Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Commonist Press

A recent posting on The Belmont Club uses the Tragedy of the Commons as an analogy to discuss the press in general, and the recent Koran-flushing scandal in particular. I thought it particularly apt and I posted a comment. Belmont Club has a pretty good readership but I was something like comment number 40 so you can figure that only a small number of people will see it -- say a thousand. Since I spent a bit too much of my lunch hour writing the comment I decided to post it here, too. That way it will reach 1003 readers.

Here it is:

The Tragedy of the Commons analogy is amazingly apt here. In its original form it referred to a grazing area close to town that everyone could use occasionally to graze livestock when it was brought to market to be sold. It was generally understood that everyone would be better off if the commons was sensibly managed so that the grass was not destroyed by overgrazing. On the other hand, if the expectation was that other users could not be trusted -- if the destruction of the grass was inevitable -- then each farmer was left with the decision whether it would be his livestock that was fatter and closer to town or someone else's.

The various players in the media all draw on a common pool of prestige and influence. There is a general understanding that their industry would be better off if news stories were more thououghly vetted, with more consideration given to their effects and less obvious partisan bias. There is considerable evidence that this pool of public esteem has been drawn down alarmingly. A recent poll showed that four out of ten people agreed with a statement that "The Press is too free." Sadly, the members of the press seem to share this low opinion of their colleagues. As they see it, the question is not whether politically motivated leaks will go public, that is believed to be inevitable once the leaker starts shopping the story around -- the damage to the reputation of the US is already done; the people who will be killed in the riots in Afghanistan are as good as dead already; those already sickened by the whoredom of the press had best look for another restroom -- someone will run with the story. The only question was whether Newsweek will get the "scoop" or if it will go to someone else.

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