Friday, March 14, 2008

The media’s taste in politics

Chris blames the mainstream media for much of the poor quality of political debate:

[Journalists] present doubt and disagreement as indecisiveness, incompetence and splits - not as what they are, which is a mature acknowledgement of the complexity of human affairs.

[The mainstream media] acts as a filter, kicking out of politics good intelligent people… whilst promoting vacuous managerialists who can play by the rules.
In this sense, the MSM acts in the opposite way to markets. The great virtue of markets is that they (sometimes) weed out idiots and incompetents; firms who sell over-priced crap eventually go bust.
But thanks to the MSM, the opposite happens in politics; it's those who offer quality who get booted out.

At first, I agreed with this; then I realised that there’s a sad perspective from which it’s wrong.

The situation is like a market: the product is political statements, the producers are politicians, and the consumers are not the general public but the large media organisations.

Of course, the general public do consume political statements, but only in the sense that we also consume corn: overwhelmingly, the corn we consume is not unadulterated stuff from the farmers but heavily processed and prepared corn in foodstuffs mixed with other ingredients by large food companies, who themselves are the direct consumers of the raw corn from farms.

A few of us go to political meetings to hear politicians for ourselves, or look at party websites to read their statements directly, but for the most part we consume them processed, edited and contextualised (i.e. spun) in media reports. These few big MSM organisations are the main target market for political statements: they operate an oligopsony, dominating consumption.

If this is true, we should expect that the types of political statement produced by the supplier come to reflect the tastes of the MSM; if the big organisations have similar tastes in this respect, we should expect the produce to converge in quality; if these tastes are for the simplistic, the dramatic, the brash and the base, then that’s the sort of political statement we should expect to see.

You reckon?


tim f said...

Surely the media are the distributors? Otherwise you could use the same logic to claim that record labels are the consumers of musicians' products.

Tom Freeman said...

I don’t think so, Tim – it’s not as if they just provide us with the information raw. They take the speeches or whatever and mix them in with other things to create their own product for the public. In the case of musicians and producers, they work much more closely together as partners. Imagine Gordon Brown and the Telegraph’s political editor sitting down to jointly produce a report on some government initiative…

There’s another point you might make: politicians may be catering to the media’s tastes, but surely the media are catering to our tastes – so doesn’t it carry through?

This is partly true, but when you have the tastes of millions of the public filtered through a few large organisations, you’re going to lose a hell of a lot of variation. Also, I’m pretty sure that most consumers of news aren’t primarily interested in politics – they’re tuning in or buying the paper out of more general interest. So that gives the editors more scope for distortion in this area, making political reporting more like celeb gossip or human interest stories, which draw more punters.

When you buy a CD or a download, by contrast, you’re quite specifically interested in that artist or group. So the structure of tbat market caters far more easily to a range of individual tastes. (Although all this modern music sounds the same rant rant rant...)