David R. Henderson  

One and a Half Cheers for Fox News

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Senator Jay Rockefeller made a splash Wednesday by suggesting that the Federal Communications Commission shut down the Fox News Channel and MSNBC. My guess is that he mentioned MSNBC because he wanted to sound equally oppressive of both left and right; the viewing numbers show, though, that viewership of FNC is a multiple of MSNBC. Rockefeller swore to uphold the Constitution, which includes the First Amendment, and he intends to start doing so any day now.

What's interestingly economically is that Rockefeller's attack gives the lie to the idea that politicians' only purpose in having the FCC is to allocate scarce electro-magnetic spectrum. Ronald Coase shot a hole in that idea in his classic 1959 Journal of Law and Economics article on the FCC, an article, incidentally, that helped lead to his formulation of the Coase theorem in the JLE the following year. But, given that FNC is cable, even those who never thought of, or agreed with, Coase's argument for auctioning had no ground to stand on in advocating restrictions on cable.

Also interesting is Rockefeller's bald statement of his motive in wanting to get rid of the Fox News Channel. He wrote:

It'd be a big favor to political discourse, our ability to do our work here in Congress, and to the American people, to be able to talk with each other and have some faith in their government and, more importantly, in their future.

That's what's missing: faith in our government. How come I didn't think of that? Although FOX's faith in the government program called war seems unrestrained, in some other ways, FOX does undercut many people's faith in government. I wrote a partial defense of FNC in 2005 titled, "Two Cheers for the Fox News Channel." After their treatment of Ron Paul and various other failings, I can give only 1.5 cheers. But that's still something. Here's part of my conclusion of that article:
A major message in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations is that the reason free markets work so well is that each participant is motivated mainly by self-interest and that people figure out that the way to get something they want is to provide something that someone else wants and is willing to pay for. Smith compared the free market to an invisible hand that created good results for society in general, even though such overall good results were no one's intention. Similarly, competition in TV news and opinion shows will bring good results that are not necessarily intended by any of the participants. When Roger Ailes started the Fox News Channel, his intention was to make money for his boss Rupert Murdoch by catering to a niche that had been largely ignored. It has worked, and the whole news market is better for it. In the process of competing in the bigger world of ideas, Fox is showing, as if by an invisible hand, some of the weaknesses in its own views.


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

I couldn't agree with you more on Jay Rockefeller, but I might apply Smith here slightly differently.

Competition and the market will bring about "good results for society" to be sure, but what constitutes "good results" is going to be subjectively defined by market participants. Because of this, I would not presume that the "good result" is a robust "news market" as you put it. The "good result" we are converging on may be entertainment, or ideological war whoops, or comforting lies. "Good" as our preferences define them, but perhaps not ideal by more transcendent standards.

But what is to be done? It's not as if we can expect any better from Congress telling us what to watch. Society simply has to educate itself and we just have to hope that it will develop a preference for news, information, and reason over entertainment, ideology, and lies (well... a fair amount of entertainment is still good - just preferably not masquerading as news!).

kevin writes:

The commenters at the Huffington Post were quite upset with Rockefeller's proposal. Not because it curtails freedom of speech. Because he wants to censor MSNBC, too.

Read those comments, they're absolutely sickening.

Didn't the left used to at least pretend to support freedom of speech?

John Fembup writes:

1. Is it just too obvious to say, that suppression or influence of "a free press" is one kind of government exercise of power that the First Amendment was specifically adopted to prevent?

2. If Mr. Rockefeller wants to hear news from neither the left nor the right (according to his own definitions, whatever they are), he has at least two other options - - aside, I mean, from nullifying the First Amendment:

a. Get a bill thru the Senate that establishes a government-owned Radio Free America whose content Congress can control and would therefore be unbiased.
b. Use his own family money to start up a station whose content Rockefeller can control and which would therefore be unbiased.

Either option would compete for listeners / viewers against the outlets he considers "biased". (good luck finding ubiased editors and reporters for any new stations. I think some former employees of Air America may still be available. Al Franken might jump at the opportunity).

3. It's my understanding that present law concerning "licensure" of the airways applies to broadcast channels, not cable channels but even if so, that is a distinction without a real difference - so far as Mr. Rockefeller is concerned.

4. I would love to hear Mr. Rockefeller explain why Senators whose views sharply differ from his own should continue to be allowed to debate on the Senate floor.

fundamentalist writes:

Daniel, I was in the news business for a while many years ago and the big debate was always whether to give the people what they wanted or what we thought they should hear. People want entertainment; newspeople want to give them politics. You can't force feed the American people. You could outlaw entertainment and give people nothing but 24-hour political news and nothing would change because few people would watch it.

A few years ago Yahoo asked its users what kind of news they wanted on the front page of the web site. Most people said politics and world news. So Yahoo put politics and world news on the front page and viewership plummeted. So Yahoo hired a data mining firm to mine its click trails. The data mining firm discovered that most viewers wanted stories about pop stars and pro athletes. So Yahoo changed the front page again and viewership soared.

It's far better for profit-making businesses to provide us with the news because they give us what we want. Few people want political news. In my opinion, their is way too much of it as it is.

Daniel-,

Objective news reporting is a myth. Like objective history. And they are effectively the same because they deal with the events of the past.

It is not possible to cover events objectively, unless you make a mental photo of all that has been happening.

At the very moment that you choose which events to report and which not to, you lose your objectivity.

And then comes how you interpret the facts. Two news stations can both report on QE. But one may interpret QE as inflationary and another may not.

And neither of the news stations will be objective.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

fundamentalist -
Oh I know you can't force feed the American people. And I also don't think there's anything inherently wrong with wanting entertainment. I just wouldn't automatically assume that market forces will produce good, competitive news perspectives. The market will produce what is demanded - and that may not be "good news" at all!

I agree completely on the surplus of political "news" (I'm not sure how much news it is so much as political gossip). I wish there would be more economic, social, and cultural news - not to mention international news - and less political news. Needless to say, of course, I may be a small portion of the market. But that's what's so great about the internet - no need to rely on TV news.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Daniil-
Objective news reporting is a myth. Like objective history. And they are effectively the same because they deal with the events of the past.

Definitely. I think there's a difference, though, between thoughtful, subjective analysis and deliberately distorted or spun news. Certainly nothing humans experience and interpret can ever be truly "objective". I'm not sure I agree that "objectivity" is the right ideal we should be shooting for, though.

David R. Henderson writes:

Just a hunch, but I'm guessing, based on the comments above, that almost no one read my article I linked to. In it, I laid out with chapter and verse how FOX had provided balance: it's not balanced but it provides balance.
@John Fembup,
You wrote, "If Mr. Rockefeller wants to hear news from neither the left nor the right (according to his own definitions, whatever they are), he has at least two other options - - aside, I mean, from nullifying the First Amendment."
You left out an even easier option: don't watch them.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I hadn't read it initially - I was commenting on the selection you offered. I did now - very good.

I'd still maintain that what they're "balancing" is largely not news. If a liberal news organization distorts things and selectively reports points and is joined by a conservative news organization that does the same thing for the other side, there is "balance" of sorts, but I think again it's balance of entertainment rather than news.

I agree on O'Reilly. I think he can be dismissive of others, which is off-putting - but he's not as disingenuous as a lot of others on Fox or MSNBC. In other words - he can be gruff and he can be wrong, but you don't get the impression you're being intentionally played. I found it interesting you have a relatively positive view of Brit Hume - he's actually one that's always bothered me. You don't mention Chris Wallace - I guess he wasn't around back then? Like I said, I wouldn't necessarily give Fox credit for being a "news" organization - but the one real gem is Wallace, who I think is quite simply the best TV news personality out there today. He also shows how you can have a conservative slant and still do news in a useful, informative, "balanced" way. The real problem with Fox is (1.) the bobble heads like Hannity and Ingraham that you can practically predict the script for before each show, (2.) Glenn Beck - a purveyor of paranoia in a class all his own, and (3.) the string of former politicos they line up. Without those three, I think Fox could actually be a real, good, solid conservative news outlet.

Dale Moses writes:

No, they could not. A real, good, solid conservative news outlet means that sometimes you have to face hard facts about being wrong. It also means that you cannot be an explicit organizationally wide shill for political interests.

FNC is both an explicit shill for Republican interests(why do you think they panned Paul?) and unable to admit when it is wrong. Simply changing the talking heads they have won't change the quality of the reporting. It will just be different talking heads with the same script.

Doc Merlin writes:

@ Kevin

"Didn't the left used to at least pretend to support freedom of speech?"

They still do, they just couch it in other words and talk about how it is't infringement when they do it.

Mark Brady writes:

So I checked out Senator Jay Rockefeller's remarks.

"More than just retransmission consent ails our television markets. We need new catalysts for quality news and entertainment programming. I hunger for quality news. I'm tired of the right and the left. There's a little bug inside of me which wants to get the FCC to say to Fox and to MSNBC, "Out. Off. End. Goodbye." It'd be a big favor to political discourse, our ability to do our work here in Congress, and to the American people, to be able to talk with each other and have some faith in their government and, more importantly, in their future."

On one level, it IS disturbing that any senator would think and say this. That said, I don't believe he's calling for Fox and MSNBC to be closed down.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mark Brady,
So, Mark, is your point that it's not Rockefeller but a "bug" inside Rockefeller that's calling for Fox and MSNBC to be closed down?

Mark Brady writes:

@David R. Henderson
David, I've now read this section of Rockefeller's speech several times and I really don't see that he's calling for the Federal Communications Commission to shut down Fox News and MSNBC. It therefore strikes me as rather disingenuous or at least sloppy to claim that he is.

David R. Henderson writes:

So, Mark, are you going to answer the question I asked you?

Mark Brady writes:

David: "So, Mark, are you going to answer the question I asked you?"

Certainly. I don't believe that when Rockefeller spoke about a "little bug" inside of himself he was in fact calling for Fox and MSNBC to be closed down.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mark Brady,
I think you're really stretching.

Mark Brady writes:

David: "I think you're really stretching."

Well I'm open to being persuaded that I'm wrong but right now I have to say that I think you're really stretching. :-) But what do other people think? Does anyone out there agree with me?

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