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Cash runs news

If there is such a thing as a “market failure”, economics textbooks could summarize the whole phenomenon with a discussion of today’s cable news networks.

CNN, MSNBC and Fox are not designed to broadcast the news. They are designed to be television channels that serve a clientele who want to hear the news. This is a very important and dangerous distinction.

When making most market decisions, people usually flock to quality. But with the news, people don’t go to whoever is providing the best product. They flock to whoever is providing what they want to hear and see.

The Internet has given the news consumer a dizzying amount of choices. Cable news finds itself competing with both the web and other television channels for their viewers’ attention. As a result they fill their time slots with mind-numbing inanity between brief periods of insight.

They jump around from issue to issue in five or ten minute blocks that make the viewer feel informed without wasting too much of their time. These jumps don’t even have to make sense, with entertainment updates following “expert” political discussion.

News outlets waste huge amounts of time on sensational stories, while making sure to give proper deference to what the public thinks about it by showing us what’s on somebody’s Facebook. Rock riffs, moving logos and even a giant wall with videos of everything happening at the same time, are omnipresent.

Cable talk shows are an even better example, with each being so particularly partisan that anybody can find one that they agree with.

There is no one to blame for this decline. The problem is that people want this kind of news entertainment instead of real news. Television news outlets are responding to market forces just like cell phone companies and gas stations. In the 21st century, with so many ways to inform themselves about the world, the great majority of people have chosen the method they like the best, which it now looks like we’re stuck with. Cable news is just giving people what they want, and getting rich in the process.

I don’t think the news should make you feel comfortable. It really shouldn’t even give you both sides of the issue. In an ideal world, news broadcasts would provide the population with facts and analysis, allowing those alone to shape what issues are important and what policies should be debated.

But that is not the direction that mainstream media is going in, and Americans seem happier for it.

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