Negative News, Conspiracy-Minded Customers, Conservative Traditions

Three items for today.

  • How the negativity bias in news reporting is partly a matter of demand and supply;
  • How “the customer is always right” thinking leads Fox News and Republican congressmen to pursue outlandish conspiracy theories, because that what their audiences and constituents want;
  • And how a conservative professor wants students to honor traditional conservative wisdom, presumably excluding traditional conservative defenses of slavery and the subjugation of women and gays.

Here is yet another article about the realization of the negative bias in news media, and what can we do about it. Is there anything new here? We know about the variants of “if it bleeds it leads” and the notion that bad events, no matter how rare across the world, will be news simply because they are exceptional. Thus a certain portion of the population will always be alarmed about crime, because it sees only the selected events shown on TV news and pay not attention to actual crime rates…. But let’s read the article.

Vox, Dylan Matthews, 22 Mar 2023: Why the news is so negative — and what we can do about it, subtitled “We can break the cycle of negativity bias in the media and get a more balanced view of the world.”

Humans, it turns out, have what social psychologists call a “negativity bias”: We tend to pay more attention to bad-seeming information than good-seeming information. That could be a root factor for why the news is so goddamned depressing. That’s what we’re looking for.

A variation of the Type I Type II errors, I suspect. Better to be safe than sorry, even if it makes you seem paranoid. It’s about “something deep in human cognition, rather than the effects of social media.”

Yet beyond this recognition about human cognition, the article doesn’t go deep, but focuses on the patterns of what people actually do. We’ve known this.

Across their sample, they found that negative news provoked stronger physiological reactions and garnered more attention than positive or neutral news on average — though individual people’s reactions varied quite a bit, with a minority of people responding more to positive news.

This speaks to the demand side of the bad news dilemma. People who watch and consume news seem to be drawn to negative, dour stories more than positive ones. But it speaks to the supply side too. Journalists have some leeway in deciding what stories to cover, and if we, too, have a negativity bias, we could be facing the same impulses pushing us toward more negative stories that our readers do.


At the extreme end of the attraction to bad news is the increasing appeal of outlandish conspiracy theories, e.g. at Fox News.

Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 22 Mar 2023: “The customer’s always right”: New Fox News lawsuit explains why the GOP is captured by conspiracies, subtitled “Republican voters, party leaders, and propagandists share a fundamental belief: That the truth doesn’t matter”

I keep noting such articles because I’m fascinated by how so many humans live in imagined realities (of which religion is the most prominent) for the sake of tribal solidarity, uncaring about what is actually true. And how humans can nevertheless thrive, even if most of what they believe about the world is false; the truth doesn’t matter.

Marcotte begins:

“You know, the customer’s always right.”

Rep. James Comer gave this juicy quote to Jonathan Swan and Luke Broadwater for their New York Times profile of the Kentucky Republican. He was explaining his affection for right-wing conspiracy theories. The “customer[s]” in this case, as Swan and Broadwater write, are the “vengeful, hard-right voters” who “propelled Comer to stardom” in the GOP.

It’s quite an admission from the newly crowned chair of the House Oversight Committee. When asked why he is so intent on using his powers, as Swan and Broadwater write, “to investigate unhinged claims about President Biden and Democrats,” Comer could have played political word games, pretending either to take these conspiracy theories more seriously than he actually does. He could have feigned outrage at the suggestion that his motives are anything less than honorable. Instead, Comer seems unconcerned to be seen, to the readers of the New York Times anyway, as a huckster for disinformation scraped out of the darkest corners of the internet.

So Republican congressmen conduct investigations of “unhinged claims” about Democrats, because that’s what their constituents want them to do. Fair enough. But the rest of us can understand that what they do involves nothing about facts or reality. Or in Fox News’ case, journalism. Marcotte goes on:

Only one in five Fox News viewers reported being rattled by the news that their favorite on-air personalities knowingly lie to them and speak of them with contempt.


In light of all this, it’s less surprising that Comer was willing to be honest about his dishonesty to New York Times reporters. He has every reason to believe that Republican voters don’t have a problem with lying and spreading conspiracy theories. As the Fox News texts show, the concern is actually the opposite: That GOP voters will punish any leaders perceived to be hamstrung with moral concerns about lying.

GOP leaders should not be “hamstrung with moral concerns about lying.”


Stepping back, here is a piece by a conservative professor who is concerned that the MAGA-verse is turning students away from the genuine values of conservatism. When I see a piece like this, I always pay attention to what the writer thinks those genuine values of conservatism are.

NY Times, Jon A. Shields, 23 Mar 2023: Liberal Professors Can Rescue the G.O.P.

When conservative undergraduates look around for mentors these days, who do they find? Not conservative professors, at least not very often. Our ranks have been slowly vanishing since the 1980s. Instead, those students find organizers from the MAGA-verse who teach them how to own the libs. That’s who is instructing the next generation of Republican leaders, modeling how to act and think like good conservatives. It’s a squalid education, one that deepens their alienation from the university and guarantees that the next generation of elected officials will make Ron DeSantis’s war against higher education look tame.

Liberal professors have the power to help solve this problem. They can show their conservative students how to become thoughtful and knowledgeable partisans — by exposing them to a rich conservative intellectual tradition that stretches back to Enlightenment thinkers like Edmund Burke, David Hume and Adam Smith. They could mentor their conservative students, set up reading groups, help vet speakers and create courses on the conservative intellectual tradition.

And here’s getting to what that intellectual tradition is.

To the uninformed and skeptical alike, I recommend reading Jerry Z. Muller’s introductory chapter in his “Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought From David Hume to the Present.” Among other insights, he stresses the need to preserve customs and institutions that direct wayward human beings. These systems of social control are complex, easy to dismantle and difficult to rebuild. For these reasons, conservatives are leery of campaigns that promise to liberate us from a host of norms and institutions that the left sometimes sees as unjust, like marriage, religion, gender roles, the police and sexual repression.

“Norms and institutions that the left sometimes sees as unjust, like marriage, religion, gender roles, the police and sexual repression.”

And other books, that

open students to the possibility that our ancestors were not merely fools or bigots. Instead, they built social institutions that, however flawed, also repressed some of our more self-destructive impulses and encouraged some of our better angels.

The writer rues how few American professors are Republicans these days. (This is easily explainable, having to do with the nature of the real world.) And that conservative “leaders” like

Charlie Kirk, a college dropout, wants his young protégés to feel every bit as contemptuous of higher education as he does. As he told Fox News, “Anything but college.”

Shields’ solution, more or less:

Every American university should offer a course on what is best in conservatism. That means teaching conservative intellectuals, not just the history of the G.O.P. or right-wing populism.

Fine, fine. My issue with this piece, and with the thinking of conservatives in general who think traditional institutions must be preserved because they represent the accumulated wisdom of past generations, is this: slavery. That was a valued institution for centuries until relatively recently, only a century and a half ago, and is still defended by some on the extreme right (the slaves liked being taken care of, and so on). Not to mention the subjugation of women, and the demonization of gays and other sexual minorities. (As is still done in many countries, e.g. Uganda, where homosexuality is punished by death.)

Why should the conservative argument, that traditions must be maintained because they’re traditions, be given any weight, when so many of those traditions have given way to modern ideas of individual rights and self-determination? The writer worries that some women are less happy than they might have been in a traditional marriage, but so what? Is the answer to enforce narrow standards of behavior? To restrict their freedom to choose their own paths in life?

What about the freedom and liberty that conservatives rail about? As I said a couple posts ago, conservatives say they believe in these things, but don’t. Liberals do.

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