Friday, November 12, 2010

The Free Market and the News.

“It is not from the benevolence of the Butcher, the Brewer or the Baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” Thus wrote Adam Smith in 1776 in his Wealth of Nations. We will be better served if those who serve us, at the same time satisfy their self interest.

Everyone accepts that but only the free market fanatics would entrust their well-being entirely to the self interest of the Butcher, Baker and Brewer. For good reasons we have public health inspectors who made sure that the food we buy is produced and sold under healthy conditions. For the same reason we have Bureaus of Weights and Measures that make sure that if we pay for a pound of meat, we receive a full pound rather than a mere 15 ounces.

The so-called "free market" serves us well but only with a certain amount of supervision. Of course, even then if supervised it does not always work. Recent salmonella infections resulted from chickens being raised under unhealthful conditions. Purchasers of commercial chickens are not well served by producers guided primarily by their self-interest. The free market, even when supervised, sometimes fails to provide us an edible dinner.

Similar problems show up with respect to the news.

In an elaborately researched blog on the Boggs Blog Judith Hollar writes:

“When it comes to covering activist gatherings, corporate media have established clear standards: Numbers don’t count nearly as much as politics do.

Last fall, when tens of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists and their allies marched on Washington in a grassroots rally for equality, media gave it far less coverage than the similarly sized, largely corporate-funded Tea Party protest in Washington just a month earlier (Extra!, 12/09).

So it came as little surprise that the Tea Party Convention this February would get more coverage than the June U.S. Social Forum, five days of strategizing, organizing and activism inspired by the World Social Forum launched in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001. What was a little shocking, though, was just how stark the difference was.

The Social Forum, in Detroit, drew an estimated 15,000–20,000 progressive activists from around the country, while the Tea Party Convention in Nashville hosted a meager 600 attendees. Two activist gatherings striving for political and social change, one at least 25 times larger than the other—but the smaller one got all the media coverage.”

It is clear what happened here. Our news media are owned by capitalists, by people who have become rich in whatever free market we have. Their interest is to maintain this free market and they no more hesitate to slant the news towards free market advocates than the chicken growers hesitate to take risks with the health of their chickens.

Some readers will immediately respond with "the government is unlikely to be more objective than Fox News or Rupert Murdoch's other publications." In a democracy like ours, where the government is elected and staffed by politicians, that may very well be true.

But the alternative to a totally unregulated free market in information is not government supervised management of information. National Public Radio is a non-profit organization partly privately financed and also subsidized by the government. Important for our purposes is its non-profit status. It is not tempted to skew the news towards the interest of large corporations and the top layer of the capitalist pyramid because it is not seeking to make a profit. (On the other hand, it must take care not to alienate all private businesses because they do contribute towards its support.) It needs the support of private and public parties and that is an incentive for trying to earn widespread trust for giving a reasonably impartial view of the news.

Of course, NPR did not cover the recent social forum meeting in Detroit either and some people regard it as a sell-out to the capitalists. Others think that NPR is a hotbed of leftist ideology. But a lot of people get a lot of information from NPR. A nonprofit news organization appears superior to news systematically slanted towards free-market ideology.