The first time someone told me she only read the comments on stories in the news and rarely the stories themselves, I laughed. I’m not laughing anymore.
The confession came over beers on a sunny afternoon in the outdoor dining area at Bernie’s Bungalow Lounge in downtown Anchorage. The woman who made it was there to meet some cyclists who’d pedaled 4,000 miles north from Texas to Alaska to raise money for cancer.
The year might have been 2011, but it could have been earlier or later. The Texas 4000 has been organizing cancer-fundraising rides to Alaska since 2004. And the year really doesn’t matter much other than that we all, or most of us, were even more immersed in the tubes after 2011 than before.
One thing is certain, the confession definitely came before the Age of Rage was boosted to Trumpian heights.
How the woman came to offer her reading habits has been long forgotten, but I remember that she was college educated – she had college friends doing the ride – and articulate.
At the time, it was hard to take the her remarks seriously. At first, I thought she was joking. She made it clear in the conversation that followed that she wasn’t. The comments, she said, were a lot more entertaining than the stories.
To that there might have been some truth. A lot of reporting over the years has largely been devoted to process more than anything, and that can get deadly dull as the reporters who’ve been known to have trouble staying awake in state or local hearings can testify.
But it was also obvious the woman was cherry picking comments in a search for fellow travelers. She didn’t really want news. She wanted opinions that reinforced her views of what the news should be.
The woman’s confession stuck with me over the years for the insight it provided into how the tubes, the ultimate forum for free speech, might actually come to threaten democracy.
Tell me I’m right
“Everybody in every commercial media outlet today wakes up, takes a shower, drinks their coffee, and heads to work. And they spend their morning commute, and the time before it, and the time after it, thinking some variation of the same thought. “How am I going to get clicks today?” Folks running YouTube channels do the same thing. Facebook addicts do it too. Instagram. Everyone does it. Hell, ‘how to get more traffic on your Medium articles’ is one of the most worn out topics on Medium itself.”
That is BJ Campbell being quoted. Campbell runs a website called Handwaving Freakoutery. He is not a great writer. His prose tends to be a little stilted and sometimes confusing, but he is one hell of a thinker and data miner.
If you’re interested in the substance of issues, you should read him even if he would be the first to argue most people aren’t interested in substance.
How can that be you ask? Well, here’s Campbell’s explanation and documentation:
“I wrote some…articles, focused on looking deeply, and visualizing properly, the data behind gun violence in the USA. They did not attack conservative or liberal individuals, but many of them were very critical of the media, and much of that criticism was admittedly leveled against media elements who play to the left.
“I won’t bore you with details. The traffic the….articles received varied widely, and came from very different sources….The best ones got almost no traffic at all. As I explored this, I landed on one conclusion. The more useful the article was for people currently in a culture war argument, the more secondary traffic it got, particularly from Facebook.”
Secondary traffic is what drives the web and makes money. Secondary traffic is the ultimate comment. Seconardy traffic is the woman at the start of this story leveraging the comments of her fellow travelers onto an ever bigger stage.
She shares a story to her “friends” on Facebook. Some of her friends share the story to their friends. Their friends share…etc., etc., etc.
And all of a sudden the board is lighting up with clicks at Handwaving Freakoutery or craigmedred.news or ADN or Breitbart or wherever the hell else it is she signalled her friends to look.
Current headline case in point: An Indian activist bangs a drum in the face of a school kid in Washington, D.C. and a nation erupts into a debate as to whether the phrase “Make America Great Again” is racist, because, of course, we’d all be so much happier if the slogan was “Make American Shit Again” as it was during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and, of course, the Civil War.
Theirs was a less than perfect victory. It would be another 100 years after the war before the oppression of people of color ended in America, but the Union dead never really get their due for giving up their lives for the defining principle in the American Declaration of Independence.
Chalk it up to the fact that conflict is a lot more saleable than cooperation. Nobody cares that a bunch of white boys died to free the slaves because racial disparities have never fully gone away in this country.
So what we focus on today are conflicts between white and black, Christian and non-Christian, straight and gay, male and female, liberal and conservative.
Because conflict sells.
Humans have a hard time accepting that they can be different and still get along so they fear the other. Human history is a catalog of war, death and destruction focused on the sometimes smallest of differences between us.
The Hatfields and the McCoys were all Southern rednecks, but they managed to get into a historic, decades long feud driven by honor, revenge, justice and economics. In that regard, their dispute in the Virginia’s in the late 1800s appears to have had a lot in common with The Bow and Arrow War Days on the Kuskokwim Delta of Alaska a century earlier.
Humans might look different. They might come from different places and speak different languages. But their behaviors, both good and bad, are generally all the same.
Whether America is today struggling with another of its troubling and periodic outbursts of tribalism – we have a bad habit of turning on each other when we lack a larger enemy to battle – or is on the path to a new and serious cultural war as was the case in the 1800s no one can know.
Whatever the case, the same weapons of division are being employed now as they were then, and Campbell identifies them well:
“One is the attack, which undermines someone else’s virtue, and the other is the defense, where you buttress your tower of virtue against attack. They take these forms because virtue is the fundamental quality of a culture. This stuff gets liked and shared far more than anything else.”
Campbell actually outlines a fairly detailed plan on how you could use attack and virtue to attract people to a “news” website, generate a bunch of traffic, and make money. I won’t repeat his outline. It’s morally and ethically wrong to encourage others to exploit the madness of the moment to make a buck.
And besides, the words Campbell, an engineer, writes after outlining this model sting. What would resorting to the model “make me?” he asks.
“It would make me a journalist.”
Sadly there is more than a grain of truth to the observation and it applies in too many ways from the behavior of journalists and former journalists who have become among the most divisive voices in social media to all of us in the business who’ve let comment sections beneath stories turn into shit shows, which wouldn’t be so bad if the comments were going unread….
But, see above.
If the comments are ignored or have become pure entertainment – like the comics in newspapers of old – it’s one thing. But if they are furthering the divisiveness that fuels the Age of Rage, it’s another.
Comments are the “letters to the editor” of yesteryear unfettered. News organizations have tried all sorts of algorithms to try to control them without paying (and trusting) people to do so.
Usually this attempt to make people behave is defined in terms of “civility,” which is itself about as easily defined as pornography. One person’s pornography is another’s art. One person’s civility is another’s political correctness, and political correctness is really just a two-word substitute for a good, old-fashioned term: censorship.
I’ve sometimes thought legitimate news websites should eliminate comments in the interest of being legitimate news websites. I’ve thought about eliminating them here.
But then someone will post a comment that offers useful insight or some commenters will engage in working toward common ground not away from it (yes, this happens) or I will read a story elsewhere, and think, “damn this is a piece of garbage,” and turn to the comments there to see how many people noticed.
A media plot?
Campbell sees all of this as little but a feedback loop in a complicated conspiracy.
“I think the media is pushing a lot of this purely because their new revenue modes are attached to anxiety,” he writes. “Creating anxiety is literally their job. It wouldn’t matter what sort of anxiety they create, as long as they create some, because anxiety generates traffic. That drives an evolutionary change in the business model itself. The current profit modes in media delivery reward anxiety mongers. To compete in the media marketplace, they must peddle anxiety or die.
“And that is far more terrifying to me than raw media bias. That is a system that will lead to chaos, as it feeds back onto itself, and it cannot be controlled.”
There is some truth there. But as one who has spent his life in the news business, I’m not buying an idea as simple as the profit motive. To start with most journalists lack for business sense. If I had any, I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here typing away on a website that makes almost nothing.
After a lifetime around journalists, I’d be much more inclined to blame good intentions rather than profit for the fear mongering. Whether the good intentions at the journalistic grassroots level are being manipulated by puppet-master publishers driven by the profit motive is another issue, but that doesn’t diminish the good intentions.
From my experience, it’s safe to say most journalists believe gun control – screw the data – would make America a safer place, and most journalists believe climate change is a threat to the planet, and most journalists believe that limited government is not a protection of personal freedom but instead a threat to the weaker among us who need help.
And there is nothing wrong with believing these things. The greatest thing about this country is that you can believe whatever you want to believe. The problem is that most people have a hard time putting their beliefs aside to engage in objective and critical analysis, which ain’t easy in the best of circumstances.
It’s why it’s nice to have friends who are assholes or, to use a more polite word, contrarians. As the late Gen. George S. Patton once trenchantly observed, “if everyone is thinking alike, somebody isn’t thinking.”
Those are words journalists should heed. They don’t. Journalistic group think is everywhere. News gets locked into unchallenged narratives. Readers who flock to websites of the likeminded tend to follow the narrative and rage at anyone who disagrees.
“Guns are just one issue in an ocean of media behavior that exhibits these qualities,” Campbell writes. “This media behavior crops up on every front, from the environment, to the Middle East, to healthcare. And violence has begun to erupt at the periphery of each of these issues, driven by the freakoutery.
“Take, for example, the barrage of messaging that Republicans were literally killing people with their Obamacare repeal attempts in June of 2017, prompting some nitwit to show up at a baseball field full of Republicans and start shooting them. Was he crazy, or was he simply fighting back? Both? His actions were not sane by any objective measure, but they may have seemed completely sane to him, given the world in which he lived, fed to him by his phone. Opinions of Obamacare aside, it should be clear that these sorts of violent boundary cases will multiply as the freakoutery expands.
“The media has us on a rail towards chaos and catastrophe. As Voltaire said, ‘those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.'”
Personally, I think Campbell goes too far. He strays into the same sort of fear mongering of which he legitimately accuses the press. And the media, despite all its flaws, isn’t really the root problem here.
We’re the root problem. Each and everyone one of us. We are becoming a nation of people interested not in the factual substance of things but in the essence of what we want to believe. We avoid challenges to what we think, and gravitate toward those who reinforce our beliefs.
And we have less and less tolerance for those who question our thinking because, by God, we are right and they are wrong. Humans have been here before. It was never pretty.
Many of the first European immigrants to North America were fleeing intolerance. They would go on to exert it. Georgetown University, one of the country’s great educational institutions, was built on the backs of slaves.
The United States of America – like the rest of the nations of the world – has a sad history of intolerance along with an unprecedented history of tolerance. The pendulum has swung between the two more than once. It is now swinging again with media encouraging pushes from all directions.
Technology has granted us an unimagined freedom to exchange ideas, and we’re trending toward a remake of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”
About the only thing worse would be a well-intentioned, grassroots push for government to “fix the problem,” which would put us on the track toward Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Except that it could because it always can. Very few democracies have lasted for long. They are susceptible to death by chaos.