The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free

It's much easier to fund bad information than good.

Nathan J. Robinson, editor of Current Affairs, argues that the information economy greatly enables the purveyors of bullshit while frustrating those who wish to read the best, most rigorously tested, work.

His premise is unassailable:

. . . New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New RepublicNew York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. BreitbartFox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free! You want “Portland Protesters Burn Bibles, American Flags In The Streets,” “The Moral Case Against Mask Mandates And Other COVID Restrictions,” or an article suggesting the National Institutes of Health has admitted 5G phones cause coronavirus—they’re yours. You want the detailed Times reports on neo-Nazis infiltrating German institutions, the reasons contact tracing is failing in U.S. states, or the Trump administration’s undercutting of the USPS’s effectiveness—well, if you’ve clicked around the website a bit you’ll run straight into the paywall. This doesn’t mean the paywall shouldn’t be there. But it does mean that it costs time and money to access a lot of true and important information, while a lot of bullshit is completely free. 

[…]

his means that a lot of the most vital information will end up locked behind the paywall. And while I am not much of a New Yorker fan either, it’s concerning that the Hoover Institute will freely give you Richard Epstein’s infamous article downplaying the threat of coronavirus, but Isaac Chotiner’s interview demolishing Epstein requires a monthly subscription, meaning that the lie is more accessible than its refutation. Eric Levitz of New York is one of the best and most prolific left political commentators we have. But unless you’re a subscriber of New York, you won’t get to hear much of what he has to say each month. 

Possibly even worse is the fact that so much academic writing is kept behind vastly more costly paywalls. A white supremacist on YouTube will tell you all about race and IQ but if you want to read a careful scholarly refutation, obtaining a legal PDF from the journal publisher would cost you $14.95, a price nobody in their right mind would pay for one article if they can’t get institutional access. (I recently gave up on trying to access a scholarly article because I could not find a way to get it for less than $39.95, though in that case the article was garbage rather than gold.) Academic publishing is a nightmarish patchwork, with lots of articles advertised at exorbitant fees on one site, and then for free on another, or accessible only through certain databases, which your university or public library may or may not have access to. (Libraries have to budget carefully because subscription prices are often nuts. A library subscription to the Journal of Coordination Chemistryfor instance, costs $11,367 annually.) 

He goes at great length to point out that there are workarounds to paywalls, but that most of them are illegal and/or cumbersome.

I have quibbles with his analysis of the problem. He lumps together the likes of Breitbart and the Daily Caller with Cato and the American Enterprise Institute. While they all have agendas, the latter are much more likely to contain well-done research. But he’s writing for from a far-left perspective, and thinks the New York Times and the New Yorker are rather suspect as well.

His solution is to massively expand the concept of the public library:

Let’s imagine that instead of having to use privatized research services like Google Scholar and EBSCO, there was a single public search database containing every newspaper article, every magazine article, every academic journal article, every court record, every government document, every website, every piece of software, every film, song, photograph, television show, and video clip, and every book in existence. The content of the Wayback Machine, all of the newspaper archives, Google Books, Getty Images, Project Gutenberg, Spotify, the Library of Congress, everything in WestLaw and Lexis, all of it, every piece of it accessible instantly in full, and with a search function designed to be as simple as possible and allow you to quickly narrow down what you are looking for. (e.g. “Give me: all Massachusetts newspaper articles, books published in Boston, and government documents that mention William Lloyd Garrison and were published from 1860 to 1865.”) The true universal search, uncorrupted by paid advertising. Within a second, you could bring up an entire PDF of any book. Within two seconds, you could search the full contents of that book. 

Let us imagine just how much time would be saved in this informational utopia. Do I want minute 15 of the 1962 Czechoslovak film Man In Outer SpaceFour seconds from my thought until it begins. Do I want page 17 of the Daily Mirror from 1985? Even less time. Every public Defense Department document concerning Vietnam from the Eisenhower administration? Page 150 of Frank Capra’s autobiography? Page 400 of an economics textbook from 1995? All in front of me, in full, in less than the length of time it takes to type this sentence. How much faster would research be in such a situation? How much more could be accomplished if knowledge were not fragmented and in the possession of a thousand private gatekeepers? 

What’s amazing is that the difficulty of creating this situation of “fully democratized information” is entirely economic rather than technological. What I describe with books is close to what Google Books and Amazon already have. But of course, universal free access to full content horrifies publishers, so we are prohibited from using these systems to their full potential. The problem is ownership: nobody is allowed to build a giant free database of everything human beings have ever produced.

I’m an academic with free access to dozens of databases. And I live in one of the wealthier counties in the country, so I have decent access to a lot of content even via their website. Still, I would love a system like this just for the convenience.

But, obviously, such a system would be incredibly expensive if we’re going to justly compensate content creators. And, while I’m amenable to the idea, this would very much be a system wherein the masses are subsidizing the elites. It’s people like Robinson and me—and the sort of the people who read our musings—who would be the primary beneficiaries of such a system.

Further, that means that the problem Robinson describes—that bullshit is easier to access than truth—is only tangentially ameliorated by the socialization of content. It’s absurd to think that people who are currently getting their information from Breitbart and Fox News are doing so mostly because they don’t have access to the New York Times, much less EBSCOHost’s peer-reviewed journals.

Beyond that, Robinson has a blinkered view of human nature. He believes that a universal basic income—in idea about which I’m intrigued, but not sold—would solve most of the current arguments for copyright protection. But, while there are those of us who would indeed continue to create content for the sheer intellectual stimulation, one doubts our own Michael Reynolds would be as prodigious in cranking out books if he weren’t being additionally compensated.

Similarly, the notion that copyrights should die with the author frustrates me. The brilliant creator who earns ten million dollars a year from his works can give his children and grandchildren incredible advantages. We can debate whether that’s how we wish to organize society. But, surely, there’s no argument for allowing him to do so while impoverishing the children of a peer who dies young.

Robinson goes back and forth between arguing for a taxpayer-supported system in which authors continue to receive something like their present compensation and hoping some developing country simply steals all the content and starts the system on its own. The former is an interesting idea that raises a lot of questions; the latter is a nightmare for those whose livelihood depends on producing art or argument.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    And while I am not much of a New Yorker fan either,

    How Dare You!

    22 years ago a librarian that I wound up having a complicated relationship with introduced me to the New Yorker. He had two subscriptions, one to read and archive, and one to slice great articles and cartoons from with a razor blade to be put in a folder. I’ve read nearly every issue since, and when I moved 3000 miles from Florida to Washington the first thing I did was get a library card and check out the new issues. I have some overdue issues in my Vanity Fair tote bag at the moment. 😀

  2. steve says:

    He is correct that it is easier to find and read awful BS than it is to read well written stuff. On the margins I think a few more people would read the better stuff if it was more available, but the garbage like InfoWars exists beaus that is what some people want. Many, maybe most, people just want to read stuff that supports what they already believe.

    His proposed solution is a fantasy. It’s a nice one and it would make my life easier since if I am not at work there are journal articles I cant get into sometimes when at home. There just isn’t any way to do what he wants from any reasonable economic POV so it wont happen, at least not legally.

    Steve

  3. Kathy says:

    A whole Earth database would perhaps be too big to manage.

    But there could be an aggregator with access to lots of newspapers and magazines, for a modest monthly fee. Scribd already provides access to several magazines for around $9 a month, plus ebooks, plus adudiobooks, plus some other content.

    Also, CNN has free access to its website, as does The Guardian. there may be others of note, but those are the ones I visit often.

    The other question to ask is: are these BS websites offering free content making money at all? If so, how? And can that be copied by serious news organizations?

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    “A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes.”

    -unknown

    1
  5. Teve says:

    @steve:

    The garbage like InfoWars exists beaus that is what some people want. Many, maybe most, people just want to read stuff that supports what they already believe.

    Yeah but the problem is it changes people. My friend’s dad was a bomb disposal tech for several decades. Had a successful business, successful family, owned a big home and some land, everything going great. Then he retired, and didn’t have anything to do and started watching Fox News increasing amounts of time. That was several years ago. Now he’s an angry asshole who bitches about Democrats all day long, and his wife is getting close to leaving him. Right now she lives in one part of the house and he lives in a different part of the house and that bullshit has wrecked his life.

    5
  6. Jax says:

    I believe the press clipping service I worked for in the 90’s merged with another company and has launched a software suite that does something similar, but I’m not sure it goes as far as scientific journals and such. I also have no idea how expensive the software is.

    I do know that I was astounded, when I worked there, at how much information flowed thru those offices. Every newspaper. Every magazine. A small army of readers, and another small army of people who did nothing but cut out the clips to send to the client. There were people who listened to all the radio shows and all of the news channels. They were just starting to monitor internet stuff.

    This is the company’s website, now. https://burrelles.com/

  7. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    Well, Alex Jones of Infowars made his pile selling supplements, I believe.

    1
  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    The …if only if it were free, argument. He’s right in many of his arguments, but went into a rabbit hole looking for solutions. More a cry in the night than a path to solution.

    @James, I’ll disagree with you on copyright protection. Back at the beginning of our republic copyright was set a ~25 years, that has been extended, mostly in the 20th century and now stands at 95 years or 70 years after the death of the creator. I have no doubt that when the Disney copyrights and trademarks bump up on public domain copyright will be extended again. That was not what was intended.

    4
  9. Kathy says:

    Let’s back up a bit. Until not too long ago, most online news sites were free. I think paywalls in the larger papers like the NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, etc. go back five or six years only. Certainly int eh early years of this century, most internet content was free. That did not stop BS and conspiracy theories from becoming rampant. 9/11 truthers, Obama birthers, crisis actors, etc.

    So it may not be a matter of cost, or distribution, or availability.

    I recall conspiracy theories as far back as the 80s. Not the popular ones like who really killed Kennedy (spoiler alert: it was Oswald), or the Moon landing as a hoax (spoiler alert: it really did happen, six times!). But things like why the UK really went to war with Argentina over the Falklands (to maintain a claim on Antarctica, which supposedly was going to be divided among the countries with territories closest to it in the year 2000), Gorbachev as a CIA plant, and others more outlandish.

    People just believe rumor over news sources for some reason. Near the end of the single term of Mexico’s Jose Lopez Portillo (aka El Perro) in 1982, who was so corrupt it shocked even us, there was a rumor that the government had forbidden a certain issue of TIME from being distributed in Mexico, because it showed Lopez Portillo doing something illegal on the cover (and presumably contained an article about it, but the rumor stopped with the cover). As luck would have it, I had access to someone who had a TIME subscription. There wasn’t a single issue missing all year. Not one. But people believed the rumor.

    Oh, remember when Vince Foster died?

    1
  10. Teve says:

    @Kathy:

    or the Moon landing as a hoax (spoiler alert: it really did happen, six times!).

    Here’s how my last conversation with a moon landing denier went:

    Her: The government always lies to us. I bet they’re lying to us about the moon landings.
    Me: you don’t think we went to the moon and literally tens of thousands of scientists and engineers, technicians, truck drivers etc. are all lying about it?
    Her: well maybe they went to the moon but maybe they lied about when they went to the moon. Maybe they really went to the moon 20 years before they said they did and just didn’t tell anybody.
    Me: so immediately after World War II in less than four years the government conducted an entirely secret program that went to the moon, then 20 years later spent almost a decade faking a program that really didn’t go to the moon.
    Her:..um…

    2
  11. Teve says:

    @Kathy:

    Oh, remember when Vince Foster died?

    Didn’t he die in Benghazi?

    5
  12. Kathy says:

    @Teve:

    It was before my time, but I’ve read about the shock, real and profound, the launch of Sputnik I had on Americans’ pride and self-esteem.

    I can’t imagine Eisenhower sitting by and lofting little Explorer I months later, when he could have said “I’ll see your Sputnik and raise you six Moon landings!”

    2
  13. Kurtz says:

    @Kathy:

    The other question to ask is: are these BS websites offering free content making money at all? If so, how? And can that be copied by serious news organizations?

    This is an interesting question. For those who wish to bankroll an organization like Breitbart, does the profit from it flow from achieving long term political goal independent of p&l for the company itself?

    2
  14. CSK says:

    @Kurtz:
    Breitbart is financed by the Mercers, isn’t it?

    2
  15. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Kurtz:
    @CSK:

    Some angel is supporting Breitbart, not sure if it’s the Mercers. Most of these RW sites are an extension of wingnut welfare.

    1
  16. Han says:

    @Kathy:

    The other question to ask is: are these BS websites offering free content making money at all? If so, how? And can that be copied by serious news organizations?

    Have to ask. By “BS”, do you mean bovine excrement, or Bernie Sanders?

  17. Han says:

    @Teve:

    @Kathy:

    Oh, remember when Vince Foster died?

    Didn’t he die in Benghazi?

    Oh, how soon we forget the Bowling Green Massacre…

    7
  18. CSK says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    I know the Mercers used to support Breitbart. But they dumped Bannon, and now I understand that they’ve dumped Trump, so maybe they’ve pulled their support from Breitbart as well.

  19. Kurtz says:

    @CSK: @Sleeping Dog:

    Yes, that’s a large portion of funding. Whether it’s the Mercers, the living Koch, or anyone else, it seems to me that the value of those outlets is less about the bottom line than it is about ideology as an extension of political donations.

    Push people beyond the reach of persuasion and securing preferred electoral outcomes becomes a simpler game.

    1
  20. Kurtz says:

    He lumps together the likes of Breitbart and the Daily Caller with Cato and the American Enterprise Institute.

    Well, I don’t know about that. AEI and Cato could be more dangerous because they apply a veneer of intellectual/’scientific’ credibility to the same activity. Lipstick on a pig…

    2
  21. Matt says:

    @Teve: When dealing with those people I usually point out that the Soviet Union whom we were engaged in with a very nearly hot cold war acknowledged that we landed on the moon. Considering the Soviets and several other countries tracked the progress via radar and such you would think one of them would call us out. How did the USA’s LRRRs (laser retroreflectors) get on the moon then? I have yet to get a coherent response to those points. If the discussion is in person they simply give up at that point.

  22. ImProPer says:

    “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Issac Asimov

    “The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free”

    This is just as one should expect in today’s world. The truth requires effort, lies, not any at all. The sad fact is, lies seem to drum up more profit for the liars than the truth does for its scribes. It has alot to do with advertising $. If you wanted to sell fool’s gold at a tidy profit, would you rather advertise on a wing nut 24 hr. news show or NPR? Outrage is the nation’s drug of choice, and electronic media is the uber pusher at providing the fix. Now with “influencers” on the internet, we’ve reached an all time low. The costs of fixing this are in my opinion, too steep. People have the right to be stupid, and they exercise it quite vigorously. The stupification of America has been lamented for years, but unfortunately has broad, bipartisan support. As far as those of us that are curious, and interested in finding truth, it is not very difficult to find either. We are the beneficiaries of Guttenberg’s press on steroids.The bs that we are bombarded with nowadays, is not difficult to spot, it is not designed to perplex the particularly intelligent, just outrage the reactionaries. If it sounds to good or outrageous to be true, it probably is, is a simple, yet effective deciphering tool, that is highly effective.
    Just like the need to reimagine our law enforcement, similar is needed for our education system. We cannot force people to be smart and seek the truth, but we can try to give our younger citizens, more of a choice, indeed I believe our future depends on it.

  23. James Joyner says:

    @Kurtz:

    AEI and Cato could be more dangerous because they apply a veneer of intellectual/’scientific’ credibility to the same activity. Lipstick on a pig…

    I mostly follow foreign affairs and national security stuff and both AEI and Cato have some good people on those topics. Kori Schake, who has recently come in to head AEI’s shop, is among my favorite natsec analysts.

    2
  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Han: Now wait, I thought he was killed in the raid on the child trafficking ring that ran out of a pizza shop basement.

  25. Han says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: No, you’re thinking of Jeffrey Epstein, who was actually deep, deep undercover. The lengths they had to go to getting him back in his cell and faking his suicide to keep the operation from becoming public just shows you how important eradicating trafficking is to Trump.

    2
  26. Kurtz says:

    @James Joyner:

    Fair enough. Natsec is a different beast entirely–difficult to report on, difficult for the reader to sort, difficult to figure out who is running game. Any decent source in that environment is like gold.

  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Han: LOL! 😀