Running late this morning on the drive in to work, a result of not yet being used to doing morning shovelling before leaving on snow days, I found myself listening to the BBC morning news show, where Aaron Sorkin (West Wing co-creator and director of Social Network) was being interviewed about the state of American news and public discourse.
Sorkin averred that "the problem with discourse in America" (nice how we're always finding the source of that) is that back when congress first created the regulations for the US airwaves it required each broadcast network to provide daily news as a public service, but it didn't mandate that the news hour be completely commercial free. The fact that news has commercials, Sorkin argued, means that networks focus on ratings rather than truth and public good, and this results in bad reporting and poor political discourse. If there were no commercials, popularity wouldn't matter and so people would naturally focus on good reporting. (I believe this is a link to the interview, though my browser isn't set up for sound on this machine and so it keeps crashing the window.)
Now, this strikes me as a pretty obviously fallacious point of view. If it were the case that people who weren't compensated for producing content always took the higher road, we'd expect bloggers to be overall a calmer, more rational, and more truthful group of writers than news venues. In fact, we see a whole range of bloggers -- lots of loud and crazy ones, but others who are quite calm, well reasoned and truthful. Overall, however, it seems that people who are loud and spectacular draw larger followings. In news we see pretty much the same thing -- there are the calm and the crazy, but often the spectacle of craziness draws more viewers. So it really doesn't seem that commercials are the problem here. Whether money is involved or not, most people would rather be read by many people than a few people, and many people seem to prefer spectacle to calmness. (If Sorkin imagines this is an entirely right-wing phenomenon, he should consider that the most watched media voice of the left is a comedian who satirizes news rather than an actual news program.)
It strikes me that this ties in with an odd mix of optimism and pessimism about human nature which is common in society. On the one hand, people imagine that if the motive of base profit is brought into play, that everyone will drive for the lowest common denominator because that is what is popular with the most people. This clearly implies an assumption that most people are more interested in spectacle and populism than truth, and that any attempt to give people what they want (rather than what the worthies believe would be good for us) will result in debasement. And yet, there is a strange optimism that if only we took the profit motive out of news, entertainment, politics, etc., that somehow all the individual people involved in these pursuits would pursue the common good and do what is best for everyone.
How is it that the hoi polloi are so base that if you allow their preferences to shape your news you will have nothing but trash on the airwaves, and yet somehow if the people who produce news and commentary were simply left to pursue their own desires, those desires are so virtuous that they would produce only the most high quality material?