Reading the News with a Gelid Eye

 
Sam: Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That’s the first thing they teach you.
Vincent: Who taught you?
Sam: I don’t remember. That’s the second thing they teach you.
— Ronin (1998)

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, guess what? For all intents and purposes, it’s a duck. Constructively, it should be treated like one. We don’t have to ask if something’s really going on or if someone’s really behaving a certain way or if some horrific event is really happening according to plan and it’s all fine so just relax. We don’t have to probe for sincerity and reasonability. We only have to accept one truth: people hide, lie, and attempt to cover their horrific mistakes.

The truth gets obscured behind spin. Sometimes, people get killed. Sometimes, they disappear. Sometimes, Jimmy Hoffa gets buried under the 18th hole of a Florida golf course. It comes out years later, but by then, everybody just shrugs. Some things are so well concealed that we’ll never figure them out. And sometimes it’s better not to know.

We don’t have to waste time and energy speculating and trying to sift truth from falsity. All we have to do is look at intended and actual outcomes. If your partner comes home smelling like a strange cologne, you don’t have to ask whether she’s cheating or whether some bizarre twist of fate led to her getting sprayed with random eau de toilette on her way to the metroYou only need to note the instance and keep your eyes (and nostrils) open. If it happens a second time, it’s a case of “fool me twice, shame on me.” But let’s be honest: you already knew from the beginning.

It’s the same with political events. If it looks like someone’s lying or prevaricating or taking some other sort of evasive action, you don’t need to engage with the reasonability of their countermeasures. You only need to ask two questions: what does it look like on the surface? And who stands to benefit? Note the instance. Keep your eyes (and nostrils) open.

If you do this, fake news has no power over you. Fake news is momentary lying and you don’t care about the lies of the moment. You only care about what you see over and over, which fake news cannot affect as easily or as consistently. Note that the accusation of “Fake news!” is also a form of media gaslighting and damage control. Whenever you notice people screaming that, look at them more critically than before.

But we don’t need to dwell on the concept of fake news. We only need “news” and a bit of critical thinking. Here’s an example from the Vietnam era (since Saigon just fell all over again): “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” a statement most commonly attributed to journalist, Peter Arnett.

  • What you should take away from this statement: the village is (probably) destroyed.
  • What you should disregard: “We had to” (abdication of responsibility for the decision) and “in order to save it” (moral justification).

Responsibility shifting and self-justification on moral grounds are classic rhetorical countermeasures when large groups of people have been or stand to be murdered for the sake of someone’s re-election strategy or financial profile.

Don’t you believe it. Read the news, but read for that nugget of information embedded in the spin. Just remember: ask what it looks like on the surface and ask who stands to benefit from it. Then disregard everything but what might be the facts. You don’t have to be a detective. You merely have to see the duck flapping away.

Maybe You Can’t Handle the Truth

Today, after all the Covidy Trump ups and downs, the questions about Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation, and the hard questions about whether there should even be a VP presidential debate, I’m thinking again about Chris Beck’s excellent piece in Splice Today, “The Media Reports Narratives, Not Facts.” 

We all live online now. We look at the world through electrified windows. All we see in our non-digital lives is our homes and immediate neighborhoods. Maybe we travel some, but we don’t get much of an overview of what’s going on unless we use digital media.  This is good and bad.

The Good: we live in an information society where communication, news, and knowledge can be produced instantaneously.

The Bad: we live in an information society where communication, news, and knowledge can be produced instantaneously.

He / She / It who controls the location and size of the digital window (and do take a moment to learn about the “Overton Window” as well) controls what is seen. Is it true that the United States is collapsing? What does the New York Times say about it? More importantly, how, when, and to what end does the NYT cover the “decline of America”? You can’t just think about the content; you have to think about how it’s framed and marketed to you.

All media is a product. This is capitalism. And the truth (often much more complex than how it is presented in one “window” or another) is out there, but it is always, always beholden to the bottom line for any media platform. Of course, they all say they’re dedicated to the truth.

Is Fox News a legitimate news source? Sure. It’s about as legit as CNN. But it will seem more or less reliable depending on your assumptions about the world, your values, your community, and your culture. How about the Daily Wire? Take a look at it (especially if you consider yourself a liberal) and you won’t see a whole lot of variation between what’s in there and what’s showing on the Wall Street Journal on a given news day.

You might notice that certain stories are emphasized more than others or are framed to imply certain conclusions (the “secret message” in a news story that used to be called “slant” or “an angle” but which is now called “news bias”). But the Daily Wire is considered to be much farther to the political right on the American spectrum than the WSJ. Why? Probably because conservative pundit, Ben Shapiro, founded and until recently ran DW. But that really isn’t a good reason. It’s just perceptual media bias.

Do this comparison between The Washington Post and Mother Jones. How about The Daily Beast and Vox? How about any of these and Breitbart or The Drudge Report? Products. Marketing. Stoking controversy in targeted audiences. Know why I don’t watch Russia Today news? Google it and the reason should jump off the screen. Even search engines have slant, bias, implicit preferences that show the world a certain way. You can’t escape slant.

But you can do this: read conservative news if you’re a liberal along with your liberal stuff. Read liberal news if you’re a conservative along with your conservative stuff. Look at Media Bias Fact Check and search your favorite media sources there. Do this in order to see the world through more windows, even though you’ll never get a comprehensive view of anything.

Don’t let any media source trick you into thinking that what you’re seeing is the whole truth or the entire scope of something. You have to work to get that on your own.  As Beck puts it in his Splice Today piece: “It’s no surprise that Americans’ trust in the media is minuscule. The New York Times can’t even recognize third-rate journalism. As a consumer of media, the only way to be well-informed is to remain skeptical about the media’s competence, understand that they’re reporting a narrative instead of the facts, and get your news from a variety of sources.” 

Here are some questions to ponder for yourself:

  • Is there a problem with the stories on Zero Hedge? What might it be?
  • What makes The National Review a “libertarian” publication? Is it?
  • Why aren’t more writers for Quillette publishing in The New Yorker and The New York Times?
  • Is the NYT’s “1619 Project” history or speculative fiction? How can you tell?
  • What is the primary difference between Rachel Maddow’s and Ben Shapiro’s coverage? Why might this be a pointless question to ask?
  • I say above that “you can’t escape slant.” So why do all this thinking and reading about media? If bias is inevitable, why try to see past it?
  • Does believing a QAnon conspiracy theory indicate that you are intelligent, stupid, or just misinformed? How do you know? How about believing in the tenets of the religion of your choice? Smart? Stupid? How about believing that Critical Race Theory realistically depicts power relations in the world? Smart? Something else? What do these three belief systems have in common?

Rhetorical Edgelordism and the Summary Dismissal

[Edgelord:] Even from its earliest uses, the word carries the connotation of eye-rolling skepticism.  The edge in edgelord comes from expressions like cutting edge or the idea of being edgy, applying a sense of boldness or unconventionality to such behavior; the lord half elevates such a person ironically with the rank of a deity or member of British nobility, with echoes of Voldemort, Sauron, and other dark-spirited, villainous characters who hold that title. — “Doing the Work of the Edgelord,” Merriam-Webster.com

Lately, on political news blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, we’ve been seeing a lot of summary dismissals of arguments, particularly those which are racially or pandemically charged.  This might suggest people are more stressed out than ever.  One rarely sees argumentative moves like this when times are calm, even in the divisive cesspools of social media and in the freewheeling comments areas still permitted by news sites. 

Only when people begin to crack under sweeping emotional strain do they start to become rhetorically evasive and nihilistic.  They want to appear as though they’re open to reasoned discussion and debate, but really they want to close down the conversation and talk about their cats.  In a sense, I don’t blame them.  We’re in a very emotionally difficult moment right now.  And no one wants to admit to having an exploding head.  

We might classify this particular evasion as a form of “rhetorical edgelordism”—an attempt to disingenuously self-protect by dismissing an argument while also trying to seem like the smartest, most incisive person in the room. 

If someone says, “It could be A or it could be B,” the edgelord adds, “No, A and B are a false choice because C,” which invalidates them, ostensibly ending the discussion.  Usually the person bringing C is upset with having to choose between A or B and wishes to redefine the choice as (A vs B) vs C—where C is much less controversial, threatening, or applicable.

C is usually something exotic. In order to function as a blanket dismissal, C can’t use the ideas from A or B (because then it falls into the scope of original discussion).  It has to be from a distant discipline or sphere, so far outside the purview of A or B that the core argument gets derailed. 

Here’s an example: “COVID-19 originated in fruit bats” (A) vs. “It was bio-evolved in a Chinese lab” (B). Then (C) pops up: “Actually, statistics have shown social attitudes to pandemics track according to political party affiliation, if you want to talk relevance when it comes to the virus.”  Ironically, C itself is immensely and obviously irrelevant to what’s being talked about.  But unless it is instantly ignored by everyone, it’s work is done.

People who see this move might point out the scope creep.  But by then the thrust of the original discussion has already fractured.  In our example, we’re now talking about at least 3 issues: (1) the bat theory vs the lab theory, (2) the new political party theory, and (3) whether the new political party theory matters or is an irrelevant digression.  Now it’s much easier for the edgelord to divert the argument, self-soothe, and still pose as the edgy freethinker not caught up in the preoccupations of A vs B conformist thinking.  At this point, we’re about three or four rhetorical steps away from looking at a jpg of his cat, Waffles.

In healthy discussions (with psychologically healthy people), this is sometimes called “reframing the issue,” and it’s a perfectly legitimate way of clarifying a subject under consideration—when it focuses on getting at a deeper point significant to A and B.  In the example, this might be something like, “The issue of whether the virus originated in fruit bats or in a lab actually raises the deeper question of whether determining the origin will matter to developing a vaccine.”  Here, the reframe is aiming at a link between both A and B and trying to enhance and clarify the discussion by pointing that link out.  The test is relevance: A and B are both compelling because they are interested in how we know and therefore can control the global outbreak.  But when reframing is done as a way to distract and dismiss by bringing in an extraneous consideration, there are usually disingenuous motives at work.

People who didn’t live through the online evolution of bulletin boards, newsgroups, and discussion forums (all of which disappeared eventually into the reeking maw of social media), might not recognize this tactic as a largely online way of posturing and pseudo-arguing.  Like most rhetorical strategies born in the disinhibited, critical-thinking-starved world of the internet, it’s largely an empty, counterproductive tactic, an emotional time and energy sink best avoided.

Still, during a lockdown, when we’re spending more of our lives online as opposed to in person, pointing these things out might be worthwhile.  They’re no longer the sole province of trolls, basement dwellers, loudmouths, and fakes.  As we move toward the 2021 US Presidential election, social tensions flare, and the virus dances in the streets, stress levels are likely to soar.  And, in cases where public discourse is critical, we might even see close friends and family posing as the edgelord in the room while surreptitiously looking for the exit.

Tiredness, Truth, and Mockery: the American Way

...
Early rendition of Alfred E. Neuman, 1908.

Today, I wonder whether I should re-think some of my ultra-liberal biases and attendant leftist news consumption.  This is good.  But, man, I’m beat.

The alt-right (and the radical religious right) to me seems like a uniquely American expression of deep stupidity but, of course, I would say that. Look at my demographic: college educated, democrat, fiction writer, from Southern California, who’s been an expat for almost a decade. Of course, I think Trump is the worst thing that could have possibly happened to the world. Of course, I wanted Bernie but voted Hillary. Of course, I want net neutrality. Of course, I support many (but not all) positions taken by the ACLU. Of course, I believe that, in an earlier era, Obama would have been considered a moderate republican. Of course, I have a problem with drones, civilian casualties, the terrific scope creep of the Patriot Act, and the “war on drugs.” Of course, I care about my country.

If I didn’t think the Green Party was run by bumblers, I would probably join. I’m pro-choice, pro-Planned Parenthood, and I support gay marriage. I think many of these things should not even have to be controversial in a liberal democracy. I dream of a day when there will be universal healthcare and free college tuition. I think climate change is one of the most, if not the most, serious issues we face today. But the truth is that most of these biases and beliefs can be (and are) predicted by an algorithm. The even sadder truth is that I only have so much energy I can devote to fact checking and being outraged. This is a problem. Tiredness is a problem.

The problem is not that there is a right answer we have to find. The problem is that uncertainty and complexity are exhausting over time, especially when you’re necessarily engaged in other things. Most Americans are not, actually, stupid. They’re invested in certain areas–mostly job and family–and in most other respects have a general (superficial) understanding of the world, including political issues and identifying yellow journalism, confirmation bias, and what passes for fear mongering click-bait. I have also seen this in European and Asian countries, relative to various cultural differences and levels of education. The USA doesn’t own “stupid.” Every country with a powerful media has a horse as a proconsul somewhere. The difference is that the States likes to put its toga-wearing horses on display, whereas other countries have not. But this is changing.

In an enormous post-industrial society, you will have many levels of political, historical, and economic awareness and many opinions emerging constantly in the news media. You will also have crackpot theories; secessionism; separatism based on race, religion, and / or gender biases; conspiracy paranoia; multi-directional shaming; late night talk show infotainment; social justice fanatics; religious absolutists; new age hucksters; ambulance chasers; a continuous horde of cynics; doom-saying historians looking for their 15 minutes; the resurgence of failed orthodoxies (like Nazism, ethno-nationalism, and whatever Steve Bannon happens to be reading); and the all-encompassing opportunism that feeds off these things. What you won’t have is a simple black-and-white truth. You will have truthiness.

To live in an information society infected with truthiness is extremely taxing. But just as there is no black-and-white truth, there is no easy solution. A friend of mine has suggested “slow news” as opposed to internet news feeds. It seems like there are some merits there. But slow news does not necessarily safeguard against yellow journalism, which has been around since newspapers could fold. In many ways, the 24-hour news cycle and its problematic presence on social media makes it harder for governments and corporations to spin interpretations in their favor. We should be grateful for the ineptitude of Sean Spicer and the alacrity with which he and his boss are covered by the press corps.

I don’t have answers. I don’t think there is a single version of what is true—at least not one that can be had through the media. But I also don’t think the cross-eyed chants of “burn it down” and “fuck your feelings” have done any good. They helped Trump get elected as president, and he has thus far made a mockery of America. The left understandably wants him gone. The GOP wants him to calm down and let them get on with the kleptocracy. His base supporters are currently upset because he bowed 5 inches to receive an award in Saudi. Some of his supporters are no doubt upset that the Reich hasn’t yet emerged in all its glory. I suspect they will still be upset when he gets impeached.

“Nothing is an absolute reality; all is permitted” – Hassan-i Sabbah