Microecon of Media

Many have expressed concerns that corporations with free speech may “drown out” other voices.  This view seems to vastly misunderstand modern communications media.  For their benefit, and yours, let us then review the basics of modern media.

First, reader/viewer/listeners today can choose among many many sources.  There are hundreds of TV and radio channels, thousands of newspapers, magazines, and journals, and millions of web pages.  Most readers track many of these, and try new ones often. Readers return more to the sources they see as more valuable.  So sources who want to attract and retain readers must make such readers feel they are getting value, relative to reader time, money, and other costs.  Reader values obtained include info, image, status, fun, and morbid curiosity.

Complaints about corporate political speech often give analogies to street corners or bathroom graffiti, places where the loud can literally drown out the quiet.  Early radio was like this too; radio stations with big transmitters could drown out weak stations.  But the vast majority of media today are tunable; if you choose a particular TV station, magazine, or web page, that is the source you will get – there is little chance you’ll accidentally hear a different station.

So today, the main way some sources take readers away from others is by out-competing them — offering readers more net value.  If your message is not eagerly consumed by readers, your complaint should be with how readers estimate value, not with other sources that offer better value according to reader estimates.  You can of course offer meta-messages, to persuade them they are making mistakes in how to estimate value.  But again, if readers also neglect those meta-messages, your primary complaint is with readers, not with other sources.

Now it does seem that many folks are willing to hear ads instead of paying higher cash prices for media access.  To the extent that some such folks have a natural tendency to believe whatever the majority of ads they hear on such topics tell them, such shallow folks are in effect offering to believe whatever the most monetarily-eager advertisers want them to believe.  For such shallow folks, money-wise the loud can indeed drown out the less loud.

But again, your primary complaint here should be about those shallow voters, not the advertisers.  If you believe that some voters care so little about political outcomes that they are willing to sell their political beliefs to the highest advertising bidder, you should believe that such folks have no business voting!  After all, preventing some folks from directly buying political ads may have little net effect – those folks may buy ads indirectly, or find other ways to buy voter beliefs.  The key problem is that some voters care way too little about political outcomes.

If there are only a few such shallow voters, we can probably just ignore this problem.  If many voters are shallow about politics, however, it seems wiser to restrict the voting franchise to folks whose beliefs are less easily distorted.  The opinions of shallow folks who are easily swayed should have almost no additional information value – why let such them make a mess of how we determine policy?

Added 10:20p: Many folks mistakenly assume that distortions from shallow voters stop if corporations are silenced.  But not only would that hinder non-shallow voters from getting info from corporations, the total distortion by shallow voters is not obviously reduced!  Shallow voters who believe whatever side shows the most ads would either be bought by corporations more indirectly, or by other deep pockets more directly.  And the many other kinds of shallow voters, who believe whoever has the funniest ads, or the coolest spokesfolks, or the prettiest candidates, would still cause distortions.

Mechanically, it would be straightforward to limit the franchise by age, income, IQ, education, knowledge test scores, etc.  Yes such changes seem unpopular now, but that’s no excuse for ignoring them.

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