The ‘Spotlight’ series is dedicated to highlighting civil and human rights issues, at home and abroad.
If you want to have a conversation about the free market’s ability to provide socially important goods, then you might find yourself talking about lighthouses. That’s largely because of the work of Ronald Coase, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago who died earlier this year at the age of 102. Prior to Coase, lighthouses were a textbook example of a public good: they were expensive, but once you built them then everyone else could benefit from them without having to chip in. The solution, it seemed, was to have the government provide them.
Coase turned that argument on its head. In a 1974 paper, Coase showed that voluntary organizations in Great Britain had built and maintained lighthouses for years before the government got involved. The moral of the story was supposed to be that there really isn’t anything that the market can’t provide as long as the government doesn’t step in and muddy things up. (As you might imagine, there’s been some heated disagreement on this point.)
There are other examples of public goods – for example, street lighting. A street either has lighting or it does not. Once you install it, you can’t exclude people from using it, and one person’s enjoyment of the night’s fluorescent glow doesn’t diminish anyone else’s. Economists refer to this last characteristic as a good being non-rivalrous.
In some ways, the news media works like this. If a reporter covers a story, it’s pretty hard to keep that information from circulating. The only way to maintain an advantage is to report on newer and newer stories before the information begins to circulate. And not only is news non-rivalrous, you could argue that its value actually increases the more people know about a story. Humans are natural gossips; we like to be in the know.
But it doesn’t matter how much news reporting resembles a public good – it’s still not a good candidate for government involvement. And much as Coase would have predicted, market actors have stepped in to fill the need, even if it’s no secret that they do so under immense economic pressure.
Put these three things together – the importance of novelty to news, the increasing value of news as a story circulates, and the precarious economic environment that the news media operates in – and the inevitable result is the frantic swarming journalists exhibit. Newsrooms resemble strobe lights more than they do lighthouses.
Add the country’s political polarization and the advent of news channels whose business model depends on stoking political devisions, and it’s not a surprise that people generally distrust reporting.
(If you’re looking to me to give you a defense of the state of reporting in this country, then you’re going to be disappointed. Perhaps the best I can do is to remind you of what Winston Churchill famously said about democracy: worst idea, except for all the others. Commercial news media might be a little bit like that.)
Even with all that dissatisfaction and the obvious conflict of interest between entertaining and informing us, America’s newsrooms still set the national conversation. The delicate and terrifying interplay between what the media chooses to cover and what we choose to care about makes up this thing at the heart of our public discourse: the news cycle.
Some ebbs and flows of the news cycle make sense. Unusual weather events are dramatic and relevant, but also fleeting. Similarly, emergent crises often garner the most interest in the early days, when it’s difficult to tell whether or not the worst-case scenario might obtain. That’s why the Fukushima nuclear disaster was such a big story but then petered out. Similarly, ‘fracking’ garnered a ton of attention at first, with a lot of folks eager to tell you how it was setting their drinking water on fire. It turned out that the truth was (surprise, surprise) more complicated than that. Reporting on a complicated story isn’t as exciting as reporting on the top ten things in your kitchen that might kill you.
On the other hand, some stories just refuse to go away. In the Boston market – as well as parts of the Fox News and CNN websites – I can’t seem to get away from Aaron Hernandez. In case you don’t know, Hernandez was the wildly talented tight end for the New England Patriots who earlier this year was arrested for murder. It’s a tragic story, but I don’t need to get breaking news every time a motion is filed in court.
But what happens when the news cycle just forgets about a story? Every four years there’s a presidential election. In the eighteen or so months leading up to it, we’re treated to nonstop coverage of electoral minutia. And yet, the rest of the time it would seem like any change in election law has a hard time getting traction as a story. Similarly, it would seem like the only time we can talk about guns and violence is after there’s been a shooting. (And by there’s been a shooting, I mean there’s been a shooting of the right number and kind of people at the right kind of place. The almost 300 Americans who are, on average, shot every day apparently don’t count.)
If you want to see how a story can just fall out of the news cycle, then there’s perhaps no better example than the American prison at Guantanamo Bay. During the Bush administration, the GITMO detention center was a political lightning rod, with Democrats accusing Republican officials of being complicit in torture and Republicans accusing Democrats of being soft on terrorism.
After campaigning on the issue, Barack Obama famously signed an executive order in his first week as President, ordering the prison closed. It was supposed to be a breakthrough symbol of the change that his inauguration would usher in. Half a decade later, the detention center remains open. More than 150 men remain behind bars – a considerable number of whom have already been cleared for release but cannot, as a result of having been cleared, actually be released.
But somehow, the news cycle has just moved on. Sure, there was brief interest earlier this year when dozens of detainees went on a hunger strike. And there was some coverage when a non-partisan report was released that concluded that torture had, in fact, taken place at Guantanamo. But other than that, Americans seem tired of GITMO: it’s already old news.
Remember the old joke about the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost? A man asks him if that’s where he lost them. “No,” he answers, “but this is where the light is.” I don’t know whether or not there are any literal lighthouses at Guantanamo. I rather doubt it. But it sure could use with a bit of a spotlight.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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