A Progressive Skinner Box for the LA Times

If you get around the Internet and are interested in current events, you’ve probably visited the LA Times website and might have even followed the ups and downs of this newspaper. For some folks, the LA Times is a major source of power in their world and they are upset at its more centrist editorializing, particularly with the recent firing of Robert Scheer. If you are an activist and a major media outlet is starting to get out of tune with your harmony, what do you do?

How about this . . . (described at the LA Observed blog)

“We embrace an inside/outside strategy, whereby subscribers lobby from within and non-subscribers, withholding their subscriptions, exert pressure from without. Please let us know (xxxxxx@aol.com) if you want to pursue an inside (subscribe) or outside (boycott) strategy.” This is the persuasion tactic that a group of Southern California progressives is going to apply to get the LA Times to add an anti-war leftist opinion writer to the editorial page or to drop right wing writers. If you had a good psych class in high school or college or if you are parent, you should recognize this tactic.Just about any normal human being quickly learns that consequences shape behavior. Get a reward and you’ll do that again. Get a punisher and you’ll move to the other side of the street. Professor B.F. Skinner is the iconic public figure for this theory and you might even remember seeing pictures of him standing beside a box that was the reinforcement environment for Skinner’s research subjects: Pigeons, rats, mice, and sometimes people.

SoCa progressives want to build a Skinner box for the LA Times. Through a combination of rewards (continuing subscriptions if your editorial page pleases me) and punishments (withholding subscriptions until your editorial page pleases me), these folks hope to shape the LA Times in a more congenial and progressive direction.

This appears to be fairly straightforward, serious, and potentially effective. Disgruntled folks organize themselves into an economic Skinner box and make the LA Times the lab rat (or if Professor Skinner was still alive to consult with them, I’d assume he would prefer to think of the LA Times as a pigeon) and keep whacking away with rewards and punishers until the rat does what you want it to do.

Unfortunately, this is bad persuasion and in a political context, I’ll call this the “Politics of the unElectable.” While these folks are serious about themselves, they are not serious about creating the change they seek. Let’s think about this for just a minute.

What kind of effort must these people exert to run their Skinner box? They can organize via email and websites, maybe an infrequent phone conversation. From the comfort of their homes, they can implement their chosen reinforcers with the touch of a few keystrokes as they subscribe to the Times online and pay with credit card or they can send an email to the Times to let the Times know they are withholding the subscription. Every now and then maybe as many as two or three hundred of these kindred spirits can plan and execute a picket at the LA Times.

In other words, they will expend about as much effort as it takes to open an account with one’s preferred pornography website. (Except for the picketing thing . . . that’s more like organizing a group appearance at an adult bookstore.)

While it is low effort, the effort is nonetheless gratifying although not in the same way as with the pornography website. Don’t you remember how good you felt composing that letter to the editor, getting the dictionary and maybe the thesaurus, showing each draft to your spouse or your dog or your cat. Then sending the thing off. Take that! The psychological payoff for cheap protest is not to be underestimated. In fact, I suspect the less you do, the better the protest feels for reasons best explained by Dissonance Theory which we’ll leave for another post far distant in the future.

But, sometimes even low effort can bring big rewards assuming you’ve got a great persuasion tactic. And what’s wrong with a Skinner box the for LA Times?

You gotta control all the significant sources of reinforcement for the rat or the pigeon or child or newspaper if you expect the Skinner box to work. If you’re whacking your kids with a punishing consequence for not cleaning their rooms and your spouse is whacking them with a rewarding consequence for expressing their individuality, you’ve got a failed Skinner box (but probably a pretty standard family).

Look, the Times is a multizillion dollar going concern. Yeah, it is suffering right now along with a lot of newspapers as they struggle to keep a preWeb business model making profit while they figure out a new business model for a postWeb world. But the passionate and principled actions of a few hundred subscribers is not even close to being a significant source of reinforcement for the Times. And as long as advertisers keep the ad dollars flowing no activist group from the left or right is going to materially affect the Times editorial board with a Skinner box tactic. And we haven’t even started on what the bad guys (the neocon right wing fascist cabal) are doing to keep the Times moving right. The progressive Skinner box affects nothing and no one except for the progressives’ state of mind.

This analysis cannot be that subtle, difficult, or arcane. Certainly even some of the folks in the group must have voiced a concern about this. (Unless they have become the dreaded Echo Chamber or Groupthink Gang).

Remember the Rules. All bad persuasion is sincere. If you can’t succeed, don’t try.