False Choices

I have encountered the following argument over and over again: “the material that the media chooses to put or focus on is what the people want.”  It’s a very convenient little argument that follows the simple logic of supply-and-demand.  In other words, it is assumed that the supply exists for “x” media content because there is a “strong” (meaning it makes lots of money) demand that calls for the supply of such “x” content. Sometimes, the argument might take the shape of the following variations: “what is on the air is what gets ratings and so that means that what’s on the air is exactly what people want to see on T.V.” or the classic “what is broadcasted in the cable news networks is what attracts people’s attention and so the material that is on is just satisfying a need.”  My, the media must be so selfless and loving that they’re giving us what we need!  LOL.  If only! 

If you analyze the lines that that logic follows, you’ll realize that it is very much a circular argument: “I make available to the people what they want because that’s what the people want me to do.”  But how do I know that what I put on is what the people “want” or even “need”?  In addition, is the “want” a result of creating the perception for a “need”?  More importantly, what role have I had in creating the appearance of that “need”?  Is the “want” really what the people intrinsically “need”?  Look, I realize that we live in a world where the bottom line (profit maximization) is what trumps everything else most of the time and that’s just the reality of things.  Yet, saying that “that’s just the way things are” and leaving it at that is very much a conformist cop out and in my opinion, an excuse to stay irresponsibly un-engaged, doing nothing to change the status quo.  So in some ways, the media is right: we only have ourselves to blame.  So the change must literally start with each one of us.  Thus, the first step to do something about the matter (as much of cliche as it sounds), is to raise awareness within yourself and then pass it on to others. 

Let’s start with the assumption that profit-maximization is and should be the prime driver for every decision when designating something as “worthwhile”.  In the first place, that is a very materialistic argument, which runs counter to most religious traditions that humankind has ever developed.  If religious arguments are not your thing, then let’s consider economic theory.  The assumptions about profit-maximization come from the “neo-classical synthesis” in economic theory, which as economist Robert Kuttner challenges in his paper “The Povery of Economics” (appeared on The Atlantic Monthly, February 1985 issue), has resulted in many universities’ departments of economics “graduating a generation of idiot  savants, brilliant at esoteric mathematics yet innocent of actual economic life” because they are taught to follow deduction models rather than empirical ones.  In addition, Kuttner makes the following powerful declaration (by the way, I tried to see if I could find a link online to the “Poverty of Economics” paper but I was unable to; I got my copy from a collection that is in a text I own: Philosophies of Science: From Foundations to Contemporary Issues by Jennifer McErlean, 2000, pages 276-277):

The neoclassical model assumes that economic behavior is based on the concept of “marginal utility”: individual consumers express choices by continually calculating and refining their preferences “at the margin”-the point at which they have extra dollars of income or hours of time to spend-and firms likewise make adjustments at the margin to maximize their profits.  We know these things by assumption and inference: an indivual who did not maximize his well-being would be behaving irrationally, and a firm failing to maximize profits would fall by the wayside. 

The problem with the neo-classical model is that it assumes a universal frame where people will behave rationally, and as anyone could tell you, people don’t always behave in a “rational” manner (just look at the present economic crisis and the way fear and the financial networks’ sensationalism & misinformation campaigns oftentimes make the stock market volatile).  Kuttman put it best; he dictates that the “difficulty is that economic phenoma are neither so universal nor so predictable as physical phenomena”, which is the opposite of what many neoclassical economists would have us believe.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the neoclassical economic model is all wrong (that would be like saying that Newtonian Physics is no longer applicable just because Einstein came along with the Theory of Relativity); what I have a problem with is with reducing, explaining, and justifying all human activity and motivation in terms of self-interested “profit-maximization”.   

Bringing this concept of how assumptions are taken as “that’s how the world works” or rather “common-sense” in a world of many variables, let’s go over a few examples that defied “the way the world is supposed to work.”

Star Trek

The original show of the 60’s was actually cancelled because it had “low ratings” so would that mean that the show was something that the public did not want?  Judging from the eventual huge success of the show and the subsequent franchise that it spawned, the resounding answer is “no, the show was something that the public wanted!” What we’re leaving out are some of variables that at first we might not have taken into account like:

How effectively was the show promoted?  Was the show on the air long enough to develop an audience?  Did it have the support of influencial network executives based on personal, ideological, or political reasons?  Was it attracting advertising dollars and if it did, was the money managed effectively?  Did the show have any help from a popular lead-in show? Was there an audience for the show that went untapped?  etc. etc.

Progressive Radio

If you tune in to most any AM Radio talk show, you’ll most likely hear a staunch right-wing voice on the air.  Based on this, you might assume that no other perspective (independent, left-wing, progressive, or whatever you wanna call it) attracts ratings.  The right-wing hosts would have you believe that very same assumption-in fact they repeat that inaccuracy again and again in the hopes that it will become true (they must know that as far as marketing techniques go, if you repeat something often enough, it will become “true” or “common sense”).  The fact is that progressive shows both on Radio and now on TV, are becoming ever more successful.  Yet, radio shows with successful personalities that get huge ratings are being cancelled and silenced throughout the radio dial because of politically ideological reasons. Just take a look at how progressive radio talk show host Ed Schultz is continuously beating his right-wing counterparts on the ratings and yet has been cancelled in many markets because of the way idelogically conservative right-wing leaning stations or media monopolies control the market and thus have the power to put on the air only those voices that agree with their point of view. From Ed Schultz’s words himself:

Another perfect example of programming decisions being made that have nothing to do with “ratings” or “profits” but rather with purely irrational ideological reasons is that of hugely successful and HILARIOUS radio personality Stephanie Miller:

So much for always assuming that “what’s on the air is what the people want.”