[First published on skepolitical.com on 6/11/12]
Update/retraction: I jumped the gun on some of the assumptions I made in the following post. Jay Tomlinson of the Best of the Left podcast informs me that the main entities behind Our Blue Media are actually for-profit. This should have occurred to me, since non-profits have political speech restrictions. Clearly, I hadn’t considered this carefully enough. Some of this post suggests that “for-profit” can be seen as a proxy for “unreliable due to a conflict of interest.” That argument is now clearly problematic in light of this new information. I have indicated the most egregiously wrong section with a strikethrough. Not sure what else to say, except “I regret the error.”
The “hostile media effect” is a cognitive bias that causes people on either end of any spectrum of belief to think that the media is biased against them. It helps to keep this effect in mind when criticizing the media, which I’m about to do.
As we all know, the importance of the media to a functioning democracy was recognized by our founding fathers and enshrined in the first amendment’s guarantee of press freedom. The media’s essential role in a democracy it is to shine light on the workings of our government and other powerful factions and to demand transparency. Funding the investigative reporting necessary to fulfill this venerated duty is rather expensive, but the corporate media would happily make the investment if we as media consumers were willing to pay for enough for it. Unfortunately, it turns out most Americans would rather learn about the social lives of celebrities than the rather depressing details of the inner workings of congress. The corporate media makes sure the supply of each type of story meets the relative demands.
Okay, so that’s a little unfair. Some corporate media entities really do depend on their reputations as respectable contributors to our democracy’s “fourth estate.” The New York Times, for example, is able to stay afloat without dabbling too shamefully in voyeurism. However, even this most respected newspaper has not exactly been thriving financially. This, despite not even remaining fully committed to their “fourth estate” duty to turn their critical eye on the authorities. Other media corporations, such as Fox News and The Huffington Post, have implicitly rejected the idea that they have any such societal duty, and these are the most popular media sources of their kinds. USA Today is America’s most popular newspaper. (The relatively respectable The Wall Street Journal is not far behind, though.) What we see here is a lack of interest on the part of society for the type of content that is so important to society’s health. What is to be done?
On a personal level, my solution has been to turn to the non-profit “New Media.” It turns out that there do exist entities dedicated to fulfilling the democratic duties of a free press — they are just poorly funded and unpopular. My media consumption does not really involve reading these primary sites. Mostly, I get my news after it’s filtered through meta-journalists such as Tom Ashbrook, Megan McArdle, Alison Kilkenny, Jay Tomlinson, Glenn Greenwald, or Amy Goodman. It doesn’t really matter who — what matters is that they are focused on the most important stories.
[See retraction.] With the exception of McArdle (who I think is on hiatus, anyway) and Greenwald, these journalists all work for non-profits. Unlike for-profit media corporations, non-profits don’t suffer from an explicit profit motive interfering with their civic duty to shine light on government, but their success still depends on the willingness of their readers, listeners, and viewers to donate, which means that there is still an incentive to cover popular topics rather than important ones. As I say in almost every post, I think the only long-run solution is to change the culture — in this case, change it so that the important stories are the most popular stories. Until then, the best we can do is seek out those who are doing the best work and donate.
Dan Carlin likes to point out that every economist and businessman he talked to about his business model — giving away his content for free and then asking for donations — told him it had no chance of working. I don’t quite understand the pessimism; after all, isn’t this almost exactly how NPR gets most of its funding? In any case, the fact is that people do donate. I say: the more the better. This is why I’m rather excited about a new project called “Our Blue Media,” started by Jay Tomlinson and others. (I donated to the fund to create it.) Ideally, it would be focused more generally on important media rather than specifically “progressive” media, but perhaps that is a false distinction. I especially wish they had avoided the use of the word “blue,” which I consider far too indicative of support for the Democratic Party, which has lost my support after humiliating me with broken promises. In any case, their stated objective is one that I think is quite exciting and could really benefit from some creativity and funding: improving the process by which New Media sources are funded.
Who knows, perhaps before long you’ll even be donating to this blog through Our Blue Media. Until then, please enjoy your freeloading. (185)