Sunday, August 5, 2012

The media are largely responsible for the decline in civic discourse

Via Insty, we find a chin tugging complaint that while the whole Harry Reid is a Pederast meme is funny, it's wrong:
Nonetheless, while giving someone a “taste of his own medicine” is no doubt satisfying and perhaps even instructive, wrong is wrong, and spreading intentional lies, even about a public figure as devoid of decency and scruples as the Senate Majority Leader, is unethical. No conduct, no matter how nauseating, by its target can justify this. Stooping to Reid’s level can only further degrade civility and dignity in American public discourse, which is the objective of political sewer-dwellers like Reid, not anyone with the best interests of the nation in mind.
That last sentence strikes me as particularly wrong.  The Media in an earlier and less degraded age actually did act as a referee.  While there was probably never a time when they weren't biased, there was at one time a basic expectation of standards.  Harry Reid would have been pilloried by the media in the 1970s and 1980 for his "sumdood told me that Romney like totally didn't pay taxes" charge.

Quite frankly, when the media enforced basic standards, we did have a higher level of civility in the public discourse.

And then that all turned into 60 Minutes airing 30 year old Microsoft Word documents, and the baiting of Joe the Plumber, and the silence on the media's part towards Reid.  The media have decayed to the point that they see no need to enforce minimum standards of decency on one side, while imposing absurd standards on the other side ("You don't support Obama?  I wonder if it's because you're racist.").

And so to Mr. Marshall's complaint on ethics grounds.  What's interesting is that there's quite a lot of theory about this.  If we are interested in a long term enforcement of ethics norms, can that theory give us guidance as to the strategies most likely to result in higher levels of civility?  It can indeed.

Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making, and has been well studied for generations.  The Prisoner's Dilemma is one of its most famous problems - two prisoners are each offered a choice: give evidence against the other or not.  If neither rats the other out, they both will get light sentences.  If both rat out the other, they will both get longer sentences.  If one rats and the other doesn't, the rat goes free and the other serves a very long sentence:

Prisoner B stays silent (cooperates) Prisoner B betrays (defects)
Prisoner A stays silent (cooperates) Each serves 1 month Prisoner A: 1 year
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A betrays (defects) Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 1 year
Each serves 3 months

What's interesting is that politics falls very neatly into an "iterated prisoner's dilemma" model, where a series of incidents are played out, one following the other, in a never ending ethical dilemma.  So what strategy does Game Theory recommend to increase ethical outcomes (in this case, to prevent ratting)?

Tit For Tat is the model that optimizes outcomes.  The rules are as follows:
This strategy is dependent on four conditions, which have allowed it to become the most successful strategy for the iterated prisoner's dilemma:[1]
  1. Unless provoked, the agent will always cooperate
  2. If provoked, the agent will retaliate
  3. The agent is quick to forgive
  4. The agent must have a good chance of competing against the opponent more than once.
In the last condition, the definition of "good chance" depends on the payoff matrix of the prisoner's dilemma. The important thing is that the competition continues long enough for repeated punishment and forgiveness to generate a long-term payoff higher than the possible loss from cooperating initially.
It's a perfect fit, and one that quite frankly used to be played by the media.  In days past, Senator Reid would have found that retaliation for his bogus charges would have come from them, in the form of increasingly disbelieving questioning and increasingly negative reporting about him.  He would have learned not to take that sort of tack in the future, as we see when Tit For Tat computer models run for multiple iterations - they fairly quickly reach a stable equilibrium with a minimum of rats.

Alas, the media have abdicated this role, and so the Internet has stepped up as an alternative channel.  My fundamental disagreement with Mr. Marshall is that he is not advocating for ethics in the long term, but only in the short term.  His quote again:
Stooping to Reid’s level can only further degrade civility and dignity in American public discourse
Tit For Tat disagrees, and in a world where the media no longer enforce the same ethical norms on both sides of the debate, the ethical payoff to "turn the other cheek" is precisely the continued degradation of civility that Mr. Marshall so rightly deplores.  In fact, the Harry Reid is a Pederast meme is precisely the correct response, because it is becoming so successful that the media may have to cover it - and there's simply no way to cover it without reference to Reid's own original charges.  In short, more of these may in fact nudge the media back towards a more neutral referee stance.  If not, the very success of the memes will hasten the media's demise.

In either event, we're likely to see increased levels of civility as one side finds that it is no longer able to rat on the other with impunity.


Old NFO said...

It's also the fact that there is NO 'penalty' for taking those actions. If one was held responsible (physically or ethically), people would think twice... The 'anonymity' now allowed makes it almost impossible to actually hold people accountable. Occasionally, one IS held responsible, but not often!

OMMAG said...

It's the media who benefit from repeating and broadcasting outrageous claims and fabrications. They thrive on it and come to depend on it. They use the bullshit like junkies use dope and will end up paying the price.

Differ said...

you raise an interesting point, however, retaliation on alt media such as blogs generally only reaches those who would hold similar points of view, rather than a broad swath of the population at large as does MSM. That said, the only way MSM may survive is for it to adopt a more centerist and less biased approach to news reporting.

Borepatch said...

Differ, the 'net picks things up in unexpected ways. For example, when you go to Google and type in "Harry Reid" it autocompletes by adding "pedarist".

Are there limitations to this? Sure. But when you add blogs, Twitter, and the rest, you have a quite rapid response network.

If the media don't reform, they'll go out of business and new media will be the only thing left standing.

Olave d'Estienne said...

I wasn't aware of any of this stuff. I mean, I actually heard about the charges against Sen. Reid before I heard about him saying anything about Gov. Romney (although of course I heard about the ho-hum claims that "Romney is rich so he never paid taxes so what we need is a more complex tax code and more tax brackets").

I have an odd perspective, exposed much more to alternative media than to the mainstream. I wouldn't trade it in, but it's odd.

In any case, I think Sen. Reid is a non-pedophile who will never babysit my son. (I do think the similar virus about Brian Ross is more richly deserved, as he attacked a private individual for no reason, rather than attacking a politician for a stupid reason.)

kx59 said...

The media plays by Alinsky's rules now, make "them" live up to their own rules. turnabout is difficult, since the media no longer abides by any rule.

Sean D Sorrentino said...

I once read something about game theory where it explained that you should react somewhat randomly to attacks.

Theory goes, if someone knows exactly how you will react, they will calibrate their attacks to their own pain tolerance. If they know that you will employ a strategy of proportional response, they can ratchet up their attacks until they can't stand any more retaliation.

However, if they are never sure if you will slap them in the face or if they, their family, and everyone they ever knew would get chainsaw enemas, they will just leave you alone.

I vote for chainsaw enemas all around. I think that would convince them we weren't playing.

Anonymous said...

The MSM is bought and paid for by the socialists who run our country.

Every single one of the MSM is run by individuals or Corporations whose views are expressed directly thereof in the MSM.

There is no longer a free press and be advised, the view that you watch is tailored by the view of the ultimate owner.

I'm thinking of spending a couple four grand (or trying to as I'm sure the ad would be rejected, but that gives me more ammo) running an ad in the Las Vegas Sun and Reno Gazette asking why this Pedarist (Pediophile) meme about Reid only now comes to light (hehe, character assassination is not above me)...

Playing by their rules, if they reject it, they are hiding something and if they run it, all the better.

Politics is War.

knottedprop said...

Take no prisoners and scorch the Earth this is total war between the ideologies, this is war a-la Eastern Front WW2. They kill one of ours we kill ten of theirs, spread the rumours spread the hate make sure that in the end the people despise them. Use their vile tactics against them. THIS IS WAR PEOPLE albeit a propaganda one we are striving for the hearts and minds of the people. See R A Heinleins Revolt in 2100.

Phil K said...

I decided to check - google no longer auto completes with pederast. Gives you a bit of insight as to how google works also as that would imply that they have scrubbed their engine.

Anonymous said...

Phil K, without going into a long discourse on how Google probably works (I say probably because Google's search engine is proprietary) auto complete will have different results for different people. Also, if you have a Google account and are logged in when you try a search, you will get different results. I tried the same search and, when I was not logged into Google, I got no auto complete of "pederast" after Harry Reid. Logged in, it was the second auto complete result for me. Just FYI.