A Description of a Really Nice Sausage
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
  NPR is my favorite non-internet source of news because hosts like Alex Chadwick when they have on Grover Norquist will
  1. ask if there's really a chance for flat tax reform in a country with almost a century of progressive taxation and a lot of people who kinda sorta really do like it; and
  2. will also point out—interrupting, if necessary—that the limp thing Norquist calls the death tax is actually officially known as the inheritance tax.
Which is not to say that on—e.g.—CNN he wouldn't get the same reception. Which is why I'll say it explicitly: on, e.g., CNN Norquist would not be received the same way. I surmise that on FOX News he would have been provided with a colorful thesaurus with which to continue to rename the inheritance tax to maximize public revulsion. But that's just me being snarky.

The current faddish meme concerning the spinelessness of corporate news media has prompted me to wonder if the same hasn't been at least cyclically true since its advent—which is ultimately irrelevant to moral judgments about same and opinions as to whether correcting this is a worthy goal, it has to be said.

Corporations are organizations magically endowed with "personhood," a legal definition I in my naïve medical school shroud will leave sufficiently vague. But those corporations which aren't, for instance, simply pragmatically created out of small businesses to shield their owners from liability, and so we're chiefly talking about large corporate entities—multinationals, big industry groups, companies that generally because of the risk of liability and the problem of capital owe their size to incorporation—we might start to understand them a bit as complex systems rather than single entities, just as an understanding of humans is enriched by study of its complex structures and feedback loops.

So one of the things we can do is examine the feedback loops. The most obvious one is that of shareholder-board-CEO and the connections it has with share price, company value, etc. The understands that in the current Wall Street climate, many corporations act in such a way as to maximize short-term gains in stock price, sometimes even at odds with long-term value. That is of course a function of shareholder values, corporate bylaws (insofar as the electoral rights shareholders possess), and executive accountability. So the range of effects from this simple loop can be quite variable; Google being an example of a company which has chosen to sharply inhibit the effects of shareholder input through diluted voting rights in its IPO stock, which the Scrip has to say has been validated by investors buying into the stock. But of course many companies take the opposite route, and we'll superciliously name SCO as one which has essentially staked the entire company on a court case against IBM—although, of course, SCO hopes to make money selling licenses to the intellectual property it says Linux users infringe, chiefly the only hope for revenue it entertains is litigious.

Another loop involves the market. Every company has customers. So there are interactions between aggregate demand, competitors, and branding. Corporations may be induced to behave in certain ways to maximize customer loyalty, or to boost its image among potential customers. Grand-schemedly, both ethical and unethical behavior can come of this—apropos of energy companies, for instance, an entity might grant money in exchange for publicity to various environmental causes, winning loyalty from green consumers, while simultaneously lobbying for access to protected areas for oil drilling, which in the long run could benefit price-conscious consumers by providing low-cost fuel.

The Scrip's politics hopefully perforated that last paragraph.

Interactions between corporate entities and regulatory bodies constitute another major loop. Political power is both sought and in some instances wielded, especially by larger corporations. At the same time, political power itself is diffuse, and nominally in the hands of what I hate to call THE PEOPLE, but which is, essentially, the governed/governing society. Their proxies, the legislators, officials, judges, etc., are more easily courted, and often are; but ultimately even crooked politicians will need a modicum of popular support, and so much is spent in political marketing, both on behalf of the issue the corporation cares about, and on behalf of patron politicians to maintain their offices.

Of course, political pressures flow in the opposite direction as well, as the example of tobacco companies illustrates well. The Scrip's point in this fractured diatribe is not to point to linear pathways, but to show that a variety of inputs really drive corporate behavior.

There are institutional paths of control which arise from the fact that it's people—flesh-and-blood human beings—that ultimately formulate and carry out the actions of the corporation. CEOs may be more or less psychotic; vice-presidents more or less inept; middle managers of widely divergent degrees of intelligence; accountants of more or less malleable integrity; employees more or less belonging to the Chordata; whistleblowers with random shrillness; and so on.

I'm sure there are many other paths of control, as well, and a dedicated complex systems analyst, which the Scrip is not, would exhaust his keyboard on them. In brief, I can think of:
Some of these are inner loops of one or more of the main ones mentioned previously. But the loops are only useful to talk about in terms of their interactions, anyway. CEOs, hired by boards, act in such a way (usually) to ensure their continued employment by placating the board, and by proxy the shareholders, which can involve placating customers and overcoming regulatory hurdles while appeasing political interest groups, but at the risk of infuriating political groups, alienating potential customers, being undersold or acquired by the competition, and sending stock prices into the tank. Plus, they may be megalomaniacal, or good corporate citizens, or simply have dreamed of running a company in some idealized way, or whatever.

But what the Scrip hopes is obvious is not the extent of the loops, nor of their interactions, but that nowhere is any sense of a corporate conscience expressed, nor any standard at all, save for those dynamic equilibria to which all the feedback loops together contribute.

I suppose this is actually obvious. But it helps to understand that in talking about the spinelessness of the media, we're not simply talking about
but instead we're talking about entities which are driven by a number of inputs, including institutional narratives about journalistic standards, the realities of consumption, pressure from successful competition, and in the drive for success also fighting for access, positioning narratives according to popularity, and also to some extent effecting news in their corporate machinations.

So—basically, if we judge it the public's interest to receive the best news possible, and we define good news as being
well then corporate newsmedia, while they may provide very good or in some cases the best news, are by no means set up to do so, or are even optimally configured for such. They are set up to effect an equilibrium between the many different input-output channels, and this can be manifested anywhere along the actual news quality curve. Really bad news outlets generally will tend to do more poorly in terms of ratings, and hence in stock value, but there are mitigating circumstances, and bad or mediocre news outlets that identify a specific audience that favors their message can be quite successful, if only in their specific niche.
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