Slippery slopes

spanish inquistion

The righteous at work during the Inquisition/Wikimedia Commons

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 or ADN or Breitbart or wherever the hell else it is she signalled her friends to look.

This is the news version of the “butterfly effect” in chaos theory wherein a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and sets off a tornado in Texas.

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.

More young, American men died in the Civil War than in all of our wars combined, both before and since. About six out of 10 of the dead were Union soldiers fighting to end slavery.

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.

Culture war

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.

























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38 replies »

  1. I stumbled into this critique today by accident via a Google search, and just wanted to say thanks. It’s well written and well thought out.

    Unfortunately, though, I think some of what’s going on right now in Portland, Seattle, and such, is my predictions in that article (and others) bearing fruit.

    Take care and stay safe.

  2. Craig, here is the answer:
    “It’s been two days since NBC’s exclusive reporting that the Senate Intelligence Committee has found no material evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and as of yet none of the three major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) have given it even a single second of coverage in their evening newscasts. Considering these networks have given the Russia probe a massive 2,202 minutes of airtime, their silence on this major development is deafening. “

  3. Craig,

    Another great article. I’ve heard the same said about comment sections many times, and not just on news articles but also on you tube and other social media posts, on amazon items for sale, and pretty much anywhere a comment can be left. It’s and outlet for the common everyday man or woman to be heard or just an outlet. Unfortunately some use that outlet to spread misinformation, ignorance, hate, propaganda, lies, and racism. This comment section in the home for readers and thinkers has, at times, been filled with all of the above. The civility level has been getting better as of late which has been nice but the propaganda, ignorance, and misinformation posted by some is amazing. Personally I think all comments should be allowed since there is no greater disinfectant than daylight.

    Thanks for providing a place (safe or not) for some of us to post our thoughts.

  4. Mueller Report? What report? Russian Collusion? What Russian Collusion (other than Hillary and Fusion GPS)? Damn “media” should be burned at the stake. Democrats are on suicide watch. Been lied to now for years. Poor bastards.

    • You’ve introduced a few topics here that have nothing to do with the post or comments. Are you playing to those who only read the comments??

  5. Comments are a new form of entertainment. One can take delight in showing off one’s wit and intelligence in public, anonymously.

  6. Being a child of the fifties, my exposure to journalism was heavily regulated and seemed more wholesome. I guess we lived in a pollyanna world then, and sometimes ignorance is bliss.

    Modern journalism tends to be very shallow and presented in snippet fashion.
    Quick and easy tends to make digital readers drift to sites and opinions that reflect their own. Rather than presentation of germane facts and varied opinions, we live in a haiku form of intellectual condensation, sifted through various filters.
    Not only is information skewed, it requires sensationalism to draw a click. So now we are bombarded with bombastic pablum, and its getting worse.

    The reader laments
    Wishing for the truth of past
    Journalism gone

  7. “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.”

    “We” are the root problem in that we have allowed “Critical Theory” to replace critical thinking in our education system. We laugh at teaching Virtue and we fail to teach Reason. All is subjective post-modern nonsense and subjectivity. Absent Virtue driving Reason, we are unable to transcend our tribal natures with a shared individual belief in great ideals, not “New deals” imposed from above by our self-proclaimed betters. “Betters,” and their tribalist followers, who use manufactured crisis and actual problems not to seek real solutions, but rather to justify their envy, and desire for theft, from those they view as unjustly better off.

    • We are the victim and the problem. We are clever monkeys who like wealth because it generally makes you a head monkey in charge. Classical education and learning has been substantially weakened because there is not much money involved in either product or advertising revenues.

      Digital experiences are addictive and almost always have an enormous revenue component. Technology is almost always a sociopath. It will get worse.

  8. Media = Propagandist who push the cult of catastrophe because it is part and parcel to how Marxists gain power. Order out of chaos. Of course most are just Useful Idiots.

  9. Shoot. That was sobering. Thanks, Craig.

    -One who reads the story, and at times, the comments too. 😉

  10. This article Craig wrote is worth reading several times. It has many meanings at several levels. Alaska is lucky to have a writer who tries to stay grounded. Interestingly writers can be leaders .

    • Just gotta ask: Why does some of your text appear in black, the remainder in dark gray? There appears to be no pattern, but perhaps it has something to do with your self-editing? Just guessing. Applies to all of your postings, not just this one.

  11. Craig,
    When you wrote:
    “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.’”
    I can’t help thinking of Venezuela and the lack of honest reporting coming from American news sources.
    No one in MSM is bringing out the truth like:
    “China has lent over $50 billion to Venezuela through oil-for-loan agreements over the past decade and has become a partner in the Venezuelan oil industry. In December, seven months since signing a financial business venture with China, Venezuela’s oil production has doubled to 130,000 barrels per day. The take-over of Venezuela’s oil would also be an attack on China.
    China and Venezuela signed 28 bilateral strategic cooperation agreements on September 14 in the areas of oil, mining, security, technology, finance, and health.”
    This narrative of China and Russian influence is the real reason American “Oilists” want Maduro out of office, not because of civil rights abuse or an “unfair” election.
    Do Americans want to start a proxy war with China and Russia in our “backyard”?
    Former President Carter traveled to Venezuela in 2012 and with an independent organization verified Venezuela elections as one of the most secure in the world.
    Nearly 46 percent of the population voted in 2018 and they use fingerprint identification with a printed receipt.
    There were many candidates on the ballot, including the current “opposition” party.
    “The country has been besieged by brutal sanctions without cause over the past five years and this economic warfare has left the most vulnerable citizens in Venezuela suffering” 
    This is the true reason of crisis in Venezuela, not their “mixed economy” that offers highly subsidized “social” benefits to it’s people.

    • Steve, still not buying it.

      RFA identifies a Twitter user named Zhao Weidong as the victim of a temporary detention for retweeting a post criticizing Maduro and China’s role in keeping him in power by providing political and financial support.

      “How did Venezuela go from being the richest democracy in the world to a totalitarian socialist state?” read the tweet from the U.S.-based account @brother_chui. “Well, we have [Chinese president Xi Jinping] to thank for that, for exporting the evils of communism to the whole world!”

      Police forced him to pay a 500-yuan fine on January 29 for sharing “false information,” according to RFA.

      The fine led to others running afoul of the Chinese regime by defending Zhao, such as Wu Bin, a user RFA describes as a “free speech activist.”

      “The state security police told me to delete the tweet [in favor of Zhao], so I deleted it,” he said. “It’s ridiculous; now you don’t just get fined for criticizing our own [government], you can get fined for criticizing a foreign country, too.”

      “Our relationship with Venezuela is too cozy by far, to the extent that they have to dig the knife in on behalf of our so-called friend,” he continued. “There is no freedom of expression in this country, nor any sense of safety.”

    • Steve,

      You have to stop believing everything you read, or you need to read more. Wherever you quoted this from got it wrong “Venezuela’s oil production has doubled to 130,000 barrels per day.” Venezuela is currently producing around 1,150,000 barrels per day which is a historic low and expected to continue to drop to around 700,000 barrels by the end of the year. The socialist regime is failing.

      China didn’t partner with Venezuela, they took advantage of the failing socialist government and are owed a huge portion of the oil Venezuela produces. So even the historically low volume of production doesn’t even help.’s-oil-backed-loans-venezuela-appear-headed-haircut-43992

      • Steve O,
        Thanks for catching that.
        Almost seems like a typo.
        I tend to brush over the numbers and stick to the issue of China and Russia “heavily” invested in Venezuela.
        You mentioned once that Chavez seized assets of oil companies in 2012…
        Well they were “released” in 2013, yet BP sold after the deepwater horizon blowout and Russia’s state owned oil company bought the largest “tapped” field from BP…
        So here we are 2019 and China has the equivalent of Alaska’s PF invested in Venezuela and Russia has the largest oil field with billions more pledged in aid and investment.
        “In a Twitter post on Thursday, Maduro announced that Russia had signed investment deals worth more than $6 billion dollars in Venezuela’s oil and gold sectors.
        The Venezuelan President also said that a deal had been signed for Russian exports of wheat to the South American country.”
        (Moscow Times)
        This explains the latest “warning” to U.S. by Russia that just came out today.
        “Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held a telephone call on Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo where he warned against any interference, including military, into Venezuela’s internal affairs, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement following a phone call between the two.
        The Russian foreign minister urged his U.S. counterpart to cease threats by Washington on the use of force to promote a change of government in the South American country.”

      • Steve,

        What you are suggesting is Chinese and Russian colonialism and nothing more. Russia telling us to mind our business and not intervene while they play the colonialist in Venezuela along with China is absurd.

      • Actually Steve O this is “Globalism”.
        Did you forget our state gov is negotiating a multi billion dollar deal with China on a pipeline in AK?
        How is China’s investment in Alaska different from their investment in South America?
        You cannot pick and choose who gets “free market” and who gets told to stay at “home”.
        Remember Venezuela has a mixed economy even though it is called “socialist”.
        Look at American Corporations in Africa currently drilling for Oil as the Nigeria Delta is plaqued with countless oil spills if you want a modern version of “Colonialism”.

      • “Regular, uncontrolled spills have been a prominent feature of Nigeria’s oil industry – the nation’s primary source of GDP – since crude was discovered there more than 60 years ago. An estimated 240,000 barrels of crude oil are spilled in the Niger Delta every year, polluting waterways, contaminating crops, and releasing toxic chemicals into the air.”

      • It’s not globalism. Look up what colonialism is and look up what globalism is. You are confusing the acts of nation states with the acts of companies, while China and to a lesser degree Russia have state run businesses what China and Russia are doing in Venezuela is colonialism and not globalism. There is a vast difference between a free market company and company owned by a nation state. Once again China is not partnering with Venezuela, they are exploiting them.

        Alaska is no longer negotiating with China on a gas pipeline, that was the previous governor who did not care what came of this state as long as his lifetime quest of getting a gas pipeline built at any cost was completed.

        Your choice of news sources, one that is a socialist state run propaganda machine and another that gets simple facts wrong on the multitude of only having 10% correct information is shocking Steve, you need to widen your reading platforms to something less skewed in one direction.

      • Well Steve O,
        U and I can disagree on world news sources and Venezuela.
        I hope you are right about the end of “negotiations” with China on our gas pipeline.
        I am waiting for an official PR from this administration saying just that.
        It looks like our Congress agrees with me and will not allow military intervention in Venezuela…
        Thank God!
        (Reuters) – Congress will not support U.S. military intervention in Venezuela despite comments hinting at such involvement by President Donald Trump, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said on Wednesday.

      • Steve, of course Democrats will not support regime change in Venezuela. Weren’t Democrats down there standing side-by-side supporting Chavez? One in the same I guess. And to think you have a problem with corporations/businesses earning revenue in favor of those Socialist crooks. Look up Chavez’s kids and their gang “raping” of Venezuela’s citizens.

  12. First off, the US Civil War wasn’t a “bunch of white boys dying to free the black man”. There were a select group of Abolitionists maybe fighting ovee slavery. But, Lincoln himself said “if I could end the war tomorrow without freeing one slave, Id do it”. If my memory serves right, 24% of free blacks owned slaves. Also, a lot of Southern servants were disgusted that their master’s swore allegiance to the North at the end of the war. We can go on and on about this.
    Democrats, to include the media, but I disgress, have always used dividers like “race, class, or gender” to further their agenda.
    To this day Democrats have never recovered from us removing their servants. The media today is nothing more than a mouthpiece for the Democrat Party.

  13. Wow, now there’s a great look at us from the 10,000 foot level. Thanks, this is one that I will be reposting.

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