The Press Sells Entertainment

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In this election year, the press focuses on trivia such as controversies among the candidates, personal matters, and arguments. And the press manufactures comebacks and possible upsets every time a primary is held. Similarly, after the massacre of 17 Afghans (11 from a single family), the press is heavily focused on the motivations of the alleged murderer, Robert Bales. New details of his life are brought forward every day.

All of this is entertainment. The press does not focus on serious analyses of issues that separate the candidates. It does not focus on the 17 Afghan dead as they have no entertainment value to Americans. And if a reporter does write a human interest story on the survivors, this may be read by some but it will be too disquieting and raise too many perplexing questions to be read by many. That kind of story is not the modal story now being circulated, far from it. That kind of story is practically off the map.

The press exists only because there is a demand for it. The demand comes from consumers. The content that is published depends on what sells. Entertainment sells. The press content reflects the tastes of its consumers, just as products reflect consumer tastes. The press gives the public what it wants to read. Television news gives it what it wants to hear.

What does the public want to read and hear? Michael C. Jensen has some ideas about that. For a one-click download, go here. (By the way, LRC readers are a market segment. They want to read and hear certain kinds of items too. LRC meets this niche market demand. And even this niche market has sub-segments.)

Why does the press focus on the personal aspects of candidates? Why does it focus on the motivations of Bales? Jensen’s explanation goes like this, but I’ve augmented it.

People want simple explanations for complex events.

To attain such simple answers, people divide human beings into two categories: good and evil. The public is educated to think in terms of the good guys versus the evil guys. They are taught to believe that bad things are caused by evil men with evil intentions. Evil men do not ever do good things. Conversely, they also believe that good men always do good things and not evil things.

As proof, look at most movies. Yes, there are movies in which the protagonists and antagonists are morally ambiguous, and in which good guys do bad things and bad guys do good things, but mostly the good and bad guys are clearly demarcated. As proof, look at how history books are written. Look at fairy tales. Even look at the content of LRC.

Reality is more complex, of course, than the simple division. All of us mix good and evil in one package. Those of us who look good and may do good much of the time do evil things, and sometimes our intentions and thoughts are far from pure and good. Those of us who look bad or evil not only are capable of doing good but often do good.

Not only that, but sometimes good guys with good intentions create very bad results! And sometimes bad guys with bad intentions produce good results.

This is not what the public wants to hear. Why not? It confuses them. They may actually have to think about themselves, their relations with others, their groups, their actions, and their country in quite different ways — once they recognize the moral ambiguity of the human being.

This is why the news contains so little analysis. Instead of explaining that a program of government or an organization like the government must go bad or be bad because its incentive structure is rotten (this encompasses the government’s aggression), those who support government instead blame these failures on the people who are manning the government. They must be evil, they must be perverting the government (in this good/evil view) because evil things only come from evil people. The public thinks that these people are selfish, which to them is an evil thing. The public identifies evil motives with selfish motives.

And so it is enough to examine the motives of the candidates or proxies for them in their personal lives, and it is enough to examine the motives of Bales. We do not get hundreds of different voices in the media focusing on the motives of Bales because they have been told to support the system and whitewash the system’s elements that lie behind his atrocities. It’s not entertaining to analyze the system. The system produces evil outcomes, in the public view, only when evil men do them. To question the system is to introduce a high degree of ambiguity and complexity. The public wants a simple answer to the massacre or to the question of whom to vote for.

I digress to observe that this view can be extended to say that people in government are puppets. Behind them are puppet masters, and they are the evil ones. This is a different narrative with a similar point of view. Instead of saying that any government is bound to produce mostly evil outcomes because of its inherent structure and incentives, there are those who blame the outcomes on the puppet masters.

Jensen mentions another factor, which is the demand for gossip. He quotes sociologist Robert E. Park “The first newspapers were simply devices for organizing gossip, and that, to a greater or lesser extent, they have remained.” Gossip is not at all analytical. A web definition reads “Casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”

People in power could conceivably lead the public into a more analytical mind set and into an attitude that could tolerate greater complexity and greater moral ambiguity. However, why should the powerful ever do that? Their incentive is to play up simple explanations and maintain the public in its simple ways of thought. It is to portray “us” as the good guys and always to have a roster of bad guys ready and handy. This is one way to maintain power. And the people with the power may actually believe this themselves, or many of them may.

One of the drawbacks of government-as-we-know-it, which is government of us by others who have power over us, is that we perpetuate immaturity. We discourage the development of analytical skills in favor of perpetuating simple theories of human behavior.

11:48 am on March 24, 2012