Comments on “Is journalism official?”

The nice thing about really long posts is that they appear to scare away stupid and obnoxious people. I don’t believe UR has received a single stupid or obnoxious comment for several weeks now. Since the Internet is what it is, this can only be described as a miracle, and perhaps I should apply now to the Pope for preliminary beatification—before reality reasserts itself.

First, I need to apologize for an error in the post. As a number of critics have observed, a cable modem does indeed modulate and demodulate. I probably should have known this. My only defense is that if it didn’t modulate and demodulate, it would almost certainly still be called a “cable modem.” This excuse is pathetic, I know, but I will stick to it.

Seamus McCauley writes:

A strange interpretation of the relationship between journalism and the state. Many news sources (blogs) that follow the tribulations of journalists throughout the world read like a record of the running battle that is the attempts of various governments to assault, imprison or sometimes murder representatives of the press.

Indeed. But if you accept the “strange interpretation,” what does this battle become? It becomes something even more interesting—a power struggle between different factions within the State.

Does history suggest that this is unusual? I’d say history suggests that its absence would be unusual. I mean, call me a Bayesian, but…See also this post on our red and blue governments. The “mystery,” obviously, is poorly concealed, but you can’t expect drama from the archives.

Randy writes:

Just an example… But I’ve noticed several articles of late which have shifted from simply reporting the problems of Social Security and Medicare to assigning blame for the problem to the baby boomers (the greedy generation, etc.). What we have here is policy implementation—assigning the blame is the first step in deciding who gets the bill—and this policy is being initiated by, or at least coordinated with, the official press.

Exactly. The role of the press in the modern Western state is to set the issues, and declare winners and losers. This is as close as one could come to governing politics.

Sarbanes-Oxley is another good example. I don’t have a link handy, but it used to be said that the only two people who still thought Sarbox was a good idea (outside of the press—and the accounting industry, which could easily be mistaken for its corporate master) were Sarbanes and Oxley. Then Oxley gave a speech in which he apologized for the whole thing, explaining that the legislation was concocted in a hurry under enormous “pressure from the public.”

Of course what he really meant was pressure from Joseph Nocera, et al. But legislators tend to accept the Times’ opinion as a generally accurate leading indicator of public opinion, and they are usually right to do so. After all, if the Pope condemns marital sodomy today, millions of Catholics will condemn it tomorrow. That bond is power.

TGGP writes:

I never read the Times. There are so many sources of information out there. There’s a lot of similarity among them, but that’s because Racist Confederate Broadcasting wouldn’t have as big a constituency as you imagine. It’s the tyranny of the market majority. And if Bush is the rebel against the Empire of the Times (which may actually make him bad and them good), why did those who supported his war get promoted while critics whose warnings were correct go nowhere?

Please—the name is Confederate Racist Television, or CRTV. “Now broadcasting live from Jena, Occupied Louisiana, where our reporters are on the scene, as…” Can you imagine? I can certainly imagine. But thankfully I don’t feel the need to share.

I think you’re right that CRTV would not have a huge audience, although I think it’d be plenty sufficient for any modern cable network. But why is this? Is it because events of the last 50 years have disenchanted and disillusioned the CRTV audience, convincing them that the Lost Cause is really lost, that Robert E. Lee was a no-good dirtbag, and that blacks are wonderful? Or is it because for the last 50 years each generation has passed through an educational system controlled by its enemies? You don’t have to be a Confederate racist to answer this question.

I always read or at least skim the Times, because I want to know what the Times is thinking. But I’m not sure I’d recommend this for everyone.

The case of the Establishment pundits (Friedman, Beinart, etc.) who supported the invasion of Iraq is fascinating, and I think to really deal with it I need to deal with Iraq, which I’ve been putting off. Needless to say, my views on the subject are outrageous and will offend everyone.

But I take a very different lesson from it. I think what it tells us is how dynamic and flexible the official press is, how carefully it avoids any misstep that might move it away from power. In 2003, it looked as if the invasion of Iraq would be a success. (In fact, the invasion of Iraq was a success—it’s the occupation that has failed.) If the Times had gone full-out Tom Hayden antiwar on us in 2003, and both the invasion and the occupation had proved successful, it would have looked like it was out of touch with reality. Which the powerful can never afford, because they do create their own reality. That’s what power is.

Is this the result of some conscious plan? Of course not. Did Friedman, Beinart, etc., even think of themselves as strategically maneuvering to retain power? Certainly not. Ambitious and successful people simply have an instinct for this game—they are “naturals.” If the US was taken over by white nationalists and CRTV was playing on airport TVs, I suspect these very same pundits would be telling us about the resurgence of the Anglo-Saxon race. And if they weren’t, others would.

Jed Rothwell writes:

The mainstream press treatment of cold fusion has been appalling, and it confirms your point. Many newspapers and magazines claim the cold fusion was never replicated, or even that it was fraud. Journalists never check the facts or read the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The fact is, cold fusion was replicated in hundreds of national laboratories, universities and corporations, these replications were published in prestigious, mainstream peer-reviewed journals.

I’m actually somewhat fascinated by the story of “cold fusion,” which I first started reading about on sci.physics when the whole thing broke. The LENR-CANR site is certainly worth a visit from anyone interested. I personally don’t have the expertise to apply Occam’s razor in this case. But nor do I trust the official press to do so on my behalf.

As far as I’m concerned, the whole issue remains somewhat mysterious. Cold-fusion proponents have no convincing theory to explain their evidence, which is a little surprising given how well we understand atomic physics. Cold-fusion opponents have no institutional incentive to investigate the subject, because their bureaucratic victory is complete. There is simply no neutral authority I trust to tell me what’s going on.

B. Broadside writes:

This is why I can’t figure out why someone would think of Bush as part of a rebel Red Government. He seems like a meddling multilateralist with bad grammar. There are rebel Red Government types in Washington (maybe even in Congress) but Bush isn’t one of them.

First, the red government isn’t what it once was. If you think of Disraeli as the quintessential red-government figure, we’ve come down a long way from there. Even the views of Jeane Kirkpatrick are no longer acceptable in Washington today, and if you set her substantive positions next to those of a real Imperialist, she looks like a wog-hugging rabble-rouser.

But, secondly, I think it’s almost beside the point to ask what Bush thinks. It reminds me of a book I have called What Lincoln Believed, by Michael Lind. The problem with figuring out what Lincoln believed is that basically all we have from Lincoln are his public statements, and Lincoln was a politician. We certainly know what his positions were. Can we derive opinions from those positions? Only with a considerable helping of imagination.

Bush is a politician, too, and a pretty capable one as they go. What does Bush believe? Again, I think it’s impossible to know, and I’m not sure it really matters. Whatever beliefs he may have, he does not have the bureaucratic power to express them through personal initiative. The President’s role in the modern American system of government is entirely passive.

Anon writes:

I’ve just started reading UR, and I’m not sure I understand the frequent usage of the word “universalist.”

Welcome, and pleaase see my definition here. Note that my “Universalism” is the same thing Murray Rothbard called postmillennial pietism. I have already revised the terminology several times and I am thinking of doing so again—reusing an existing word, even with a capital letter, seems to cause a lot of confusion.

M. Traven writes:

I think someone has pointed out earlier that on this issue you are on perfect agreement with Noam Chomsky. Which doesn’t make either of you wrong, of course—but it might make you uncomfortable. You certainly have a more entertaining style.

As you point out, it is not so easy to step outside the consensus reality of the Times. Those who do this consistently generally need to adopt some alternative narrative that organizes their worldview, but also makes them sound like conspiracy kooks. And once you start exploring alternative realities it is hard to know when to stop.

What’s fascinating about Chomsky is that, in a way, he is an infallible guide to reality. You just have to reverse him precisely. In Chomsky’s mind, Poland is always invading Germany.

For example, which institution has more motive, opportunity and propensity to spin the news? ExxonMobil, or the Columbia School of Journalism? What’s going on in the mind of the Chomster is that he observes that the official press is 99.9% Polygon Universalist bureaucracy, and 0.1% corporate spin. Because he believes the former is utterly pure and the latter is deeply pernicious, he ignores the elephant and attacks the flea.

Obviously, if you went to the doctor and he told you that you were 99.9% healthy tissue and 0.1% cancer, you’d want him to cut out the cancer right away. So there is method in Chomsky’s madness. As long as you believe that the German people are the natural leaders of Europe, and they must defend themselves against the unendurable insults of the aristocratic, Jewified Poles and their Franco-British puppetmasters, everything makes perfect sense.

ChairmanK writes:

The CFR’s official history which you linked is fascinating. The writing has an “official bullshit” quality which would have been appropriate for an publication of the International Lenin School.

It has a kind of glorious carefulness, doesn’t it? Every detail is 100% accurate, and yet the picture seems almost too good to be true. I especially admire how the author manages to skate around l’affaire Hiss.

Your use of the word “press” as a synecdoche for “media” smudges some important details. The press is declining, and in some parts of society the press no longer even exists, because it has been wholly replaced by other non-press media. The cost structure and response time of the press constrain what can be printed therein, whereas other media have different constraints.

I don’t see a lot of intellectual distinction between newspapers and TV today, and the former certainly have a very fast response time—now visible on the Web.

To me the boundary of the “press” is best defined by its broadcast structure, which associates economies of scale with intellectual centralization. So bloggers may be “media,” but they are certainly not “press.”

Not all scientists care about getting published in the “gray journal”. Perhaps Margot was working in a field in which careful publicity can attract huge amounts of funding. But most scientists disdain the media (journalists are useful idiots who never report confidence intervals!) and would much rather be on the cover of Nature than the front page of the New York Times.

I’m sure this is true emotionally, but in terms of ruthless professional advancement, they might want to think again. Funding comes from Congress whether we like it or not, and everyone along that chain respects power. Scientists who are media stars (and who don’t completely alienate their peers) find it much easier, I think, to get what they want. Of course, there is a word other than “star” which could be used in the above sentence, and no scientist is entirely without dignity, but the profession is what it is.

Also, Nature and Science are—as I’m sure you’re aware—to some extent turning into the New York Times. Certainly on scientific questions of political weight, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out where their editors stand. Moreover, those editors, while I’m sure they are better educated than the NYT’s science reporters, are, after all, journalists rather than scientists.

drank writes:

Out in the real world, though, I don’t think the media is reliably playing the “Ministry of Information” role that you assign to them. Most of the time, they seem more played than player to me!

Said differently, your postulated war between Blue Government and Red Government is largely fought on the battleground of the national media. The pack of Washington journalists, I think, intentionally keep themselves ill-informed and “spinnable”, as that’s what their sources value, and hence how they maintain their status and perks. Bob Woodward is just the most egregious example of this. The Bush 43 administration—either due to incompetence at media manipulation or a vast amount of opposition from the civil service or both—has provided an endless display policy disagreements and turf wars being fought through leaks to the national press.

This is certainly true—see also my response to TGGP above. The press is the battlefield. But that battlefield has a shape. And I wouldn’t call it flat…

But why should anybody else should pay attention to all this inside baseball? Journalists are consistently rated as less trustworthy than used car salesmen and lawyers, which doesn’t say much for their actual ability to shape public opinion. Blogs make endless fodder out of the bias, sloppy methods, secret sources, poorly-concealed editorializing, credulous reporting, and repackaged spin that constitute most of the output of the national press. I see the MSM as closer to a national joke than a sinister agent of influence.

Michael Totten is a great counter-example of an alternative reporter with a lot of competitive advantages over this mess. But it’s becoming increasingly easy to find a Totten in many fields—someone who can offer knowledgeable, informed and trustworthy writing without being beholden to official power. Someone who you’d want to read if you actually wanted to learn something the realities of their field.

I agree in general, but I fear you may be slightly overstating the number and influence of people who actually care about actually knowing what’s going on in the world. The blogosphere has grown a lot and it has developed some actual power, but the vast majority of even intelligent, college-educated people are still enormously dependent on the official press, and I would be (pleasantly) surprised if this changes as fast as you expect.

Michael writes:

I would like to note that I do in fact know of some settings where a Times Journalist would distinctly NOT be a feather in the host’s cap, but as discussed by Fussell, such settings are “out of sight.”

Fussell’s book on class is always right except where it’s wrong, and it’s frequently wrong. Little dollops of Marxism are everywhere. I’m sure certainly still some old Optimates who look down on the press, but they don’t matter.

Finally, I just looked at NYTimes science columnist John Tierney’s column, and I found that opposition, of a moderate sort, to the drug war and to global warming silliness, were the first items showing.

Tierney is a columnist, not a reporter, and that’s his “blog,” not his column. We are pretty far down on the in-house dissident scale here. Although not as far down as David Brooks.

My first choice for a fanatical devotee would be James Simons followed by Bloomberg, but Buffett would be my first choice among your offers.

I think you overstate the power of money. Money is wonderful, but it is not power, and it has not been power for quite some time, certainly not since the post-Watergate campaign finance reports. Sure, I would love a Moldbugista think tank (Dr. Simons, if you’re reading…), but there are already such of every political description, and their impact on public opinion is not impressive. Certainly not compared to the universities.