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Monday, May 14, 2007

The Congressional - Media Complex 

Upon leaving the Presidency at the end of his second term, Dwight Eisenhower warned of the development of what he termed the "military - industrial complex." His concern was that the massive economic symbiosis between defense contractors and the Pentagon had implications for the American public which were fraught with risk and danger. While this relationship between corporate vendors and government customers was certainly now new, Ike worried that the Cold War increased the size, scale and complexity of the relationship in a dangerous and potential ungovernable way.

Since I have a day job, I don't have the time to surface the data to make the case as powerfully as I might like, but perhaps one of our astute readers can. It is my sense that the American media and Congress have developed an economic symbiosis which parallels, though isn't as massive, as the defense contractors and the Pentagon. While it may not be as big, though, it is at least as influential in terms of influencing and making policy; and I think it is very unhealthy for the country.

Key questions:

1) How much programming time is dedicated to political reporting? In particular with the vertical, all-news channels, how much of their time is devoted to Washington?

2) What is the associated revenue to that programming time?

3) How do ratings correlate to unit revenue?

4) What drives ratings viz. political reporting?

5) What is the total ad spend of political campaigns?

These are just a few of the questions which underpin the economics of the relationship between media companies and Congress. People who serve in Congress need to build attention and brands. They in turn raise private money and spend it on media puchases. The media need almost unlimited hours of programming, and need to have at least some of that drive ratings to drive unit ad revenue. The need each other desperately, and they both need to cry "fire" in the theater, not always, but often. Objectivity, judgment and integrity are minimized in this commercial sausage-making process.

It's very unhealthy, and we need to improve the system. But, then, isn't this capitalism and shouldn't we leave it alone?

Thoughts?

5 Comments:

By Blogger Aquarium, at Mon May 14, 05:46:00 PM:

HARD TO CAPTURE THE FEELING

GatorNation

What Tiger..where?  

By Blogger Georg, at Mon May 14, 09:13:00 PM:

No Cardinal, what you are describing is not Capitalism, it is an Oligopoly

From what little I remember from my econ class so many years ago (and Wikipedia), it fits the description much better: A limited number of entities with a non-differentiated product who’s main competition is each other, with a tendency to keep prices high enough to keep each other happily in business without raising them high enough to encourage competition. Ex. Oil companies. Fox News is a good example of what happens when a new company tries to get into an Oligopoly and the existing companies suddenly have competition that is not “playing by the rules”. Prices go down, service goes up, etc…

Come to think of that, it describes both Washington and the Mainstream Media. Blogs fit the description of pure capitalism better

However, our Republic form of Government is not, and should never become a Capitalistic endeavor. The polite terms for this crossover are Vote Buying and Machine Politics, the impolite terms are
Corruption ,Graft, and in the end a Kleptocracy.  

By Anonymous doctorpat, at Mon May 14, 10:19:00 PM:

If it was pure capitalism, then congress would not have the power to control who is and isn't allow to start broadcasting.

And certainly wouldn't be discussing laws that govern if one side of a political issue needs "equal time".  

By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Tue May 15, 03:23:00 PM:

Georg - let me politely offer a few differences I have with some of you definitions.

Oligopolies, even monopolies, happen within the rubric of capitalism. You are confusing different microeconomic concepts or forms of competition. There is a purist microeconomic idea called perfect competition -- that is when there are so many competitors (due to low entry barriers) that nobody makes much of a profit -- sounds like blogs. Then there are less competitive forms that get mroe and more like oligopolies, cartels and finally monopolies - the major media companies might be such a cartel, or OPEC.

All of these competitive forms can be capitalistic -- as long as they are privately owned, rather than owned by the state or workers, which would then approximate socialism or communism, respectively.

What I don't like is the alignment between the media, which is supposed to be a reporter of facts ata minimum and perhaps a bit of watchdog, and the politician/entertainers. Media guys need programming to sell time. Politicians need airtime to build the brand. And they both generate more heat than light to get ratings, and therefore get $.

Frankly, it's insufferable.  

By Blogger Georg, at Thu May 17, 01:56:00 PM:

Ready, fire, aim! Yep Cardinal you’re right. I need to take a few more minutes to read the article before hitting “send”. Sorry. Let me try to make amends, after all I agree with you in nearly all respects. And I always had problems with macro vs micro economics.

I agree with you that the Press and the political system of the US (and other countries) have become interwoven to a dangerous degree. Good press gets a politician re-elected, scandal sells papers, political ads in an election cycle can make up a *huge* percentage of sales for the media. (No, I don’t have numbers either, but I’ll bet over 50% of our radio commercials in the weeks before an election are all politics)

Where the most egregious example shows is not the day to day reporting, but Scandal. Leaving out the obvious double-standard of what constitutes a scandal depending on your political party, the press is always on the lookout for the odd, bizarre, freaky and flash-fried instant scandal, just add politics. To put a crude point on it, if it did not make money, they would not paste it across the tube. Remember Monica? Poll after poll was run showing that the American People were tired of the scandal, that we should just MoveOn.Com and get to work on the blah blah… But it stayed on the tube night after night because *tah dah* it made money. People were lying to the poll, and watching it on the tube.

Just like you, I’m also worried about the inherent Prisoners’ Dilemma that happens with everything in Washington. The first one to leak naughty little secrets about an opponent wins both power and sometimes nice paying *cough CIA* book deals. I’m all for transparency in Washington but it is impossible to negotiate in good faith for *anything* when you know the details of your discussion will be distorted, warped and leaked to make a few quick bucks on the evening news.

How best to stop it? Like many solutions, it depends heavily on honest politicians (not an oxymoron) who are well aware of their constituency back home and who go to Washington as visitors, not permanent residents. Perhaps the same care could be taken by major press institutions when selecting political reporters? Term limits for Politicians and Political Reporters?  

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