Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all
One reason for this is we have no choice. Most of us need to know about the world beyond the walls of our own home. Let’s broadly define “the media” as stories on television, the Internet, in newspapers, books, and magazines that represent themselves as non-fiction accounts of current events. If we were to treat the media with the skepticism it’s earned — based on our experience of its accuracy when we know a lot about the subject at hand — we’d be forced into a kind of radical skepticism. We’d have to limit the confines of what we think we know to things we’d personally seen or heard from from a highly trusted interlocutor. Our mental worlds would be tiny.
I’ve never personally seen Tampa, Florida, no less the North Pole; I’ve never seen Xi Jinping or Marco Rubio and thus can’t be sure they really exist (perhaps they’re actors who play Xi Jinping and Marco Rubio, or clever holograms?); I certainly can’t be sure they truly hold the political opinions they express or are said to express. Rubio, in turn, if he really exists, has not personally witnessed the production of every good or service in South Carolina that’s consumed in China, nor has he personally tallied up its value, nor did he independently arrive at the sum $4.2 billion after patiently counting it all himself. None of us could function like that. Modern industrialized life and the modern nation-state depend upon us having some trust in what we see, hear, and read in the media. Philosophically, I do accept that it’s possible I’m living in some form of Truman Show, but as Bertrand Russell noted, skepticism is logically impeccable but psychologically impossible. There’s an element of frivolous insincerity in any philosophy which pretends to accept it.
That said, skepticism really is logically impeccable, particularly now. We’re now entering oppo-hit season, meaning it’s downright stupid not to be skeptical — to the point that I’m finding it a source of psychological strain, because Russell’s right: It’s psychologically impossible. And something happened recently that made me even more skeptical. I’m not going to go into details because they’re distracting from the moral point. It was roughly as follows:
If you’ve been reading what I write for a while, you know that I’m interested in Issue X and have strong views about it. I’ve made no secret of my views and written about X many a time, here and elsewhere. That I’m concerned about X and annoyed by those who don’t see X the way I do will come as a shock to absolutely no one here. For the purpose of this argument, mentally substitute any issue you feel strongly about for X.
Recently, an acquaintance I know only vaguely called me “to catch up.” He’s now working as a lobbyist. Turns out he’s working on Issue X. I figure he’s calling to ask me my opinion about it, maybe a quote for an article or something, but no. He wants me to write an article about Issue X. Three of them, in fact. For payment. “In confidence.” Right away. And find someone to publish them. And perhaps, he added, I’d mention which candidates agreed with me about Issue X and which didn’t, and who had taken money from an influential X-backer.
For payment. A handsome amount by any freelance journalist’s reckoning.
I reacted to this suggestion as I would to being called what women who do that sort of thing for a living are usually called. But I truly think he didn’t grasp why. He wasn’t just pretending not to grasp it. “After all,” he said (I paraphrase roughly), “You do feel strongly about Issue X, right? Those pro-X people are genuinely evil, or at least deluded. Congressman Y is on the wrong side of Issue X, and X has him in his back pocket, so what’s your problem? Why not inform and educate people about Issue X and Congressman Y and get paid for it? Don’t you have bills to pay? What’s wrong with earning a living and paying the bills?”
Something about the ease with which he proposed this suggested to me that this sort of thing must happen a lot more than I realize. He sounded as if he made a hundred phone calls like this a day. It sure didn’t sound as if he expected me to react by hanging up on him or fainting directly into my copy of Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. He seemed genuinely to think this was morally unproblematic. I have the right opinion, he’s got lots of money, a perfect match. Win-win, right?
I don’t know who the money really comes from. It seemed to be designed to put a few layers between the people financing the oppo hit and the journalist. But note: I wasn’t just offered a tip. I was offered “a research grant” to do more “research” into the subject and publish what I discovered as prominently as I could, and I was offered more money than most journalists make in several months to do this “research.” (Again: I’ve made my opinions about Issue X known many a time here on Ricochet. It seems those opinions are worth about $500 bucks a paragraph on the open market. Rejoice! You’re getting much better value from your Ricochet membership than you thought.)
Has this sort of thing always happened? I’m sure it has. But is it happening more now than it used to? I bet it is, for two reasons. First, the Internet has so fractured the media market that people who used to be able to make a pretty comfortable, stable, middle-class living as journalists can’t anymore. So the financial incentives to corruption are much greater than they used to be. Second, the extreme political polarization in the US has resulted in a widespread belief that the media is biased and the future of the Republic in doubt. That provides a built-in rationale to anyone tempted by corruption. You can readily tell yourself it serves a noble purpose. We’re up against the biased, lying, Pro-X media. We have to play unfair because they do. We’ve got to get the anti-X story out there. Our republic depends upon it.
I suspect this sort of thing started happening a lot more after 2007-8, both for financial reasons — journalists, like everyone, were badly hit by the recession — and because the Internet fractured the media market. It’s hard to understate how psychologically devastating this was to those of us who used to cover a particular beat. We were forced to conclude either that there was never really any market demand for what we’d been selling for years (and thus that what we’d been doing for many years was pretty meaningless), or — in the much more ego-syntonic view — that news consumers were idiots. If you believe the latter, it’s much easier to take the next step: They’re such idiots that it doesn’t matter whether what you write is honest, all that matters is winning them around to the right “narrative.”
I never believed, growing up, that this sort of corruption was commonplace in America. Occasional, yes, but commonplace, no. I thought American institutions were so well-established, and Americans generally too ethical and professional, for corruption like this to become widespread. That sort of thing, I thought, was really banana-republic stuff.
But now I suspect that Americans were just too well-paid to do things like that, or that they had too many opportunities to be well-paid. After all, if you can pay the bills and save a bit and have a nice enough life, prostitution and graft don’t seem like attractive options, because they require thinking of yourself as a corrupt prostitute, which is not an especially gratifying self-image.
So I’m becoming worried that we had so many good, prosperous years that many of us never needed to work out for ourselves a general sense of ethics — one that works in lean times as well as fat. We’ve predicated a great deal of our social compact on the idea that Americans just don’t do things like this. We may not realize that in fact it doesn’t take much at all to persuade Americans to do just these kinds of things. If the economy gets worse, will Americans instinctively know that there are some things you just cannot do, even if the justification is, “I’ve got a family to feed?” How soon would we be buying off cops and judges as a matter of habit?
And if so many supposedly-independent journalists and analysts are doing this already, surely it’s only a matter of time before it does terrible damage to the idea of freedom of expression. The public will cease to care if the government locks up journalists — after all, at least streetwalkers perform an honest service. Nor will anyone be inclined to give journalists, even careful ones, the benefit of the doubt when they reports stories that are in the public interest. The function of the Fourth Estate in a democracy will be undermined.
Anyway: ‘Tis the oppo research season. Be careful what you read out there.
And I declare myself formally grossed out by this election season.