Thorstein Veblen, Prescient on Today's Media

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

Via Joe Costello, a friend and former colleague:

While Keynes is all the rage these days, as the way things actually "work" in our society are laid bare for a short period, Veblen keeps popping up in my head. On Stewart v Cramer, I found this from The Theory of Business of Enterprise written in 1915 and as good a critique of 20th century media written, and for anyone who "stickle for truth", remains a major issue to sort for 21st century democracy.

I will say Veblen was a funny SOB, certainly intentionally rare for any economist — though if you look at absurdity as humor most modern economists should have their own shows on Comedy Central. While Veblen was there, the University of Chicago actually knew something about economics:

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The current periodical press, whether ephemeral or other, is a vehicle for advertisements. This is its raison d'etre as a business proposition and this decides the lines of its management without material qualification. Exceptions to the rule are official and minor propagandist periodicals, and in an uncertain measure, scientific journals. The profits of publication come from the sale of advertising space. The direct returns from sales and subscriptions are now a matter of wholly secondary consequence. Publishers of periodicals, of all grades of transiency, aim to make their product as salable as may be, in order to pass their advertising pages under the eyes of as many readers as may be. The larger the circulation the greater, other things equal, the market value of the advertising space. The highest product of this development is the class of American newspapers called "independent." These in particular — and they are followed at no great interval by the rest — edit all items of news comment or gossip with a view to what the news ought to be and what opinions ought to be expressed on passing events.

The first duty of an editor is to gauge the sentiments of his readers and then tell them what they like to believe. By this means he maintains or increases the circulation. His second duty is to see that nothing is said in the news items or editorials which may discountenance any claims or announcements made by his advertisers, discredit their standing or good faith, or expose any weakness or deception in any business venture that is or may become a valuable advertiser. By this means he increases the advertising value of his circulation. The net result is that both the news columns and the editorial columns are commonly meretricious in a high degree.

Systematic insincerity on the part of the ostensible purveyors of information and leaders of opinion may be deplored by persons who stickle for truth and pin their hopes of social salvation on the spread of accurate information. But the ulterior cultural effect of the insincerity which is in this way required by the business situation, may of course, as well be salutary as the reverse. Indeed the effect is quite as likely to be salutary, if "salutary" be taken to mean favorable to the maintenance of the established order, since the insincerity is guided by a wish to avoid any lesion of the received preconceptions and prejudices. The insincerity of the newspapers and magazines seems on the whole to be of a conservative trend.