“I’m covered dishonestly by the press — so dishonestly,” POTUS says. So he’s going to keep using his personal Twitter account to communicate with the public.
Journalists expect a certain amount of access to the U.S. executive branch. Will POTUS and his people limit journalist access to POTUS’s social media posts, or will POTUS continue to give the press corps access to the White House? We don’t know, but we can look at what the media have been doing. I claim they face a social dilemma, and are taking an approach that’s not the best for society of for them.
The media have reliably reported on POTUS tweets. Why? Because they take the short view of reporting on them. Readers and viewers have responded to a tweet report. This increased the media company’s ratings, thereby increasing the media outlet’s value to advertisers, etc. Is this the right thing to do for the health of the media during this administation? Is it the best way to generate revenue (i.e., is there a way to generate more revenue)?
I assert that the media find themselves in a Prisoner’s Dilemma and they don’t know it. They pursue short term benefits (e.g., ratings) at the cost of long-term value (e.g., reputation, social function). Media outlets are making decisions based on selfishness. As a result, the collective outcome is worse than a cooperative outcome. (Economists call this a non-Pareto optimal outcome, which is a fancy way to say that competitors could get an outcome that’s better for everybody.)
Brace yourself, dear reader, because what follows is a bit dry. Skip to the next section if you want the punchline without the mathematical set-up.
When individuals or groups (n.b., Americans) find themselves in competition, they assume the competition has a “win-or-lose” character. For media, ratings or viewership is a win-or-lose measurement, since a viewer can only really “view” one outlet at a time.
Reporting on POTUS is different type of competition. How a media outlet chooses to report on POTUS has short-term and long-term consequences where the payoffs aren’t limited in the same way ratings are limited. This changes the competition from a “win-or-lose” scenario to a “non-zero sum” scenario.
American media has decided to report on the statements POTUS makes through Twitter. Supporse they had the alternative not to report on such statements. Will call that option an embargo. If we compare the benefits of each option relative to the choice of their competitors, we’ll see there’s a clear dilemma. To do that, we will assign numerical values that will allow us to compare consequences.
There are three cases to consider: every outlet embargos the POTUS Twitter stream, no outlet embargoes the POTUS Twitter stream, and some embargo and others do not.
Consider the first case, where all media outlets embargo the POTUS twitter stream. They will all need to work harder to report what’s happening in the White House. This will lead to the cultivation of a greater variety of sources, will give them richer information, allowing them to do better journalism, long-term. Although it will require more resources, all outlets are united and not putting any other at a competitive disadvantage. Moreover, the additional resources required can be regarded as an investment by the outlet for the benefit of society. So let’s assign the value of this outcome the number 4.
Consider the second case, where all media outlets report on the POTUS twitter stream. Then none will conceding ratings and outlet revenue to their competitors. But they will have less of an incentive to develop alternate sources for information from the White House. This has the potential to lead to a weaker fourth estate, so let’s assign the value of this outcome a slightly smaller number, 2.
The third case to consider is where some media outlets embargo the POTUS Twitter stream and others do not. Those that embargo the POTUS Twitter stream must deveote more resources to cultivate news sources on POTUS and will find it harder to report quickly on the White House. To reflect these challenges, let’s assignt the value they get from this outcome the number 1. In contrast, those that report on the POTUS Twitter stream can generate content quickly when POTUS tweets, generating ratings and revenue. They find themselves at a clear competitive advantage, so let’s assign the value of this outcome the number 5.
To understand what a rational media outlet would do in these circumstances, we proceed with the understanding that an outlet wants an outcome of the highest value, and it will make a strategic decision based what it thinks its competitors will do.
An outlet can choose between reporting on and embargoing the POTUS Twitter stream. On the one hand, if its competitors are embargoing, embargoing gives this outlet an outcome valued at 4, but reporting gives it an outcome valued at 5. So it would choose to report in that case. On the other hand, if its competitors are reporting, then reporting gives it an outcome valued at 2, and embargoing gives it an outcome valued at 1. So it would choose to report in that case.
In both situations, it would choose to report on the POTUS Twitter stream. Regardless of what its opponents chose to do, it guarantees that it will have the greatest (relative) outcome. All outlets would go through the same analysis, and all would choose to report on the POTUS Twitter stream. All would receive the outcome valued at 2.
It appears that this is the approach that all American media outlets have taken regarding the POTUS Twitter stream.
Notice, however, that had all outlets agreed to embargo the POTUS twitter stream, they would have benefitted from an outcome with a greater value.
If you agree that the assignment of outcome values is reasonable (only the relative order is important, not the size of the values), then the mathematics shows that the media find themsevles in a dilemma.
The best possible outcome for everyone is to have all media outlets embargo the POTUS Twitter stream. (This would require POTUS to engage more directly with the press.) To get this outcome, all (major) media outlets would need to trust one another to cooperate an maintain a strategy of embargoing the POTUS Twitter stream. The temptation to betray such trust is great and written with dollar-signs.
What can we do to motivate the press to cooperate in the best interest of American society? Tell them that you think it is important. Here is contact information for manymajor news outlets (as provided by FAIR).
ABC News 47 West 66th Street, New York, NY 10023 Phone: 212–456–7777 / 212–456–7000
This Week: @ThisWeekABC @GStephanopoulos
524 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019 Phone: 212–975–4321 Email forms for all CBS news programs @CBSNews
CBS Evening News: firstname.lastname@example.org @CBSEveningNews @ScottPelley
Face the Nation: email@example.com @FaceTheNation
60 Minutes: firstname.lastname@example.org
900 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632 Phone: 201–735–2622 Email: email@example.com @CNBC
One CNN Center, Atlanta, GA 30303 Phone: 404–827–1500
Situation Room: firstname.lastname@example.org @CNNSitRoom @wolfblitzer
Fox News Channel
1211 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036 Phone: 212–301–3000 email@example.com @FoxNews
Special Report With Bret Baier: firstname.lastname@example.org @SpecialReport @BretBaier
The O’Reilly Factor: email@example.com @oreillyfactor
Hannity: firstname.lastname@example.org @seanhannity
30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112 Phone: 212–664–4444 Feedback site @msnbc @NBCNews
Hardball with Chris Matthews: email@example.com @hardball @hardballchris
The 11th Hour with Brian Williams: @11thHour
Dateline NBC: firstname.lastname@example.org @DatelineNBC @LesterHoltNBC
NBC Nightly News: email@example.com @NBCNightlyNews @LesterHoltNBC
NBC News Today: firstname.lastname@example.org
2100 Crystal Drive, Arlington, VA 22202–3785 Phone: 703–739–5000 Phone: 703–739–5290 (Ombudsman Michael Getler)
PBS NewsHour: email@example.com @NewsHour @JudyWoodruff @hari
Frontline: firstname.lastname@example.org @frontlinepbs
National Public Radio
1111 North Capitol Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002 Phone: 202–513–2000 / 202–513–3232
@NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor, Elizabeth Jensen: @ejensenNYC
The Los Angeles Times
202 West First Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 Phone: 213–237–5000
New York Times
620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018 Phone: 212–556–1234 D.C. Bureau phone: 202–862–0300 @nytimes
General Contact Directory Letters to the Editor (for publication): email@example.com Write to the news editors: firstname.lastname@example.org Corrections: email@example.com Public Editor: firstname.lastname@example.org @spaydl
7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, VA 22108–0605 Phone: 703–854–3400 @USATODAY
The Wall Street Journal
1211 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036 Phone: 212–416–2000 @WSJ
Feedback form and contact information. Letters to the Editor: email@example.com Comment on News Articles: firstname.lastname@example.org Submit Op-Ed
The Washington Post
1150 15th St., NW, Washington, DC 20071–0070 Phone: 202–334–6000 @washingtonpost
Letters to the Editor: email@example.com Reader Representative: firstname.lastname@example.org
450 West 33rd St., New York, NY 10001 Phone: 212–621–1500 @AP
General Questions and Comments: email@example.com
Reuters Building, 3 Times Square, New York, NY 10036 Telephone: 646–223–4000 @Reuters
United Press International
1133 19th Street, NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20036 Telephone: 202–898–8000 @UPI
(https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/courses/soco/projects/1998-99/game-theory/chicken.html) Note that the actual value assigned to each outcome is not important. What is important for this analysis is the relative size (i.e., order) of the outcomes. As long as the outcomes fall in the same order, the situation of the media reporting on the POTUS Twitter stream is a Prisoner’s Dilemma.