how we abandoned the idea that media should serve the public interest

Yesterday the New Republic wrote about how little attention has been paid to policy in the current election. In 2008, the network news programs devoted 220 minutes to policy; this year, it’s been a mere 32 minutes.

The piece goes on to bemoan the decline of the public-interest obligation once held by broadcasters (and which still remains, in vestigial form) in exchange for their use of the airwaves, and to connect the dots between the gradual removal of those restrictions and the toxic media environment we find ourselves in today. While — I think appropriately — the article doesn’t overemphasize the causal effects, it does highlight a broader shift that was going on in the 1970s and is still echoing today.

The 1970s saw a wide, bipartisan embrace of the deregulatory spirit in many areas. The transportation industries — air, rail, trucking — were one chief target. Banking was in there. So was energy. More controversial, and less bipartisan, was the push for the removal of new social regulations—rules meant improve the environment, health, and safety. But even when it came to social regulation, both sides believed in regulatory reform. (I’ve recently written about some of this history.)

Economists were one group that made a strong case for economic deregulation — the removal of price and entry barriers in industries like transportation, energy, and finance. (For the definitive account, see Martha Derthick and Paul Quirk’s 1985 book.) Their role in airline deregulation, led by the colorful Alfred “To me, they’re all just marginal costs with wings” Kahn, is probably best known. But economists also had something to say about the Federal Communications Commission.

Perhaps the most famous — certainly one of the earliest — critics of the FCC was Ronald Coase. Coase argued in 1959 that there was no good reason, technical or economic, for the government to own the airwaves, and made the case for auctioning off the radio spectrum. He was not at all impressed with the argument that licenses should be distributed according to the “public interest”, and emphasized not only the legal ambiguity of that standard, but the fact that the FCC’s decisions reflected “a degree of inconsistency which defies generalization.”

At the time, the idea of the airwaves as a public trust was so universally accepted that Coase’s views seemed quite radical, even to other economists. When, in 1962, he extended his argument into a 200-page RAND report, coauthored with Bill Meckling and Jora Mirasian, RAND quashed it for being too incendiary. Later, recalling these events, Coase quoted an internal review of the paper: “I know of no country on the face of the globe—except for a few corrupt Latin American dictatorships—where the ‘sale’ of the spectrum could even be seriously proposed.”

By the early 1970s, though, a new consensus had emerged in economics around questions of regulation, and this consensus saw FCC demands that broadcasters behave in unprofitable ways not as acting in the “public interest,” but as a source of efficiency losses that should, at a minimum, be regarded skeptically. This aligned with increasingly loud arguments from outside of economics (as well as within) about regulatory capture, which implied that the “public interest” pursued by executive agencies would never be more than a sham, anyhow.

Eventually, this shift in mood led to a change in how the FCC regulated broadcasters. The public interest standard was loosened, and in 1981 the agency began to shift from using hearings to allocate spectrum licenses — in theory to the applicants that best served the public interest — to lottery. In 1994, it moved another step closer to Coase’s prescription, beginning to auction off the licenses — a move that stimulated a great deal of research in auction theory as well as generating substantial revenue.

The “public interest” goal, which had initially been baked into the allocation process (however poorly it was pursued in practice) became increasingly marginalized. Or perhaps it was subsumed within the assumed public interest in encouraging efficient use of the spectrum. The process echoes the one that took place in antitrust policy, in which historically significant goals other than allocative efficiency — goals that often conflicted with efficiency and even with each other — were gradually defined as being simply beyond the scope of what could be considered. (Indeed, Coase’s criticism of the inconsistency of the FCC’s behavior sounds quite similar to Justice Stewart’s scathing critique of merger law, written around the same time: “the sole consistency I can find is that under Section 7 [the merger section of the Clayton Act], the Government always wins.”)

I don’t know enough about the history of the FCC to have an informed opinion on whether the public interest standard as it stood circa 1970 was redeemable or if the agency was irreparably captured. And I definitely don’t think the decline of that standard is the main explanation for the current media environment, which goes far beyond television.

But I do think that the demise of the idea that we should expect media to have obligations beyond profit — which is bound up with the ideal, if not the practice, of the public interest standard — is a big contributor. Individual journalists — that increasingly rare breed — may remain professionally committed to an ethical code and a sense of mission that isn’t primarily about sales. But at the corporate level, any such qualms were abandoned long ago, and the journalistic wall between “church and state” — editorial and advertising — continues to crumble.

What this means is that we get political news that is just horse race coverage, and endless examination of the ugliest aspects of politics — which, unsurprisingly, encourages more of the same. Actually expecting media to pursue the “public interest”, whether through regulatory means or professional commitment, may be unrealistically idealistic. But giving up on the concept entirely seems certain to take us further down the path in which objective lies merit just as much attention as truth.

Written by epopp

November 3, 2016 at 11:39 am

Posted in economics, policy

13 Responses

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  1. If there is one lesson to be learned from this election cycle, it is that the corporate media is focused only on the bottom line. What sells makes the front page or into the broadcast. Although there are still some journalists out there they are somewhat difficult to find. Even some who could be professional journalists follow the corporate mantra and protect their jobs and for many six figure plus salaries. Public interest is hard to clearly define but as the Supreme Court ruled on pornography, I know when I see it. What we have today is the intentional quest to secure the bottom line. How sad but thank you for your article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A lot of people seem to be jumping on this Tyndall Report factoid because it feels true, without reading the methods section. So let’s take a look:

    “Issues coverage is differentiated from candidate coverage thus: it takes a public policy, outlines the societal problem that needs to be addressed, describes the candidates’ platform positions and proposed solutions, and evaluates their efficacy.

    The amount of time spent on issues coverage represents the attempt by television news to establish a political agenda that is driven by the perceived problems that the country faces rather than those talking points that the candidates select to promote their own causes.”

    This looks like an incredibly strict definition of “issues” coverage. The author(s) only include stories where the anchors sat down and said “we want to cover issue X” in detail. Bernie Sanders spent a lot of his campaign going from city to city, giving his stump speech. He talked about a lot of issues in his stump speech, like health care and the minimum wage. But any media coverage of Bernie Sanders speeches or interviews with him talking about issues would be excluded from this count. Anything candidates say in a debate would be excluded. The Tyndall Report isn’t counting how much time TV network news spends on issues. It is counting how much time TV networks spend on a very specific “where do candidates stand on the issues” type of feature.

    People have been rightly concerned about “horse race” coverage for decades, but this year’s election coverage feels very different. Perhaps the difference this year is the candidates? After all, how much has either focused on issues instead of the personal characteristics of their opponent?

    Liked by 1 person

    Noah Grand

    November 3, 2016 at 5:00 pm

  3. […] Problem jest taki, że ogon macha psem. Z badań trzech głównych amerykańskich sieci telewizyjnych wynika, że na kwestie polityczne (programy kandydatów) stacje poświęciły łącznie 32 minuty. […]


  4. It has never been about policy preferences, silly. The civil sphere has broken down. The meaning and sense of solidarity is now owned by identity projects, those are the mediating organs between the population and the State. Have you watched CNN and FOX lately? The culture war is about constructing an alternate social reality, a “ALT RIGHT” that exits to contrast with established culture constructed in universities and in the NY Times. Turn off NPR, dump the latte out and watch. Read that last chapter of Distinction.

    Don’t listen to me though, I am the muted sociologist. I suggest arguing my math.


    Gordon Gauchat

    November 6, 2016 at 12:38 am

  5. What about sociology’s duty toward the public interest? Seems like we value our own careers and status far more.

    — The Muted Sociologist

    Liked by 1 person

    Gordon Gauchat

    November 6, 2016 at 2:48 am

  6. Gordon — So you can mock, but I think there is more of a line here than you are willing to recognize. Obviously, the breakdown we are experiencing around 1) basic agreement on facts (just look at the divergence in narrative around Austyn Crites, the guy who disrupted the Trump rally last night), and 2) commitment to institutions (the electoral process, norms of governance) that have long been beyond questioning is a huge threat to our society.

    But I see this breakdown as the end stage of a gradual erosion of norms, particularly but not only those governing media. Technological changes of the late 19th/early 20th centuries forced the development of new norms, including much of what we think of as journalistic ethics (see Paul Starr). While hardly faultless, those held for quite a while. A combination of forces, including technological change and demographic change, led to the transformation of the media environment between the early 80s and the present. But one of those forces was the gradual abandonment of the idea that the media should serve the public interest. And the post just points to one episode in the long and gradual process of breaking down that idea.

    I don’t honestly see much of a way out, at this point. Do you?

    Liked by 1 person


    November 6, 2016 at 5:56 pm

  7. Of course, the structural changes you mention are undeniable. I didn’t mean to mock. My point is that all civil institutions and social organs have decayed, due to the profit motive (neoliberalism). Cable news/news generally now serves an identity function, similar to the role that Durkheim saw for occupational associations. However, I think culture and cognition tells us that identity and the signification of cognitive authorities would be far more likely an outcome for large-scale media than coherent discussions of policy, especially as geopolitics and society becomes evermore complex.

    Being a pragmatist, I ask, given the array of systemic social problems we face, what short-run institutional reforms would have the most positive consequences. Media regulation and norms don’t seem like the answer, but I could be wrong. For me, it is about making the the electoral process and procedures better reflect the demographic substratum of our society. I think, given gridlock and polarization, we need to think about legal challenges and court decisions that can improve our democratic process–starting with campaign finance and the rules we use to draw legislative districts.

    So, I don’t argue the substance of your point, I argue that we need to start thinking like pragmatists about the proximate social organs we can reform to produce cascading social change. Institutions are our greatest machines, but become Golem-like without careful watch. I personally, don’t think it is the media. Moreover, I think sociology and social science, as an intellectual community, needs to get its own house in order. The sidelines are not the ideal place from which to watch our society crumble. I guess that was my point, unskillfully made and unintentionally dismissive.


    Gordon Gauchat

    November 6, 2016 at 6:35 pm

  8. In other words, it is the growing distance between the average voter and the State that is the proximate issue for me, the proximate source of the legitimacy crisis and/or Trumpism. And, we need to stay on target.


    Gordon Gauchat

    November 6, 2016 at 6:41 pm

  9. I know you aren’t allowed to say this, but I see very real intensives for media elites, pundits etc, but also sociologists to point fingers and voice in disgust rather than propose positive reform. The former is easier, can be construed as a form of expertise (we understand what is really wrong and how deeply structural it is), and it is sensational. The latter is harder, there are risks if we are wrong, etc. But, I think it is clear which form of intellectualizing actually serves the public interest.


    Gordon Gauchat

    November 6, 2016 at 7:59 pm

  10. These are good points. I agree that the incentives are to diagnose and denounce, and that sociologists in particular (both because of being relatively marginal and also because of our default to a critical stance) are especially likely to do that. I can’t argue that less polarizing districting practices wouldn’t be a good thing.

    Where I might differ, though, is on the extent to which the cultural dynamics now in play — the new identity politics, the erosion of democratic norms — are much stronger than can be reined in by ending gerrymandering. I’d like to be wrong about that. But if I were going to advocate for pragmatic change, my first instinct is not legal change but new alliances between liberals and conservatives around upholding democratic norms and institutions. I think that any movement that comes from one political side is going to end up feeding into the polarization, regardless of initial intent. And I’d be willing to put quite a few of my policy preferences on hold in order to reinforce democratic institutions for the next decade or so.

    But that is really hard to do, too, because we have already become so tribalized. Here’s an example. I wandered over to last week for some reason, and spent a while reading their material. On the face of it, I agree with much of their position. I think we need politically diverse viewpoints in the social sciences. I think universities need to protect controversial viewpoints and encourage debate, rather than shutting it down. I briefly thought about adding my name to their list.

    But then I look at their statement of the “entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies” of social science — like “All differences between human groups are caused by differential treatment of those groups, or by differential media portrayals of group members,” or “Social stereotypes do not correspond to any real differences,” and it sounds to me like a caricature. And I look at who’s already signed the list, and start to think, oh, this isn’t really a group that’s about championing open debate, this is just a group that thinks “my” side is wrong and wants to defeat it. In a highly polarized atmosphere, it takes a lot of trust to have genuine conversations across differences. Especially when one’s own side is likely to see such conversations as a betrayal anyway.

    That may be wandering fairly far away from your original point, but it’s late, and the election is making me crazy. Also curious what you think sociology/social science needs to do to get its house in order.

    Liked by 1 person


    November 7, 2016 at 4:06 am

  11. […] Elections, media and the public good. […]


  12. I think your points are very cogent.

    To clarify, when I say proximate, I mean what I think we can “immediately” do with only the courts and the executive branch, not that it is the “most relevant in some causal sense.” I just don’t know where to begin to address the other problems. I do think, maybe, that other reforms become possible if our democracy was healthier: like those reforms that require legislation.

    Liked by 1 person

    Gordon Gauchat

    November 7, 2016 at 5:16 am

  13. For example, when Trump argues that the election process is rigged, can we really feign outrage?


    Gordon Gauchat

    November 7, 2016 at 5:24 am

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