If you get your expectations right, you’ll feel happier and you’ll operate more effectively. One of the best ways to do this is to place people and institutions into their correct genre. For example, I don’t expect politicians and salesmen to tell me the truth. I do expect everyone to pursue status and money. For example, professions are continually seeking to expand their own power and to reduce that of their competitors. In his 1776 book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
Ben Shapiro is a conservative pundit. I expect Ben to issue a torrent of words taking the most conservative position possible. I don’t expect him to know what he’s talking about. I don’t expect scholarship. I do expect him to fulfill his audience’s need for what feels like a profound conservative opinion.
I expect Crystal Light Classic Orange to taste a certain way and it never lets me down. People are more complicated than drinks, but once I put people in their correct genre, they’re less likely to shock me.
I don’t expect rabbis to be physicists. I don’t expect accountants to be comics. I don’t expect the homeless to be Shakespeare scholars. On occasion, they might be, but I don’t expect this and so I don’t get needlessly disappointed.
I expect a talk show host to optimize for interesting (to his 100 IQ audience), not for truth. As sports talk host Colin Cowherd said: “There’s no money in right. All the money’s in interesting.”
I don’t expect rabbis to be more moral than plumbers. I don’t expect Orthodox Jews to be more moral than secular Jews. I don’t expect conservatives to be more moral than liberals.
So what do I expect from the news? I expect to learn about “the passage of bureaucratically recognized events through administrative procedures.” The O.J Simpson criminal trial resulting in a not guilty verdict was “the passage of bureaucratically recognized events through administrative procedures.” The verdict had nothing to do with the truth and morality of Simpson’s murders.
The New York Times front page on January 21, 2023 features these news stories:
* Tech layoffs.
* Dancing with stairs in TV and film
* “Allies Fail to Reach Agreement on Providing German-made Tanks to Ukraine”
* “What is the Leopard 2 tank, and how could it help Ukraine?”
* “After Dobbs, Republicans Wrestle With What It Means to Be Anti-Abortion”
All of these stories proceed from bureaucracies.
When I look at a weather report, that is news filtered down from government bureaucracies. I am in Sydney at the moment. Frequently the weather report tells me it is dry while outside of my window it is raining. The better the quality of the news, the more it vets the reports of bureaucracies.
During the run up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, the Bush administration pushed the narrative that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and the MSM largely went along with this. Aside from Knight Ridder, journalists didn’t do their due diligence. Why not? Because it was hard and it was unpopular.
Just because powerful bureaucracies push a narrative, doesn’t mean it is true. After George Floyd’s death May 25, 2020, various bureaucracies including journalistic ones pushed the false narrative that police were systemically racist against blacks.
All institutions and people push narratives that deserve critical analysis (placing the narrative in its time and place and understanding the incentives of the people pushing it). Most people most of the time don’t say what they mean nor do they mean what they say. Remarks and reports have to be placed in context. The better the journalist, the better they put things in context.
When I read the news, whether in the Los Angeles Times or on CNN, I expect to get information that primarily comes from bureaucracies. This information sometimes has truth and sometimes it is all false. I can’t expect journalists to adequately vet this information on the fly. I expect that much of the time, they will simply get used by those with an agenda. Sometimes bureaucratic information filtered through journalists is more important than what I learn informally from my own eyes and ears and sometimes it is not.
The better you know a topic, the more often you realize that the news on that topic is lacking.
The news is akin to the employee handbook you get when you start a job. If you rely 100% on this handbook to guide your actions in the work place, you will be less effective than if you primarily rely on what you see and hear. So too with the news. If you primarily rely on the news for your understanding of the world, you will be less effective in navigating life than if you primarily rely on your senses. For example, a handful of stereotypes about group differences will be more helpful to you in discerning reality than all the news and academic articles claiming to smash stereotypes.
That’s like arguing that politicians or corporations or clergy or South Africans are honest and good. Almost everyone, some of the time, is honest and good, and at other times, these same people are dishonest and bad.
A better question is — where is the media honest and good? Nobody is good and honest period. Morality and competence are domain specific. I only expect the media to be honest and good with reporting “the passage of bureaucratically recognized events through administrative procedures.” There’s only a modest correlation between these events and reality. I expect the news will give me accurate sporting results, rainfall results, stock market results, and jury trial results. When bureaucracies release information that is difficult to vet, such as that Iraq under Saddam Hussein has WMDs, I don’t expect journalists to be able to fact-check such claims quickly and effectively.
Richard’s sub-head reads: “How to critique the press without devolving into nihilism.”
How many people think that critiquing people and institutions leads to nihilism? I don’t think that is a problem.
Richard: “I tend to get annoyed by those around me.”
OK, so you’re a contrarian.
Richard: “Spend any time among conservatives, and you’ll before long realize that few things get them as riled up as a chance to attack the media.”
Yes, most people like to attack their enemy. In the West today, almost all institutions are controlled by the left. That leaves people on the right riled up.
Richard: “Hatred of the media is not simply a conservative pastime, however, but is found among others who feel alienated from establishment centrism, including critics of American foreign policy, socialists, and tech entrepreneurs like Balaji Srinivasan and Elon Musk.”
The media’s main sources for news are our established institutions, which are dominated by the Left.
Richard: “In this essay, I’m going to argue that everyone is wrong, and the media is actually good and honest. You should be glad it exists, admire those who work in the industry, and hope for its continued influence and success. Scott Alexander recently said that the media very rarely tells explicit lies, a view he got a lot of pushback for. My position is more extreme than his. It’s that while the American media has serious flaws, it is one of the most honest, decent, and fair institutions designed for producing and spreading truth in human history.”
The media is not designed for producing and spreading truth. It is designed for producing and spreading “the passage of bureaucratically recognized events through administrative procedures.” That is not the same as truth. If Richard Hanania is right, then the lives of people who don’t follow the news would be significantly diminished. That’s not my impression. Many of the smartest people I know pay little attention to the news.
Richard: “Like any institution, the press has to be judged according to realistic benchmarks, not simply criticized because it is imperfect or makes mistakes. And if you judge the mainstream media by historical standards, or compare it to anything that competes with it for influence – the right-wing press, popular influencers, social media, foreign sources of news, etc. – the institutions of American journalism come out looking extremely well.”
What competes with news for influence? Scholarship, books, podcasts, talk radio, Fox News, bloggers, social media, community, religion, friends, hobbies. Depending upon whom you choose, you are just as likely to be better off than worse off when compared to people who rely on CNN and its equivalents. If you listen to Joe Rogan instead of reading the New York Times, then you are going to consistently get less truth. If you read Steve Sailer instead of watching CNN, you will better understand the world around you.
News is a business and a subset of the attention economy. News makes money (or justifies its public subsidy) by getting your attention. News operators have few qualms about hyping (a subset of lying) to get that.
What news organizations dish out is primarily bureaucratic events: The President said this… The Commerce Department said this… The police say… The NFL staged these games and the results are… First responders are on the scene in… Public health officials state…
When you simply report official statements, you’re unlikely to get sued.
News is good at reporting what official sources tell them. Reporters are good stenographers. When reporting goes beyond stenography, its quality varies. I would disagree with Hanania and company if they make claims for the excellence of news beyond stenography.
Richard: “There is a major exception when it comes to the “holy trinity” of liberalism, that is topics having to do with race, gender, and sexual orientation, but even here the problem is not lies as much as that the press is blinded by ideology. The facts they give you even on these sensitive topics are usually correct, but it’s simply that the interpretation of these facts is wrong.”
When you know the narrative someone is pushing, it is easy to disentangle the facts from the spin. We weren’t born yesterday. We did not evolve to be gullible.
* Most breaking news in Latin America is of little real significance. This is because in this area the forms-the elections, the drawing up of constitutions, family life, the words used in political doctrine-are highly observed and cherished but often do not mirror the substantive life of the society.
* Procedurally, The New York Times generally followed the methods identified with the narrative form of a public locus of consciousness, objective journalism. Bonner’s routine beat took him through governmental bureaucracies, collecting official statements for translation for the mass audience of the paper. Almost all information sources cited are formal bureaucratic sources in the capital city. In contrast, Didion embodied the methods of a reporter who writes from an individual locus of consciousness. Her procedure can be summarized as an attempt to put herself into as many different situations as possible; her information sources included facts as received by any of her senses from any direction. Though she did use official information sources, they were not considered the most reliable, comments at the corner drugstore were considered as valuable as governmental pronouncements, if not more so.
The New York Times’ identification of news pegs derives from the passage of bureaucratically recognized events through administrative procedures. Thus the paper focused on such formal events as the March 28 elections and changes in land distribution plans. Didion remarks, however, that phrases such as “land reform” and “the initialization of a democratic political process”; are “so remote in situ as to render them hallucinatory” (1982, p. 38); elsewhere she comments about the importance to everyone of maintaining such symbolic forms for the sake of the United States. For her, attention is focused on the nonexistence of any solid reality and the ubiquitousness of death and terror. What The New York Times limned as the important events in El Salvador, Didion describes as illusory symbols.
* In this case study, Raymond Bonner of The New York Times displayed a dual allegiance-he wrote from both his own individual locus of consciousness and from the public locus of consciousness of The New York Times He did so by describing the physical horrors and social and political chaos which were the facts of his own experience as well as the procedural viewpoint of his employer and the Salvadoran and the U.S. governments. In the latter case, however, his reporting revealed the failures of normative bureaucratic processes. With the subsequent removal of Bonner from El Salvador, NYT reporting from that country has reported those bureaucratic processes as successes, adhering completely to the procedures of objective journalism in reports of administrative events (Massing, 1983).
Joan Didion, on the other hand, wrote solely from her own individual locus of consciousness about a society which wouldn’t resolve into a sensible pattern. This report is strengthened by her own history as a new journalist-Didion’s reputation was largely built on her ability to clarify the myriad ambiguities of the 1960s. The keynote of her writing about El Salvador is terror and the desperation that results from dissolution of tenable social forms.
In 1997, I noticed that porn stars in the San Fernando Valley were regularly testing HIV positive, and by April of 1998, I had concluded that Marc Wallice was the likely patient zero of the outbreak that had infected at least dozen women. I didn’t get this information from official sources. My unofficial sources were superior to what the official sources were saying.
In 2007, I reported that the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, had stopped wearing his wedding ring and that his marriage was over. I didn’t get this from official sources. I got this tip from a Los Angeles journalist, and when I checked it out and it held up, I published the story on my blog. The Los Angeles Times followed up several days later and got a denial from an official source – Mayor Villaraigosa. A few weeks later, it was apparent the mayor was lying.
I’ve been blogging since 1997. My biggest stories have come from unofficial sources. In 2004, based on unofficial sources, I reported that Rabbi Aron Tendler of Los Angeles was under investigation for sexual misconduct that dated back decades. He stayed in his position and everyone told me I was crazy for reporting something untrue. In 2006, I reported on the experiences of two women who while in high school were the subject of Rabbi Tendler’s advances. That week, the rabbi resigned.
For years, my unofficial sources were sometimes more accurate than the official sources and sometimes they were less accurate. Sometimes I was more accurate than competing sources of information and sometimes I was less accurate.
The News Is What Bureaucracies Report
If you can’t base your news on a bureaucratic report, you’re swimming outside the normal news business (because you can’t normally get sued for reporting what a bureaucracy reports).
I’m reading Paul Pringle’s 2022 book (Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels):
“But a key line [in the Pasadena police report] was not redacted—the one listing witnesses to the overdose. Entered there was the name of a single witness: “Puliafito, Carmen Anthony.” His relationship to the victim was described as “friend,” and the rest of the line noted that he was a sixty-five-year-old white male. Finally.
I now had an official record that placed Puliafito at the scene of the overdose. The most important element of Khan’s tip was now confirmed. The pressure on USC and Nikias to tell the truth about the dean was about to become crushing.”
In 1974, Robert Caro published The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. According to Wikipedia:
As a reporter for Newsday in the early 1960s, Caro wrote a long series about why a proposed bridge across Long Island Sound from Rye to Oyster Bay, championed by Moses, would have been inadvisable. It would have required piers so large as to disrupt tidal flows in the sound, among other problems. Caro believed that his work had influenced even the state’s powerful governor Nelson Rockefeller to reconsider the idea, until he saw the state’s Assembly vote overwhelmingly to pass a preliminary measure for the bridge.
“That was one of the transformational moments of my life,” Caro said years later. It led him to think about Moses for the first time. “I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘Everything you’ve been doing is baloney. You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.'”
According to the biography, Robert Moses was the most powerful man in New York City between 1930 and 1960, but the news media, with few exceptions, never investigated this during his reign. Why not? Because Robert Moses would not make public the documents he used. The news relies on documents and without documents, there’s no news. I broke big stories because I did not depend upon documents, but this opened me up to five libel suits.
The secrecy cloaking Triborough’s largesse also protected its recipients because the secrecy protected the man who proffered that largesse.
Since 1924, newspapers had, practically unanimously, been describing Robert Moses as a man above politics and deals, a man whose name it would be ridiculous to mention in the same article with any hint of “payoff” or “scandal.” After the war, the New York Post, with publisher Dorothy Schiff taking a more active interest in her paper, began to question not only Moses’ ends but his means, asked to inspect Triborough’s records—and, when Moses refused to open them, took him to court.
But the courts upheld Moses’ refusal, and without those records, the Post could not document its suspicions about the flaws in the Moses image. And for a solid decade after the war, despite the wishes of an occasional reporter or editor, no other newspaper attempted seriously to dig behind that image.
Moses’ personal reputation was reinforced by that of the institution with which, increasingly, it became blended. After as before the war, the public was being informed by Moses and by the press—in a single six-year period, 1946 through 1951, there were more than 1,400 editorials in metropolitan-area newspapers on this theme—that public authorities were not only “prudent,” “practical,” “businesslike” and “efficient” but “nonpolitical,” “outside of politics” and therefore “honest.” “Authorities are free from political considerations,” the Times said. “They are free from the dead hand of partisanship and bureaucracy,” the Herald Tribune said.
Moses’ reputation and that of the institution he did so much to bring to maturity was the final guarantee that the secrecy of its books would remain inviolate. A politician considering accepting a Triborough fee could be assured that should some neophyte legislator ever attempt to open Triborough’s books, Moses would assail the attempt as an attempt by a politician to interfere with an agency whose independence he didn’t like and to get his
hands on some of its funds—that the press would back up that argument, and that the public would be conditioned by years of praise for Moses and for public authorities to accept it. Politicians could be sure that no public official solicitous of his political future would lay that future on the line in a fight with a living legend.* No one could disprove Moses’ reputation without first opening Triborough’s books, and no one could open Triborough’s books without first disproving Moses’ reputation. Any public official thinking about accepting a Triborough retainer could feel certain that his own reputation would be safe in the shadow of Moses’. Robert Moses had $750,000,000 of Authority money to spend. In the ultimate analysis, it was the public’s money. But Robert Moses was not accountable to the public. He was not accountable to anyone. He had $750,000,000 to give away. And no one would ever know to whom he gave it. And this made politicians and public officials—at least those politicians and public officials interested in retainers—all the more anxious to make sure that he gave some of it to them.
Such politicians and public officials noted another fact about Moses’ money which, in their eyes, made it even more attractive than the city’s: Moses could give it to whomever he wished.
Was the media “honest and good” in its reporting on Robert Moses when he had power? Well, they honestly served as his stenographers and lapdogs. Did they do a good job placing his actions and words in context? No. Informal channels did a better job of informing people about how New York City worked than newspapers.
Steve Sailer notes that “Biden is the second Trumpiest man in politics.” That context is a more useful analysis of our president than much of what the New York Times offers.