Now if I’m not very careful, this entire blog could degenerate into an interminable, underinformed, sceptical exegesis of The Economist magazine. Every week I buy it; every week I read it; every week I am gripped and appalled. I will try to limit myself, ration myself, impose guidelines, restraints, obligations. I will try not to let the free market of my soul supply its own demand. But it’s difficult.
In the May 5th edition, for instance, The Economist had a couple of articles about Murdoch’s bid for Dow Jones: a leader, arguing that “Murdoch would make a decent owner of the Wall Street Journal”, and a longer article in the business pages, asking why he would even want it. (Conclusion: either he’s got something up his sleeve that we don’t know about, possibly involving ‘new media’, or he’s an out-of-touch old man who wants to own a serious financial newspaper to augment his reputation. Or both.)
Here’s the leader: “There is a charming irony in the idea of Mr Murdoch’s many critics rushing to the defence of the Wall Street Journal. Its opinion pages are home to a brand of conservative commentary that makes Mr Murdoch’s natural enemies wince. Yet as evidence of Mr Murdoch’s baleful influence, the worriers can point to the Sun and the New York Post, two exultantly bullying tabloids; to the populism of the Times in Britain; to the dumping of a book that might have offended China; and, most controversially, to the pro-Republican Fox News, whose motto (“We report. You decide.”) is about as convincing as an anchorman’s suntan.”
Now the Economist is well informed, intelligent, internationalist. Because it’s a weekly, it’s able to take a broad enough perspective to give some context to its reporting; but it’s also able to respond to unfolding events. Much of the time it’s smart and balanced enough that the flaws behind its editorial positions take some effort to think through. But sometimes its insane logic comes screaming to the surface. Sometimes The Economist blows its cover.
“The second reason to welcome, rather than fear, Mr Murdoch’s approach is that he is a brilliant businessman. Good businessmen make companies flourish. Flourishing companies have a better chance of making a good product and selling it to a lot of people. The Times may have shuffled downmarket since the days of Mr Murdoch’s predecessors; but it is still a good newspaper, and many more people buy it these days than when it did not stoop to celebrity news.”
Do equivocations come any cruder than this? One piece of evidence for Mr Murdoch’s baleful influence is the Times’ populism. But that’s okay – because its populism is popular. The Times may have shuffled downmarket, and become a worse newspaper. But because it has moved downmarket it sells more copies. It is flourishing; and flourishing companies have a better chance of making a good product. So: the fact that the Times is now worse means that it is now able to be better.
Has the Economist gone mad? Does it suffer from hysterical symptoms? Is it a neurotic? Or is this editorial the first sign of the onset of psychosis – complete severance from reality; total dissociation of belief from evidence? If we were to psychoanalyse the Economist, what would it confess?
I sometimes find it helpful to consider the press from the perspective of Freudianism. All magazines and newspapers are governed by the relationship between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. (Yes, like all the concepts in Freud’s system, that of the pleasure principle is divided. On the one hand – there is nothing outside it. On the other hand, the pleasure principle only has meaning in relation to its antithesis: the forces of displeasure that Freud calls, at times, anxiety, and at times Thanatos. Let’s ignore all that.)
In the conceptual organs of the press, experience takes the form of ‘News’. The function of the press is to transmute the influx of News into a form that gives maximum pleasure to the consumer. Sometimes this is easy: the news is good. Sometimes it’s even easier: the news is bad in a satisfying and enjoyable way. (The Daily Express’s continuing coverage of Diana’s death seems a text-book case of repetition compulsion).
But the most efficient way of transmuting news into pleasure is simply to deny the existence of unpleasant News. This is repression, and it has its corollary – the return of the repressed. Hysterical symptoms are generated when the affect associated with a repressed experience is redirected towards a proxy. (Asylum seekers; paedophiles; the EU). This proxy will carry an emotional charge out of all proportion to its apparent importance.
But here the reality principle rears its head. Since our pleasure is dependent on circumstances in the world, a complete rejection of the unpleasant facts of experience will, in the long run, lead to much greater unpleasure than that created by the initial experience. The pleasure principle thus learns to moderate itself, accepting pain now for pleasure later. The pleasure principle accommodates itself to the reality principle – the agent of the world.
This is the function of reporting. In this schema, reporting represents the reality principle in newspapers. Blogs like this are almost pure pleasure (with perhaps the occasional piece of disproportionate affect). The same goes for celebrity gossip, in which, as the Economist says, whether the stories are true or not doesn’t matter in the slightest. This is the realm of phantasy; dream; wish-fulfilment.
Murdoch’s populism is based in this world of wish-fulfilment – whether through Page Three girls, celebrity gossip, or Bill O’Reilly. The fear for The Wall Street Journal is that Murdoch’s smart-business emphasis on phantasy will undermine the reality-principle of good old fashioned reporting.
But we needn’t worry.
“It does not matter terribly to readers if the gossip about celebrities is true or exaggerated – indeed, when it comes to titillation, there is much to be said for falsehood. [Pure dominance of the pleasure principle; sexual phantasy unmediated by any reality.] But financial news that is untrustworthy is useless. When readers do deals based on financial-news reports, they expect the information to be accurate, down to the last detail. [For the reader of a financial paper already has her pleasure cathected in real-world objects: literal investments. The pleasure principle is thus served by maximum attentiveness to the real world.] If Mr Murdoch gets hold of the Journal, he will ensure that its reporting is excellent not out of altruism, but because, in the financial newspaper business, that is how you make money. [Murdoch too derives his pleasure from his income, and thus requires some contact with reality.]”
But what governs the relationship between the reality principle and the pleasure principle here? What dictates how far reality is permitted to make inroads into pure phantasy?
It is only beneficial to take account of reality if one’s accommodation of reality has a good chance of materially increasing one’s pleasure. The more one is in control of one’s own destiny – that is, the more power one has – the more beneficial the accommodation of reality will be. Therefore, in the press, the relation between reality and pleasure principles is determined by class.
Murdoch’s populism is directed, above all, at the (relatively) powerless: those who don’t need facts about the world, because knowledge of the facts won’t make any material difference to their lives. Readers of the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, on the other hand, need to be in touch with political and economic reality, because the manipulation of the world described in newspapers is the source of their income. They need to know about the sources of their treasure and slaves.
Phantasy has not been banished, however. Wish-fulfilment still has force. The Wall Street Journal’s readers are ambivalent: they don’t just want to exploit the world’s poor – they want to feel good about doing so.
The Economist, and publications like it, have their own form of populism. Not a populism directed at the masses, but at the Economist’s own niche audience: the wealthy business classes who want to reassure themselves that their rapaciousness will, in the long run, bring peace and joy to the earth.
Often the Economist can make this phantastical agenda convincing; it is a master at integrating reportage with ideology. But in the battle between phantasy and reality – reality will have to go.
So: Murdoch lies to get audiences. The Economist defends Murdoch. This defence is a lie. It is a lie intended to get the Economist an audience. An audience of people like Murdoch.
The circle closes. The pleasure principle is victorious again. There is nothing outside of it.
That’s good economics.