Friday, March 7, 2014

The Optimal Quantity of Unwarranted Media Harassment is not Zero

Today is the seventh of March, 2014. Yesterday, an elderly Japanese-American man was the subject of relentless media badgering. A Newsweek correspondent tracked this man down, suspecting him of being the fellow who wrote the Bitcoin protocol. The histrionics over the past day remind me less of Edward R. Murrow and more a fulvid Charles Foster Kane.

What would Coase say?

The Ouroborotic nature of journalism can be frustrating for those who have not yet learned to collapse the moral telescope. From the individual journalist's point of view, the public's interest is an ironclad straitjacket. Career incentives are centered on scoops, on eyeballs, on pageviews. But from the news consumer's point of view, the media exists to highlight what's interesting in the world. Each is in partial thrall to the other. It's an equilibrium. That does not imply that it's the only equilibrium.

The Schelling in this Point is man's natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange in gossip. Individually, since each member of the public has as little to no ability to influence the content of the news, the costs of reckless quasi-paparazzi are easily swamped by the benefits of consuming salacious tabloid pablum. Curbing the hunger for frivolous human interest stories is costly: it requires the discipline of a well-informed temperance. Rigorous personal virtue is hard, therefore the analyst should expect it to be rare. Because it is rare, the rigorous analyst should also expect a vigorous market in sleazy journalism.

If you're so inclined, perhaps you might encourage the people in your circles to temper their propensity to gossip. For everyone else, journalism cannot ever be reasonably expected to be anything other than non-euvoluntary (particularly when the alternatives are too horrible to reasonably contemplate) and we'll just have to accept that the occasional harassment of people who just want to mind their own damn business and build play train sets in peace are simply part of the costs of having a free press.


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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?