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General Argument In Infotainment And The Moral Obligations Philosophy Essay

I think Stoll is wrong in “Infotainment and the Moral Obligations” to suggest through her utilitarian analysis that a diversity of views and freedom of speech leads to the greatest good for the greatest number of people. First I will show Stoll’s position is flawed through an analysis of the general argument in “Infotainment and the Moral Obligations”. I will then move into a more specific critique of her position by analyzing he moral analysis and the political context, and more specifically in her claim that documentaries and television advertisements “make a significant contribution to public debate”. While I will not disprove her idea that ads and documentaries make a significant contribution to the public debate, I will take issue with her Proofs, and the way she defends these ideas. This will then lead me into a criticism of her Utilitarian analysis, in which I will specifically analyze her presented case study of Moveon.org. I will then present some alternative situations in which a diversity of views, and free speech will in fact not lead to the utilitarian outcome of the greatest aggregate good for all.

In “Infotainment and the Moral Obligations” Stoll argues that “at a minimum, media institutions should view the duty to promote the representation of diverse views in a democracy as an imperfect moral and civic duty rather then making programming decisions solely by reference to profit”. This argument is of essence an extension of a stakeholder view of corporations, suggesting that media institutions have a duty to all stakeholders, not just to their shareholders. For Stoll this duty is immeasurable, meaning the extent to which media institutions should promote a diverse range of views is un quantifiable, suggesting the duty to be “imperfect”

To argue her thesis, Stoll refers to two case studies as the grounds for her argument. The first case refers to Moveon.org who “cried fowl when CBS refused to run a political advertisement during the Superbowl questioning President Bush’s fiscal policies”. CBS claimed “that it did not want to turn the Superbowl into a political arena of dispute”(p62). Moveon felt that “CBS was inconsistent with the application of this principle since it did allow for spots paid for by the executive branch of the United States Government”. The second case is the Movie Fahrenheit 911 in which “Michael Moore argued Disney squelched free speech rights by refusing to distribute his documentary”. This decision seemed especially odd, as Disney had already paid to create the documentary. In this case, Moore believes that the decision was politically motivated, and suggests “Disney did not want to anger Governor Jeb Bush of Florida since Florida offers significant tax breaks to the Disney corporation”.

Stoll then proceeds throughout her essay with an analysis of her thesis from a Kantian, Utilitarian, and a Social contract point of view. The thought process is if she can show that corporations in fact have an imperfect moral duty to promote diverse views from three major philosophical thought schools, then the thesis will be proven. Further, she raises possible objections from each different school of thought, and attempts to disprove these objections by clarifying the school of thought, and why a true Kantian for example, would disagree with the objection. While raising these objections is important, at times Stoll recedes to presenting “straw-figure” objections, meaning these objections are easily disproved, and are in fact not strong objections.

Stoll structures her essay by addressing “Moral analysis and the political” context prior to her analyzing the imperfect moral duty of media institutions in each different school of thought. It is in this section that she raises a critical objection to both her case studies. Stoll proposes “One might argue that ads or documentary films do not make a significant contribution to public debate”(p63). In response to this objection, Stoll states “then why would candidates spend such a vastly disproportionate amount of their campaign funds on ads?”(p63). In regards to films having an impact on public discourse, Stoll turns to the government wherein she states “Why else would the government have so strongly pushed patriotic films in times of war”. For Stoll the fact that Candidates and government officials believe that ads and films have a significant impact in public discourse is proof that this is in fact true.

After attempting to establish that televisions ads, films have an impact in public discourse, Stoll proceeds through a fairly sound assessment of her ideas from the point of view of a Kantian. Stoll then attempts to prove that a utilitarian would also agree with her believes of a free media promoting diverse views. In this argument Stoll refers to John Stuart Mill, and his belief “that both fairness more generally and the protection of free speech in particular are crucial to the greater happiness in the long run.”(p65). This in itself is a fair opinion, however it is subject to a key problem with in proving a utilitarian argument, which Stoll touches on. She states “Adding up the pleasure and pain produced overall may be quite a difficult task”(p65). For Stoll this is only a side thought however, and she turns to Mill to conclude that fairness and the protection of free speech will produce the greatest aggregate good, and for her will produce a diverse range of views.

In making an my argument against Stoll’s premise, I would like to first look at her proof that the ads, and documentaries are influential in the public debate. For Stoll because political candidates believe this to be the case this has to make it fact. While I am not arguing that these forms of media are in fact irrelevant, and don’t contribute to the public debate, I am arguing that Stoll’s reasoning is very weak, and therefore flawed. Stoll states “ads are believed to play a significant roll in determining votes”. This statement is not inherently wrong, nor is it inaccurate, however, this claim should be supported by some quantifiable evidence proving that this in fact cause and effect relationship.

To illustrate the flaw in this logic I will present a thought experiment. As a background, a generally accepted principle of American elections is that the candidate who fundraises the most money, has the greatest chance to win the election. This has been numerically proven as in the past the Presidential candidate with the fundraising advantage garners the most votes historically. This fundraising advantage is key, as according to Stoll the candidate with the greatest access to funds can then in turn produce the most advertising, which she feels leads directly to votes. This is a viable possibility, however these results could also be interpreted another way. What if instead of the ads leading to the votes, the voter’s minds were already made up prior to the fundraising advantage becoming apparent? Could it be that the candidate with the most support garners the most resources from fundraising and is then able to produce TV advertisements? The point here is it is very difficult to tell if the advertisements lead to the votes, or if the advertisements are a result of voters already committing their support to a candidate. In other words, ads and votes are correlated as Stoll suggests, but her leap to the causation that more ads lead to more votes is misguided.

In regards to Stoll’s logic in regards to the influnce of ads in the political spectrum, the same faulty logic appears again in her analysis of her thesis from a utilitarian point of view. Stolls reasoning that Corporations have a duty to provide a diverse set of views is based on the fact that John Sturat Mill, a utilitarian, advocates that fairness and free speech will produce the greatest aggregate good. While this may be true, it is not enough to simply rely on an interpretation of a prominent utilitarian. While quantifying the greatest good for the greatest number of people is naturally difficult, Stoll takes no steps to investigate this from a statistical point of view. I will attempt examine her ideas, and more specifically the Moveon case statistically.

At the time Moveon wanted to run the Superbowl ad critical of president Bush, Bush’s approval rating in the American public was hovering near 60%.. [1] As a result, can it not be concluded that 60% of the people watching the critical advertisement would be offended? So in turn wasn’t the greatest good for the greatest amount of people preserved by not running the ad? I think certainly in the short run this is the case. An appropriate criticism of this logic would be that this does not take into account the long-term effects of such an ad. This is true, and in this case it is possible that airing the ad would have lead to a greater good in the long run, however, this conclusion is impossible to obtain statistically.

Suppose now that the ideas Moveon, or any company for that matter were more extreme than criticizing an at the time fairly popular president. Suppose that they had come up with the necessary money upfront to CBS, to run an ad that 95% of the population would be strongly opposed to. An example might be a Pro-communist ad during the cold war. In these examples, I think it should be quite clear to rational individuals that this would outrage the public, at least in the short term, and definitely not lead to the outcome of the greatest good for the greatest number of people in that time frame. With that it must be true that a full range of views and freedom of expression would not lead to the best outcome as determined by a utilitarian view, at least in the short term, making Stoll’s position flawed

This is a very strong argument, and one that I feel most rational people would accept. I am not stating that Stoll is wrong in here argument, but rather that some of her leaps in logic are flawed. I have not proven or attempted to prove that Stoll is wrong, but rather shown that her argument lacks sufficient evidence. I feel that it is possible that ads and films contribute to the public debate, and that a diversity of views will lead to the greatest aggregate good. The point I am making is these claims are not supported numerically or statistically in “Infotainment and the Moral Obligation”, and lack sufficient qualitative evidence to be fully convincing to a rational individual.

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