In the days following confirmed person-to-person transmission of COVID in the United States, my company went on Fox News to promote ourselves. What makes this otherwise bog-standard collusion between business and media interesting is our representative was a Marxist who knew COVID would be a disaster for the United States. Our story was used to support Fox News' thesis that the entrepreneurial spirit of America's small businesses would crush COVID. In exchange we received media coverage which helped us sell product. Everyone won.

A common misconception about propaganda is the idea it comes from deliberate lies (on the part of media outlets) or from money changing hands. In my personal experience colluding with the media no money changes hands and no (deliberate) lies are told by the media itself. Lying and corruption on the part of media outlets tends to be unnecessary in all but the most extreme cases (like North Korea). Most media bias actually takes the form of selective reporting.

Selective Reporting

Investigative reporting costs money. Media outlets' job is primarily curation i.e. republishing information from others in the know. "Others in the know" is mostly companies with products to sell and political parties with ideologies to sell. The cheapest information to access is public datasets (like NOAA weather reports), public records (like Florida state records), public drama (Twitter) and press releases. Press releases are the best because you don't have to write your own article.

News outlets cannot report everything. If you report only some of the available information then your choice of what to report reflects your bias. Bias and curation are two sides of the same coin. You cannot curate information without imposing bias. Curating information is the imposition of a bias. Combine the Chinese Robbers Fallacy with a large pool of uncurated data and you can find facts to support any plausible thesis. Lest you think this is a partisan problem, check out this hatchet job by the New York Times and compare it to the reality.

The fact news outlets don't have to broadcast lies doesn't mean they don't.


News outlets don't have direct access information like what the military is doing. The military does. Militaries lie. If a newspaper says Colonel Kurtz says air strikes don't kill noncombatants then the newspaper is not lying even though they are broadcasting a lie. Even when a news outlet is broadcasting a lie, their government is unlikely to prosecute them for promoting official government policy. Newspapers abnegate responsibility for truth by quoting official sources. You get away (legally) straight-up lying about medical facts if you are quoting the CDC.

News outlets' unquestioning reliance on official sources comes from the economics of their situation. It is cheaper to republish official statements without questioning them. The news outlet which produces the cheapest news outcompetes outlets with higher expenditure. Besides, it is rarely a good idea to antagonize the government against you—even in a democracy. If you antagonize the government then they might stop feeding you press releases about the wars they're winning. (Noam Chomsky writes about this dynamic ad nauseam in Manufacturing Consent.)

This is true even for small independent operations. It's rare for podcast hosts to argue with their guests. This isn't necessarily unethical. The number of people who dislike you is dominated by the size of your audience, not by how wrong you are. If you have a large audience then people will call you wrong all the time and the right thing to do is ignore them. This applies to both hosts and guests. If an adversary invites you onto their show it is because they think the exchange will net benefit their platform.

If your adversary's evaluation is correct then you should decline unless you are playing a non-zero-sum game (in which case you are not true adversaries). The parity inverse of a meme is the same meme—at a different phase in its lifecycle. Two-sided conflicts are extremely virulent memes because they co-opt potential enemies.

Debugging Attention

When thinking about things scientifically, it is helpful to ask yourself "What do you think you know and why do you think you know it?" Media bias is not a game of science. It is a game of memetics. Memetics isn't about truth. It is about attention. Ask yourself "What are you thinking about and why are you thinking about it?"


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9 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:34 PM

Yeah, the last paragraph is very close to how I've been thinking about these things. Maybe instead of "attention" I'd focus on "importance". People propagate information based on what they consider important, but their importance judgments are themselves based on information received from other people. So the public conversation becomes a huge game of "importance telephone", leading to factions that hate each other for having "wrong" importance judgments.

Maybe effective altruism could be a way out of this mess? Agree on the QALY as a common yardstick of importance, and create QALY-centric news media. Has anyone tried that?

"Importance" is another good way of thinking about it. Effective altruism is one potential route out of this mess. Like any single metric, QALY is bound to run into problems if it's taken too far to the extreme; there are things QALY is a bad metric for. But that's not an issue right now, on the margin, for the world we live in.

Another thing I like about QALY-based news is it would automatically select for people making the world a better place in on a large scale. I would love for that sort of thing to get my attention. I feel it properly combines staring straight into the awfulness of the world with working hard and creatively to make things better.

I'm French, and although I know quite a bit about the French press (as my father happens to be a journalist), I know next to nothing about press outside France.

So here are my two cents about media economy, from a French perspective.

1) In France, most media outlets are subsidized by the government. This is at least one way to give them a bit of financial slack that they can (hopefully) use for quality journalism (unlikely, but still more likely than in a full on competition for the fittest meme to sell). Generally, the most financial slack newspaper have the more they can let their journalist do their job conscientiously... 

2) The Canard Enchainé (Chained Duck) is a French journal which does not rely much on official sources. Mostly because their reputation allows them to get unofficial sources very easily. They are very good at what they do, which is uncovering scandals, frauds, corruption and general silliness involving politicians and businesses. And they seem to do very well financially, mostly because their reputation allows information to come to them spontaneously. They are not exempt of selective reporting, but as their business model is mainly to laugh at/denounce politicians, they target everybody relatively fairly.

I think you're raising good points, but I am wondering if 1) is still true. I have noticed recently that French media outlets have become increasingly polarised, which is encouraging all media to defend their ideological fortress to the death. For example, there is a widening ideological gap between Le Monde and Le Figaro, with both of them taking opposed and controversial stances (racialism/"decolonialisme" for one, and xenophobia/islamophobia for the other). 

This is also true for News Channels. Cnews appeals to a right-wing audience while public channels (France Info) are much more leftist. Was it always like that? Am I mistaken?  (edit: my point here was not to say that French media used to be neutral. It never was. I want to point out that I find abnormal that said media have been barely or superficially representing diverging opinions) 

Also, I doubt that situation was caused by dearth of funds, since even a famous newspaper like Le Monde has been struggling financially for years, and before it was this polarised. French newspapers may be riding that trend to make more money, though. Still, it's not as bad as the US yet. Yet.

Le Canard Enchainé's sounds like a way out of this situation. If anyone knows about an English-language news outlet with a similar business model I'd be happy to hear about it.

Would WikiLeaks fit this model?

It has potential. I think of WikiLeaks more as a utility than as a media outlet, but there's a good argument that WikiLeaks does indeed fit the model.

Maybe 'Private Eye' in the UK might have some parallels.

I've taken the view that generally we really don't have news as we did in "the old days" (which itself is a bit of a myth as going back farther than what one might call the golden age of journalism/reporting - 60s/70s era perhaps - I think we'd see the same type of outcomes.). Generally I take most news or media outlets to basically be about opinion that is hung on a few facts. Fits right in with the view on biases and incomplete information (selected or just incomplete).

I also somewhat see this as a case of nature abhorring a vacuum. When we started up with the 24/7 outlets and added the increased speed of transmitting information (and reduced costs) I think the industry ended up with way more slack for the actual new information generated per unit time. Something had to fill the gaps. I think that also drove a dynamic related to (self declared?) expert personalities and all the talking heads we find.

That said, there probably is good value in knowing or at least being a bit familiar with the current framing and meme that are dominant in any given topic space. So perhaps there is news but just new on a slightly different margin. 

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