One of the few things that most Americans agree about today is that there are serious problems with the current news-media environment. Conservatives have spent decades denouncing the “liberal media,” labeling it a thinly veiled arm of the Democratic Party and, recently, of Big Pharma. Meanwhile, Progressives seem to blame billionaire-created Fox News for just about every problem facing America.
Even the establishment media folks are fretting over their colleagues’ coverage of the Trump indictments and the 2024 election more broadly—wrestling with the fact that the candidate they hate is so good for their business.
All of these criticisms may appear to be unique. But really, they’re simply variations of the same basic argument. That the media is meant to play an important role in our political process but a blind scramble for profits has corrupted journalism and left it unable to serve its higher purpose. In truth, this is exactly backwards. The problems with today’s media stem from politics, not profits.
At its core, journalism is a service where people gather information about recent or ongoing events and communicate that information to those interested. There are plenty of reasons why people would pay for this service. And, importantly, the goals of news consumers can and do vary. Maybe they want news about the area they live in or a specific cause they care about. Perhaps they’re trying to keep up with developments directly impacting their job. Or maybe they enjoy learning about something or keeping up with some celebrity or team.
Plenty of variety exists, but we can also identify a dichotomy of news consumers. On one hand are people who need specific information to help them make a decision. Imagine a father monitoring a storm, trying to determine if he needs to move his family into the tornado shelter. Or imagine an executive following a foreign coup to decide whether she needs to pull nearby employees out of a potentially dangerous situation.
On the other hand are people who consume news for entertainment or educational purposes. Imagine someone who wants to kick his feet up after work and hear his favorite sports pundit analyze the NBA draft results or learn the latest drama about some celebrity couple. One group needs accurate information to weigh a serious and potentially costly decision. The other wants to lean into its tribalist or gossipy tendencies for fun from the comforts of the living room. Both types of news consumers can have their unique needs met on the market.
But when politics enters the picture, it conflates these two demographics in the worst way. From a young age, we’re taught that we live in a democracy. That “we” as voters determine what the government does and that we have an obligation to stay informed on what the government is doing because we’re the ones steering the ship. Because good citizens are knowledgeable about banking mechanics, climate science, immigration trends, the tribal dynamics of eastern Afghanistan, and more. In other words, good citizens follow the news.
Even if this were a desirable ideal—it isn’t—the political process can never incentivize the careful, deliberative news consumption we’d see from the father monitoring a dangerous storm or the executive weighing whether to evacuate employees. At most, a small handful of individuals are involved in these situations. And because the father and the executive are both responsible for the safety of people they care about—and a company’s financial health, in the case of the executive—they will both be very aware of the harm of choosing wrong. Also, importantly, it will likely be clear to them whether they chose wrong after the fact.
Both voters and the governments they supposedly control are protected from these incentives and feedback mechanisms. Even on the hyper-local scale, your vote’s impact on political decisions is negligible. That lowers the stakes of potentially making a wrong decision. Add to that that you’re probably voting for a politician who will make many decisions. And because government is institutionally shielded from economic losses, the feedback on whether the correct course of action was taken is clouded too. And remember, this is all on the local level. Scale up to the state or national level, and these traits are compounded to the point of absurdity.
Is it any surprise, then, that voters with little to no incentive to make sure they’re right, and who are also protected from feedback when they’re wrong, fall into the same media habits as those who consume sports and entertainment news? If you’re supposed to follow this stuff, especially before elections, why not consume the more entertaining options? What’s the downside? And what’s more entertaining than the tribalistic intellectual junk food we see today? It feels good to be told you’re right and that the people you disagree with are stupid.
Not that tribalistic intellectual junk food is a problem in itself. Most sports media is structured this way. It only becomes dangerous when it gets mixed with real-world government policies. Because remember, politics is about using violence to force people to act in ways they don’t want to. It’s deadly serious stuff that causes a lot of misery, poverty, and death around the world.
Politics, not economics, are at the root of the problem with the media. The market is good at getting consumers what they want. This does not absolve the establishment media or the political class. They benefit greatly from this politicized media environment at our expense, as others have made clear. But politics warp people’s media consumption, drive them to consume content that confirms their biases on crucially important topics that are none of their business, encourage them to push those poor decisions into the real world at gunpoint, and shield them from the direct costs of being wrong. Why would we ever expect that to go well?