Yesterday Dan inadvertently found himself in my wheelhouse when he wrote this regarding the since debunked video showing Planned Parenthood employees going all Soylent Green on us:
People, always and everywhere, respond to incentives. Even if Planned Parenthood says otherwise, if Planned Parenthood makes more money off of late-term abortions via this secondary market, it is incentivized to encourage more abortions to occur later during the pregnancy. Inadvertently, then, with the encouragement and guidance of Planned Parenthood, mothers could be fostering and developing fetal cells solely for the purposes of research.
This dynamic should, at the very least, raise troubling moral questions.
As it turns out, the meat of Dan’s point (shown with the added bold-ing) is not only entirely correct, it is in fact demonstrated by the Planned Parenthood video brouhaha — just not in the way Dan intended. In fact, the lessons of incentives in the marketplace that can be gleaned from said video are the very reasons I had assumed the recording was doctored when I first read the breaking news about its release.
As we now know, the transcript of the unedited videos tell a significantly different story than does the edited version that was released. This should sound familiar, because James O’Keefe has already made a career out of doing the exact same thing. In fact, Planned Parenthood itself was a previous victim of O’Keefe’s “activist journalism.” To paraphrase Dan, the key revelation here is not about unethically edited videos so much as it is about incentives — and make no mistake, pretty much everyone was incentivized for this video to be made.
Say what you will about James O’Keefe, he probably makes more money doing what he does than you do doing what you do for a living. He likely has, for whatever this metric is worth, more Twitter followers than everyone you know combined. Forbes counts him as one of their 30 Under 30 stars. He used his experiences making fraudulently edited videos to write a NYT bestselling book about how and why he does the morally questionable things he does. (Some liberal critics say that the book was likely a bestseller because rightwing think tanks bought them all up. The degree to which this may or may not be correct, however, matters little to O’Keefe’s bank account.) It is assumed by many that people in power pick up the phone and call him when they are in trouble; whether or not this is actually true, the perception that it is clearly says something to young up-and-coming journalists. Hell, the guy received $120,000 from Breitbert News just so they could have the right of first refusal to any later projects he might have down the road. So of course the people who secretly taped and then edited the Planned Parenthood interview were absolutely incentivized to do so. Those incentives likely allowed them to care little that their morally dubious presentation would eventually be discovered. They weren’t even the first to learn O’Keefe’s lessons of the marketplace.
But here’s the thing. That giving in to incentives doesn’t stop with the perpetrators of the fraud.
For example, take this segment from Fox News’s The Kelly File last night, which was recorded after the video has already been proven to be edited in a fraudulent manner. That revelation didn’t stop Fox from using the video as the show’s ratings-drawing anchor, although Kelly did have to reach for the odd criticism of professionalism to create an ancillary scandal:
“She is guzzling down wine and stuffing her face full of salad while she talks about the end of a potential life … I’m saying there ought to be some humanity and respect for the dignity of a potential life.”
(Seriously, I wonder if Megan believes that pediatricians and oncologists spend their lunch hours weeping into salads when talking work stuff over lunch.)
The truth is that this video will be used for a long time by the right wing media (maybe even years). What’s more, it’s going to be used by conservative politicians as a way to leverage donations into their kitty. It will matter little to either the radio talk show hosts or those running for office that the tapes were doctored. They simply won’t be incentivized to discuss the story told by unedited version of the video, or for that matter to delve very far in discussions about the suspension of ethics required to purposefully obfuscate that story.
There’s still more incentivizing to look at, of course.
I’ve noted this before when talking about the state of journalism today, but the Carmen Segarra recordings received startlingly little attention from liberal political and news writers — which at first blush is a little surprising. As a reminder, Segarra is an ex-Federal Reserve employee who secretly recorded her superiors, both alone and during “negotiations” with Goldman Sachs representatives. If you are liberal and you haven’t come across this story before, either from This American Life or ProPublica, I cannot encourage you enough to do so now. The recordings are a cannon-sized smoking gun that screams for more and better government regulation over large corporations. The story also bakes in a fair amount of gravity, as it very much appears that Sachs and other similar corporations are already engaging in the very activities that caused the 2008 global economic meltdown. (Which was actually immensely profitable to those at Sachs and other companies who were behind it). The problem with the story, however, is that it’s somewhat complicated and requires time to fully grok, let alone find a way to turn that grok into something that can be chewed on by one’s readers. And even then, it’s a story about the freaking Federal Reserve — a topic which has all the built-in sex appeal of an amortization table.
In other words, the reason liberal political and news writers didn’t write anything about the Segarra recordings is not that it wasn’t important or impactful. (It was arguably the most important and impactful news story that broke the week that it did.) Rather, they did not write about the Segarra story because they were not incentivized to do so. The same is true for the myriad of rather urgent issues surrounding our country’s crumbling infrastructure. Because even though roads, bridges, and other infrastructure are oft acknowledged by liberal writers as the ultimate argument for government successfully working to solve common problems, they seemingly can’t be bothered to write about the actual infrastructure. And why should they, if the publications that buy their writings won’t pay for it? And why should those publications bother to spend money to buy it, if we can’t be bothered to read it?
The fake Planned Parenthood scandal, though? Everyone’s going to be writing and tweeting about that for days. If you awoke tomorrow morning from a ten year coma, you might well believe after a quick perusal of liberal websites that the most important news that had occurred on the entire planet this week was a news story about a fake news story. Certainly more important than the malfeasance recorded at the Federal Reserve, anyway.
To paraphrase Dan, people, always and everywhere, respond to incentives. Even in journalism, and especially in our era of new journalism.
To quote Dan more precisely:
This dynamic should, at the very least, raise troubling moral questions.
[Picture: Screenshot of NewsMax Website, featuring story on congressional leaders deciding to investigate Planned Parenthood video well after the video was shown to be misleadingly edited, coupled with an invitation be a subscriber to NewsMax and buttons to share the story with friends via social media.]