The most exhausting thing about our politics these days — other than the never-ending presidential election itself — is the obsession with “shaping the narrative.” By that I mean the effort to connect the dots between a selective number of facts and statistics to support one storyline about the state of the union.
Narrative-building is essential for almost every complicated argument because it’s the only way to get our pattern-seeking brains to discount contradictory facts and data. Trial lawyers understand this implicitly. Get the jury to buy the story, and they’ll do the heavy lifting of arranging the facts in just the right way.
I’m not naive. Crafting stories to serve political purposes is as old as politics itself. But the problem seems to be getting worse. Perhaps it’s because our country is so polarized and our media environment so balkanized and instantaneous. Politicians and journalists alike feel compelled to make facts serve some larger tale in every utterance. The reality is that life is complicated and every well-crafted narrative leaves out important facts.
Jonah Goldberg, “Narrative-Building Has Become a Political Obsession”, National Review, 2016-09-28.
October 17, 2016
September 23, 2016
Here’s an ironclad rule of politics: the latest conservative standard-bearer is always a scary fascist who’s going to end democracy as we know it. Meanwhile, the last conservative standard-bearer – preferably a defeated one – earns strange new respect from the commentariat.
(This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Mark my words: the Toronto Star columns declaring the next Conservative Party of Canada leader “more extreme than Stephen Harper” are already written, with just the name to be filled in.)
Damian Penny, “In 2016, there really is a wolf”, Damian J. Penny, 2016-07-22.
August 27, 2016
Louisiana floods. Tens of thousands flee their destroyed homes. Billions of dollars in damage. Unknown number of deaths. Huge natural disaster.
But several days in and I’m still running into people who are like, huh? A flood in Louisiana? You mean Hurricane Katrina, right? They haven’t heard a thing about it.
That’s because the American news media looks at every single event and asks itself a few simple questions before they decide how much coverage to give something.
First, is there anything we can milk from this story to bolster our worldview? Y/N
Yes. Cover the shit out of it 24/7 breathless panic attack, and demands that we DO SOMETHING. (said something is almost always give the government more power).
Second, is there anything in this story which could potentially make democrats look bad? Y/N
Yes? What emails? Fuck you.
No? See #3.
Third, is there anything in this story which will make republicans look stupid or evil? Y/N
Yes? Holy shit! Run it! Run it! New Orleans has been utterly destroyed because George Bush controls the weather and hates black people and his incompetence and evil racism has ruined this once beautiful American icon of– (and put that on a loop for the next three weeks)
No? Do we need any filler?
#2 and #3 are for most major media since they predominantly swing left, but for Fox you can just flip the democrat/republican, and they’re just as bad.
Fourth, does this event in some way affect us personally? Y/N
Yes? DROP EVERYTHING! RUN THIS OR WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!!
No? Eh… we’ll talk about it for a minute if we’re not too busy.
Larry Correia, “The American News Media Sucks”, Monster Hunter Nation, 2016-08-19.
August 22, 2016
At Techdirt, Mike Masnick uses small, easily understood words to explain why your local newspaper is cutting its own financial throat by implementing a paywall:
For many years, while some journalists (and newspaper execs) have been insisting that a paywall is “the answer” for the declining news business, we’ve been pointing out how fundamentally stupid paywalls are for the news. Without going into all of the arguments again, the short version is this: the business of newspapers has never really been “the news business” (no matter how much they insist otherwise). It’s always been the community and attention business. And in the past they were able to command such attention and build a community around news because they didn’t have much competition. But the competitive landscape for community and attention has changed (massively) thanks to the internet. And putting up a paywall makes it worse. In most cases, it’s limiting the ability of these newspapers to build communities or get attention, and actively pushing people away.
And, yes, sure, people will point to the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times as proof that “paywalls work.” But earth to basically every other publication: you’re not one of those publications. The paywalls there only work because of the unique content they have, and even then they don’t work as well as most people think.
Not surprisingly, more and more newspapers that bet on paywalls are discovering that they don’t really work that well and were a waste of time and effort — and may have driven away even more readers.
In my case, I look at various newspapers for links to share with my tiny audience of regular readers. Once upon a time, I’d frequently link to the two big Minnesota newspapers, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, mostly because I was reading their sports pages for information about my favourite football team, but fairly often when they carried other news of interest, I’d share the link with my readers. When the Star Tribune implemented a paywall, I pretty much stopped going there (they allow 10 free articles per month, and even if I only read the odd Jim Souhan column, I’d already be beyond my limit). Given the thriving fan community for the Vikings, I barely miss the mainstream coverage (but I suspect they miss me and the thousands of other out-of-state visitors they used to get in the pre-paywall days).
July 27, 2016
Colby Cosh says that the media really is a world unto itself and it’s difficult for denizens of that world to pretend to be part of our mundane world:
Why are the news media so disliked? On Sunday, New York Magazine published some results from a “navel-gazing questionnaire” it sent to about a hundred reporters, editors, and broadcasters. (Is there a term for gazing at someone else’s navel-gazing?) About half the answers it printed acknowledged that journalism is practised by a particular class whose members all have similar life histories, and that this class is vulnerable to urban liberal groupthink. Half the respondents, by contrast, preferred the “corporate/Republican Satan running amok in the world” theory. At least one person apparently thought it was all the fault of the Broadway hit Hamilton. And, obviously, there is some truth to all three of these explanations.
But perhaps the best one, which nobody gave, might be that we in “the media” spend a lot of time encouraging ourselves to be hated.
The word “profession” is defined here as a job in which a practitioner might sometimes speak of outsiders, or “civilians,” as being of a different order of humanity. When you take up journalism as a career, you agree to accept ethical and behavioural responsibilities that do not pertain to the general public. Like a priest or therapist, some things are forbidden to you that are not forbidden to others. You are also unofficially licensed to do some unusual things — ask intrusive questions, barge into certain settings. Sometimes you may be asked to quiz the grieving, interrogate athletes or politicians in the aftermath of public humiliation, photograph the wounded and dead. The journalism trade also has a large bundle of legends, jargon, and traditions. All of this was equally true a hundred years ago, before there were “J-schools.”
This serves to create a real, unspoken bond between practising journalists. There are the folk who have deadlines, and there are the Others. And the Others will never totally understand. Any professional journalist who denies having this habit of mind is lying.
But you cannot think of yourself as set apart from the world without having it show through in your writing and speech, affecting your preferences and interests. Journalists are constantly making self-deprecating, incoherent apologies for being part of a priesthood, yet most of them clearly think the existence of some such thing necessary to a liberal democracy. Well, we would, wouldn’t we? But it is hard to like, or even bear, someone who thinks that way. And that goes double if the thought is factually true.
July 24, 2016
Every 4 years the GOP nominee is literally Hitler. A few years later — sometimes, as in Mitt Romney’s case, as few as 4 years after he was accused of giving a woman cancer — that formerly-Hitler nominee becomes the standard of once-great GOP nominees to which the current nominee fall short.
Glenn Reynolds, “LIZ CROKIN: Trump Does The Unthinkable”, Instapundit, 2016-07-11.
July 20, 2016
At Instapundit, Ed Driscoll points out the difference in the way the media covered the rise of Barack Obama compared to other politicians:
The blogger Ace of Spades has written about “The MacGuffinization of American Politics.” As Ace wrote, “For Obama’s fanbois, this is not politics. This isn’t even America, not really, not anymore. This is a movie. And Barack Obama is the Hero. And the Republicans are the Villains. And policy questions — and Obama’s myriad failures as an executive — are simply incidental. They are MacGuffins only, of no importance whatsoever, except to the extent they provide opportunities for Drama as the Hero fights in favor of them.”
The media never covered Obama as though he was a normal politician submitting bills to Congress and meeting with foreign leaders. Instead, they covered him as though he was Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart in an epic film as directed by Alfred Hitchcock, hence Ace’s name – the MacGuffin was the otherwise meaningless object that all the characters in an adventure movie desperately want. The microfilm in North By Northwest. The Soviet decoding device in From Russia With Love. The Death Star plans in Star Wars. The Ark of the Covenant, etc.
But I think it’s safe to say that all young people, or the vast majority of them, want to feel their life is some form of an epic quest for adventure, hence the near-universal popularity of films like the original (1977) Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings movies, or Batman Begins, all of which start off with their protagonist depicted as a callow youth, who precedes to then overcomes two hours worth of adversity, to emerge by the time the credits role as The Hero. As Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, this quest for adventure is hardwired into most people, all the way back to Homer. (The author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, not the nuclear plant worker who lives in Springfield.) Up until recently, most teenagers felt a similar sense of accomplishment and pride through such traditional avenues as academic advancement, athletic success, or learning a musical instrument.
July 16, 2016
David Warren on the way much of the newspaper coverage is actually helping the terrorists and their supporters by showing just how effective any given attack has been and how emotionally soft the target nations have become:
What is the news here? … A lorry drives a mile through trapped crowds at a Bastille Day celebration, killing dozens of people along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The driver was a Muslim terrorist, as usual. Police finally shot him dead. They are now looking into his background and connexions.
And? … That is the whole story.
Anything the media can add to these plain facts is prurient and macabre. Moreover, it is helpful to the other side. Grand public displays of “mourning” make it worse; for that is the effect the terrorists are seeking. Why should we play into their hands?
Each victim had a family with a circle of friends, for whom the horror is real, and the mourning may be genuine. The rest — the millions — are putting on a show, advertising France, and the West generally, as squeamish and unmanly; as one big soft underbelly. It “sends a message” back to the Islamists, and that message is: “Keep it up!”
But I am myself looking through the front pages of newspapers from France and all over: covered with the colour photographs to full bleed, with big banner headlines. Nor is there a news website not painted the same way. Somehow (and I know how, from having worked with these ghouls) they manage to fill page after page with redundant or unnecessary details.
To condemn such attacks is pointless. The iniquity is too obvious for that. Every form of venting can be done privately. Those who applaud such carnage, will not be reached by words of disapproval.
… the whole group of prominent American World War II foreign correspondents — Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Theodore White — pretended to a more sophisticated geopolitical worldliness than they possessed as they introduced isolationist America to the world in a hazardously simplistic fashion. Cronkite was energetic, and was present at many events, especially Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, but his opinions were never based on anything more than good, old-fashioned, Norman Rockwell American altruism. Ed Murrow’s sepulchral smoke-wearied voice did wonders for British war propaganda as he narrated the Blitz from London in 1940. (He was ardently courted by the British government and even had a torrid affair with the prime minister’s daughter-in-law, Pamela Digby. She eventually married the wartime Lend-Lease administrator, Averell Harriman, while the U.S. ambassador, John G. Winant, took up with the prime minister’s own daughter — Mr. Churchill was an indulgent father and a full-service ally.)
Conrad Black, “Tip of the Iceberg”, National Review, 2015-02-11.
May 25, 2016
Some commentators blame lazy, overpaid faculty [for the rising cost of tuition]. But while faculty teaching loads are somewhat lower than they were decades ago, faculty-student ratios have been quite stable over the past several decades, while the ratio of administrators and staff to students has become much less favorable. In his book on administrative bloat, The Fall Of The Faculty, Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg reports that although student-faculty ratios fell slightly between 1975 and 2005, from 16-to-1 to 15-to-1, the student-to-administrator ratio fell from 84-to-1 to 68-to-1, and the student-to-professional-staff ratio fell from 50-to-1 to 21-to-1. Ginsberg concludes: “Apparently, when colleges and universities had more money to spend, they chose not to spend it on expanding their instructional resources, i.e. faculty. They chose, instead, to enhance their administrative and staff resources.”
And according to a 2010 study by the Goldwater Institute, administrative bloat is the largest driver of high tuition costs. Using Department of Education figures, the study found administration growing more than twice as fast as instruction: “In terms of growth, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities increased by 39.3% between 1993 and 2007, while the number of employees engaged in teaching research or service only increased by 17.6%.”
Colleges and universities are nonprofits. When extra money comes in — as, until recently, has been the pattern — they can’t pay out excess profits to shareholders. Instead, the money goes to their effective owners, the administrators who hold the reins. As the Goldwater study notes, they get their “dividends” in the form of higher pay and benefits, and “more fellow administrators who can reduce their own workload or expand their empires.”
But with higher education now facing leaner years, and with students and parents unable to keep up with increasing tuition, what should be done? In short, colleges will have to rein in costs.
When asked what single step would do the most good, I’ve often responded semi-jokingly that U.S. News and World Report should adjust its college-ranking formula to reward schools with low costs and lean administrator-to-student ratios. But that’s not really a joke. Given schools’ exquisite sensitivity to the U.S. News rankings, that step would probably have more impact than most imaginable government regulations.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “Beat the tuition bloat”, USA Today, 2014-02-17.
March 22, 2016
Published on 21 Mar 2016
Propaganda was nothing new at the beginning of World War 1. But the rapid development in mass media and the total war effort by the nations led the way to our modern understanding of mass propaganda, especially in Germany and Britain. Iconic images like that of Uncle Sam or Lord Kitchener are still known today and are part of the collective memory.
January 20, 2016
Colby Cosh discusses the sudden appearance of Canadian content in the Grey Lady’s pages:
No evidence is presented that Canadian access to the world’s pop consciousness has changed recently, much less that it has anything to do with Justin Trudeau. Given that Trudeau was the leader of the third party in the House of Commons 14 weeks ago, and was struggling badly in the polls another 14 weeks before that, perhaps the Times’ Hip Canada should be read as a tribute to the Stephen Harper decade.
What I notice about the list, in comparison with ones that might have been drawn up in the past, is how Ontario-dominated it is — Toronto-dominated, really. The Times, blind to the intricacies of the country it is celebrating, pays passing tribute to older Canadian icons Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen — which is to say, two refugees from the west and the Pope of anglo Montreal.
The meaning of Justin Trudeau in this context may also be different from the one suggested by The New York Times. It is natural for us to contrast Justin with his father, and the stylistic contrast is strong: Justin is often said to be his mother’s son. Pierre Trudeau represented a culmination of the French-Canadian destiny. Americans found him hard to fathom, and he found them hugely uncongenial. His dress and his ideas were taken from Western Europe, a precise balance of Paris and London: he was a deux-nations beau idéal.
One has to say that Justin Trudeau seems less rooted: he has a worldview but no intellectual heroes to speak of, no battlescars from a life of disputation and reading. He belongs to a generation more than to any particular place: he has never lived anywhere for too long, and even his spoken French has come under some fire, perhaps unfairly. Americans adore him on sight. He is above all earnest, and there are hints his emerging role as a head of government will be mostly to convey earnestness, to serve as a sort of emotional mascot, while his ministers do the work. The Liberal Party may be quite happy to see him in the style section of the newspaper, where he belongs.
December 17, 2015
Megan McArdle isn’t normally a spinner of conspiracy theories, but here’s one that might appeal to you if you’ve been feverishly searching for the reason behind the Trump Insurgency:
If the news media actually operated like the tacit conspiracy that many conservatives imagine, we would have all quietly gotten together and agreed to bury Trump. He could rant in the privacy of his own home, as reporters graciously declined to broadcast his latest pronouncements. Instead, every time he says something, everyone in the media rushes to condemn, fact-check, analyze, highlight, mutilate, fold and spindle it. All this media outrage, of course, only improves his ratings with people who believe in the conspiracy.
Why does this happen? It’s a collective action problem. If other people are reporting on Trump, then he’s news, which means you have to report on him too. Witness the fact that I am writing something like my sixth or seventh column on a man who I still don’t think will be the Republican nominee, much less the president of the United States.
It’s obvious that media moguls didn’t meet in a smoky back room to silence coverage of Trump. But there’s a slightly more plausible theory: That the Hillary Clinton supporters among the news media see Trump’s nomination as the best thing that could possibly happen for the Democratic Party. Unless the Grand Old Party nominated the disinterred corpse of Richard Nixon, there’s probably no surer path to Clinton’s victory.
Trump consistently underperforms folks like Marco Rubio in head-to-head matchups against Democratic candidates. As a nominee he would motivate massive turnout among Latinos who want to vote against him. And the party operation he’ll need to actually get supporters to the polls in November 2016 is not going to rally behind him with any great enthusiasm even if he somehow manages to secure the nomination. Trump supporters should be absolutely clear on this point: A vote for Trump in the primary is a vote for Clinton in the general.
It’s a slightly more plausible theory, but let’s get real: Journalists are covering Trump because he’s newsworthy. It’s an unintended side effect that coverage of Trump helps Clinton.
December 10, 2015
A few years ago, I was called upon to inform the IRS that a former employee of mine would have liked to be paid more than I had paid him. Given that I have never met a freelance writer who thought he was being paid enough, I thought it a strange request, but I eventually understood the IRS’s line of thinking: The gentleman in question, who was in his 80s at the time, had retired from his former occupation and worked as a freelance writer. His beat involved a great deal of travel, and he deducted the expenses for which he was not compensated — which, the state of the newspaper industry being what it is, was all of them, at least as far as my editorial budget was concerned. The IRS suspected that his writing gig was somehow phony, something he had invented simply for tax deductions. In truth, he was just a freelance writer who didn’t make a lot of money — i.e., a freelance writer indistinguishable from about 88.8 percent of all freelance writers.
Kevin D. Williamson, “Mottos for Miscreants”, National Review, 2014-11-20.
November 1, 2015
Published on 26 Oct 2015
Whether your team wins or loses, this is what the press conference sounds like after the game. Every time.