Thursday, October 27, 2005

Reconciling Perspectives on Media Policy: Transcending the Marketplace of Ideas

"Reconciling Economic and Non-Economic Perspectives on Media Policy: Transcending the 'Marketplace of Ideas'" is a hefty essay by Robert Entman and Steven S. Wildman. The essay was originally published in Journal of Communication in 1992 and went on to win the prestigious McGannon Center Communication Policy Research Award. As a consequece, it is often required reading for students studying media policy.

Entman and Wildman argue that most media policy (most specifically in the area of telecommunications) has come out of either the "market economics" or the "social value" schools of thought, and the lack of constructive discussion between the two sides has resulted in poor policy analysis and decision-making. In a nutshell, their essay is an effort to point out the strong points and deficiencies of the two schools of thought, define the authors' version of an ideal middle-ground philosophy, and reveal areas that need more research before the disputes between the two sides can be resolved.

In their introductory paragraphs, Entman and Wildman, who have PhDs in political science and economics, respectively, argue that the ideological division has resulted in conceptual fuzziness that hinders good policy analysis. They hold up the "marketplace of ideas" metaphor as one such fuzzy concept that needs revision:

It calls to mind an open forum to which all ideas have access and where all are fairly and judiciously considered. Yet a great many consumers of ideas might demand precisely the opposite ... they might want to avoid challenging ideas that violate conventional wisdom. (Or) limitations on individuals' time and intellectual capacity may preclude participation of the type envisioned.

We urge that communications policy researchers begin constructing a new analytical framework in which quantifiable economic efficiency criteria, the hallmarks of market school analysis, are weighed explicitly alongside the non-quantifiable social values that are ... concerns of the social school (p. 6).

In their first section, "Market Economics versus Social Value," the authors elaborate upon the arguments between the two schools of thought, noting that the market school has had the most impact on media policy. Though the authors don't define them in political terms, the market economics school almost precisely matches conservative econopolitical theory and the social values school mirrors modern liberal views.

At any rate, the market economics school believes that a free media market serves the people best because they will demand (and buy) what they need, and believes that the government is bound to wreck things if it interferes.

Conversely, the social values school thinks that if it was all left up to the market, lowest common denominator programming would come into play and we'd be seeing Jerry Springer, football and "Survivor" spinoffs 24 hours a day while more culturally and/or intellectually enriching fare falls by the wayside; some government intervention and regulation is necessary to preserve the social values of our society.

The two sides agree on one issue: that encouraging diversity should be a major goal for communications policymakers. However, this agreement rapidly breaks down into more arguing because the two sides can't agree on what "diversity" means. The authors go on to identify the classes of diversity dealt with in media policy analysis (product diversity, idea diversity, and access diversity) and outline several research questions that must be addressed before the debate can be resolved.

In their second section, "The Economics of Idea Production and Distribution," the authors argue that the process of idea transmission from sources through the media to consumers (gatekeeping) has been insufficiently studied. They call for more research on how cooperative ventures and conglomeration affect media gatekeeping and policymaking, on how media industries react to new technology, and on the relationship between the information and entertainment content of media products. They also point out that more research is needed on media consumers, specifically on how people's educational levels affect their tastes and choices and how to improve people's ability to process ideas.

The third section, "Toward an Expanded Policy Framework," deals with the insufficiency of standard neoclassical economic theory in describing media interactions.

One of the traditional theory's failings is that it assumes that consumers go into a market with fixed tastes they are trying to satisfy, whereas in reality people's tastes are often altered by the media they are exposed to. Furthermore, since information is a public good (like air, its consumption can't be limited, and one person's consumption of it doesn't limit others' consumption), it creates special analysis problems that aren't recognized by the social values school.

Conversely, the societal benefits the media imparts, such as a better-informed citizenry, are hard to quantify and are often dismissed as "externalities" by the market economics school and are not factored into their cost-benefit equations.

In "The Role of the First Amendment" section, the authors argue that the absolutist First Amendment stance can lead to negative externalities. They focus on the debate over the Fairness Doctrine as an example of the consequences of overemphasizing the First Amendment without judiciously weighing it against the negative effects of free expression. (The Fairness Doctrine existed from 1949 until 1987 and was established by the FCC. It stated that in order to keep their licenses, U.S. broadcasters had to devote a certain amount of air time to public policy and community issues, and they also had to provide the opportunity (not equal time, just the opportunity) for opposing points of view to be heard.)

They go on to argue that:

The basic requirements for improved media policy analysis are greater agreement on terminology, basic research on media industries and the role they play in society, an expanded agenda of explicit value considerations, and a more detailed understanding of the problems that arise when trying to satisfy the many goals of media simultaneously.

In their final section, "Supplementing the Marketplace Metaphor," the authors reiterate the need to come up with a new metaphor to describe media market interactions.

On the whole, I thought this article was good and worthwhile in that it seemed to nicely sum up the current problems and research needs in media policy, but somehow I wanted a little more. Everything the authors said made good sense, but it didn't break any new ground; they didn't tell me anything I couldn't have figured out on my own if I'd engaged in a little research and rumination. Also, I wished they'd dealt with the special problems of print media policy a bit, though I realize that the focus on television was necessary to keep the article from collapsing under its own weight (it's perilously dense as it is).

And finally, the marketplace they conjure up in their initial definition of "marketplace of ideas" is that of a buzzing, chaotic flea-market atmosphere, and it's a bit out-of-date (at least here in the U.S.). Our modern marketplace is the mall, a clean, pleasant place where you can spend hours wandering around, sampling different foods, buying clothes or hardware, receiving services from shoe shines to haircuts, and maybe even listening to atrium concerts or going into a movie theater for entertainment. If you're in a hurry or only want a specific item, you can run in through one of the stores' individual outside entrances, get your good and be out again in a flash. I think a "Mall of Ideas" metaphor meets the author's criteria for describing diversity plus easy, speedy, user-friendly access.