The Wealthy Elizabethan Merchant Who Explains CNN’s Bad Boston Coverage

Jeff Zucker, meet Sir Thomas Gresham.

Last week, during the frantic hunt for the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, CNN wrongly reported that a man had been arrested. The news network soon corrected its error, but not in time to avoid a chorus of "how could this happen?" from, mostly, other media. Their explanations centered mainly on the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle. But for the real reason, you'd have to ask Sir Thomas Gresham.

Gresham was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and an exceptionally wealthy London merchant. Having realized that British money was losing its value because of the shoddy coinage standards of the queen's predecessors, Gresham suggested she create a new, more trustworthy money that could not be confused with the old specie. This act -- though not the first of its kind in recorded history -- gave rise to what is now known as Gresham's Law: "Bad money drives out good."

The law makes a simple but powerful point: Why would you go to the trouble of obtaining genuine legal tender when, at a lower cost, you can get something that works just as well? Joseph Schumpeter may have explained the law best in his History of Economic Analysis, pointing out that "if coins containing metal of different value enjoy equal legal-tender power, then the ‘cheapest' ones will be used for payment, the better ones will tend to disappear from circulation."

The same is true for the news. If bad news -- in the sense of the quality of the news, not its content -- is just as valuable as good news, then good news will eventually disappear from the market.

What makes news good? It's a subjective term, but I would argue for a definition something like this: information that is accurate, presented so that the facts speak for themselves, and eventually verifiable. These are the qualities that make news useful, accessible, and trustworthy to as broad an audience as possible.

Yet good news is not the only kind of news that has value in the market. News doesn't just provide information; it can also offer entertainment and a vicarious emotional experience. Even bad news, which is not accurate or verifiable, can supply these pleasures. The thrills of bad news may be fleeting and cheap, but they are thrills nonetheless.

These thrills were coming fast during the Boston manhunt. Each speculative bit of bad news -- Was one of the bombers missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi? What about the Saudi man who "smelled of gunpowder?" -- reliably provoked a flurry of reactions in the media and the public at large. The reactions came not because each morsel of supposed news was true, but because it got our minds racing (and our fingers Googling) with the possibility that it might be true.

In fact, these reactions were pretty much the same as the ones we had to good news. In terms of the public's enjoyment, good and bad news were roughly equivalent, just as good and bad money were indistinguishable in Gresham's time.

By themselves, however, repetitions of this situation are not enough to make good news disappear. For that, there has to be a difference in the cost of producing good and bad news. And clearly, there is.

Good news is expensive. It requires correspondents on the scene, several layers of editors supervising their work, producers at headquarters, and the resources to underpin the communication between them. Good news is also slow. The best reporters may be able to email a story or phone it in verbatim minutes after witnessing an important event, but the process of vetting sources and checking facts still takes time.

These aspects of good news tend to be compromised when there is a lot of bad news competing for the public's attention, and thus for the advertising dollars that keep news organizations in business. By the time good news finally becomes available, bad news may already have won the Internet. But the victory of bad news is not just a question of speed.

CNN was once seen as a source of good news, an honest broker that soberly cycled through the headlines all 24 hours of every day. But bad news networks started to creep into the market, filling television time with inexpensive talk shows that peddled rumor, sensationalism, and even outright lies. Because audiences gave bad news equal value -- or even greater value -- these networks could outcompete CNN, garnering the same or more revenue at lower cost. And so CNN started to give up on good news, installing its own rabble-rousing talk shows, broadcasting wall-to-wall coverage of stranded cruise ships, and placing shock value above sobriety with headlines like last week's "WHERE IS HE HIDING?" Gresham's Law had proven right again.

Right now, good news and bad news are both legal tender, in the sense that both can be exchanged for advertising dollars. But there is a solution. As Gresham realized in the 16th century, the way to restore the value of good money is to make it easily distinguishable from bad money. If bad money can no longer be used in most transactions, it will only exist on the fringes of the economy. For Gresham, minting a new official currency solved the problem. 

Could we do the same for the news? One way to "mint" good news could be with a government mandate. Indeed, this was the upshot of the Leveson Inquiry in Britain, which resulted in the regulation of newspapers for the first time since the century of Queen Elizabeth's death. But it's hard to imagine something similar happening in the United States, where free speech is enshrined in the Constitution; among the strongest voices against the new British system was the editorial page of the New York Times -- the epitome of a good news outlet.

An alternative would be an independent agency for certifying good news. Certification would be optional, but the public would easily be able to check whether a news outlet had the agency's seal of approval. Certification would also have a high bar -- only a few media organizations might obtain it at first -- and errors like CNN's would put certification in jeopardy. For sources with no seal of approval, audiences would at least think twice before believing what they saw, read, or heard.

It's by no means a perfect solution, especially as it might be open to political influence. Moreover, sophisticated news consumers are already rightly skeptical of the flood of information that courses daily through the Internet. But to the extent that bad news has put good news in danger of extinction, an application of Gresham's Law might finally offer a chance to turn the tables.

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Why the Justice Department’s charge against the Boston bomber is ridiculous.

Maybe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction after all.

An 11-page federal criminal complaint charges Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving alleged Boston Marathon bomber, with "unlawfully using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction ... against persons and property." The WMD in question was, the document explains, "an improvised explosive device."

Give me a break. Even granting that the language of the law is not the same as the language of everyday speech, it's ridiculous to call the bombs that went off in Boston "weapons of mass destruction." If any old bomb can be called a WMD, then Saddam most definitely had WMDs before the United States invaded Iraq 10 years ago. And if an IED is a WMD, then Iraq actually ended up with more WMDs after the U.S. invasion than before (and isn't entirely rid of them yet).

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm as horrified by the Boston Marathon bombings as anyone else. They were an act of senseless cruelty, killing three innocent people and injuring more than 200, many of them quite seriously. If Tsarnaev is guilty, he deserves to (and surely will) be punished to the full extent of the law. (Since this complaint was filed in federal rather than state court, the maximum penalty is death.)

But the crude Popular Mechanics-style devices used in the bombings -- pressure cookers retrofitted with explosives -- do not fit any logical definition of WMDs. To stretch the meaning of "weapon of mass destruction" this far renders entirely meaningless a phrase that was already too crudely propagandistic to warrant much respect.

The linguistic fault lies not with prosecutors but with Congress, which in the interest of expanding prosecutorial powers broadened the legal definition of "weapon of mass destruction" until, as Spencer Ackerman of Wired put it, federal statute could no longer distinguish "dangerous weapons from apocalyptic ones." Under 18 USC §2332a, a weapon of mass destruction might be what it's always been understood to be -- a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon. But it can also mean any bomb, grenade, or mine, any rocket with a propellant charge exceeding four ounces, or any missile with an explosive charge exceeding one-quarter ounce. A July 4 cherry bomb, if deployed with sufficient malice, would suffice.

No one minds the hyperbole when it comes to the Boston attacks because the perpetrators of this crime committed an unusually gruesome murder. But the term "WMD" also applies to international relations. Mere possession of WMDs has, in the recent past, been used to justify invading a country and overthrowing its leader. Does the United States really want to put on notice every nation whose military arsenal includes bombs, grenades, and/or mines that they could be next? If we did, our only allies might end up being Andorra, Lichtenstein, Monaco, and the Vatican. (How many WMDs does the pope have?)

Obviously there's little danger of that; the diplomatic use of the term remains restricted to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. But in truth the phrase "weapon of mass destruction" has always been overly broad. It was first used in November 1945, when the United States, Britain, and Canada jointly issued a statement calling for international control of atomic weapons (which these same countries had, three months earlier, dropped on Japan). Acknowledging that new technologies might bring about even more horrible weapons, the joint statement added, "and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction."

Happily, no category of weapon was ever invented during the succeeding 68 years whose destructive power could come close to matching that of nuclear weapons. Happier still, after 1945 no nation again resorted to nuclear warfare, which might have extinguished human civilization.

But in 1947 the United Nations adopted the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" to describe not only nuclear weapons, but also chemical and biological weapons. And although the latter two categories of weapon are indeed terrifying, and ought never to be used by any nation or terror group, they never, as a matter of simple fact, became as destructive as nuclear weapons, and should not be thought of in the same category. Chemical and biological weapons are not, at least as of today, capable of extinguishing human civilization.

This may seem a pedantic point, but the Bush administration used the WMD label to muddy the question of whether Saddam Hussein merely had chemical and biological weapons (a proposition for which it was thought there was much evidence, though it turned out he didn't), or whether he also had nuclear weapons (a proposition for which there was no plausible-seeming evidence even at the time). The confusion level got so high that the New Republic, in an editorial, demonstrated that it had come to think of chemical and biological weapons as the only weapons of mass destruction. The magazine justified invading Iraq on the grounds that Saddam was "the only leader in the world with weapons of mass destruction who has used them." In fact, as I noted at the time, U.S. President Harry Truman had possessed a much more fearsome category of weapon in 1945 and had, ahem, used it. Twice.

In characterizing the Boston Marathon bombers as wielding "weapons of mass destruction," we miss what was truly frightening about that event. It isn't only terrorist masterminds who can harm us with weapons of unimaginable power. It's also ordinary people moved by inexplicable hatreds using the simplest of tools. Weapons of minor destruction, in the wrong hands, are perhaps even more terrifying, because they're so much easier to acquire, and so much easier to set off.

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