Dear Reader,

Harold Henderson is characteristically on the mark in noting (“Useless Information,” February 15), contra Robert McChesney, that the relative concentration of media outlets alone or even in large part can’t determine their quality. Misinformation and downright nonsense appear to be as consistent with widely dispersed, “indie” sources of information (as in the Internet) as they are with highly concentrated sources, though critics on both the left and right seem preoccupied with the shortcomings of the latter.

Yet while U. of C. economists and other market bolsheviks believe they’ve squared the circular argument (“People must not want x, else there would be a thriving market for it”), it won’t do here to say that we simply get the media for which we’re willing to pay–or, as Henderson suggests is more accurate in this case, that we’ll pay for the media we’re willing to “put up with.” Even if we can cope culturally with Disney and AOL Time Warner setting the market parameters of our entertainment tastes, they have little reason to provide quality news and public-affairs broadcasting. These seem to better approximate public goods: we all benefit from them whether or not we partake of them directly (since a more politically literate democracy tends to elect more responsible and responsive leaders, keep closer tabs on those in power, etc), thus none of us has an incentive to “purchase” them ourselves. The undeniable fact that many of us would rather watch Survivor than click on doesn’t necessarily betray a simple, prereflective consumer preference for schlock over substance. It may just as likely signal that something we really do value–healthy public discourse–is going underproduced precisely because the market alone can’t seem to get the prices right. The equally compelling fact that state subsidy or control of the media tend, conversely, toward overproduction (many Cubans, anti-Castro fire breathers like to tell us, routinely pick up two copies of the party daily, Granma: one for reading, one for, er, wiping) is probably less a point scored for market “variety” than a reminder of how hard it is to assign a value to something that can’t really be “bought” in the normal sense.

What we generously call “public broadcasting” in the U.S. does little to alleviate the problem, as it caters more and more to the narrow interests of those with the wherewithal to contribute to it (and rewards them with pledge-drive premiums such as a bound copy of what Suze Orman was just peddling during the broadcast). Even this overstates the role of viewer/listener contributions; the real “public” content of PBS is more likely the stock ownership of its corporate underwriters. NPR isn’t much better, with a lineup crowded by daily doses of Marketplace and weekly installments of This (Upper-Middle-Class-Highly-Educated-and-Remarkably-Self-Absorbed) American Life. Maybe, as Henderson notes, the Web abounds with alternatives to the commercial and quasi-commercial broadcast media, but easy access to an on-line computer remains a privilege of class in the U.S., unless your schedule coincides with the next available half-hour slot at the local library.

We don’t need to argue from paternalistic judgments of taste or wistful, altruistic notions of an “Information Utopia” to acknowledge that McChesney’s concerns have some merit. For the same reasons we fund public libraries with our taxes in spite of the fact that many of us also prefer to purchase the particular books we’d like to read at Barnes & Noble (that place that lets you browse struggling lefty journals for free so you don’t have to subscribe to them; shame on you, Harold!), it’s in the rational self-interest of each of us to ensure that the information which educates us and enriches our lives is made accessible to everyone else–unimpeded by incidentals such as who happens to own the medium, which advertisers pay to promote it, and whether either turns a profit–so that we don’t all go out and do something silly, like elect a cabal of midlevel energy-industry functionaries to run the country (or worse, sit back and watch football while the Supreme Court appoints them for us). If we find that the free market can do this as well as it provides us with cheap toothpaste and athletic socks, then let’s give it our blessings and count this among its rewards. But if it can’t, let’s ask it to step aside so we can try some institutions that can.

Edward Tverdek

N. Sawyer