Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Fickle Saccades of the Public

A running theme on this blog over the years is the extreme effect of the media on popular opinion, values, and behavior. Cameras gravitate toward the outlandish and emotional, maybe because that's what audiences want to see and maybe because that's what advertisers want to pay for. Or maybe the media define their role as alerting the population to the presence of bizarre beliefs and characters -- "Man bites dog" has got its own Wikipedia page.

Traditionally, the campaign cycle is built around fund-raising. The reason for that is so that the candidates can pay for advertising, so they can get their message to the public, so the public can wisely choose who to vote for. In recent years donations to candidates have become a news topic in themselves; the media publicize how much money the candidates have raised to pay the media to publicize them. The dollar amounts as a measure of support by the "donor class" are presumed to indicate the likelihood of a candidate winning the election, though this year's presidential cycle includes a self-proclaimed gazillionaire who doesn't need money from a bunch of losers and a guy who relies almost entirely on nickel-and-dime contributions from individuals, both very unusual situations.

The graph below, from the New York Times, tells you how the media's strategy is working out for us, the people. This is the image of this year's election, and the specter of the future. The history of our era will be about the role of the media in determining culture, and this will be the picture on the cover. You know the polling data, you know who has dropped out, look at which set of bars best correlates with political success.

It would be in the media's self-interest to feature politicians who are likely to pay them for advertising, wouldn't you think? But it doesn't seem to work that way. The media define their mission in terms of capturing attention in the short run, keeping your finger off the remote -- it's all clickbait, TL;DR, so they have "the numbers" to sell more advertising. It is more important to pander to the fickle saccades of the public than to consider the informational needs of their audiences, the actual importance of world events, or even the bird-in-the-hand advertising dollars of candidates who will pay big for attention.

Don't touch that button.