Jack Shafer on the Limits of the Media’s Ability to Increase Political Knowledge

Jack Shafer of Reuters has an interesting column on the implications of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance, and other recent scholarship, for claims that public knowledge of politics can be subtantially increased if only we had more or better media coverage of political issues:

The surplus of quality journalism in print, on the Web, and over the air should give the public little to no excuse for being uninformed about political issues. Never before has so much raw and refined political intelligence been available at such a low cost to citizens willing to buy a cheap computer and Web connection — or pay the bus fare to the local public library.

But uninformed the people are, as Ilya Somin delineates in his subversive new book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, and their ignorance is willful!….

The public has been cashing the information dividends tossed off by new information technologies. But as Somin and others point out, most Americans are spending most of their new wealth on entertainment media — more football, more baseball, more online games, more movies and TV shows, and lots and lots more social media — and comparatively little on political information. [Already] Well-informed audiences are more likely to avail themselves to the new technologies to become better informed…

We could try to mimic Europe — if the First Amendment allowed — and mandate more political news on TV, in print, and on the Web; government could regulate political news content in an attempt to increase its quality; and it could even be directly producing political news that it, and not PBS or NPR, supervised.

This sort of government intervention into the news media would be rightly attacked as political indoctrination and state propaganda, although Somin doubts (as do I) that the programs would have much effect on the populace. After all, unless drugged, strapped down in a straitjacket, and fitted with lidlocks, who would voluntarily watch Government Television when so much other stuff is available on cable and the Web?

None of this suggests that media coverage of politics is useless. It does provide helpful information to the minority of voters who do follow political issues closely. And sometimes the media uncover a major scandal that penetrates the consciousness even of those members of the public who are usually oblivious to political news. Without the media, politicians bureaucrats, and interest groups would cause more harm than at present. But the media is unlikely to solve the problem of widespread political ignorance.

I previously discussed the limits of media reform as a strategy for increasing political knowledge here.