Are Journalists Responsible For Their Rhetoric?

Argument: Scientists have a dual responsibility to seek the truth and, once found, to render it palatable to the public through the use of controlled rhetoric.

Observation: The role of the media is to adjust relative status rankings. They accomplish this through the use of controlled rhetoric.

Recall the days before the Telecommunication Act of 1996. Broadcast media was still the Big Three, with Fox playing the role of an extended fart joke. J-school students could still say they wanted a career in print without attracting either pity or ridicule. In this savage land, in this frontier time, it was possible for the media to maintain its own coalition without having to resort to alliances of convenience with the dominant egregores.

A number of regulatory and technological changes converged to reduce the fixed costs of journalism. In 1990, to cover a story properly, a news organization needed-at minimum-a studio, IT staff, reporters, a news van, broadcast cameras, gaffers, and sponsors. Add to this the explicit barriers to entry imposed by the FCC. A nominal commitment to objective truth-telling is trivial with such barriers (consider the effects of the BBC monopoly). With lowered fixed costs, the coordination costs of maintaining a specialized coalition are rapidly exceeded by the benefits of defection. Alas, C.R.E.A.M. Coalitions Rule Everything Around Me. Nature abhors a vacuum; human nature abhors autarky. News organizations unwilling to ally with partisan interests were unable to successfully compete.

Does the same economic analysis apply to the scientists Adam describes?

In general, there has been little change to the fixed costs of joining the research guild: aspirants still need to prove their bonafides to the profession the same as always. But the barrier with the sciences has always been the variable costs. Studies are funded, careers aren’t (on the relevant margin). High production costs imply that learning the art of rhetoric comes at a dear price for the typical researcher. It should come as no surprise that a randomly-selected academic has chosen to focus energy on the particulars of the trade. This is doubly true when the channel by which primary research gets disseminated is dominated by a coalition (at least nominally) dedicated to objective truth.

Unfortunately for researchers who both came of age prior to the displacement of the old journalistic regime and who now find themselves in the disfavored coalition, meeting Adam’s demands implies enduring a great deal of re-education cost. Favored academics can skate with nakedly partisan rhetoric, so long as they mouth the platitudes of the reigning ingroup. Heretics must not only adjust their rhetoric, but must overcompensate for the perceived unpleasantness of their findings. Moreover, they must, from behind a veil of ignorance, predict how scurrilous factions might uncharitably interpret findings to support a malicious agenda? Adam, my dear friend, you ask much.

Do not mistake my grief with the conclusion that Adam is wrong. Quite the opposite: I think he presents an important point. But if we apply ordinary economic analysis to his case, the results can’t help but threaten the project of liberal inquiry. If the non-dominant faction of researchers find themselves obliged to master both their field as well as the art of rhetoric, while the dominant faction does not, the resulting skew might be a problem for everyone. The disfavored coalition will be pushed out, and the favored coalition will suffer the malaise of indulgence: sloppy thinking and poor argumentation will tend to crowd out rigor and clarity. No one wins.

So if Adam is right, and I have no reason to believe he isn’t, the pulsating rhythmical remedy is not to police the rhetoric of the currently-unfashionable clique, but rather to monitor the rigor of the argumentation made by the high-status group, since they are the most likely to pass the relatively low barriers presented by compliant partisan journalists.

Beware. Beware the dominant coalition. Beware.

One thought on “Are Journalists Responsible For Their Rhetoric?

  1. Pingback: Rhetoric and Dangerous Questions | azmytheconomics

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