Mark Thoma asks if there is a solution to the Pundit's Delimma

Here's Mark Thoma:
Mark Liberman at Language Log says the game theory can explain why pundits "best move always seems to be to take the low road":
...Overall, the promotion of interesting stories in preference to accurate ones is always in the immediate economic self-interest of the promoter. It's interesting stories, not accurate ones, that pump up ratings for Beck and Limbaugh. But it's also interesting stories that bring readers to The Huffington Post and to Maureen Dowd's column, and it's interesting stories that sell copies of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics. In this respect, Levitt and Dubner are exactly like Beck and Limbaugh.
We might call this the Pundit's Dilemma — a game, like the Prisoner's Dilemma, in which the player's best move always seems to be to take the low road, ....
...Pundits (and regular journalists) also play an iterated version of this game — but empirical observation suggests that the penalties for many forms of bad behavior are too small and uncertain to have much effect. Certainly, the reputational effects of mere sensationalism and exaggeration seem to be negligible. ...
I think it's correct that the penalties pundits face for "many forms of bad behavior are too small and uncertain to have much effect," but I'm not sure that was always true to the extent it's true today. So the question to me is why the tolerance for this behavior has changed over time (has it changed?)....  ....Is there a solution?
Is media becoming increasingly crass?  Are scholars and intellectuals increasingly aiding and abetting the debasement of information?

Yeah, I think so.  But why?  Probably because it pays more that it did in the past.  So why does it pay more today than it used to?

Telling it good and telling it straight is a long-term strategy.  That strategy was possible under old profit models of broadcast news and a few key print media sources. In the long run, lies would be punished with smaller audiences, circulations, and advertising dollars.

But today, with an increasingly fractured media comprised of a zillion outlets sharing fewer advertising dollars, and the internet spreading news free of charge, the long view no longer pays.    Old profit models no longer work and everyone is grasping.  All of this makes the media business short-sighted, because odds are better than not that any one of them won't be around long enough to reap the long-term benefits of telling it good and telling it straight.

I think this problem may well resolve itself, but it will take time.  We're in transition.  If and when the media business settles down into a new paradigm and it becomes clear who will stick around and what their business models will look like, the incentive to take a longer view will be restored.  And at least some of what we see, hear and read will be worth seeing, hearing, and reading.

Or so I hope.

Update: I do find marvelously hopeful the quick and thorough debunking of the Superfreakonomics chapter on climate change.  The media of yesteryear couldn't do that.  Joe Romm, Paul Krugman, and especially Brad Delong, among many others, have done a wonderful public service here.

Another Update:  Despite his promise not to, Delong came along with more excellent criticism of Superfreak.  Some pretty good substance in the comments, too.


  1. In Italy we have a Bandit’s dilemma. Quite a different story… Read at

    How long should we stay in transition?


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