Friday, February 15, 2013

Adam Smith and "people of the same trade": Journalists

There is well known quote of Adam Smith's, that goes as follows:
People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or some contrivance to raise prices.

This can be found in The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 10, "Of Wages and Profits". Part 2, page 207, very top of the page.

I find this quote to be interesting. Not necessarily for what it states, but for how it's been nearly universally received. Finding the direct source of the quote led me to all sorts of books, blog postings, and more and nearly all of them discuss price fixing, monopolies, greedy SOBs, and on and on. The funny thing is, most places do not even read the quote properly. The words above as written are exactly as Smith wrote them, but that's not what the majority of people see. Here is what they see:

People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public with some contrivance to raise prices.

But that's not true. Adam Smith uses the word "or", so it's clear that he understood full well that it's not always about the money. There's two things about this. Our Founding Fathers knew that there wasn't just one thing that men sought after. People do conspire for reasons other than money. On the floor of the Constitutional Convention, James Wilson read aloud a letter written by Benjamin Franklin, here is part of what he said:

Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money. Separately each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men, a post of honour that shall be at the same time a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.

Too often today, we forget about that first part. The love of power. Power, for control, obviously. So what happens when reporters and journalists meet together, even if only for merriment and diversion? The Journolist is the obvious answer, but is it the only one? If you flip through your channels and watch their reporting, every channel but one says the same thing. Reporting on the same things, in the same ways. And often times, they even use the same descriptive words and phrases. It gets even worse if you match it to the local paper. It's the same there too.

How often do you think these people of this same trade are meeting together? And how do you think the conversation ends? Can we tell how it ended by looking at the results on screen and in print? Well, what if we made the Adam Smith quote just a little bit shorter, what would we have?

People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public

Does this quote apply? Let me ask you this question: Does Adam Smith's quote apply to something like the White House Correspondents Dinner? Here we have not just journalists meeting together for merriment and diversion, but they're rubbing elbows with politicians and people of power.

How do you think THAT conversation ends?

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