Wednesday, September 19, 2007 39 Comments

Is journalism official?

Readers may have noticed that, where most writers of my general ilk would refer to the mainstream media, I prefer to refer to the official press.

The second half of this eccentricity is easy to explain. At the age of twelve I returned to America from strange foreign parts and was promptly thrust into what was supposedly one of the best public high schools in Maryland. If this is so, and I have no reason to doubt it, God save Maryland. The school had been built in 1971 around the then-fashionable open-school fad, and the teaching areas - in which some crude, ramshackle partitions had been constructed, although "room" would still be an overstatement - swept in a great semicircle around the heart of the building, a large, wall-less library. (Because there should be no barriers to learning.)

Except that it wasn't called the library. It was called the media center, and for the first month or two of my weird, disorienting existence in this appalling primate facility, I struggled to figure out where the media center was, what it was, and why everyone thought the question was so funny.

Since then I've had a profound allergy to the m-word. Moreover, I find McLuhan ridiculous, jejune and sophomoric. Moreover, considering the dignity of the institution, and considering the comical sound of a phrase like freedom of the media, I prefer the old term. It's true that the New York Times is no longer printed by ink compression, and CNN is not printed at all. Nor does a "cable modem" modulate or demodulate. Somehow we manage to deal.

We are left with that other word - official. Is journalism official?

Because if journalism is official, we know exactly what it is. A "journalist" is an official writer. A member of the union of writers. If he writes for the Times, he may even be a member of the central committee of the union of writers. In our democratic society, the official press is entrusted with the important social responsibility of informing the public. Therefore, not just any poor schmuck can tell us what George W. Bush said today. No, it takes a "journalist."

Of course, this is consistent with the Polygon hypothesis - that power in modern democracies belongs to those who manage public opinion. This hypothesis is actually not mine - I believe it was first stated by Walter Lippmann in 1922, in his book of that name. And Lippmann himself did quite a bit to put his system into practice. The Polygon is not so crude as to have a name or a mailing address - it is a movement, not a conspiracy. But if it did have a name and address, its name would be the Inquiry and its address would be 68th and Park.

The key to the Polygon hypothesis is that three words are synonyms: responsibility, influence, and power. The New York Times, for example, is responsible because if it does the wrong thing rather than the right thing, it can cause a great deal of suffering. It is influential because its actions affect the lives of many people. And it is powerful because there is no conceivable meaningful sense of the English word power which is not synonymous with responsibility and influence. Power is the ability to make a difference, to change the world. Remind me again what people say on their J-school applications?

For example: who is the most powerful man in the United States? There's an easy way for me to answer the question: I can ask which American I would prefer, if I had to choose one and only one, to magically convert into a fanatical and unquestioning disciple of UR. Obviously my plans for the new, improved America involve a level of "social change" that would boggle the mind of even the most diversity-addled Yale freshman. Who would be the best individual to carry out this program? Note that the answer isn't particularly dependent on the extremist ideology - neocameralism, communism, Nazism, whatever.

Suppose, to narrow the question slightly, I could choose between George W. Bush, Warren Buffett, Rupert Murdoch, and Arthur Ochs "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr. Which of these four individuals has more capacity to "create change"?

For example, when we equate power with influence and responsibility, we can see easily that George W. Bush is almost powerless. Our "decider" is often presented with decisions, which have been carefully prespun to ensure the correct outcome. He is treated as a sort of chimp-eared magic 8-ball. He cannot even write his own speeches. If he came to his staff with a policy idea, one which he came up with himself, their first thought would probably be to send him for an MRI.

Carlyle once compared a democratic leader to a rider on a mad stallion run amuck in a forest - his main concern being not to accomplish anything in particular, but just to stay on the horse. If the analogy was apt for the likes of Palmerston, how much more so for George W. Bush! Of course, American Presidents cannot be unseated by a vote of no confidence or a snap election. But one notices that when the President's approval number slips below 30% or so, the White House loses any domestic influence it may once have had. The effect is about the same.

The White House - that is, the faction elected along with the President - has some power. At least, it had power in 2003, at least over military policy. And by force of ancient institutional habit, it strives constantly to equate everything it does with the person of George W. Bush. No one in Washington actually believes this, but no one bothers to contradict it, either. It's just one of those Beltway things.

Anyway. I digress. Back to the Times.

If there was one moment at which I realized how things actually work in this country, it was sometime in 2000, courtesy of a woman I dated for a few months. Since I have nothing bad to say about her, I'll use her real name, Margot.

Margot was about seven years older than me, and she was more or less the Brahmin to end all Brahmins. She was an MD, an internist specializing in the many troubles of the homeless. At the time she was just coming off a stint as chief resident at UCSF. This is not a position that is easy to acquire. I believe she's now a research professor at the same institution. Also not a position that is easy to acquire. Obviously I have no such credentials or ambitions, and Margot retains the distinction of being the only woman who has ever dumped me, a very sensible decision for which I'm quite grateful, as is Mrs. Moldbug - or so I hope.

At the time I had not quite developed my present extremist views, but I would not say I was still taking the blue pills, either. Since Margot's opinions were exactly as one might expect for a person in her line of work, this led to a number of animated conversations.

I still believed, however, that the New York Times was presenting me with a basically accurate picture of current history. Of course it was clear to me that all the reporters were orthodox Universalists - not that I used that term - but I thought I could just read past their occasional devotional flourishes. This was kind of before the whole blog thing.

And one day the subject came up in an entirely different context. Margot was explaining to me how her research career worked. Obviously, the point is publishing, and there were different journals, which at least in her corner of the profession were commonly called by their colors. So the Journal of Endemic Gastroenterology might be the "green journal," the Journal of Unquenchable Sinus Infections the "yellow journal," etc, etc.

"But," said Margot, "everyone's real goal is to get into the gray journal."

This is one of those facts too strange to boggle the mind - whose only option is to accept it as an axiom. So to us it is axiomatic that all the thousands of top-rank scientists in the US (of course Margot had a special political angle, being concerned with "public health"; but I pretty much guarantee you that any scientist in the world would trade any publication for a writeup in the Times) are doing pretty much anything they can to "get into the gray journal."

Of course, they can't do much. You can't submit to the gray journal. There is no formal review process. You simply have to know someone who knows someone who... and who is on the end of this chain? Five or ten very ordinary people, with no particular expertise in anything, perhaps a BA in some science or other. Who happen to have gotten themselves assigned, through whatever feat of bureaucratic mastery, to the "science beat" at the Times.

Can you imagine having this job? Everyone in the universe wants to be your friend. Full professors, geniuses of historic consequence, winners of MacArthur grants, hacks, cranks and crackpots of every description. Because you have some decency, you don't ask them to fall down and lick your shoes. "No, the soles... lower... ah, that's it. Nothing like genius spit for dissolving those nasty wads of gum." But, let's face it, you could.

Don't you think it's slightly strange that this handful of basically-uneducated individuals essentially controls science? That, for example, they could have written up the Wegman report, and consigned global warming - rightly or wrongly - to the same category as cold fusion, N-rays and Hwang Woo-Suk? What do you think will happen the first time they actually do make a mistake, and get caught at it? And who even has the power to catch them?

And this is just science. For example, suppose you see an article about Israel on the front page of the Times with the by-line "Steven Erlanger." Perhaps there is one of these every few days, and no doubt if you put them together they tell a story. But the one thing you are guaranteed not to read in this story is that one of the ten most powerful people in Israel - maybe even one of the most five - is... "Steven Erlanger."

I recommend a lot of old books, but let me switch gears and recommend a new one, Mark Moyar's revisionist history of the first half of the Vietnam War. What Moyar did was to go back through the archives and rewrite history as though the American correspondents in Vietnam were human participants in the story, not dispassionate, angelic observers. It's really a remarkable read.

There is a sense one gets when one reads a history in which some of the players have been airbrushed out. It's like being in a novel in which there's a poltergeist. Plates suddenly fly out of the cabinet and leap across the room to smash on the wall. Flying plates! Irresistible forces of historical destiny! When you see the same story with all the characters restored, and you realize that someone actually picked up the plate and threw it, you get this very comfortable feeling of reality returning.

So I think we have a reasonable understanding of the level of power today's press has. What we haven't looked at is how it got that way.

One fact that every American learns in high school is that there used to be something called yellow journalism. If yellow journalism is with us today, it only exists in the sort of papers which no one of any quality reads, like the New York Post, or the Daily Mail, or Juggs.

Clearly the New York Times would stand out in this list, so clearly it is not yellow journalism. It would certainly dispute the characterization, and I certainly agree. But in order to compare the two, we need a parallel terminology. So I humbly propose gray journalism for the latter.

What is the difference between yellow journalism and gray journalism? Who invented gray journalism, when, and why? And is gray journalism - which its practitioners call responsible journalism, objective journalism, and so on - best defined as official journalism?

One interesting possibility is that the transition from yellow to gray journalism is identical to the transition from ochlocracy to mediocracy. Under this theory, the grayification of journalism is a sort of Gleichschaltung, a coordination or alignment. Yellow journalism, such as that practiced by Hearst, Pulitzer, etc, used its political power to serve a variety of divergent private interests which did not always coincide with the interests of the State. Gray journalism has learned its Hegelian manners, and invariably serves and upholds the State.

(Of course, this does not mean it serves "the government." It means that when the New York Times attacks the White House, it sincerely believes that it is serving as a nonpartisan watchdog in the public interest. Apparently the State Department never does anything wrong, and thus never needs to be barked at. Perhaps this is because State too is a nonpartisan agency, selflessly performing its difficult work of diplomacy in the public interest. Ladies and gentlemen, the Polygon.)

Regardless of whether or not this theory is true, one question we can ask about the transition between yellow and gray journalism is: which is more powerful? We all know about Hearst starting the Spanish-American War. Most of us don't know that Civil War journalism was even more heinous - with some of the things I've been reading, I'm starting to think the Civil War is best understood as a war between the Northern and Southern presses. So, when this evil octopus of yellow journalism was finally defeated by its gray successor, did it lose power? Or did it pull an Obi-Wan Kenobi, and become even more powerful than before?

One way to measure this is to look at social attitudes toward reporters around the end of the yellow-journalism era. Here, for example, is Lippmann, from Public Opinion:
This somewhat left-handed relationship between newspapers and public
information is reflected in the salaries of newspaper men. Reporting,
which theoretically constitutes the foundation of the whole
institution, is the most poorly paid branch of newspaper work, and is
the least regarded. By and large, able men go into it only by
necessity or for experience, and with the definite intention of being
graduated as soon as possible. For straight reporting is not a career
that offers many great rewards.
(This is what I love about reading Lippmann. While he has his own agenda and is certainly not a trustworthy fellow, he is certainly describing the real world of 1922. You'll read these long passages in which he could be describing the real world of 2007, and then blam! You're on Mars. "For straight reporting is not a career that offers many great rewards.")

Max Weber, in his famous Politics as a Vocation, is even more vehement. The journalist's situation in Germany in 1919:
The journalist belongs to a sort of pariah caste, which is always estimated by 'society' in terms of its ethically lowest representative. Hence, the strangest notions about journalists and their work are abroad. Not everybody realizes that a really good journalistic accomplishment requires at least as much 'genius' as any scholarly accomplishment, especially because of the necessity of producing at once and 'on order,' and because of the necessity of being effective, to be sure, under quite different conditions of production. It is almost never acknowledged that the responsibility of the journalist is far greater, and that the sense of responsibility of every honorable journalist is, on the average, not a bit lower than that of the scholar, but rather, as the war has shown, higher. This is because, in the very nature of the case, irresponsible journalistic accomplishments and their often terrible effects are remembered.
Yet the journalist career remains under all circumstances one of the most important avenues of professional political activity. It is not a road for everybody, least of all for weak characters, especially for people who can maintain their inner balance only with a secure status position. If the life of a young scholar is a gamble, still he is walled in by firm status conventions, which prevent him from slipping. But the journalist's life is an absolute gamble in every respect and under conditions that test one's inner security in a way that scarcely occurs in any other situation. The often bitter experiences in occupational life are perhaps not even the worst. The inner demands that are directed precisely at the successful journalist are especially difficult. It is, indeed, no small matter to frequent the salons of the powerful on this earth on a seemingly equal footing and often to be flattered by all because one is feared, yet knowing all the time that having hardly closed the door the host has perhaps to justify before his guests his association with the 'scavengers from the press'.
The 'scavengers from the press'! Today there is absolutely no social context, anywhere in the world, where the presence of a Times reporter would not be a feather in the host's cap. We cannot even imagine this old pre-1914 'society' that held itself superior to the press. Again, Weber might as well be talking about Mars.

So Obi-Wan Kenobi is about right. Powerful as the yellow press was, the gray press appears to be even more powerful. At least judging by its social status. Note also that both Lippmann and Weber, quite presciently, see that this is a temporary misalignment of status and power, and expect it to resolve in favor of the latter.

But is gray journalism official? Can we use this word? After all, the New York Times Company is a private company, just like Microsoft or McDonald's. Its journalists' independence is rigorously guarded, not just from the government, but even from many parts of its own corporate hierarchy. Certainly no one is sending them emails telling them what to write or not to write, whether it's the White House or the Democratic National Committee. Is this really, as the phrase official journalism implies, in a class with Pravda or the People's Daily?

Another way to ask this question is: what is the minimal set of structural changes needed to make gray journalism unarguably official? And, if we make these changes, have we created something totally different, or have we only made a few cosmetic modifications?

First, we'll have to create a Department of Journalism. This will be an elite branch of the Federal Government, with its own grade system - like the Foreign Service, only more elite. Ranks will follow the GS/SES system, but with a special J code, for journalist. A senior journalist, such as "Steven Erlanger," might be hired as a J-15. J-School deans, editors, and the like will carry the special SJ rank, meaning simply "senior journalist."

The Department of Journalism will pull the entire "mainstream media," with all its features and appurtenances, into this system. It will have three branches: Training, Reporting and Investigation, and Editorial. Training will coordinate the journalism schools. RI will align the news desks from all existing newspapers and broadcasters. Editorial will develop opinion content from a diverse mix of political columnists, both Republican and Democrat. And so on.

The critical question is: under this regime, which clearly qualifies as official journalism, how different would the job of a journalist be? I suspect the answer is: not different at all.

For example, it would be unthinkable for any other branch of government to tell RI what to write, or how to write it. It would be like the White House ordering the Justice Department who to prosecute, or how to prosecute them. Absolutely scandalous - if discovered. And, of course, RI is right there to discover it. We usually think of "independent journalism" as a consequence of freedom of speech. But perhaps it's easier to see it as just another form of civil service protection.

For example, the UK has something very close to a Department of Journalism. It's called the BBC. How different is the job of a BBC reporter from the job of a CNN reporter? Not very.

For me, the reason I see journalism as official is that I think journalists are civil servants. Stators, we might say, in the rotary system. They have the same ethos of public service, they have the same protection from political interference, they are nonpartisan - they serve only the State. If you believe in the Hegelian apolitical civil-service state, you believe in official journalism. Of course, then you have to explain what was so wrong with Brezhnevism, but that's another story.

Moreover, the Department of Journalism is clearly one of the most powerful departments in the Western civil-service state. A journalist can attack anyone, and no one can attack him - except a judge, and then only in a limited set of ways that correspond to approved procedures, aka "laws," which journalists have great influence in designing.

This is perhaps the most salient remaining difference between the post-Communist civil-service state, as seen in China and increasingly in Russia, and its Western cousin. In the post-Communist system, power is in the hands of the security services, who can command the journalists and judges. In the Western system, it's the other way around. Of course, as a Westerner, it's easy to see the advantages of our approach. But it's also interesting to look at who runs a trade deficit versus whom.

So, if all this is true, why do people believe this stuff? Why do they still read official journalism? Why, for example, do I visit on a regular basis?

When I think back to when I thought I was getting an accurate history of reality from the Times, I am full of amazement. I mean, when you read the Times, you are reading stories that were written by people. Their names are right there. "Steven Erlanger." "Don Van Natta." "Andrew Revkin."

Do I know these people? Do I trust them? Do I have any reason to believe they are doing anything but feeding me a mile-long crap sausage? Why should I? Is it because they work for an organization called "The New York Times"? What do I know about this organization? How does it select its employees? How and why does it punish or reward them? Do I have any damned idea? If not, why do I trust its correct views on everything? Why not trust the Catholic Church instead? At least its officials make up cool names for themselves, like "Benedict XVI." Imagine if all Times reporters had to choose a Pope name. Would this make them more, or less, credible?

My conclusion is that people trust the Times - and the rest of the official press - not despite the fact that they're basically reading Pravda, but because of it.

We live in a world made by gray journalism. If you don't believe in gray journalism, you believe in nothing. You are a nihilist. I go to and I read a story about Pakistan. Does this "Pakistan" on the page have any resemblance to reality? Is there even a country called "Pakistan"? Once you deny gray journalism, you can deny anything. Your paranoia becomes unlimited.

These days I read the Times not because I think of it as true, but because the Times is the collective reality that, for better or worse, most of the educated planet lives inside. I read the Times to know what Times readers are thinking, much as an atheist might read the Bible to know what Christians are thinking.

While I am revealing personal confidences, let me note that my stepfather (who certainly does not endorse these messages) is actually a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has a PhD in politics from Harvard and was once a protege of McGeorge Bundy, and his story about the Times is that one day in the '60s, when there was a newspaper strike for several days, Bundy said something to the effect of "we've lost the best interoffice memo system we have." This is perhaps the best way to think of the Times, and of the official press as a whole: it tells you what the State is thinking. Which is certainly a sufficient reason to read it.

Of course, if journalism is official, we have to be able to lustrate it. If you agree with me that this system is thoroughly pernicious, and that the State should not be managing the minds of its citizens, how do we get rid of it?

I have many bad things to say about the US system of corporate regulation, but sometimes it turns out a real gem. One such rule - a really well-designed law - is a little thing called Reg FD. The "FD" stands for "Fair Disclosure," and the impact of the law is that when public corporations disclose information, they must disclose everything to everyone at the same time.

My view is that an uncorrupt 21st-century government should adopt its own version of Reg FD. No government has any good reason to practice or allow any kind of selective disclosure. When the State releases information, it should release to everyone at the same time - without according any privilege to "journalists."

This has a larger impact than you might think. Almost every press story you'll see is either (a) a rewritten press release (a practice even the 'scavengers of the press' find degrading), or (b) a product of selective disclosure by some government or other. The practice of talking off the record, or even downright leaking, to journalists, is widespread and uncontrolled, despite the fact that it is generally illegal.

The result is a very complicated power relationship between journalists and the civil servants who are their sources and contacts. Each is using the other. The journalist wants a story, the civil servant wants a story that contains certain information and is told in a certain way. There is plenty of room for compromise and quid pro quo.

Every time I read some piece of "investigative journalism" in the Times, I have one question which is never answered: why is this story being told? How did it happen? How did these events come to the attention of the author? For some reason, this is never in the text.

Compare this to the work of a genuinely free reporter, such as Michael Totten. Totten, because he is not institutionally attached and thus is unofficial, simply cannot participate in these kinds of relationships. Nor does he have any interoffice-memo credibility. His voice is simply his own and he tells us how he gets his stories, and his only tools for convincing us are his words and his pictures. And he succeeds. If the Times and Totten disagree, I simply assume the latter is right and the former is snowing me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

This species of journalism deserves its own color as well, and I will take the liberty of suggesting my own favorite, orange. Orange journalism is any writing about current history which does not depend on any official credibility, and is not filtered or authorized by anyone. It has only its own voice to create and maintain trust. The eXile is another fantastic example of orange journalism - I don't know that I trust Ames, Dolan & Co. as much as Totten, but I sure as hell trust them more than the Economist.

Imagine if "Steven Erlanger" quit his job at the Department of Journalism and started a blog. Competing with Michael Totten, on his Middle East beat. What would it take for me to trust him, the way I trust Totten? One heck of a lot. So why should I trust him more now, just because he works for the Man? I don't. And I don't think anyone else should, either.

Losing your faith in official journalism is an extremely large mental step. It's really in the category of giving up a religion. It creates an enormous set of questions which you thought were answered, and now suddenly are questions again. And it's very easy to get those questions wrong. To paraphrase Chesterton, when people stop believing in the Times, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything.

So if you're not sure you're prepared for this step, perhaps the safest and most sensible option is to just keep reading the official press. Put the whole thing off for a year or two. Reality doesn't go away - when you're ready for it, it'll still be there.


Anonymous Seamus McCauley said...

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.

See e.g. Roy Greenslade whose excellent journalism column for the Guardian reads like a list of atrocities committed against (agents of) the press by (agents of) their respective states, punctuated by comments on business fortunes of various publishing companies.

Even at NYT the case of Judith Miller hardly supports the view that the press provides an officially or, especially, governmentally sanctioned view of the world, and the UK's alleged Department of Journalism had one of its sources effectively hounded to death by the UK government back in 2003 (see e.g.

September 20, 2007 at 6:09 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

Well described dissonance between reality and what you read in the official press. I have plenty of practice distinguishing between the two, having grown up in commie E. Europe.

And then when I came to the US during the early 80s, I was immediately struck by the difference between what is now known as "PC" in the press, and what my own lying eyes were telling me on various topics.

And just this morning, as I opened Yahoo, I am treated to a teaser headline about some Heroic People's Struggle or other going on in Jena.

Every time I read some piece of "investigative journalism" in the Times, I have one question which is never answered: why is this story being told? How did it happen? How did these events come to the attention of the author? For some reason, this is never in the text.

Well put.

September 20, 2007 at 6:39 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

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.

September 20, 2007 at 7:45 AM  
Blogger Black Sea said...

Every representation of reality is necessarily a simplification of reality, and thus, unavoidably, a distortion of reality. That part can't be helped.

This having been said, anybody who has ever attached his name to something written for public consumption will know that writing of this sort requires a certain amount of looking over your shoulder, metaphorically speaking. You can't help but craft those phrases with an eye toward pleasing your audience.

And if your audience consists not only of a few unknown readers, but of known editors and publishers who pay your bills, and stroke your ego, and provide you with the credentials of legitimacy in the opinion-making trade . . . well, who among us is so pure?

A perhaps relevant anecdote:

A few years ago I was contracted by a newspaper (not the NY Times, mind you) to research and write a long piece on Turkish history and its bearing on Turkey's current bid for EU membership. My qualifications for this task? I'd been living in Turkey for about a year, and I'd taken a course on the history of the Middle East while popping my pimples in the 10th grade. That was about it.

I got some books and hung out in some libraries and spent a lot of time with Google. And thus was born a published version of reality on this subject which, so my editor assured me, would soon be read all over Europe.

At some point during this enterprise, I shared with him concerns I'd been having about my own, oh, less than solid grounding in this subject.

Not to worry, he briskly replied, the mark of a true journalist is his willingness to tackle any subject, and ignorance be damned (well, words to that effect).

My confidence thus restored, or my shame suppressed, I hammered out the closing paragraphs like the seasoned journalist I was having so much fun pretending to be. True to the character I was playing, I emailed my manuscript at midnight, just barely making the final deadline.

And what could be more fun than that?

September 20, 2007 at 8:39 AM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

You might be interested in this: Political Bloggers Deemed "Media" By Court

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?

September 20, 2007 at 9:05 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

The choice of RCB vs. NYT is a false dichotomy.

September 20, 2007 at 9:19 AM  
Blogger Jed said...

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.

The Scientific American has a particularly atrocious record. The past and present editors told me that they have not read a single paper about cold fusion, yet they are certain it does not exist. They said it is “not their job” to read papers. See:

- Jed Rothwell

September 20, 2007 at 9:35 AM  
Blogger B. Broadside said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 20, 2007 at 10:35 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

GWB is a fascinating one to ponder. I personally see him as a degenerate Optimate. Or to be more generous, he’s an unmoored scion of Optimates, hence his uncritical embrace of Universalism.

Lawrence Auster also makes excellent arguments about progressive ideals infesting nominally conservative minds.

September 20, 2007 at 10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this blog post is VERY Chomsky like, both in spirit, argument and topic. Just imagine, you could be the world's most famous intellectual if only you were a socialist.

September 20, 2007 at 11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could we define terms here?

I've just started reading UR, and I'm not sure I understand the frequent usage of the word "universalist." This is probably in part because I still don't entirely get where Mencius is coming from a lot of the time, and also because my understanding of "universalism" comes from study of comparative religion. As a result, I don't see how "universalist" applies to George W. Bush, unless the posters here have created their own meaning.


September 20, 2007 at 11:21 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

I don't think the major split is between progressives and conservatives, but between nationalists and individualists - and the nationalists heavily outnumber the individualists. Have you ever heard a politician of either party that did not use the royal "we" and make all arguments in terms of what is best for the "nation", his or her "fellow Americans", or the like?

The Democrats are Aggresive Progressive Nationalists and often Universalists.

The Republicans are Conservative Progressive Nationalists and often Universalists.

The Libertarians are Individualists in that they give precedence to the rights of individuals over the needs of the nation.

The Extremists of the Left and Right are Individualists in that they give precedence to their own particular agendas over the needs of the nation.

September 20, 2007 at 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...


I recommend the archives. April and May were particularly good.

September 20, 2007 at 11:28 AM  
Blogger mtraven said...

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.

September 20, 2007 at 11:35 AM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

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.

The press is a subset of media.
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 agree that "media center" is silly jargon for a school library. But this jargon supports an important distinction in the minds of educational bureaucrats. Calling the library a "media center" is like calling someone a "Trotskyite" - it is an act of word-magic which incurs real political consequences.

(Also: A cable modem is a real modem - it does modulate and demodulate.)

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.

September 20, 2007 at 11:35 AM  
Blogger B. Broadside said...

In reply to the 11:21 AM Anonymous, here is a good place to start.

At UR, the term Universalism (which Mencius capitalizes but I usually don't) was preceded by the term Ultracalvinism, which was sort of voted down. Two posts from they heyday of the latter term are here and here.

(I usually use the term progressive-idealist in preference to the above, but I thought universalist suited GWB better since he is so widely regarded as anti-progressive.)

September 20, 2007 at 1:26 PM  
Blogger Tanstaafl said...

Are the ACLU and NCLR official? Our dictators in black robes seem to think so. They all partner up and effectively veto any and all attempts to defend US sovereignity.

Meanwhile in the offical press you won't find much comment at all on the unconstitional behavior of these jurists or the anti-American and foreign influences in the ethnocentric bigot groups.

They're all adherents of the same progressive ideology. Telling the truth is not only not part of their agenda - it would complete torpedo it.

September 20, 2007 at 2:07 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

I think I pointed out Mencius' similarities with Chomsky first here, but if anyone else wants to claim firsties that I forgot, go ahead.

For those confused about my Star Wars analogy, here is the quote from MM: "It is very, very difficult for an intelligent and educated person to come to the conclusion that Bush, Fox News and the Pentagon are the Rebellion, and MIT, the Times and the State Department are the Empire. Of course it is very easy for an unintelligent and uneducated person, which is why so many of them support the Rebellion. Which is perhaps why it keeps on failing. D’oh!"

I often make distinctions between establishment liberalism and "the left". Given Mencius' focus on what is "fashionable" with Burning Man and whatnot, we could go even deeper into the division of the old vs new left. I've discussed Robert Lindsay before, but recently in the Marginal Revolution post about Naomi Klein's idiotic new book (sure, blame Milton "would you rather command an army of slaves?" Friedman for a war he opposed) someone pointed out a book featuring an old fashioned left & anti-consumerist critique of anti-consumerist counter-culture. You can listen to an audio presentation of their ideas and one of the good lines at the end is "If you really want to rebel against consumerism rather than finding something new and non-conformist, just wear the same suit everyday. I know a professor who does just that and it's because he's a communist". Though they are less frightening than Lindsay in his Stalin & Mao praising, their practical strategies for using the system to significantly change society are more disturbing to me than the ineffective "think global, act local" types. It is said that an idiot with a bit of knowledge can be dangerous, and it is that more accurate perception of reality that makes them dangerous and Burners a distraction.

September 20, 2007 at 3:00 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

Oh, and here's a story about a defamation suit against an anonymous blogger, which seems relevant to MM's point about the privileged press.

September 20, 2007 at 3:03 PM  
Blogger drank said...

MM, I think you're pretty well on target with this one!

One anecdote of my own about "gray journalism", and its status as the Polygon's official press...

As a political science major in college, I was told in several classes that one really needed a daily subscription to the NYT if one was to know what was going on. I took one, and it worked completely as advertised. Within a couple of weeks, I knew with 95%+ accuracy what current events my professors would reference and what they would say about those events. It was indeed invaluable to my education, although not perhaps in the sense that it was recommended to me.

Out in the real world, thought, 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.

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 say the wall has cracked on this one. Ten years from now, the Times will be out of business or will be run as a "charity" by some Polygon-ish concern. It won't be a major obstacle when the Moldbugistas raise their barricades and reboot the state!

September 20, 2007 at 3:39 PM  
Blogger Tanstaafl said...

If things keep going the way they're going now in ten years there won't be any more chance of a Moldbugista reboot in the US than there is in Mexico or Venezuela right now. You think the sophistry can go on forever?

September 20, 2007 at 10:51 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

ChairmanK is almost, you know, unqualifiedly correct about Nature outranking the Times in status and difficulty of entry.

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"
Some of them might allow a reporter in on rare occasions, but, oh I hope you know what Adam Smith would say about men of the same profession gathering.

I would also mention that it's not that hard to befriend, at a casual, friendly level, Times reporters, so the barriers obviously aren't that high. They don't compare to those for major CEOs, authors, or centimillionaires.

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.
before that, it was something you can get kicked out of the Harvard presidency for
What polygon party line?

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

As for "what's wrong with Brezhnevism?" please spare me the false dichotomies. The existence of a civil service may be a good thing but the existence of something else in addition to a civil service is definitely also a good thing. We do have, here in the US, you may have noted, papers other than the Times. In fact, they are what most people read. How is the blogosphere practically different from the tabloid press for these purposes?

Other points.
When have you EVER said anything bad about the US system of corporate regulation OR suggested any alternative system?

You have quoted Oliver Wendel Holmes in the past, so what are you talking about when you say an activity is 'generally illegal' just because it says so in some dusty 'law books' when the practice in question is a central part of the actual law, e.g. the actual decision process determining what the courts will actually do?

As for stepping out of the Times's reality, been there, done that. If you haven't noticed, "medicine doesn't work" Hanson and "the end is near" Yudkowsky are not exactly focused on 'putting the good people in charge of the US'.

September 21, 2007 at 7:51 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

A point to note about the official press/mainstream media - even the New York Times - that probably ought to be noted here, but hasn't yet, is the small degree to which actual reporting features in them. When one looks at how stories come to be in newspapers (or on the broadcast networks) it is amazing how much of it is in response to press releases by the institutions concerned in them.

One might suppose that a good journalist should take these releases with not a grain but several pounds of salt - both in terms of general newsworthiness and in terms of the slant that is implicit in them. I sense that as long as the slant accords generally with the news editor's predispositions, laziness trumps scepticism most of the time, and many times the releases make it onto newspaper pages almost unaltered. Press releases are to journalism as lobbying is to Congress, and the same operators are often engaged in both lines of activity.

Wire services are important vectors of such "news" inasmuch as once a story is placed in a newspaper like the New York Times or the Washington Post, it is picked up by the papers in smaller cities by wire. I regularly read two local dailies and it is always interesting to compare how the same wire service story is run in each of them. One of the papers, which has recently laid off a sizable number of its staff, quite regularly runs the stories at greater length than does the other paper. It is quite evidently making up in this way for the smaller number of column inches written by its diminished staff.

An example of a news item essentially generated by press release was the report, some years ago, that there was an epidemic of fires at black churches in the South. It was strongly implied that these fires were the result of arsons by white racists. This story, based largely on press releases from the Southern Poverty Law Center, was distributed nationally by the wire services, and prompted Bill Clinton, who was then president, to remark that he "remembered" such events during his youth in Arkansas.

Only much later was it determined that the number of fires at black churches in the South was no greater than the number of such fires at Southern churches with white congregations; that most of the fires were traceable to accidental reasons, and that those attributable to arson were not caused by white racists; and that no black churches had been burnt down in Arkansas by white racists during Clinton's childhood or adolescence. By then, of course, very few were paying attention.

Coventry Patmore admirably summarizes this style of journalism:

"When all its work is done, the lie shall rot,
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not."

September 22, 2007 at 12:23 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

For the last half dozen years, the New York Times' genetics reporter Nicholas Wade has written many tens of thousands of words about how race is, contrary to fashionable belief, very real and is rooted in our DNA. How much influence have his articles in the "gray journal" had on the conventional wisdom about the nature of race? Practically none, so far as I can tell.

So, it appears that the NYT can only lead in the direction its followers in the rest of the media are already headed.

October 3, 2007 at 2:14 AM  
Anonymous A.B.Leal said...

Today there is absolutely no social context, anywhere in the world, where the presence of a Times reporter would not be a feather in the host's cap.

Hmm. Is that reliable information, printed in the official press ?

October 16, 2007 at 10:06 AM  
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January 31, 2009 at 10:47 PM  
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February 22, 2009 at 4:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...









February 26, 2009 at 7:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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February 27, 2009 at 9:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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March 2, 2009 at 9:28 PM  
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March 2, 2009 at 9:29 PM  
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March 4, 2009 at 8:36 PM  
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March 6, 2009 at 9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


March 6, 2009 at 9:05 PM  

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