"People Are Dumb"

Yesterday, one of BBSpot's "Daily Links" was

People Are Dumb
The linked article is titled "World cares more about ducks than dead Iraqis and Hillary Clinton." It bemoans:
On a day when 55 people were killed by bombs in Iraq, the most read story on BBC news was news of a duck who survived gunshot wounds and two days in the fridge.

The story was more popular than Hillary Clinton's announcement to run for President in 2008, the 200-tonne oil leak from a beached ship.

This reminded me of a classic Jack Ziegler cartoon: two men sitting side-by-side on a commuter train, each with his newspaper. One man's paper is headlined: LOTS OF IMPORTANT INFORMATION THAT YOU HAVE TO KNOW. But instead of reading it, he's looking forlornly over his neighbor's shoulder at the other paper; its headline is: GOSSIP, RUMORS & WACKY STUNTS.

The cartoon is over 25 years old (it's in this collection); not much has changed since then, other than that people think things are worse than ever these days.

[I also, inexplicably, am reminded of the Monty Python sketch where a gang of mauraders haul off BBC newsreader John Cleese as he's on the air, droning on: "In Geneva, officials of the Central Clearing Banks met with Herr Voleschtadt of Poland to discuss non-returnable loans on a twelve-year trust basis for the construction of a new zinc-treating works in the Omsk area of Krakow, near the Bulestan border." Finally, they drop him off a pier.]

Anyway. It turns out the linked article's thesis is actually more subtle than "people are dumb":

News becomes dumber because we want more, and then we get addicted to dumb news, and demand more of it.
It's more subtle, but that doesn't make it right, of course. It's pseudo-economic analysis, coupled with a fuzzy collective "we", married to a dubious analogy about addiction, with an equally dubious unstated assumption about what people "should" want from news sources, and what those news sources "should" provide.

I don't want to belabor the obvious here, but … I guess I will anyway:

  • People go to news sources for varied reasons; there's no single "correct" reason.

  • Likewise, news sources jigger and adjust themselves in order to provide what their customers want. But (importantly): they don't do this the same way. The Wall Street Journal doesn't look like USA Today, and almost certainly neither one looks like your local newspaper. Newspapers don't do the same thing as TV news or newsmagazines. Everyone's website is different in content, emphasis, and tone.

  • Hence, as almost always happens in a dynamic market, it's become easier and easier for people to pick and choose a mix of news sources that provides what they want (as opposed to what some earnest scribblers think they "should" want).

  • I don't mean to downplay the problem of so-called "rational ignorance," where the electorate lacks adequate knowledge to make informed voting decisions. But rational ignorance is the opposite of dumb; its the realization that becoming more knowledgable on such matters has high cost with few tangible benefits.

  • But for those folks who choose to peruse to higher-quality news sources: thanks to the Interweb, that choice is wider, easier, and cheaper than ever before. That's a huge win over just a few years back. And that's a fact that the linked article just spaces over.

  • But—I gotta say—just about any rational person (not just the rationally ignorant) would be more interested in the Lazarus Duck story than in a widely anticipated, no-surprises entry into the presidential campaign. Ditto for yet another Iraq body-count story. It's not "dumb" to think so, either.

I also, frankly, think it's a little annoying for the BBSpot guy to complain about reader frivolity. Nobody goes to BBSpot looking for the latest on the oil spill in Devon, either.