Daniel Sutter: Fake news and the market for ideas

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Daniel SutterTraditional social media have been criticized recently for purveying fake news. California may form a commission to investigate stemming fake news, while Congressional hearings have implored Facebook and Twitter to act. Is the news market failing?

Classical liberals back to John Milton and John Stuart Mill have stressed freedom of speech and expression as crucial in allowing citizens to control government. Free expression is vital for two reasons. The first is the value of free inquiry in discovering the truth. The second is the potential for government power to regulate expression to stifle criticism.

The metaphor of a marketplace of ideas illustrates the truth-seeking argument. Just as competition supplies us with cars, clothes or soft drinks, competition will work for ideas. Let truth and falsehood compete, and truth will win out. This reasoning believes that most citizens can distinguish good from bad arguments.

Yet I find the marketplace of ideas metaphor slightly off. In my research on media bias, I emphasize how our evaluations of public policies draw on our personal values and information about the world. Is the $15 per hour minimum wage recently enacted by some cities wise policy? The answer depends in part on values – whether one believes that government should try to raise poorer households’ income. And also on information – the number of $9 an hour jobs eliminated by a $15 minimum wage.

News deals with the information element of policy assessment. Peoples’ values differ, but to paraphrase Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we all face the same facts. The news media hopefully provides truthful information for readers or viewers.

Information differs from ideas. Assessing the truth of information requires significant resources and not just common sense; specifically, a news organization’s reporters and editors. Ideas combine information and values. Citizens have no capacity to verify a report claiming that the $15 minimum wage eliminated 10,000 jobs.

Media bias involves deliberate manipulation of information to advance political values, not inevitable reporting errors. A story might deliberately exaggerate the job losses from the $15 minimum wage to influence people’s policy evaluation.

We can only identify some relevant factors about when biased reporting will advance specific values. For example, the persons we trust most can most easily mislead us. Blatant propaganda is often recognized and consequently ineffective. Information advancing an organization’s values may be discounted. And bad news is frequently denied; President Trump dismisses any report suggesting that his policies are not working perfectly as fake news.

President Trump has seemingly used evidence of liberal bias to convince his supporters to dismiss all news from prestigious news organizations as fake. Convincing analyses find that liberal bias is typically nuanced and subtle, involving misleading headlines, a lack of perspective, or perhaps omissions, not outright falsification. Biased news still contains truth.

Charges of liberal bias are decades old, so what has changed? The more explicit branding of outlets as liberal or conservative, I think, encourages wholesale dismissal. Hosts like Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow with conservative or liberal views organize most cable news content. (This is not necessarily bad; contrasting takes on current events may be a good way to assess the truth.) Editorials set a newspaper’s brand, even though the rules of objectivity still apply to the news content. And conservative outlets like Fox News and the Washington Times makes liberal branding of CNN and the Washington Post more plausible.

The most surprising aspect in our more partisan news market has been the lack of an outlet building an information-only brand trusted across the political spectrum. The New York Times and Washington Post may think they occupy this space, but conservatives’ dismissal demonstrates otherwise.

The marketplace of ideas is a powerful metaphor, but information is not ideas. Common sense cannot substitute for a network of trained, experienced reporters. Is the market for news hopelessly broken? Fortunately, a missing product creates a profit opportunity for a clever entrepreneur. Perhaps trusted news sources are evolving right now, obscured by the noise of current events.

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Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

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