All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1996

Must the News Media Be Inimical to Freedom?

The News Media Make the Selling of Liberty Difficult

It would be easy to conclude that there is an intrinsic conflict of interest between the news media and liberty. Whether intended or not, news coverage by and large seems consistently to undermine the classical liberal premise that society essentially runs itself without central direction. There are multiple explanations for that phenomenon.

It has long been observed that people who like business go into business, and people who dislike business go into (among other opinion-molding professions) journalism. That creates a problem for those concerned with making the intellectual case for free enterprise. The people providing lay citizens with their daily diet of news about the economy, policy-making, and politics tend to be prejudiced against enterprise. There have been some notable exceptions, but the key word here is exceptions.

There is another reason for news coverage biased against the market process. The reason goes back to one of Frederic Bastiat’s astute observations in his justly famous essay “What Is Seen and What Is Unseen.” The essence of the market is invisible. Like justice, you can’t see it. If Smith gives Jones a watch, you cannot tell by simple observation that what is going on is just. Maybe Smith is returning Jones’s watch. But maybe Jones told Smith that if he didn’t hand over the watch, he’d kill Smith’s wife and kids. Something more than a gross examination is necessary to understand the full story.

Understanding the market is similar. When you walk into the New York Stock Exchange you see quite a bit of action. People are waving their arms and shouting. Lights are flashing with arcane letters and numbers. What does it all mean? You cannot tell what is happening just by watching, despite Yogi Berra’s maxim that you can observe a lot just by looking. At the stock exchange people are trading things they own. You can’t see ownership or title. And they are not exchanging chairs or watches or even titles to physical things. They are exchanging titles to unspecific shares of companies. (A corporate shareholder has no claim on a particular copy machine or desk.)

The news media, however, are visually oriented, and that is as true of radio and newspapers as of television. What counts is not the medium but the people covering the news. They tend to be attracted to salient events, because those are easier to describe. When we add that fact to the general ignorance about the market process, we shouldn’t be surprised that the news is dominated by stories that at best ignore the contributions of the market and at worst disparage enterprise.

The Subtlety of the Market

Media people stumble where most people do. The market process is based on a phenomenon that is not obvious: unplanned order. Even when it’s explained, many people balk at the idea that there can be order without design. The idea violates their everyday experience. The examples of order they are likely to think about are the result of some planning: their households, their work places, and so on. Asking them to accept the existence of unplanned order is like asking them to believe that a vase will remain above the floor when the table supporting it is removed.

If reporters see order, or coordination, they presume it was planned, either by government or by someone else, but planned nonetheless. And if they see what looks like disorder, they conclude it is from a lack of planning. They will further conclude that planning is needed, usually by government officials. In that sense, reporters are like the government officials themselves.

Let’s look at some common examples. When news people see a plant close and many people put out of their jobs, they jump, for it has all the elements of a good story. It is highly visual and lends itself to vivid description, even for newspapers. If the product that used to be made in the closed plant is now being sold in America by Japanese manufacturers, the story gets better. Scenes of cargo ships heading toward American ports and Americans buying the Japanese product can be clearly shown or described. Those scenes are easily juxtaposed with scenes of laid-off workers at the unemployment office or interviews with the families of those workers talking about the struggle to keep afloat. The implicit, or explicit, moral of the story is that foreigners and free trade cause hardship to Americans.

What rarely is shown are the new jobs that came into existence by virtue of the market process and foreign trade. For example, the media will tend to be ignorant of the fact that if the Japanese are selling goods here, they have dollars with which to buy American products or to invest in American firms. Moreover, if the Japanese are now selling a less expensive version of what the closed American factory was making, it will not occur to most reporters to interview the American manufacturers and workers who are more efficient because they use the Japanese machine. They are even less likely to interview consumers who are enjoying a higher standard of living because products are cheaper. (The consumers themselves may not know the reason.)

Missing the Real Story

This issue of the unseen is well illustrated by a real-world case. There is a textile manufacturer in the South who is a big backer of restrictions on foreign textiles and apparel. At the same time, he opposes restrictions on the machines used to make textiles and apparel. He naturally wants to keep his costs down. So he would rather buy a less expensive foreign machine than a more expensive American machine. By doing so, he can be more competitive with his foreign competitors. If he can’t get cheaper machines, he will lose sales to foreign firms that can.

Most reporters would not think those facts newsworthy. (At most, they’d say the textile maker is a hypocrite.) Yet those facts reveal the real story underlying the trade issue. Americans who make textile machines would disagree with that textile maker about the need for restrictions on foreign machines. If they had their way, the textile maker and his employees would be harmed. If the textile maker had his way, the domestic machine makers might have to find other work.

The story shows that the fight over trade restrictions is not, as it is usually portrayed, between Americans and foreigners. It is between two or more groups of Americans. All trade restrictions are of that nature. Would you learn that from the news media? It’s unlikely because the unobvious is the unnoticed. Yet it is the key to the whole story.

Trade is not the only issue where we see this problem. The connection between government regulation of industry and stagnating wages or sluggish innovation is well-established in economic theory. But you won’t find it the subject of many news stories. Why? Because the connections are not palpable, and reporters respond mostly to what jumps out and bites them. You might see a story about how robots are displacing workers. But you are unlikely to see one explaining that the resulting less expensive products leave money in the pockets of consumers who are then able to buy things they couldn’t afford before—creating brand-new jobs that might pay better than the old ones. It is not a visual story.

Similarly, the connection between a minimum-wage law and out-of-work unskilled workers is not grasped visually. It requires an understanding of things that are beneath the surface, such as the laws of human action, specifically, the law of demand. Reporters operating purely at the visual level would only see “well-meaning” politicians voting to raise the minimum wage and unemployed people victimized by cruel capitalists who refuse to pay them a living wage. What other explanation could there be? What’s missing from the picture? Supply and demand, well-paid union workers who fear competition from the unskilled, and political demagoguery.

The issue of corporate downsizing has provided many examples of the shallowness of the media. Typical was a seven-part series in the New York Times in March 1996 entitled “The Downsizing of America.” The articles focused almost exclusively on the displacement and adjustment of workers, but said little about the benefits to consumers and other workers. This passage in the first article is about all the reporter had to say about that: “Some contend that through these adjustments American companies will recapture their past dominance in world markets, and once again be in a position to deliver higher income to most workers. Others predict that creating such fungible workforces will leave businesses with dispirited and disloyal employees who will be less productive. And many economists and chief executives think the job shuffling may be a permanent fixture, always with us, as if the nation had caught a chronic, rasping cough.”

USA Today had a similar series in April. While it referred to the creation of new jobs, the relatively low unemployment rate, and the coming productivity gains (even quoting the director of a “left-of-center research group” in support), the overall theme was that an “implicit deal between U.S. workers and employers that has existed since the end of World War II” has ended.

Economic news is not the only area in which the real story is usually missed or, at best, underplayed. The bias of the media toward predicted calamities, particularly in environmental and technological matters, has been noted often. One quick example should suffice. On April 11, the New York Times reported that there is no evidence cellular phones are unhealthy (“Study: Cellular Phones Don’t Raise Death Rates”). The story did not run on page one. Where do you think the Times would have placed a story about a study indicating that cellular phones are dangerous?

Objectivity and the News

The long-running debate about objective news coverage inevitably intrudes itself on this discussion. I’ve argued that the source of the problem with the news coverage of economic and social matters is that the important things are invisible. But is lack of objectivity the actual problem? I submit that these are elements of a single problem. The failure to grasp essential, unobvious facts about a situation is a lapse in objectivity. That failure and that lapse may not be intentional (in most cases it probably isn’t), but that does not alter the consequences.

What is objectivity? It is both a commitment and a state of affairs. It is the commitment to understand something about the world and the resultant understanding. We can sum up that commitment by saying that it is an effort never to confuse thinking and wishful thinking. Wanting something to be true does not make it so.

Two important concepts in the matter of objectivity, Ayn Rand taught, are essence and context. There are an infinite number of facts about any phenomenon. But not all of them are essential in a particular context. A news account therefore need not become an endless list of facts. In the coverage of a presidential campaign, the eye color of the candidates is not essential, whereas his position on sending Americans to war on foreign soil is.

Telling the essential from the nonessential is not always easy. Disagreements are inevitable. But in principle, investigation and rational discussion can resolve disagreements. I bring this up because people who discuss news objectivity often assume that true objectivity is impossible because it means reporting every fact. It does not.

Another alleged count against the possibility of objectivity is that, being human, reporters can’t really separate their values and opinions from their perception of facts. Here the philosophical muddle gets thick. The underlying assumption is that values and opinions have nothing to do with objectivity. Can this be?

Lately there have been stories about the existence of chattel slavery in Sudan and other African countries. You cannot read those stories without getting the sense that the reporters think slavery is a bad thing. (Why else is it being reported?) Is there a lapse of objectivity there? Have the reporters let their opinions intrude on their relating of facts? No. It is certainly true that the reporters hold the opinion that slavery is bad. But it is also a fact that slavery is bad. Thus the opinion, or value judgment, that slavery is bad is objective. It comports with the facts. Values are not outside the realm of objectivity, because good and evil are real aspects of the world. (The best case for that position is to be found in Rand’s work, particularly, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in her collection The Virtue of Selfishness.)

The problem with how the news is covered is not that it contains explicit or implicit value judgments. That is inevitable; the very selection of what to report involves value judgments. Moreover, value-free reporting would be uninteresting. (Rand said there are two fundamental questions: What and so what?) The problem is not that value judgments enter news stories. It is that the value judgments are usually wrong. But there’s another problem.

Objectivity and Detachment

Objectivity often gets confused with detachment. It is generally believed that reporters should leave explicit value judgments to others, at least in controversial matters. When a reporter violates that rule and makes an explicit value judgment in his own voice, he may be accused of a lapse of objectivity when he is actually guilty of a lapse of detachment. He, however, will tend to be criticized only if his judgment is dissident. Stating the establishment view will not get him into hot water. That double standard gives credence to the common charge that the media have a “liberal” (actually, statist) bias.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine that Congress increases the minimum wage to $5.25 an hour. Two reporters from two newspapers write their lead paragraphs as follows:

1. Congress yesterday raised the minimum wage to $5.25 an hour, increasing the incomes of millions of low-wage workers throughout the United States.

2. Congress yesterday raised the minimum wage to $5.25 an hour, threatening millions of low-income workers with unemployment.

What can we say about those reports? The first contains a fallacy. The second is correct. But both lack detachment. In each, the reporter draws conclusions in his own voice. The model of news reporting that most people (including professors of journalism) hold frowns on that. Reporters are supposed to have some “authority” draw the conclusions. That is one of the defining differences between news reporting and commentary. A commentator’s job is to draw conclusions.

But here’s where the double standard kicks in. The writer of the first paragraph most likely would get little criticism from establishment media watchers because his conclusion is consistent with theirs. The writer of the second would be heavily criticized for obvious reasons.

Look at this recent example of the lack of detachment from an Associated Press report published March 27, 1996. The story was about a new kind of contraband being smuggled into the United States, freon for automobile air conditioners. Under pressure from the environmental lobby, freon, a chlorofluorocarbon, has been banned here under the Montreal Protocol. But it is being sneaked into the United States in high quantities from India, where it is still manufactured. The AP dispatch began this way: “Smuggled CFC gas from India has been seeping into the United States by the ton, allowing some motorists to stay cool for less this summer but prolonging the threat to the Earth’s ozone shield.”

The reporter refers to the ozone threat as though it were an undisputed fact. Look what a difference it would have made had he written, “prolonging what some see as a threat to the Earth’s ozone shield.” The difference may not seem large. But at least it tells readers that the “threat” is in dispute. There is a significant literature that argues that the ozone is not disappearing at all and that the “thinning” at the South Pole is peculiar to that region. You would not know that from the opening paragraph or, indeed, from any other part of the story. The writer did a disservice to his readers.

What offense did the writer commit? He presented as uncontroversial fact something that is in dispute among scientists. Since his conclusion was in agreement with the environmental establishment, he is probably not even aware of what he did. He also violated the principle of detachment. He presented the scientific conclusion in his own voice. That reinforced the implication that it is uncontroversial. Note that had he observed the detachment rule the report would not have seemed so biased. Had he quoted someone saying that freon threatens the ozone, he might have thought to quote someone who disagrees. But even if he did not balance his authorities, at least readers might have had the sense that the threat is the view of one scientist rather than the view of all scientists. Scientists carry weight in news reporting. But an unadorned statement by a reporter, offered as though everyone believes it, might carry even more weight.

Is the detachment rule a good rule? That’s a complex question. Earlier in American history, newspapers did not embrace the rule. Newspapers openly identified with one or another political party in the days when ideology sharply separated the parties. In the nineteenth century, an openly Democratic newspaper was for free trade and personal liberty: it opposed the tariff and prohibition. Republican papers were the voice of big business, supported the tariff, and backed prohibition. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with that arrangement. When you bought a particular paper, you knew what you were getting. If you wanted both (or more) sides, you bought two (or more) newspapers.

Things are different now and are not likely to revert to the old ways. There are advantages to the detachment rule. While no guarantee of fair reporting, it could mitigate some of the worst bias routinely found in news reporting.

But we are still left with the question: are the news media an intrinsic impediment to the achievement of a free society?

Can We Have a Free Society and a Free Press?

Thomas Jefferson once remarked that he would rather have newspapers and no government than government and no newspapers. That’s not the choice confronting us. The question is, can we have liberty and newspapers? Given the discussion above, the case for pessimism seems strong. But things are not as bad as they appear. Despite the news media, understanding of the importance of liberty and the danger of power has grown remarkably in the last 30 years. At times the media have even been helpful. In recent years there have been more stories than ever before on the failures of government as a problem solver. There are probably more reporters of a truly liberal bent than at any time in the last 100 years. That trend should continue on its upward trajectory because many young libertarians are attracted to electronic and print journalism.

At the same time, we should understand that the news media will not be the leading edge of freedom’s intellectual revolution. Nor should they be expected to be. Despite the increasing frequency of news articles and television reports supportive of liberty, the real work in spreading the ideas of liberty will come through other channels, as it always has. The newspaper opinion, or op-ed, page is one such channel. Excellent pro-freedom material appears on those pages throughout the country nearly every day. Television news also has shown some improvement, though not nearly as much. John Stossel’s work for ABC demonstrates the potential for presenting good, hard television analysis of the failings of government. (The vituperative response to his work also shows the pitfalls.)

The bottom line is that the news media make the selling of liberty hard but not impossible. As understanding of the market process and unplanned order spreads, it will perhaps create a new generation of reporters who won’t be drawn to the purely visual. When that happens, the media may be more helpful in maintaining freedom, even if they are of little help in establishing it.

[1996 ID: Mr. Richman, a former newspaper reporter, is vice president of policy affairs at The Future of Freedom Foundation and author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America’s Families.]

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.