Footnote to Harold: Media Dynamics 101

Harold Feld provides an insightful analysis of the right wing noise machine’s attack on Oprah. As this is kind of an advanced topic in media watching, involving feints and jujitsu-like tactics, I think it may be useful to ground the analysis in elementary theory, viz, short run optimization:

1) The “news” media (and this includes Keith Olberman and other so-called liberals), has only one interest, and that is to make money.
2) They make money by selling advertising.
3) The more people who watch them, the more money newsmedia make.
4) More people watch “the news” when there is a tight race, or better still, controversy and a tight race. Viewers are seeking entertainment, not to become better informed about policy.
5) Therefore, the media will do whatever they can possibly do to ensure a tight race with lots of controversy.

Coralarries to theorem 5, above, are that things that distract from the entertainment value of the news, such as coverage of wars that are not going so well, will be minimized. People watch TV that flatters them and rewards their laziness; therefore TV news advances the point of view that personalities are more important than policies–because most people consider themselves good judges of personalities & it requires no work to decide whether or not you like somebody.

The only national news media figure who is an exception to this dynamic is Jon Stewart. He clearly cares about the country and respects our constitution. Stewart makes money by serving the considerable minority of viewers who actually want to understand what’s going on in our government.

Below the fold: Media Dynamics 102: long run optimization

In Media Dynamics 101 we learned that news media are (is?) a capitalist undertaking, that the product being sold by the networks is viewers, specifically passive viewers who can be influenced to consume the products being advertised. We learned how this situation gives rise to news that is intended to entertain and flatter viewers and encourage consumerism. This leads to a strong tendency to promote close races and controversy, with an emphasis on personalities.

These are all short run consequences that follow from simple microeconomic reality. But let’s step back and look a minute at long run, meta policy. News media are giant corporations, sometimes subsidiaries of mega-giant corporations. It is in the interest of these corporation to create a body politic that favors giant and mega-giant corporations. Therefore the newsmedia will continually reenforce the message that modern corporate post-capitalism is not only the best, but indeed the only conceivable way for society to organize itself.

Television remains the most powerful tool for shaping the minds of the people in the body politic & reducing their capacity to imagine other ways of organizing society. New categories of media, such as the Internet, create the opportunity for non-corporate points of view to be promulgated and received by anybody who has a computer or PDA. Therefor, corporations will attempt to limit and if possible eliminate non-corporate access to the Internet. This is what the net neutrality battle is all about.

Students who do well in Media Dynamics 101 & 102 will be eligible for Media Dynamics 201 & 202 in the next two semesters.


  1. Thank you. These two posts have been really helpful to me. I’m going to continue to read this blog, because I think it has good things to say.

  2. Well, Jacob, you’re welcome and thank you. We’ll be happy to have you among our growing band of regular readers (who know who they are. . .)

  3. Corporations as a whole are like Memes. Memes survive by evolving according to the environment. Naturally, corporations will look to control the environment for their own survival.

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