Life as an Extreme Sport

Amy Goodman, Stephen Colbert, Embedded Journalism and the Gift Economy

So last month, Stanford ix-nayed pharmaceutical freebies; the easist way to find any information about the ban is to simply search on David Magnus’s name; (Google likes to tell me every time some small paper picks up a larger syndicated article – you’d be amazed how often I’ve seen his name in the last three weeks). But basically, the idea is that even small gifts have been shown to influence physicians. The big pharma argument has been, for years, that they have allowances of no more than $100 per physician, and the cost is too small to really influence the course of decisions. It’s probably not a surprise to anyone familiar with some theories of gift economies that this isn’t actually the case, and something like pens, pads of branded paper, and/or a nice lunch will actually influence a physician’s prescribibg habit.

Anyhow, the commentary around this has really been run quite into the ground at this point, and I bring it up actually because of The Colbert Report and Demoicracy Now! guest Amy Goodman. Ms. Goodman drew some interesting parallels between gift economy/reciprocal altriusm (without using the language) and embedded journalists. An emdedded journalist relies on the troops they’re with to protect them, keep them safe, keep them informed. It runs very strongly counter to the best interests of the journalist (staying alive) to do anything to piss the troops off – like report negatively on them.

If something so simple as a less than $100 gift, a pen or pad, is enough to sway the opinion of someone who has, in theory, received enough education to make appropriate choices based on empiracal evidence and not gifts, how can it not be a force strong enogh to influence the reporting choices of someone whose life is potentially on the line? There is a sublte threat and coercion there which strongly tilts the reporting cards towards the military and away from factual reporting.


  1. Nice analysis. I would add that what is significant in the “gift” of safety offered to embedded journalists is that the gift can not be superceded. There is no higher order gift, and thus it is an impossible exchange. Perhaps the only return is the gift of a journalist laying down his or her life for the solider who protects. Taking a bullet or suicide bomber attack for example. This ultimately puts the journalist in an impossible exchange vis a vis the soldiers.

  2. That’s a great point, Gordon. I actually spent too long last night looking for my gift theory books, to the detriment of studying for today’s Husserl exam (can I whine and say “I’m a grad student, I shouldn’t have to take tests!”?), and gave up after realizing my office still looks like a hurricane ran through on its way to Florida. But yes, there is a pretty explicit clause to the embedded journalist gift exchange, where there is no way to reciprocate the gift. Some might argue that positive press does, since it has an influence on a large number of people, but I think that’s got to be too intangible to factor in heavily enough to tilt scales away from the immediacy of life/death.

  3. What are some good books on gift economies/theory? A quick google/amazon search didn’t turn up much. I’d be very interested in reading more…

  4. Marcel Mauss has a book called “The Gift”. This is a was an anthropological study of gift economy in “archaic” societies.

    Another important text was Marshall Sahlins “Stone Age Economics” (1972).

    Georges Bataille “The Accursed Share” is another landmark work that develops the notion of “Potlatch” and the excess in gift economy.

    A lot of it comes from the field of antropology. I am sure there are many secondary texts out there as well.

    Another good place to start is at the Wikipedia article for Gift Economy

    Hope that helps.

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