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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Walking Away From the Media Bubble

It happened the other day that the New York Times let slip through the front page article headline "Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism".

NYT staff and the twitter-sphere were so deeply upset by this insufficiently anti-Trump headline that the NYT called an internal meeting to work through it. The transcript of that meeting was leaked, and makes for interesting reading.

As a prerequisite, it is worth watching This Video on Media Bias, which serves as a nice refresher for the context and importance of what follows.

Among his opening remarks, the executive editor of the New York Times said:

"What I'm saying is that our readers and some of our staff cheer us when we take on Donald Trump, but they jeer at us when we take on Joe Biden. They sometimes want us to pretend that he was not elected president, but he was elected president. And our job is to figure out why, and how, and to hold the administration to account. If you're independent, that's what you do. The same newspaper that this week will publish the 1619 Project, the most ambitious examination of the legacy of slavery ever undertaken in [inaudible] newspaper, to try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump. And that means trying to understand the segment of America that probably does not read us."

The presuppositions here are quite something--half the country voted for Trump as a legacy of slavery? Suddenly a great deal about the NYT makes a lot more sense.

The full transcript makes very clear that they see their job as maligning Trump. The main question on the table is how to do it most effectively.

Toward that end, they resolve to generally avoid calling Trump racist or a liar directly, but rather to show it through story. This is, of course, the most effective way to paint a desired opinion in your readers' minds while appearing disarmingly impartial.

Not to mention, as he says:

"I thought we would find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of deciding which comment by which politician fit the word lie. I feel the same way about the word racist."

Yes, it's awkward when someone asks "why is it a lie or racism when Trump says it, but not when someone else does?" Uncomfortable, indeed. Best keep it implicit, so there's nothing concrete to point at. Just the impression the reader forms for themselves. You can, after all, paint any story you want, by what details you keep and which you omit, and by the flavor of synonyms you choose.

For example, in Trump Gives White Supremacists an Unequivocal Boost, they quote Trump as saying there were "very fine people on both sides," but they omit where, a moment later, he says "I'm not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally." Unequivocal boost indeed. Nothing in that NYT article is nonfactual--but everything in the article is selected and crafted to convey a particular impression. If ever there was any doubt whether that impression was just a natural consequence of the scene, or a narrative by design, this recent leaked transcript makes it absolutely clear it's the latter. Not out of any grand conspiracy to defraud the public, but out of a belief that they are bringing the truth to the public--the truth they themselves believe.

Well, one thing in that NYT article is nonfactual: The headline itself. The author of a story does not write the headline--someone else reads the story and, in the context of the page and layout, distills a headline from it. Which is why the lies that were meant to stay implicit in the story often emerge explicitly in the headlines. (The headline writer has no way to know--he has to trust the story.) This is particularly relevant given that people read far more headlines than stories.

He gives another example of the style of narrative he'd like to see used:

"The lead of the story described an old white man sitting on his front porch, saying that the town wasn't racist, saying that everybody lived peacefully in the town. And as he was saying that, a much older black man walked by, and the guy called him "boy." That is 20 times more powerful, by my lights, than to use the word racist."

Indeed. These are the rules of conveying emotional narrative--don't tell people what to believe, paint them a painting that they can "see" with their own mind's eye and feel for themselves. If you think NYT writers are hired for their objectivity and reason, think again. They are hired for their artistic ability to paint a picture with words--any picture they want.

At this point, I wonder whether the above scene even actually happened at all. Is there a fact-checker who can verify whether the guy called him "boy", or did the writer just decide that was the best way to convey the important "truth"--the one he himself believed? If you think that doesn't happen, read this. And that's just the one who got caught--we can assume any number more have not and never will.

Again, these are not evil people. They are simply caught in a mass delusion of their own making. They are afraid of the monsters they paint, which just makes them ever more desperate for you all to see those monsters too. But they aren't one individual, they are a group, and as such they influence each other even more than they influence the public. And so they become even more afraid, and more convinced, and more resolved to paint that "truth" in even starker relief, and so on. In short, they drink their own punch.

The whole cycle is nicely illustrated later on in the transcript:

"Chapter 1 of the story of Donald Trump, not only for our newsroom but, frankly, for our readers, was: Did Donald Trump have untoward relationships with the Russians, and was there obstruction of justice? That was a really hard story, by the way, let's not forget that. We set ourselves up to cover that story. I'm going to say it. We won two Pulitzer Prizes covering that story. And I think we covered that story better than anybody else.

"The day Bob Mueller walked off that witness stand, two things happened. Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, "Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it." And Donald Trump got a little emboldened politically, I think. Because, you know, for obvious reasons. And I think that the story changed. A lot of the stuff we're talking about started to emerge like six or seven weeks ago. We're a little tiny bit flat-footed. I mean, that's what happens when a story looks a certain way for two years. Right?

"I think that we've got to change. I mean, the vision for coverage for the next two years is what I talked about earlier: How do we cover a guy who makes these kinds of remarks? How do we cover the world's reaction to him? How do we do that while continuing to cover his policies? How do we cover America, that's become so divided by Donald Trump? How do we grapple with all the stuff you all are talking about? How do we write about race in a thoughtful way, something we haven't done in a large way in a long time? That, to me, is the vision for coverage. You all are going to have to help us shape that vision. But I think that's what we're going to have to do for the rest of the next two years."

Yes, that's what happens when they paint a story a certain way for two years. Eventually they are surprised, just like with Iraq's WMDs and any of a number of other realities that did not conform to their narratives. And now the narrative going forward is Trump the Racist. (And they'll be just as lost when that doesn't pan out as they expect, but it will be less obvious since no court system will render a final verdict here.) And as they say, their readers are not only fine with this, this is what they pay them for.

They express concern that Trump is dividing the country. And yet, on the headline "Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism", one NYT staffer says "A headline like that simply amplifies without critique the desired narrative of the most powerful figure in the country." So Trump's desired narrative is unity, but the NYT sees it as their responsibility to portray hate and racism instead (which they see as the true message, and want to make sure you do too). They are concerned with the world's reaction to Trump, and yet they largely dictate that themselves in the way they deliver Trump to the world. Who's the purveyor of hate and racism here, exactly?

One might think that since they're reporting on actual events, there must still be more truth in it than not, and so whatever biases they have can't possibly overwhelm the preponderance of evidence. But that's a bit like saying that if you're taking a loss on every sale, you can make up for it in volume. When you get professional story tellers together in a group, they quickly reach critical mass, each working to outdo the last in portraying the consensus truth. It's a feedback loop of Biased Confirmation that leaves the ground like a mushroom cloud. (We see the same with academics, who are also selected largely for their in-group story telling abilities.) It's quite possible, and sadly common, that every single article works to further propagate a lie (or many), that the more you read the further you get from the truth.

I prefer news sources that aren't caught flat footed two years deep into something, which nowadays tends to mean smaller groups or individuals who still hold onto the true spirit of independent journalism. I don't personally always agree with the politics or opinions of any of these, but: Consortium News was way out in front on this one. Glenn Greenwald also lives outside the bubble. And, while not a news source per se, Scott Adams provides an ongoing stream of bubble-popping commentary.

But I've learned that most people enjoy the Two Minutes Hate and in true Orwellian fashion expect those around them to join in it as well. And for this, the NYT, and the rest of the MSM, will remain a reliable channel. It's no grand conspiracy, per se. It's just an unfortunate feedback loop that few care to escape.

Just don't expect me to be impressed or swayed by whatever NYT or similar article you sent me that prompted me to send you this post.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com