– September 22, 2020
new york times

News sources on the political Left, like the New York Times, claim that climate change is responsible for the fires in the West. Those on the Right, like the Epoch Times, say arsonists lit the matches that set off the tinderboxes left by decades of mistaken environmentalist policies, like bans on commercial logging.

The media has also split on partisan lines over almost every aspect of the coronavirus, including its alleged novelty.

And instead of uniting against the scourge of modern slavery, historical slavery has become yet another partisan whipping post.

Most disturbingly of all, some major social media sites like Facebook have taken it upon themselves to protect their users from supposed misinformation but they seem to (dis)favor the source of the information instead of its objective quality. 

YouTube’s recent removal of an important Scott Atlas video about the coronavirus is only the latest in a troubling series of deplatorming moves.

Even more disturbing, the New York Times, a reputed newspaper of record, apparently has not covered the decision in “Butler County v. Wolf,” an important anti-lockdown federal district court ruling that bashed shelter-in-place orders, business shutdowns, and such.

When I recently (about 7 pm ET on 15 September) searched, and I swear on a stack of Bibles that this is not doctored in any way, this is what Google returned!

Independent NGOs like AIER have done their best to try to provide unbiased, factual analysis of many censored and misunderstood topics, but they are few and none are dedicated news outlets. Most of their knowledge workers, like me, are scholars who dislike making “hot takes” on current events. But clearly there is a large demand for “news you can’t abuse.”

This is not the first time in U.S. history that news media have been highly partisan. Pretty much every American newspaper from the founding of the Republic until the second half of the nineteenth century was a partisan “rag” (so named due to the cotton content of the high quality paper that they used) beholden to some politician or faction for its existence. The problem was that most papers could not generate enough advertising or subscription revenue (the two were interdependent of course) to keep their expensive operations going without a subsidy from somebody. So they towed their benefactors’ political line, becoming, as the phrase went, their “organ.”

Later, though, technological improvements in printing presses reduced the cost of producing newspapers, especially ones printed on new, cheap wood pulp paper. As a result, many papers became more independent and a few big city dailies became lucrative enough to become newspapers of record. The New York Times was the most famous of them.

A newspaper can become a newspaper of record that publishes “all the news that’s fit to print,” the slogan on the New York Times’s masthead since 1897, when people implicitly trust its reporting to be objective and accurate because its expected future profitability, the value of its brand in modern parlance, is so great that no rational owner or publisher would dare sully its reputation. Profits and expected future profits bred trust, thus ensuring the subscription and advertising revenue that would ensure those future profits.

In the 1990s, however, new technological advancements, especially the Internet, began to chip away at that virtuous cycle. The future value of once seemingly invincible brands like the New York Times fell under a pall. In fact, the New York Times’ stock price (NYSE: NYT) bottomed at about $4 per share in 2009 from a high of almost $50 just seven years earlier. It has since rebounded but nobody thinks of it as a utility stock anymore.

Other once mighty newspapers of record also lost much of their value early in the new millennium and in the process became politicized partisan shills once again. Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post is perhaps the clearest example but too many “news” articles read more like op-eds at most papers these days.

To once again enjoy a newspaper of record that publishes all the news in a “just the facts, ma’am” manner, another technological innovation will be necessary. A news outlet that posted a bond with a third party that would be forfeited if it insisted on publishing anything factually wrong, or crossed the line between journalism and punditry, could create the sort of trust that people once had in the New York Times and other papers of record, all of which essentially posted informal bonds backed by their reputations and expected future profitability.

Right now, journalists’ incentives are all wrong. Controversy and clickbait garner pageviews, which lead to revenue. The bonding mechanism would change that incentive because the ad revenue would be reduced, obliterated, or perhaps even reversed if gained through a deceptive story or misleading headline.

Of course I proffer this as a business idea, not a regulation. Newspapers should be allowed to continue to push partisan tripe if they want, and I sure hope those sites that offer to reveal secrets I won’t believe to drivers in [whatever state I happened to be in at the time] stick with their business models, such as they are. But, again, it seems that many people still want one or more newspapers of record, where they can learn about what happened without getting some baked thirty-something’s half-baked memory of her sociology class baked into the story.

I imagine a media quality assurance bond would be for a fairly substantial sum of money, to make it credible, but it would allow for retractions and corrections under specific guidelines because, after all, nobody is perfect. Facebook, Twitter, Parler, and such could allow links to the articles without fear of blowback and of course users could add their respective interpretations as they would be clearly firewalled from the article in the bonded newspaper of record. In other words, nobody will be able to confuse my sarcastic commentary about the story with the story itself.

And, of course, readers would remain free to continue to read shills like WaPo or to switch to a bonded newspaper of record. Maybe I am wrong, and too few people want a real newspaper of record anymore, in which case I would be right about entering the age of Idiocracy. But maybe, just maybe, there are enough people out there looking for news they can trust once again to build a profitable business at the expense of the hypemasters.

The media quality assurance bond is just a specific application of what I call corporate malfeasance bonds, which are mechanisms designed to induce corporations to keep promises they make to stakeholders without any need for government regulators. But let’s not try out “new” ideas rooted deeply in both history and information theory. Let’s keep having inane discussions about broad subjects like “capitalism” and “corporate social responsibility” that even the most ignorant feel that they can contribute to because, after all, the devil is never in the details and incentives don’t matter. (See, clearly sarcasm.)

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s Financial Exclusion (2019). Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997.

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