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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"When You Really Go after Each Other, We Get a Spike."

Robert Reich is worried about "gladiator politics":

The Real Source of Gladiator Politics, by Robert Reich: I was on television recently, debating a conservative. ... During a commercial break, the producer spoke into my earpiece. "A bit more energy," he said. ... "Rip into him. Only three minutes in the next segment and we want to make the most of it."

John McCain says he's intent on waging a respectful and civil presidential campaign. Barack Obama says the same. Is it possible...?

We've grown so accustomed to gutter politics we've even turned it into verbs -- "to bork" (to impugn one's opponent's character), "to swiftboat" (to lie about a critical fact in one's opponent's biography), and, perhaps, "to reverend wright" (to create the impression that one's opponent shares a set of beliefs with a person he has associated with).

All three require a relentless attack that feeds on itself. Unproven allegations are repeated so often that the attack itself becomes news, as does the manner in which the target responds, after which point the question becomes whether the attack has hurt its target and, if so, whether the damage is fatal. The target is then watched for any signs of personal distress, defensiveness, or anger. Can the target take it? Will the target recant, backtrack, cover up, apologize, reveal more, disassociate himself, go on a counter-attack? What does the target's response tell us about his or her character? The story then shifts to the media -- are they continuing to report it? Are they being responsible in doing so? And after this self-referential orgy, the story moves to the polls -- is the public losing confidence in the candidate? In the days or weeks this goes on, the target has no opportunity to talk about anything other than the attack, and the public hears about nothing else, so the target’s polls may fall, which creates the final story: Can the target ever come back?

Character assassination, outright lies, and guilt by association are hardly new to American politics. Aaron Burr, New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, Senator Joe McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover were avid practitioners. But the modern media, coupled more recently with the blogosphere and YouTube, have made these kinds of attacks even more potent. Political consultants -- those snakelike creatures who slither through the swamps and sinkholes of politics -- have turned all three into low-brow but highly lucrative art forms, cynically valued by the media for their effectiveness. And so-called “527’s -- the headless and mysterious bodies that grow in the interstices of our election laws -- have become their launching pads. In the logic of this underworld, "going negative" is no longer considered a campaign option; it is a necessity. ...

So what are the odds that McCain and Obama will make an historic break with this sordid tradition...? Each man may sincerely wish to do so. Both have based their candidacies, to some extent, on creating a new politics that rejects the gutter-ball tactics of the old. ... Each is distancing himself from his party’s mud-slinging... Mostly, though, the public is fed up with the rancor -- isn't it?

I asked the producer who was talking into my earpiece why I had to rip into my opponent. "We see viewership minute by minute," he said, hurriedly (the commercial break was about over). "When you really go after each other, we get a spike."

It's the spike I'm worried about. I chose not to rip into my opponent but, then again, I'm not running for president. The public says it's tired of gladiator politics. But take a closer look. Political ripping and slashing is is one of America's favorite spectator sports. And the media that informs us about the candidates, and the advertisers who dictate the terms by which they do so, have data to prove it.

But what makes one attack resonate over another? Attacks occur every day, some capture our attention and others don't. Why is that? I really don't understand what captures the herds attention. Does the media simply mirror our desires as Reich implies, or does the media decide for itself what to hype? Is it because control of the media is concentrated in just a few hands allowing certain issues to be trumped up until they become the news? Is more competition the answer?:

Obama --Let's Challenge the Murdochization of Our Media, by Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation: In a speech Sunday, Barack Obama said he would pursue a vigorous antitrust policy if he becomes U.S. president and singled out the media industry as one area where government regulators would need to be watchful as consolidation increases.

His statement signals a key opening for media and democracy reformers and the movement they have spawned in this last decade...

Obama's speech comes on the heels of a sweet victory: Senator Byron Dorgan's successful push back against the Republican-dominated FCC's efforts to repeal the cross-ownership rule --which would allow media oligarchs like Murdoch to gobble up more outlets in one city. Dorgan's Senate resolution --which would work to ban a single owner from controlling a tv station and a newspaper in the same market--has 25 co-sponsors and corresponding legislation has been introduced in the the House.

Obama is tapping into the powerful and passionate view shared by millions of Americans that our current hyper-consolidated media landscape--with 90% of it controlled by some six corporations- is a disservice to a democracy which demands diverse voices and views.

I wish it was as simple as adding competition. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to see less concentration in this industry, that's needed, I'm just no sure that we can blame the "gladiator politics" problem on lack of effective competition. If anything, it probably comes from competition.

I do think it is a market failure, but it's an incentive compatibility problem, not a problem with competition. What entertains people, what captures their eyes and ears, may not be what's best for them as voters. Because their votes are unlikely to make a difference, given a choice between watching an entertaining exchange, or watching something less entertaining but more informative in terms of the issues that matter in the election, they'll choose the entertainment. So the maximization of profit does not result in the maximization of informed voters.

Sometimes bloggers like to think they are different, but they also play the "monitor the viewership and see what generates spikes" game (checked your site meter lately?). Snarky, shrill, combative "gladiator politics" tend to get the most play among the brand-name blogs just as it does in more mainstream media outlets. Of course the trick is to get both, someone with the talent to be entertaining but also knowledgeable on the issues they are discussing, but you get the sense that when push comes to shove, entertainment does not always take a back seat to news in blogland. I don't mean to equate the blogs and traditional media on every level, that would be silly, but in this respect there are common features. In both cases, the incentive to provide entertainment is strong and as much as we would like journalists to maintain certain standards of professionalism, the economic incentives work against them and in the long-run, left unchecked, the market usually wins.

So what is the answer? If it were a firm trying to maximize profits, I'd recommend a change in the rules or structure that brings incentives into alignment, e.g. to overcome problems where a manager's personal interests are different from what's best for the firm. For a firm, the goal is known and measurable, it's to maximize profit, so the changes can be gauged against this standard. But if we intervene on behalf of voters, who decides what is in their best interests, what information should get more or less attention, what subjects should be covered, etc.? How do we decide what it means to be informed, and even if we know, how do we measure it to see if our policies are effective? I'm not sure I know how to answer that. If we know the goal, we can look for policies that get us there, but if the goal is vague, how do we determine policy, how do we institute changes that bring the profit motive in line with the motive of having optimally informed voters go to the polls? Maybe you have the answer?

    Posted by on Tuesday, May 20, 2008 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Market Failure, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (60)


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