Journalism vs The Press

Profession vs Institution, and General vs Particular Incentives

I feel like everyone knows the Press is a bunch of liars, but the recent "coverage" of the Colonial pipeline hack and resulting gas shortages, as well as the current Israel-Palestine conflict, have combined to put a spotlight back on this topic.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone reading this substack. So, I want to examine the issue through a different lens: one that distinguishes between journalism and "The Press."

Journalism is a profession that can be done well or poorly. The Press is an institution with its own interests that may or may not align with the interests of the People.

But this is far too broad. The Press is not a monolith, nor is The People. Really, the Press is a constellation of similar institutions: A group of institutions with similar relationships to the means of generating and propagating narratives, but each institution has its own particular properties and interests. Perhaps the biggest problem with phrases like "Elites," "Sovereignty," "Capital," and "The Press"/"The People" is that these smooth over the various particularities that we are embedded in and that determine huge amounts of our action. Here we see the first major distinction: General vs Particular Incentives.

General vs Particular Incentives

When we look at "The Press," this constellation of institutions share a particular relationship to the means of generating and propagating narratives. In that sense, there is a general incentive: you acquire more Power (and, most of the time, more money too) by becoming a more dominant narrative propagation engine. By increasing your audience at the expense of other narrative-propagating institutions. "Fake news" and "disinformation" are just ways for particular institutions within the constellation of The Press to defend themselves against rivals and maintain their dominance in narrative generation and propagation. Defenses of "democracy" play a similar role.

The reason why Blue Empire, including various institutions inside The Press, is so adamant about defending "democracy" is because "democracy" is the system in which they possess the most power. It is the system in which they can propagandize the people into supporting their elites' interests, and legitimizing those interests through voting.

In that sense, every institution in The Press shares some incentives. However, that does not make them a monolith. Institutions are embedded within particular relationships, networks, and contexts. And it is from these particular contexts that we get other interests emerge. The most obvious examples would be if the donors or audiences that keep a particular institution alive differ in character significantly from the donors or audiences that support a rival institution. In that sense, you can get radically different perspectives being proposed by different people, even if both are subject to the same general incentives.

What happens when we have rival incentives? Well, we have to decide which incentive to pursue. Such a situation is similar to when we have to decide between different Goods we want to pursue in a situation that only lets us pursue some of them and not all of them:

Some of the most difficult moments of our lives is when we have to determine which values are more important. This ranking can be far harder than determining whether something is good/bad in the first place.

Some people will be drawn more towards the "general" incentive, while others will be drawn more towards "particular" incentives. Each person will be different in how they approach these questions. A journalist may have to balance their desire to find out the Truth and share it with people with their editor's demands regarding stories and their advertisers limitations on what kinds of stories can be told. "Value-balancing" (for lack of a better term) occurs at the individual level (as just described) and at the institutional level (this is another rabbit hole that I will have to delve into more deeply in the future).

Fixing the Press: Structural vs Individual

Remember, if we can be defined by particular incentives more than general incentives, that explains how/why there can be (and are) genuinely good journalists. People with a commitment to finding out the truth and informing the public about it. Sadly, this is also explains how/why there can be (and are) such a huge number of horrendous journalists who slavishly serve power at the expense of truth.

There are two separate problems here:

  1. The perverse general incentives that the Press has versus the Public. Specifically, that misleading the public tends to lead to more Power and Money than telling them the truth.

  2. The oversocialization of individuals who go on to perpetuate this cycle of oversocialization in the next generation.

On the first, we would love to develop a structure in which narrative-propagating institutions are most rewarded for telling the truth. In other words, they receive the most money and power from doing serious investigative work and telling the truth. Such a system is difficult to lay out, and would likely take a very long piece to articulate; however, allow me to lay out a few ideas. First, as I've mentioned before, being able to independently verify news reports generates an incentive to tell the truth:

  1. Fixing the potholes on some streets

  2. Giving tax credits (worth 250k) to entrepreneurs to help fill a new mall.

So, there is a local debate. Some people want the potholes fixed because they drive over them and they’re ruining their tires! Others never drive on those roads and couldn’t care less. They want some new stores to go to!

Now, the important point: If someone were to tell you “the roads don’t have potholes” you could turn around, point, and go “yeah they do dipsh*t. F*ck off.” Any attempt to lie to you would be laughed at.

Making sure that news reports can be "widely verified" ("widely" depending on the size of the audience) in an independent fashion by the audience seems to be an important step. Second, making sure these institutions are not beholden to moneyed interests that can determine what is investigated and discussed is crucial. How to fund the Press absent this in a world where people seem unlikely to financially support institutions they do not trust (a completely fair stance) is a difficult question, of course.

On the second, we would have to dismantle the entire Blue Empire. Much of this becomes semi-circular, due to the central role many institutions in the Press play in the dominance of Blue Empire. More to come on this side in the future.

Hopefully we understand how abstractions and generalizations can dramatically mislead, and how individuals and institutions exist in a world where they must weight different incentives and choose between them. Journalism is a profession that can be done well or poorly, and it is important we have a legion of journalists who do their jobs well. The Press is a constellation of institutions with similar relationships to the means of narrative-propagation and various particular interests, and we must structure the general incentives for these institutions such that discovering and telling the Truth becomes the most incentivized pursuit.