Journalism and Information Subsidies
By John Nerone
CBS Chairman Les Moonves lifted the veil when he said, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He was referring to Donald Trump’s dramatic surge toward the Republican presidential nomination. He was confessing to a weird symbiosis between news organizations and the people they cover.
Moonves isn’t a journalist. But CBS’s news division is nestled inside the business he runs. The same is true for almost all U.S. news organizations, which have to live inside entities that aren’t run by journalists. Even the very best news organizations, which are run by journalists, employ more non-journalists than journalists.
So if it’s the journalists who have to produce the news content, they’re going to need some help. They get this help by partnering with other organizations or institutions. Think of business news. What you see or read piggybacks on information from markets like the New York Stock Exchange or corporate announcements or reports from a government agency.
Those government reports and market reports and corporate announcements are “information subsidies” for news organizations. It would be hard to report on the business world without them. Can you imagine the work it would take for the Wall Street Journal to produce its own estimates of unemployment, for instance?
Information subsidies are necessary for the news system. But not all of them. The world is full of people and groups who want to shape the news, and producing information subsidies is one of the easiest ways to do it.
Information subsidies distort the news
A lot of what you know about the world comes from governments. In the United States, governments are required to report on all sorts of things, and all of it is supposed to be as true and as neutral as the weather reports that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produces. Our governments are not supposed to propagandize us. People go berserk if they think the government is trying to manipulate the public, even if the only aim is to get people to obey the law and use social programs. Google “Obamacare propaganda.” You’ll see.
Private organizations we expect to propagandize. The entire advertising and public-relations industries are set up to do just that, though they don’t use the word propaganda anymore. Hitler and Stalin made it sound bad.
Most private organizations want to avoid looking political. Any business that wants to appeal to the mass market tries to steer clear of anything that would make it look partisan. But there are all sorts of ways that businesses can subsidize news organizations to queer the political landscape.
Take climate change. Denialists have done pretty well in recent years. They’ve produced enough stuff to make even intelligent people wonder whether the earth is really warming up. And they’ve gotten enough of the stuff into the public sphere to give cover to the politicians who say climate change is a hoax.
And who funds them? Energy companies, among others. The Koch brothers, whose privately held companies are massively invested in coal. Exxon Mobil, under investigation by the New York Attorney General’s office for funding climate change denialist research and misleading its investors while its own internal research supports the consensus of climate scientists.
I said before that journalists are outnumbered in their own news organizations. They are also outnumbered outside their news organizations by what Michael Schudson has called “parajournalists,” public-relations consultants and public-information officers who are trying to put across a point of view and who have more time and money and expertise than the journalists they’re wrangling. “Parajournalist” is a little misleading; it compares them with paralegals and paramedics, but hey, paralegals are supposed to assist lawyers, not manipulate them.
Climate change is an example where bad guys use information subsidies. Good guys use them too: labor activists, academics, reformers of various sorts.
But it is not a level playing field. Money talks.
Information subsidies and presidential politics
News organizations are always looking for help filling their news holes and holding onto their audiences. Campaigns are eager to help. But some campaigns, evidently, help more than others.
This year Donald Trump is the leading supplier of free content to news media, especially cable news. By most counts, he has gotten more air time on cable news than all the other candidates combined. He has earned this by being good TV. He is a one-man information subsidy that can’t shut up.
A lot of the news coverage of Trump, and the other candidates, too, reports on tweets. Now is where this gets silly. Every important person or organization has an official Twitter account now. The Pope tweets. Is this not the cheapest imaginable way to drive a news cycle? But not all tweets are created equal. They’re given different value by the people who like them and retweet them, among other things. Trump, or whoever manages his Twitter account, has been very good at this.
Journalists can’t handle this. They operate on a different time scale. They need to report, which requires at least enough time to make a few phone calls. A tweet can run halfway around the world while reporting is still putting on its shoes.
People, we’ve seen this show before. Ronald Reagan. Silvio Berlusconi.
Is there a way to limit the damage to public discourse? Healthy investment in actual journalism is the place to start. Or maybe divine intervention is more likely.
John Nerone is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.