which would create the possibility of painful tensions – “I support abortion, but must concede that the Constitution contains no right to abortion”; “I support unlimited campaign spending by corporations, but deny that the Constitution carves out such a right.” The fact that one so rarely encounters partisans of issues tormented by constitutional barriers to their side prevailing indicates that in practice we are reluctant to acknowledge the distinction between substantive values and legal process – a depressing sign of how powerful motivated reasoning is. (A good test of our intellectual honesty is how often we experience this kind of torment.)

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but also believe that such action is inconsistent with the Constitution, and therefore the Second Amendment should be repealed in order to permit such laws.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.