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Diversity provides sustenance

| Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Food outlets do not exist to make the world a better place, or even to provide people with nutritious food. Their institutional mandate is to increase the profit of their shareholders. The tenuous justification for this structuring is that Americans should in theory desire nutritious food, and as such the most profitable food corporations would be those that provide the most nutritious food. But, as the catapulting of McDonald’s and Dairy Queen to the top of their respective clientele charts demonstrates, what Americans tend to want most from what they eat is to reinforce their preexisting tastes for junk food.

Change the words “food” and “nutritious” to “news” and “unbiased,” and you get part of the argument Michael Poffenberger puts forth the claim that “transforming media establishments into more transparent, publicly-owned and not-for-profit organizations would drastically improve the quality of news and commentary.”

Is PBS less biased than other news organizations? Perhaps, but their audience is not particularly large. NPR’s radio news is very popular, but they lean a bit left. Was Dan Rather’s sloppy journalism due to an effort to please stockholders? More likely it was political bias at the root of the problem.

Impartiality in the news is actually difficult to define. Issues on which most Americans agree will inevitably be handled in a one-sided fashion. We simply won’t hear the viewpoint that women should not be allowed to vote, for example. That’s good for those who believe that women ought to vote, but bad for those who don’t. Conversely, if a sufficient number of Americans hold an insane viewpoint, the media is forced to treat it as sane. A non-profit news outlet could choose between maintaining this standard, or making its own value judgments concerning which opinions are worthy of mention. Either way, removing the profit incentive could make journalists more, rather than less, likely to let their political views affect their reporting.

Even if we come to a satisfactory definition of media impartiality, and create an outlet devoted to it, we can’t force people to watch it. (I’ll write a separate letter for those of you – if any – who want to repeal the first amendment). Anyway, just as there is nothing unhealthy about eating a hamburger if it is followed by a game of ultimate frisbee, there is nothing wrong with reading the New York Times if Fox News is for dessert. What’s more, with the spread of the internet, every point of view has a chance in the public square.

Some problems in the media involve integrity and honesty, not bias. I agree with Poffenberger that journalists should disclose their conflicts of interest. I grant that free markets are not the a prior solution to every economic problem. But when it comes to food and news, the diversity in available products ensures that those with healthy tastes will be able to find nourishing sustenance.

Josh Cole

Graduate Student

Feb. 8