The Regulatory Capture Of The Press

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There is a phenomenon called “regulatory capture” that describes how government regulators come to be controlled by those that they are meant to regulate. The same idea applies to the press. And it’s easy to see in action.

Regulatory capture was first put forth as an economic theory in the late 20th century, but it has probably been happening since the invention of regulation. Classic all-American examples would be, say, an energy industry lobbyist becoming the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, or a host of Wall Street bankers and hedge fund guys taking control of our financial regulatory agencies. Needless to say, regulatory capture benefits private interests at the expense of the public, and makes a mockery of the original purpose of institutions that were supposed to be operating in the public interest.


Our vaunted free press is not a government agency, but it is susceptible—and indeed some of it long ago succumbed!—to the same sort of danger. The general mechanism of the overseen taking control of their overseers is similar. The most important job of the press is to inform the public about what exactly the government is doing, thereby keeping the government’s power in check and keeping our leaders accountable to us all. But in a competitive media world, the government can use the promise of access as a tool to subdue the more troublesome aspects of journalism. Once any media outlet becomes more concerned with its position in the pecking order than with what it is doing to serve regular people, it becomes manipulable by anyone holding the ability to boost its prestige. The more dangerous the government, the more dangerous it is to have a press willing to bargain for access.


Which brings us to this fucking picture, tweeted Sunday by DC politician-whisperer Mike Allen, who has built a lucrative career by being uncomfortably close with the people he covers. A bunch of national political reporters smiling happily with Donald Trump at an off-the-record Christmas party at Mar-a-Lago... it looks bad, you know? Not to worry, Mike Allen’s boss, Jim VandeHei, told Erik Wemple:

[My] general take is people get way too deranged about reporters talking w presidents, politicians, sources [off the record]. I am a fan of candid, OTR chats: it’s often the closest you get to truth. In this case, my understanding is the President-elect popped in unexpectedly. Do people really think reporters should run for the exits or stage a protest a few weeks into his transition? Seems dramatic to me. At the same time, the President-elect should make himself more available to press questions and scrutiny, and hopefully very soon. This wouldn’t be much of a story if he had been holding press conferences of late. If he does, then I would root for even MORE OTR or deep background or whatever sessions so a president-elect and a press corp with a hostile relationship can at least better understand each other.

Here—though VandeHei would certainly dispute it—we have the regulatory capture of the press in its purest form. To someone who has been swallowed this completely by the DC media beast, the idea that the White House press corps should be confrontational or aggressive with the newly elected president is absurd, an unserious waste of time. The idea that the press might do something, like refuse to participate in off the record cocktail parties in order to try to force our government to do more things on the record, or the idea that government officials should be expected to tell the truth on the record, is not even within the bounds of legitimate conversation; rather, VandeHei accepts that politicians lie to the press and the public as a normal matter, and therefore off the record chats are the best they can hope for, and therefore he would “root for” more off the record chats between politicians and reporters, so that the two can “better understand each other.” Notice a couple of additional assumptions left unstated here:

  • It is important for the most powerful elected official on the planet to “understand” the reporters covering him, because hey, they are people too, and they need selfies with the president. And,
  • There is great value in the press knowing things they cannot share with the public.

This pathetic mix of a burning need to have access and proximity to power combined with a lack of concern over whether this access will have any benefit for the public (as opposed to just the reporters themselves) defines the spirit of the captured press. For men like Allen and VandeHei, every piece of reporting is a trade; powerful people grant them access, and they grant powerful people flattering coverage. If powerful people grant them any unfiltered truth, they agree not to disclose this truth to the public. This sort of access journalism increases the prestige of the journalist as it decreases the actual value of the journalism. In the end, the reporters get invited to the president’s Christmas party, and the president gets to rest assured that his friends, the press, will not harm him.

Because they understand each other.