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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The economics of truth, and the way we tell each other stories

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the dim, dark past when I was in grad school, I got interested in the way markets and discourse interact, and how this ties in with democratic theory.  At the time, the news media were tending to consolidate, as newspaper chains bought up other chains. Now, newspapers are on life support, if they're lucky enough to still be alive, and the cable and online news options have multiplied.

The result has been a shift in economic incentives which affect the way we arrive at truth in the public sphere.

What was once a problem of free speech with few voices has become a bewildering cacophony in which you can find someone saying just about anything about anything, and sorting out the truth can be a daunting or even impossible task. Where once a few authoritative voices had the resources to hire reporters to cover state, national and international beats, bureaus are closing and most of the voices on the internet are opinionated, but have few facts that everyone else doesn't already have.

But what is truth, anyway? It's a topic that's stumped philosophers for millenia, so instead of answering it in an ontological fashion, I'll simply suggest that truth is a word we use to describe that which we believe without question. It is a kind of knowledge that we do not feel tentative about. Whether there is such a thing as a Platonic, ideal truth or not, human knowledge will always be conditional and imperfect, subject to later revision.

In short, we tell each other stories, and the most cogent are believed. If they are demonstrably false, we might be persuaded otherwise. And of course, there are always those who are economical with the truth, leaving out things that might persuade us not to believe what they wish us to believe.

That was always the worry with a press dominated by a few chains and television news dominated by three networks. They had the resources to report well, but what if they chose to conceal the truth, by which I mean, what we would believe if we knew more?

The incentive, when there are few voices, is for the few dominating the press to insist that they are on no one's side, impartial, and, to use a much-abused term, objective.

That master of agnotology, Richard Nixon, understood that this made the press vulnerable, and set out to undermine public faith in the press. It was easy, because a source of information that is attempting to be impartial and truthful will often tell you something that you don't want to hear. And the press of the late 1960s and early 1970s was constantly telling people things that upset them, about racism in America, atrocities in Vietnam, the changing mores of a nation in turmoil.

And of course, the people most disturbed by this would be conservatives, because to be conservative is to wish to conserve things as they were. Eventually, Rupert Murdock realized that there was an opportunity here, so he hired a Republican political operative named Roger Ailes to start a network to tell conservatives what they wanted to hear. The result was a network better trusted by its viewers than any other, because it catered to their world view.

And far and wide across the internet, sites sprang up that catered to the world views of anyone who might wish to view them.

To me, one of the fascinating things here is that each of these tiny news/opinion sites must compete for a small slice of the internet audience, whereas the old city newspapers, usually one to a city toward the end of their reign, and the three network news shows, competed in a much more restricted and sedate fashion. The old media had a strong incentive to protect their oligopolies by attempting not to alienate any large segment of their audience, whereas the scrappy new media are ready to alienate a huge swath of the public if they can connect with enough of the audience to support themselves.

The change in economic incentives produces a completely different sort of discourse. Instead of wondering if we can all trust Dan Rather, we need to decide whether we wish to trust Newsmax, The Drudge Report, or Talking Points Memo.

There's little room in this world of kicking and shouting media for a Walter Cronkite. The new media wears its bias proudly, and gets part of its credibility from being on your side rather than from being objective. As a result, the notion that you can have your own opinion but not your own facts has proven not to be true.

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