Tocqueville and The Free Press

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Over the past couple of years, the issue of media bias has become a regular talking point in public discourse. Contrary to popular belief, “fake news” has existed long before the advent of the 2016 election cycle. However, some may cite the work of William Meckling and Michael Jensen and claim that left-wing media has existed since at least the late 1970s (P. 49). One only needs to read Barry Goldwater’s 1988 memoirs to see how media coverage mispresented him during his 1964 presidential campaign. Media bias is not relegated to only left-wing media outlets. Conservative publications also suffer from distorting the facts when reporting the news. Liberal media bias is just more salient since liberals dominate the media. When ideologically loaded editorials start being presented as information this is problematic. Regardless of which political proclivities of the author or correspondent. This is nothing more than clear deception. A snake oil salesman presenting opinions as information. Talk about being sold a false bill of goods!

Alexis De Tocqueville reveals to us in Democracy in America that media bias also existed in the 19th century.

“What the latter look for in newspapers are knowledge and facts; only by altering or distorting these facts a journalist can gain some influence over his views (Tocqueville, Transl. Isaac Kramnick, P. 216-217)”.

Tocqueville didn’t dwell on the biased nature of American journalism. This is because he viewed news publications as not so much as vehicles for disseminating information. Rather, as a form of networking. Individuals who share the same values will invariably read some of the same books and obtain their information from the same sources. While it tempting to blame social media companies for indirectly creating powerful echo chambers through data aggregation to maximize user engagement; this problem predates modern technology. Due to confirmation bias, it is always easier to read publications that reinforce our prior beliefs. Converse with people who already agree with our perspective. Considering this quirk of human nature it isn’t surprising that Americans of the 19th century would levitate towards certain publications. Naturally, journalists of the era would either inject their own opinions into news stories or manipulate the facts to make their article more enticing to specific demographic.

This counterintuitive observation regarding the American press bucks our conventional understanding of the intended purpose of news media. Conventional wisdom would dictate that news is purely designed to inform.  Tocqueville obliterates the myth of a journalistic “golden age” in the mid-20th century. Romanticized images of smoke-filled greenrooms and hardnosed reporting epitomized in the likes of Edward R. Murrow. The notion of the news being fact-driven back in the early years of television is an illusion. Per Democracy in America, even in the 19th century, the line between fact and opinion was blurred. Making Tocqueville’s suggestion that the press represents institutions of political association more than they do sources of information a sizeable argument. Presents a hard reality check for those entranced by the tidy and staid conservatism of the 1950s. The news correspondences may have been more eloquent and professional, but were still imparting bias in their reporting.

If media organizations are nothing more than a collective association of like-minded content producers and readers, how do these coalitions form? This a profoundly difficult question to answer. Did ideology bring the members of the media outlet together? Did the political leanings of the content consumers influence what the organization produces? It is hard to say. However, there is certainly an interconnected relationship between content consumers and producers. Tocqueville expounds upon this co-dependent relationship stating:

“… a vital connection between association and newspapers; the latter creates associations which, in their turn, creates newspapers. If it is a truism that associations must multiply as social conditions become more equal, it is no less certain that the number of newspapers increases as associations proliferate. (P. 602).”

While it may be fair do disagree with Tocqueville’s assertion that political associations are the impetus for the establishment of publications, he does touch upon an important aspect of this dynamic. That is  if one media outlet of a specific political disposition is established more will follow. One just needs to look at the history of network television to see this principle in action.  Back when network television was first established in the 1980s the 24-hour news channels were all left-of-center. Conservative media was essentially relegated to AM/radio talk shows. Then in 1996 the Fox News Channel was launched and provided a conservative presence on network television. The proliferation of conservative media shifted from the dying platform of network cable to the wild frontier of cyberspace. Leading to the development of outlets such as Newsmax, The Blaze, Breitbart, The Daily Caller, The Drudge Report, The Daily Wire, etc. All platforms whose success was propelled by the internet. One can’t help but wonder if Fox News had never been established if these outlets would have ever achieved their present level of success. Especially when you consider The Blaze was founded by former Fox News personality Glenn Beck.

The above example details this relationship of associations and the growth of media outlets for conservative publications, this rule most likely applies to any ideology imaginable. Just think of all the political movements that have spurred by the zealous distribution of literature by pamphleteers.  This ranges from movements as diverse from the American Revolution to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. What is the first thing any wide-eyed college kid at a protest does when you approach them? Offer you a pamphlet detailing the rationale for their outrage and indignation. If a movement becomes large enough eventually formal media outlets fixated on the political movement are established.

Polemics such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Cato Letters may provide the rebel-rousing fodder for revolution. What sustains these political movements and their various supporting publications? It is easy to see that ideas spread through collective association and the proliferation of related literature/media. As enthusiasm, wanes momentum starts to sink. Convictions and commitment among supporters start to dissipate. Making the role of publications much more important.

“ This association can be more or less strictly defined, more or less restricted, more or less numerous but at least  the seed of such an association must exist in men’s minds to ensure the survival of the newspaper (P. 603).”

Tocqueville believes that the conviction conveyed by journalists only continues to live on if supported by the readers. From a business standpoint, this makes sense. If no one is buying your newspapers or magazines your firm will go out of business. In terms of the transmission of ideas, the intertwined nature of content publisher and consumer is much more co-dependent. Yes, the passions of the readers need to remain resolute for the publisher to keep their lights on. But,  the publisher needs to keep putting out engaging content to further perpetuate the movement can keep the movement from getting stale. It may be bold to argue with a thinker as brilliant as Tocqueville, however, let’s say he is only half right on this account. Fostering strong political coalitions requires both the publisher and the reader.

Some observant readers may be wondering, how does this model apply to local newspapers?  After all, they tend to be more provincial in their scope and less politicized.  The less politicized part may be a false assumption, due to the fact the local paper tends to conform to the political leanings of the region. If hypothetically there was a local or regional newspaper that was completely objective it still would provide a form of collective association. The news stories and editorials would focus on local issues.  Presumably, all the readers would have interests in the commentary about new ordinances and municipal taxes. Readership and the employees of the publication bound by a mutually shared self-interest in local affairs. A cohesion that sometimes breaks through partisan barriers and transcendent party affiliation. National and international publications look to sow a connecting ideology among its viewers and readers. The local media outlets unite its staff and audience with universal concerns about daily affairs.

Bootleggers and Baptists Part XII: Dual-Role Actors on Both Sides of Proposition 205 (Arizona, 2016)

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Back in 2016, election cycle Proposition 205 (Arizona) sought to establish a regulated market for recreational Marijuana. The measure failed to pass by a slim margin. Expounding upon the strategic flaws of the ballot question has already been thoroughly exhausted by local commentators.  What truly is interesting in retrospectively analyzing this failed legalization campaign was the coalition building. These strategic alliances were forged on both sides of the aisle.  Everyone from puritanical prohibitionists to cannabis aficionados teamed up with orthogonal allies to hedge their bets on achieving their desired policy outcome. Naturally the formulation of such coalitions invariable leads to Bootlegger and Baptists policy dynamics. By the very nature of regulations and policy decisions, someone stands to gain and someone stands to lose. Government action is never neutral. Even inadvertently a policy can provide a downstream benefit to an invested interest group. Sometimes these concentrated benefits are nontangible. Such as a positive public image or gaining notoriety. As the great moral philosopher, Adam Smith reminds social incentives to present us with powerful motives.

One of the more predictable opponents of legalization would be manufactures of prescription painkillers. Insys Therapeutic donated $500,000.00 to the 2016 opposition campaign in Arizona. Insys is a well-known producer of opioid-based medications. Their true motivations are somewhat puzzling.  Medical Marijuana was legalized back in 2010 which would have been a golden opportunity time for funding opposition. This could potentially be a strategic form of revenge. A thinly veiled attempt at settling a score with the Marijuana dispensaries that cost them business.  Why? Because the medical dispensaries would be among the first economic actors to enter the recreational market. It would take much in the way of resources to make a transition to selling both medical and recreational cannabis. In theory, this institutional form of retaliation would provide the benefit of instinct satisfaction to upper management within Insys. This theory assumes little to no economic benefit from this action.

An alternate theory could be Insys does finically benefit from keeping recreational Marijuana illegal. This move could signify a circuitous acknowledgment of the black-market for prescription painkillers. Whether big pharma wants to admit or not, recreational users do make up a portion of their profits. Their main customers need to operate as mid-level distribution. Either through an unscrupulous physician prescribing opioid narcotics to recreational users or through patients reselling the medications on the secondary market. Through going attacking recreational Marijuana they can protect their indirect profits made through the demand on the illicit secondary market.  Opioids are already in competition with alcohol, tobacco, kratom, Salvia Divinorum, and potentially marijuana. By eliminating a whole category of legal and accessible options they gain a slightly larger share of the quasi-legal American intoxicant market.

The question becomes whether this specific economic agent is a Bootlegger or a Baptist. They are unquestionably both. The company possesses some sort of murky incentive for keeping recreational marijuana illegal. Making them a Bootlegger. They assume the role Baptist when publicly justifying their generous donation to the counter-campaign. Citing the danger of marijuana to children. Also, expounding upon the dangers of ingesting substances that do not have FDA approval. All of these are arguments are laughable when you think about the pharmacological risks of the products Insys manufactures. Regardless, assuming good faith on the part of the firm, it is still a moral argument. Which may or may not be factually accurate. For this reason, they are a Dual-Role Actor.

In this scenario, there is another Dual-Role Actor that is on the other side of the fence. That would be the media. Numerous publications pick-up with this story and ran with it. Function as a Baptist through exposing the callous self-interest of pharmaceutical companies. This provides the appearance of a moral crusader who is attempting to reveal how big business attempts to manipulate the system. However, this public service is not done out of pure altruism. Media organizations are frequently willing to dispense with accuracy to be the first outlet to break a news story. Editors often do not focus on important stories but rather those that captivate their viewers/readers. Making news outlets more of a vehicle for entertainment than obtaining information. The best means of gaining and retaining viewership in an age where mainstream media is currently on life support is through sowing outrage.  Exploiting the public’s salient bias against corporations is a great means of generating click-bait worthy headlines.  Utilizing this tactic becomes much more imperative when your industry is presently clinging to life on a shoddy ventilator. The Schumpeterian gales are presently gusting. The creative destruction of alternative media is drawing many viewers away from FOX News and CNN.