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May 9, 2010
David Warsh, Editor


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Learning To Love Heterarchy

It is no secret that news organizations, newspapers in particular, are being buffeted by the winds of change. In What Is Happening to the News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism, Jack Fuller sets out to understand why disciplined professional journalism has  lost so much of its mindshare to new media – websites, blogs, podcasts, YouTube, email, Google alerts, cable television,  computer games, talk radio, Facebook and other social media.

The answer, he concludes, is that the industry has got a flawed model of human nature. What he calls the Standard Model of Professional Journalism – accuracy, disinterestedness, independence, and a bright line between fact and opinion – is built on imperfect foundations. The challenge, he says, is to build a new model, grounded on a deeper understanding of human nature.

Fuller is among the most thoughtful editors in the business. A former Justice Department attorney, novelist, and musician, he ran the Chicago Tribune for many year. As president of Tribune Corp., its corporate parent, he negotiated the purchase in 2000 of the Times Mirror Co., which brought with it the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday and the Hartford Courant. He retired in 2003, just as the newspaper industry began to go over the waterfall, not long after his boss disparaged the five Pulitzer Prizes the Los Angeles Times had just won, not long before minority shareholders forced a bust-up that drove the company into the hands of real estate developer Sam Zell and, soon thereafter, into bankruptcy. .

Since then Fuller has been on a journey among the philosophers, neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists, trying to figure out the momentous changes that have been taking place in the news industry as the World Wide Web grew around it. What Is Happening to the News will be read carefully in journalism schools and around the fleet by news junkies – wherever news theory is done.

For civilians, its greatest attraction may be its instructive review of the exploding highbrow literature of the sciences of the brain and philosophers of mind: Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain), Joseph LeDoux (The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Our Emotional Life), Daniel Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life), Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature), Neil Shubin (Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body), Martha Nussbaum (Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions) and Ronald DeSousa (The Rationality of Emotion). He has a special affinity for the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (“Ambiguity is the essence of human existence”).  

Fuller is especially interested in the various systemic biases that have been engineered into our brains by the pressure of natural selection.  We are more interested in bad news than good, in what has happened recently than in the distant future or past, in conflict with our foes than cooperation with out friends, in stories than statistics.  And, of course, we are reliably interested in the lives of celebrities, perhaps, it turns out, because the social currency of their lives helps bind large and socially disparate groups together.

Neuroscience explains the origins of these curiosities, says Fuller, but leaves unanswered the question that journalists must ask themselves:  should said curiosities be indulged?  “The pressure to say yes has more intensity today than at any time in the past hundred years. But our need to understand the complex world around us has also become more intense. …. Understanding the ways of the brain does not give a complete answer, but it is a strong start.”

As an economics journalist, I hear much of the same excitement from behavioral economists entering the brave new world.  And it has been obvious for some time that there is money to be made by exploiting various cognitive peccadilloes – making money from the “float” to name only the most obvious example.  But so far the evidence is that people do pretty well making the choices that the classical economists expected them to make.  They do less well on long-term decisions involving families, retirement, and healthcare. 

For me the really useful concept in Fuller’s book is heterarchy – a structure with no unfailingly superior authority.  The term was coined in 1945 by Warren McCullough, the legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology neurophysiologist, to describe the organization of the brain. (Was there ever a better laboratory for organization theory than World War II?) McCullough showed the brain to be an overlapping system composed of many parts working together, with many shortcuts and back-channels among them, some capable of overruling others, orderly, but not hierarchical.

Thanks to a generation of science writing, many people know about the role of the amygdala, the almond-shaped portions of the brain located deep within the temporal lobes that govern many of  our strongest emotional responses, including personal space violations, fear and alarm.  Iits capacity to generate a quick response before any concious thought takes place, Fuller explains, is just the beginning of brains’s multiples pathways of control.

Becoming more heterarchical, it seems to me, had been what’s happening to the news business.   There was a time when the industry was built around a nicely ordered mostly hierarchical arrangement of daily newspapers.  Most big cities had one or two, along with three television network affiliates, a public broadcasting station, and whatever remained of the once-great radio networks. But the increasing use of the wireless spectrum, satellites, cable and fiber-optic networks and the Internet changed all that.  The old advertising monopolies are gone.

Heterarchy happened to the sports business, too, and for many of the same reasons.  Time was when baseball was the national pastime. But fifty years of interaction of between television and sports has produced a competition explosion. Baseball survives, economically stronger than ever, but today it shares the stage with very much else.

There’s plenty of news in the present-day world – indeed, more than enough. There are television personalities and radio talk shows where formerly there were only columnists; front-screen services from Internet service providers and Google where once there was the evening news; email where instead of (long ago) twice-a-day postal delivery; and a million sundry ways to while away the hours besides picture magazines. The crisis is in newspapers, not news. Clearly they are going to have to learn to branch out and perform their functions on a more slender budget than before. But that doesn’t mean they can’t perform it. Nor is there any institution in prospect that can do it better.  

Fuller is much more pessimistic about the outlook than I am (but then why not? – he’s been through more). “Though print will probably have a place in it,” he writes, “the future belongs to digital, interactive presentation of news.”  Al Gore’s polemic, An Inconvenient Truth, points the way to the promise of multimedia. “As the cost of bandwith continues to decline, success will go to those who figure out how to put images, video, words, and sound together in compelling new ways.”

 Maybe so, but the Al Gores of the future, for all their glossy mega-Powerpoint presentations, will still have to deal with the appraisals of newspapers. And in matters where finding out quickly and truthfully is of the essence – market gyrations stemming from high-speed trading, the Gulf oil spill, the Greek debt crisis – we will look to newspapers to get the story straight, as they did this week, for a long time to come.

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