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?

The End of Supernatural

Supernatural has come to an end after 15 long seasons.  That’s probably for the best.  No TV show should run that long.  And it had multiple corny, goofy, b-movie impossible-to-believe arcs that sometimes made us groan.  But when it was good—and it usually was at some point in every season—especially when it got back to the fable of two brothers taking ghost-hunting road trips in their muscle car through middle America—it was really unique and fascinating.

I found myself keeping up with the show over the years, even at times when there were ostensibly more serious things I wanted to watch.  I even read some of the scripts in order to figure out how, exactly, they pulled off certain nigh-unbelievable episodes.  I even talked with a teacher of mine about a few of them. 

I learned TV writing from a very smart, funny woman who taught me a lot about the business and the machinelike precision that often goes into making a TV episode.  It changed the way I thought of television as a creative medium and sharpened my sense of how to make something happen in a scene.  Literary fiction writers often have a hard time with plot.  They tend to think more about the inner landscape of their characters.  But from a TV writer’s point of view, inner upheavals, quiet moments, and realizations emerge in the acting.  Good TV writing is plot.  And Supernatural’s writers never forgot that.

Often, I’d be watching an utterly goofy episode about a swamp monster eating cheerleaders in central Iowa and I’d realize the immense skill being employed to pack a fully formed dramatic arc into a single episode with surprisingly good character actors filling in the blanks.  Nothing about that is simple or easy.  Good TV never is.

Say you’ve got 50 pages of script for about 30 minutes of content in a tripartite dramatic structure.  An episode needs to sustain tension across commercial breaks, involve most of the cast regulars, and keep within the boundaries of the “series bible,” the style book for the show.  In a continuing series, it has to do these things while advancing the broad dramatic arc of the season.  Nothing can be wasted.  Every available minute must be used.  In this highly commercial form of storytelling, time is always money. 

There were a few episodes that astonished me in that respect.  And I started to follow some of the show’s writers on social media.  I’m not much of a fan, but sometimes I’d see some particularly acrobatic bit of dramatic structure and think, damn, who wrote this?  Who can build that sort of clockwork mechanism episode after episode, show after show well enough to make a career out of it?  I’d describe such a person as highly disciplined, precise, and obsessive.  She has to have all the skills with language that every writer has plus a fanatical work ethic, the willingness to commit to someone else’s creative guidelines, and an overwhelming amount of determination to dust herself off and get back into it when Hollywood inevitably hands her a beating.  Supernatural seemed to have a number of these ringers in its rotation.  You could see the craft.

As someone who stepped into that world, realized how harsh it is, and stepped back out just as quickly, I harbor a deep respect for what goes on in a show’s writers room.  I try to hold myself to a similar standard in my work and always enjoy discovering other writers who do the same, even though I’m writing stories and novels and not building three-act chronographs.  But a work of great craftsmanship is a wonderful thing to see, whether it’s pretending to be TV b-horror or something more serious.

I’m going to miss Supernatural, as much for these writerly things as for how entertaining and fun the show could be.  People talk about the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and Dexter as being really well-crafted shows in the new golden age of streaming television.  And I think they are.  But a show like Supernatural sneaks in the back door.  It comes dressed as lowbrow pulp, as a jester that doesn’t take itself seriously, and it does such a good job pantomiming and parodying that we overlook its immense skill.  Of course, that’s what we were meant to do all along.

Worshiping the Dead, Part 2

I look back at the stressed-out writing I did four years ago after Trump was elected and recall what my European friends were saying at the time.  They were a bit blasé about the new administration, a bit cynical about whether anything had changed or would change in U.S. geopolitics. 

They wanted to know why I was so upset.  They saw Trump as a slightly more pungent embodiment of the same old repellent post-WWII American hubris.  Yes, he lacked Obama’s varnish and capacity.  But, in that sense, they seemed to think Trump was a little better—take the makeup off the beast and you can see it more clearly.  Take off its camoflauge and you can more easily track its movements.  America, they felt, is evil, uneducated, childish, and wrong.  Let’s be honest.  Let’s reveal its true nature.  Why not accomplish this by letting Trump flail about and demonstrate American dysfunction on the international stage?

But the imperial, crass, clumsy, adventurist America that colored the perceptions of my friends abroad wasn’t what I was mourning.  Countries, like the people that create and sustain them, are not simple.  Reducing them to an exploitative foreign policy (which their people may not even fully understand or approve of) and the philistine values of their nastiest and most brutish citizens is disingenuous at best. 

The America in which I grew up was liberally and tolerantly Democrat and Republican.  People voted locally, believed in civil rights, valued humanistic education, and, incidentally, were not part of anything that could be considered “systemically racist.”  Higher education and health care were expensive but were seen as inherently good and worth working for.  My southern Californian neighborhood was diverse.  My childhood friends were Hmong, Vietnamese, Italian, African-American, Polish, Mexican-American, and every other ethnicity you can imagine. 

This is not to say that the country (including my small part of it) didn’t have serious problems or that there was no racism or crime.  It’s to say that America was seen as a decent place in which to live, in spite of those things.  And I grew up in a fairly poor neighborhood in a house with the roof always falling in.  I wasn’t dirt poor, but I wasn’t “rolling like a hog in the fat house,” either.  So, with deep reservations, I voted for Hilary in 2016.  I was well aware of the evils in my country.  But it was the good that I cared about and wanted to protect by voting Democrat.  I suspect most who voted Republican felt the same way.

The reason I was upset four years ago, and why I disagreed with the pessimistic view of my European friends, was that Trump brought a vision of “American carnage”—a distorted view of failure and fallout that didn’t square with what I knew from firsthand experience as a citizen.  He encouraged us to envision ourselves as a nigh-failed state.  And I knew that what you envision eventually becomes real.

But none of us could foresee the damage that this would do to the political continuum in the United States and, by extension, to American society.  The last four years have been tragic, convoluted, and intense to an almost unbelievable degree, such that the best analysts and political commentators now seem occupied with catching up or doomsaying instead of predicting what’s to come or offering solutions; though, one can admit that foreseeability is always an issue.

The complexity of this moment in American history is as broad and deep as it is disturbing.  And we might forgive the pundits for having a hard time with it.  It’s hard to think of any moment in American history simple and clear enough that we can say it’s open and shut, that we can easily understand it without much discussion.

For example, it’s not enough to argue that Truman dropped the bomb in 1945 to curtail protracted war in the Pacific and ultimately save lives.  It’s not enough to say that he was spineless and unduly influenced by hawkish generals and politicians looking for payback and glory.  It’s not enough to say that the American public had grown hardened by the war to the extent that the mass-murder of Japanese civilians seemed like an acceptable trade-off for victory.  If we’re in search of the broadest, clearest, most unvarnished view, we have to say all these things and more. 

Such considerations and a hundred others like them, existing side by side, are what make American history so confounding and fascinating (and are what make the New York Times’ dubious “1619 Project” more race-oriented speculative fiction than history, on par with creationist textbooks and What If the Nazis Won the War fan fic).  History is not simple because we are not simple.  The breadth of a cultural, historical moment is always hard to grasp, even in retrospect.  And, at the time, suffused as it is with emotion and rhetoric, it’s nearly impossible to fully and clearly understand what’s going on, even if we have a great deal of information. 

Nevertheless, we all agree that it’s the job of journalists, philosophers, artists, historians (even politicians) to set aside the fear and make sense of things.  When they succeed, we can arrive at maybe a partial understanding of what’s happening, maybe to the extent that we can act in accordance with best possible premises and mitigate the damage.  But after four years of American carnage, we seem to have unambiguously failed in that respect.  And we can’t pin it all on Trump.  We’re the ones who fed him tequila and acid and took him off the leash.  We’re the ones who burned our own neighborhoods.  Political writers, in particular, share the blame.

What we unfortunately have now is vicious black-and-white thinking across the political spectrum, the sort of irrationality that greenlights violence, tribalism, feuding, and revenge and thinks it’s all for the best, the sort of illiberal extremism that forgets how to come together and resolve differences.  And foreseeability remains a key problem—even the partial sort that sets aside the Huxlean herd poison in favor of the common good. 

The vision of American carnage is coming to pass when we could have imagined and brought forth something far better.  Such is the root of my discontent—what I felt in 2016 and what I feel now.  It’s why I regard political conventions as rituals of death worship, paying homage to dead systems and broken ideologies, rigidly entrenched in old enmities and feuds, and enslaved to a partisanship so obsolete and toxic that it has become clownish and absurd.

Cynicism and black-and-white thinking are too easy in times like this.  My deepest wish for the United States is that it will let go of those things and embrace classical liberalism—the radical notion that the left and the right can come together in the middle, take the best of what they are, and form a more perfect union.  We’ve done it before.  I don’t see why we can’t do it again.