With the national media and President Donald J. Trump engaged in World Twitter War I (WTW I), with the Alaska media being led around by media releases, and with social media doing it’s best to take over community news on many levels, maybe it’s time for someone to ask some obvious questions:
Where the hell is this all headed?
Are the home pages of the many dueling tribes of social media destined to become the insular, partisan newspapers of tomorrow as political activist Brad Keithley envisions?
Is there any place left for fair-minded moderators in the public square of our times?
And, most importantly, will journalists, or those posing as journalists, finally kill journalism?
They (we, I guess, since I’ve long been of the journo fraternity) have been working on the latter project for a while. It didn’t start with Trump, who the media dragged into the limelight only to find out he was impossible to boot out.
It didn’t even start with Sarah Palin, though the counter-offensive Alaska’s former governor launched against the media rocked the battlefield as did the many battles that followed.
But the problem goes back farther. The decline of an empire, and the media was once an information empire, is seldom tracked in years but instead in decades or centuries.
One could probably trace the beginnings of the end to at least the arrival of the television news “sound bite” as a journalistic goal and the subsequent dumbing down of print news in an effort to compete.
“If it bleeds it leads,” Bill Paxton says as a character in Nightcrawler, a movie about an out-of-work sociopath who stumbles into a job as a freelance television camera man and is willing to do anything to get his work on screen. Rene Russo is the producer who encourages the worst in him.
“I want something people can’t turn away from,” she barks.
That’s been the goal for quite some time now. Something people can’t turn away from. Plus, of course, the attention that goes with that something.
And now we have the perfect tools for the attention seekers in and out of the business of journalism.
Twitter, the columnist Charles Krauthammer observed the other day, is the perfect outlet for the id.
For those unfamiliar with the theories of Sigmund Freud, the id is what he theorized to be one of the three parts of the human psyche, the others being the superego, wherein is found the moral conscience (in those who have one) and the ego, which moderates between the superego and the id.
The id is each of us at our most elemental, animal level – down there in the grit and grime and blood and sweat of desire, anger, aggression, revenge and more. The id was, in the biblical sense, the devil’s side of the human brain, and the superego was the angel’s side.
The ego was the moderator. Twitter appears to have killed the moderator. People don’t seem to think much at all before they Tweet. Too often the id is given free rein.
Trump’s Tweets are a perfect example of the id unleashed, but he’s not alone. Oh no, he’s not even close to alone:
That’s Patrick Dougherty, the once-respected editor of the Anchorage Daily News, randomly commenting on one of Alaska’s two U.S. senators. In fairness to an old colleague, Dougherty isn’t always this vile. A review of his last couple weeks of Tweets shows him mainly retweeting news stories or news commentary, albeit all with a strong lean to the left.
There is little sense of moderation in his Tweet storm; no indication that reasonable people might reasonably disagree on the solutions to the problems facing this country, no recognition of the issues liberal bias creates for journalists still in the news-gathering business, and no understanding of the drum beat of tribalism that seems to keep pushing Americans farther and farther apart.
We aren’t the Balkans yet, but there are a lot of people working on getting us there and a goodly number of journalists and former journalists are in the mix.
How bad is it?
“After college and law school, I moved to back to Anchorage,” a young lawyer recently messaged. “I immediately read Howard Weaver’s book “Write Free or Die” and added him and Pat Dougherty on Facebook.
“Since that time, I’ve lost so much respect for those two men. They spend all day bitching about Republicans….I had to unfollow (them) because it annoyed me how partisan they were.”
Weaver is one of Dougherty’s predecessors at the Daily News, now the Alaska Dispatch News. Weaver leaned left, too. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most journalists lean left. They are well-intentioned. They want to help people.
The same can be said of most Americans. We used to live in a country where the majority of people understood the difference between right and left wasn’t focused on whether they wanted to help others in need, but on how much help they thought society should or could provide and how.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s idea of help was to give people jobs rebuilding America as part of the Works Progress Administration. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s idea of help was to start a “war on poverty,” which began a transition from a very capitalist United States, where the federal government did as little as possible, to a much more socialist U.S. where the federal government was expected to help everyone and in all sorts of ways. President Ronald Reagan later pushed back with Reaganomics in the belief that the best welfare is a job.
Weaver had a pretty good understanding of history and worked at trying to stay fair-minded, but he clearly leaned left. It is hard to avoid in journalism.
The culture promotes it. Journalists with good intentions win journalism prizes by writing stories that encourage government to do well-meaning things. Nobody lands a Pulitzer, and Weaver won two, for writing about how damn complicated and grey many of the country’s difficulties.
Weaver won one of journalism’s biggest honors by helping fuel rural Alaska’s war on alcohol. Like America’s war on drugs, Alaska’s war has put a lot of people of color in jail. Most of them, in this case, are Alaska Natives. And overall, the Alaska war on alcohol has been as ineffective as the national war on drugs, a war the country can’t win but from which it cannot disengage.
The war on drugs – a political war like others in American today – revolves around a problem with a lot of grays in a country divided into black and white. One side sees the solution as throwing everyone associated with drugs in jail forever. The other side sees the solution as treating everyone with a drug problem in the hopes the drug market will collapse.
Both solutions are costly. Neither will work. We can’t afford the prisons to house everyone associated with drugs, and treatment has a mixed record. Some drug addicts prefer to be drug addicts. Some drunks prefer to be drunks. And someone will always cater to supplying them if there is money to be made.
A nation divided
Journalism, or at least the best of journalism, used to be dedicated to examining these sorts of issues, uncovering and explaining the complexities, and offering up the information that both helped people understand the issue and allow them to sort out their views on what society should do going forward.
Those days are fading if not over.
The propagandists have seized the day. The differences between journalism and propaganda are simple.
The journalist asks, “what is going on here,” and goes looking for answers in the confusion of details. The propagandist knows, “this is what is going on here and this is how you fix it.”
The journalist’s goal is to enlighten a democratic society with a wealth of information. The propagandist’s goal is to sell an agenda with tightly controlled and sometimes, God forbid, slanted information.
If you have any doubts about how much these two concepts have run together in this country today, look no further than the coverage of climate change. The planet is warming. There is no doubt about that. What that means, however, is all speculation.
This isn’t evolution, where scientists can go back and document a history of physical change. This is something else. This is more like science fiction, wherein writers create future worlds.
Climate change could be devastating for some parts of the world. It might actually be good for other parts of the world, though you never read this in the U.S. press anymore. It’s been more than a decade since the New York Times headlined “America’s Breadbasket Moves to Canada?” And a decade since Gregg Easterbrook dared to write a story for The Atlantic postulating on “Global Warming: Who Loses – and Who Wins?”
The spin on the issue these days? Warming is a Russian plot. Take it from Matthew Fleisher, “a Los Angeles-freelance writer,” writing for the LA Times in 2014:
“Russia is, of course, fully aware of these possible rosy global warming scenarios. Putin has said that ‘two or three degrees’ of climate change could be good for Russia, in that it would reduce heating costs and increase crop yields.
“Of course Russia will face harsh consequences from global warming as well. Wildfire and drought have hit the country hard in recent years — trends that will likely only worsen as the planet continues to heat up. But there isn’t a country in the world that isn’t poised to face similar problems — the United States among them. The only difference is, we don’t have half-a-continent’s worth of untouched natural resources buried under permafrost to compensate for the deleterious consequences of climate change.
“So for all you out there blasé about climate change, you may want to take a long hard look at your position — because it doesn’t take that much effort to see a post-global warming Russia emerging as an unchecked superpower.”
Russia may have more problems with wildfire and drought as the climate warms, and then again it might not. The consequences of global warming, not to mention where and how the minuses and pluses manifest themselves, are hugely theoretical, though it is likely a warming climate will create far more problems for the lower latitudes than for the higher latitudes.
Melting permafrost really isn’t that big of a deal compared to lengthy droughts and deadly heat.
But climate change reporting isn’t driven by a rational discussion of costs and consequences. It is driven by an apocalyptic vision of doom.
“The seals are disappearing, and the ice is too thin to support whale hunting, and the polar bears are eating what’s left of the whales. The ice cellars are melting and the food is rotting. The entire village of Shishmaref is disappearing into the sea, and soon all 600 residents will have to relocate,” Bill McKibben wrote in New Republic last year.
“Other places, of course, are experiencing the cultural and economic and personal dislocation of climate change. But a warmer Westchester or a balmier L.A. doesn’t pose a crisis of identity. In the Arctic, life remains tied to the land and sea; subsistence hunting has formed the basis of the people’s culture for centuries. Now that indigenous way of life is being destroyed at an unprecedented rate.”
The historically toughest and most adaptable people on the planet are being “destroyed” by warmer weather in the Arctic? And the evidence for that is what? That the average Arctic lifespan has increased by from 6 to 13 years since 1980, which is about the time we all started to worry about global warming.
There is no doubt that the indigenous residents of the Alaska Arctic are struggling with cultural change, but that has been going on since White contact, first slowly and badly with the arrival of previously unknown diseases that killed tens of thousands of people, and then faster and better with the arrival of firearms and internal combustion engines to ease the subsistence lifestyle, and then faster still and harder again with arrival of first television and then the Internet that connected people to a world far away where others had things unobtainable in the Arctic, like mansions in that “balmier L.A.”
But if you go to Barrow at the top of the world today and ask people whether they’d prefer to deal with climate change or abandon their cars, trucks, four-wheelers and outboard engines to stop global warming, the vast majority – in fact, probably near all – would tell you they’d rather deal with climate change.
They get it. The issue isn’t simple. It involves economic and environmental trade-offs, and how we get from the point of pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to the point of pumping just the right amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (if we can figure out what that is) without blowing up the economy that now supports us.
Charlotte Brower, the mayor of the North Slope Borough, summed up the change pretty well in four sentences in a presentation to the U. S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2015:
“In a period of roughly 30 years,” she said, “we experienced over 200 years worth of development and advancement. We formed a local, home-rule government and built roads, airports, schools, hospitals, house and utilities. We provided police, fire, first responder, and search and rescue services. Our people went from burning whale oil to keep warm to having natural gas heaters.”
Fossil fuels – the cause of global warming – powered all of that change. But Brower didn’t want to abandon those energy sources and go back in time to avoid ” the cultural and economic and personal dislocation of climate change” that McKibben claims is underway.
Brower’s solution to the problems of today echos that of most of the residents of the Arctic. They don’t want to live in a past where life was brutally hard. They want to keep moving forward to the future, even if that future is filled with difficulties.
“Our experiences have also taught us that natural resource development and a healthy environment are not mutually exclusive goals,” she said. “And our borough instituted a robust permitting system that drives the oil industry to minimize and mitigate negative impacts. As a result, our subsistence way of life has flourished along with our local economy.
“But land management designations and policies aimed at blocking resource development across America’s Arctic will usher in the end of this era of prosperity. And when these decision are made without meaningful local input, they are best paternalistic and at worst exploitative.”
Exploitative would be a good description for the McKibben article which bore the doom-laden headline, “The End of Ice.”
The story was nothing if not Twitteresque. It was perfect for a Twitter world filled with fear and anger.
“As (information) consumption shifts from old media to new, Twitter has become a valuable resource for analyzing current events and headline news,” scientists from the University of Vermont and elsewhere observed in a 2015 study. “We find that natural disasters, climate bills and oil drilling can contribute to a decrease in happiness while climate rallies, a book release and a green-ideas contest can contribute to an increase in happiness. Words uncovered by our analysis suggest that responses to climate-change news are predominately from climate-change activists rather than climate-change deniers, indicating that Twitter is a valuable resource for the spread of climate-change awareness.”
There is no doubt that the 140-character limit of Twitter favors emotion over reason: see WTW I. The question is whether public policy should be driven by feelings – happiness versus unhappiness – or logic. The historical record on public policy driven by emotion is not good: see the rise of Germany’s “national socialism” or Russia’s Marxist socialism or, for that matter, Trump Mania.
There are some scary elements to the rise of Trump. He won the presidency in large part by channeling the anger of the American middle class, and he seems to see his future not as a political uniter but a political divider.
Bad or worse?
But then again, maybe it’s not as bad as the Washington-D.C.-based mainstream media tries to paint it. Trump appears to be trying to move the country away from the nanny state which led to a massive federal bureaucracy and helped fuel our new, American tribalism.
Who among us hasn’t felt the urge to be part of some special, protected group these days? Who doesn’t play the victim card? There was Alaska’s pit-bull governor, Palin, flipping it down in her resignation speech:
“…You don’t hear much of the good stuff in the press anymore, do you?” she said. “Political operatives descended on Alaska last August, digging for dirt. The ethics law I championed became their weapon of choice. Over the past nine months I’ve been accused of all sorts of frivolous ethics violations” and on and on.
Palin, of course, left Alaska to go fire up her tribe, the Tea Party. The Tea Party was the focus of much attention before the media moved on to other tribes: Black Lives Matter, Alt-right, LGBT, neo-liberal, and all the rest involved in what has come to be called “identity politics.”
“The ‘Identity Politics’ Debate Is Splintering the Left,” Thea N. Riofrancos and Daniel Denvir wrote at InTheseTimes.com in February. “Here’s How We Can Move Past It.”
Good luck. Identity politics isn’t just splintering the left; identity politics is splintering the country.
And the media, instead of covering the issue, has become part of the issue.
The major media and good parts of the minor media has abandoned the idea of trying to be fair and honest mediators of the public discussion in favor of taking sides. They are forming their own tribes.
It’s bad for democracy, and in the long-run, it’s likely bad for the media.
“I’ve been a journalist for a long time,” Michael Goodwin, a former New York Times reporter now the chief political columnist for the New York Times said in a speech at Hillsdale College in Atlanta in April. “Long enough to know that it wasn’t always like this. There was a time not so long ago when journalists were trusted and admired. We were generally seen as trying to report the news in a fair and straightforward manner. Today, all that has changed.”
The speech is long, but well worth a read for anyone interested in journalism or concerned about the future of American democracy. The speech is also rather disheartening, and ends with a suggestion that might be very, very good – if Americans favor a path back toward the journalism of old – or very, very bad – if what they truly enjoy is the bitter, partisan bickering of today that is often as much “fake news” as real news.
All of “which brings me to the third necessary ingredient in determining where we go from here,” Goodwin said. “It’s you. I urge you to support the media you like. As the great writer and thinker Midge Decter once put it, “You have to join the side you’re on.” It’s no secret that newspapers and magazines are losing readers and money and shedding staff. Some of them are good newspapers. Some of them are good magazines. There are also many wonderful, thoughtful, small publications and websites that exist on a shoestring. Don’t let them die. Subscribe or contribute to those you enjoy. Give subscriptions to friends. Put your money where your heart and mind are. An expanded media landscape that better reflects the diversity of public preferences would, in time, help create a more level political and cultural arena. That would be a great thing. So again I urge you: join the side you’re on.”
It’s a nice theory. This website has benefited from many wonderful contributors, but craigmedred.news cannot survive on the contributions that it now receives. And it’s foolish to ignore the reality that “news” sites with a partisan bent have an easier time producing revenue.
But that seems a small thing in some ways. It is a concern of the moment and what might be more threatening is what becomes of the future of journalism.
I hate to get personal here, but I will. I this year applied for the Snedden Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, my alma mater. There was no chance I was going to get it. The people who run the dying Department of Journalism at UAF think I am, as they have told others, “an asshole.”
And if speaking bluntly makes one an asshole, if digging around in the complexities of problems makes someone as asshole, if reporting mistakes were made when mistakes were made, well then, I happily plead guilty: I’m an asshole.
But I did get an interview this year, and I made a pitch for two things: 1.) an effort to return to the old journalistic model of the fair-minded moderator of the public discussion; 2.) someone in the job who had some idea of how the news might be monetized going forward.
UAF went for the latter. It picked a climate-thumping, propagandist for Alaska sled-dog racing, from New York City who Tweets this sort of thing:
McKibben’s story – The End of Ice – was written solely to put words around Orlinksy’s photos. Friends says she is a very nice, young woman, and I’m sure she is. But she’s really not a journalist; she’s an activist.
And her Kissinger Tweet underlines the difference.
I am not a big fan of Kissinger. In fact, I’m not a fan at all. But to suggest someone is a “war criminal and amoral psychopath” because he favors a U.S. foreign policy based solely on the best interests of the U.S. and accepts the sad reality that the country can’t fix every global injustice without a lot of young, American men and an increasing number of young women getting killed doesn’t make him a “war criminal.”
Not to mention that calling someone an “amoral psychopath” is a redundancy that represents a serious lack of understanding of what a psychopath is. Psychopaths by their very nature cannot be amoral. They cannot lack a moral sense because they have no moral sense.
The psyshopath is a creature of amorality and thankfully a damn rare one. A lot of serial killers are psychopaths, and there are guidelines for diagnosing this anti-social behavior disorder.
Kissinger might check a couple of the boxes – constantly lying and deceiving others, for sure; maybe, little regard for the safety of others as well – but he doesn’t make it over the bar. He’s no more and no less a psychopath than former President Bill Clinton or the late President John Kennedy.
They ranked at the top of the list of presidents with psychopathic traits in a book titled “The Wisdom of Psychopaths,” written by researcher Kevin Dutton.
The nuances of all of this make for interesting discussion. The Tweets?
Well, the Tweets would be certain to do what Tweets do, parse a very grey world into black or white. Tweets are great for highlighting extremes and channeling anger. They are great for name-calling: “You suck, and you’re ugly; you hack.”
They are the stuff of war posters: “Kill the bastards!”
They make much of our few differences at the expense of our many similarities. And they sometimes do a good job of gutting the idea that American journalism today has anything to do with fairness and honesty.
The last is a problem, a very big problem.
It becomes very hard for real journalists to do real journalism when the people of whom they are asking questions come to look at them not as reasonable collectors and moderators of information trying to get at what might or might not be true, but as lying sacks of shit with agendas.
Which is sort of the way a large part of this country is starting to look at journalists. Some are angry enough to slap them. It is possible the cause of journalism might already have been lost. We may be at the point where the journalists still doing the journalism of old have to just give up and join the activists on one side or other simply so as to garner the safety of a tribe to go home to.
But if that happens, we all lose.
The goal is to sell an agenda.
Journalists, of course, have always had agendas. There is evil in the world, just as there is goodness. But good and evil are the extremes. Most of what goes on in America, especially in the political world, lives somewhere between those extremes.