An Austrian Analysis of the Fourth Estate

Yesterday I saw William Anderson give a speech on the Austrian analysis of the press. A former practicing journalist and current Austrian economics professor, his comments were very informative in a way that I doubt I could really have learned about on my own. His main thesis was that the (mainstream) press as we have it today is a Progressive Era institution and that like all Progressive Era institutions it fails at its mission. What that mission is, we'll get to shortly.

The classic press was the "party press." Everybody knew that paper X supported these ideas, and paper Y supported those ideas, and that if you read their news articles you had to keep this in mind. Somehow the news filtered out to the unwashed masses through all the explicit bias.

In the Progressive Era the fervor for scientific management took over the press. They started to try consciously to be objective on the front page, keeping the opinions to the opinion page. The idea was that, looking at the stories they presented as news, you wouldn't be able to guess their political affiliations. Not only that, but the fervor for viewing capitalism as inherently screwy and in need of guidance from the disinterested government took hold in the majority of pressmen too.

But remembering that government can go astray and hoping that it would not, the press began to see itself as another regulatory agency, similar to the government agencies being created left and right then. As you can guess, regulatory capture ain't just for government agencies anymore. It never was. The press and the government soon reached a symbiotic relationship that continues today.

One specific case of this was in the federal courts. Anderson said that in his day the really good beats that reporters wanted were local courts. Federal courts were journalistic backwaters. This changed in the Reagan Era as more powers were conferred upon federal courts. Before there was symbiosis with local courts, and now federal courts are in on the lovefest as well.

To further run the press off track, public proceedings are just that: public; business operations are largely unknown outside the business. Not only did this make the business beat undesirable to journalists, it also gave the impression of transparency to the government and made businesses look shady. More state-loving, less commerce-loving.

Anderson then shifted gears here and talked about audiences. It's a mystery to some people to think about why so many R-rated moves are made when G-movies make so much money. It makes moralistic assholes think that the press are explicitly out to spread filth to our children (that's not exactly how he put it...). But the real reason is that the press (and the media more generally) don't see the media consumers as their real audience; they make movies and write articles to impress each other, and it's just coincidental that the unwashed masses pay them money for it.

Tying back in, we can take comfort in the increasing fact of media proliferation, which means that no one has the influence today that, say, Walter Cronkite had years ago. The internet is reviving the "party press"—which frustrates me sometimes, of course—but the idea is that out of all the many clashing voices the truth will emerge in the end. The way that the dealings of members of the press and of the media in general are changing is such that they're finally being exposed to more market forces. And that's us, we're market forces. Good for us.

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This sounds fishy.

This sounds fishy. Newspapers have been around for hundreds of years longer than Progressivism. I'm not saying they all weren't spreading their own ideals, just that Progressivism wasn't the first Ideal they spread.

He didn't mean that the

He didn't mean that the press in the abstract is a Progressive Era institution, as it's clear that the press has been around for a long, long time. He meant that during that era the actual press started thinking of itself as an institution that should take a "scientific" approach, distrust capitalism, and see itself as something akin to a regulatory agency with the specific target being the government. Not only was it that they supported specific Progressive legislation, it was that their more fundamental approach changed.

Anderson said that in his

Anderson said that in his day the really good beats that reporters wanted were local courts. Federal courts were journalistic backwaters. This changed in the Reagan Era as more powers were conferred upon federal courts.

This is odd. The action's been in the federal courts since at least Brown in 1954. Griswold, the precursor to Roe, was in the early 60s, and Roe itself was in the early 1970s. By Roe, it should have been stupidly obvious that the action was in the federal courts.

- Josh