Why general audience news will only get more ideologically polarized: propaganda pays the bills

During a casual conversation with a friend about the state of the “news media” and its openness ideological diversity I expressed my rather cynical view that the future of the mass-market journalism is toward one of polarization. The reason for this isn’t really due to the nature of journalism in any specific way, but the reliance of journalistic outfits on very distinct markets. Publications are now focused on gaining subscribers, and to gain subscribers you have to provide product people want.

People read news for various reasons. Titillation and curiosity obviously. But also for self-affirmation and confirmation. This is rather clear for cable news, but the same dynamics apply to print and internet. News is a consumption good. People aren’t going to want to hear it or read it if it doesn’t flatter their own self-image. So when push comes to shove on sensitive issues the media will provide its customers what they want.

To give a concrete example, in 2009 a genetics paper provided strong evidence that Indian populations were stratified in ancestry as a function of caste and region, and that one component of South Asian ancestry is intrusive from the West. To my surprise, Indian publications put forth stories like this: Aryan-Dravidian divide a myth: Study. Basically, the media were transmitting the opposite of the most plausible interpretation of the results.

At the time I mocked the Indian press for being propaganda and the Indian public for wanting to see what they wanted to see. To be entirely honest I wouldn’t do such a thing today because when in glass houses one shouldn’t throw stones. My views of my country and its elite classes of various professions have changed quite a bit in the past 10 years.

The American media is quite willing to provide propaganda if that’s what its paying public wants. To give a concrete and now non-partisan example: the American media allowed itself to launder misinformation in the lead-up to the second Iraq War. A few people were right, and they were ignored or derided.

And like Indian journalists and scientists, American journalists and scientists also have some preferences about what they want to be true, so it’s not as if they are kicked and dragging in the direction of their most congenial results.

The “best” thing about the game that the Indian media played, and the game that the American media plays, is that the people believe that the propaganda is actually fair and balanced! Even the journalists themselves may believe the propaganda because many of them lack specialized knowledge to know when the people they interview are lying to them or misleading them (the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect is really disturbing).

Finally, if you are one of those people who strangely prefer the truth, there is a way you can get it: become wealthy and buy the truth. If you are running a hedge-fund or some such other thing, information is not just a passive consumption good. Information is input into the production of more wealth and power. People in this sort of results-driven financial sector mine informants for truth in a very conscious manner to maximize returns for themselves and their clients. And of course, there exists a market for what is basically “reality-based journalism”. It’s just a market that is invisible to us plebs unless we find ourselves having access to nuggets of truth which no one wants to hear, but which global capital wants to profit from….

The “media” that you see and hear about. The media with the big budgets and large news organizations are actually just a simulacrum of an objective data-gathering and transmission institution. In reality, they are tribal newsletters. On the narrow scale, they often reinforce particular tribal narratives and ignore countervailing ones. But on a broader national scale, they collectively flatter our self-image as a people in a sometimes ludicrous fashion.

The real objective data-gathering and transmission institutions are hidden from view. And they are the ones laundering the “truth” to those with power so that they may have more power.

Welcome to the future!