Industrial Rumpswabbery

Way back in the before times, when you got news and opinion from TV, newspapers and magazines, you just accepted the authority of the source. If you were a liberal, you were required to swear oaths about the objectivity and integrity of the news media. If you were a normal person you understood that all of it was biased. Alternative sources of information, however, were thin on the ground. If you were lucky, your city still had a paper run by normal people, like the Detroit Free Press or Manchester Union Leader.

Otherwise, normal people had to read their local paper or the news magazines with an eye for the bias. Some columnists made a career out of being lefty wackos, even getting a national reputation for it. Eleanor Clift was a proto-cat lady in the 1990’s, as a barking at the moon lefty for Newsweek. The late John McLaughin would have her on as a regular, mostly because she was such a loon. In the Clinton years he nicknamed her Eleanor Rodham Clift because she was such a ridiculous Clinton rumpswab.

The thing is though, the columnists were always people who had spent a long apprenticeship in the news business. They started out as local reporters for local papers and then advanced onto bigger stories at bigger outlets. The typical newspaper columnist was a middle-aged man who had been a reporter for a couple of decades. Every city paper had a columnist who used to cover city hall, until he got bumped up to writing polemics about the people in city hall. That was his expertise.

Even the TV people had been in the business for a long time. Eleanor Clift would argue with Pat Buchanan about politics. Both had served as reporters covering campaigns, until they got columns. Their TV persona was as a columnist with expertise covering politics as a reporter for decades. They would salt their opinions with references to events they covered. That was their basis of authority. Their expertise was from long experience reporting on politics at all levels. They were professional reporters.

Whatever one wants to say for the old model of the journalism career, there was a winnowing process to filter out the extremely stupid and dishonest. The Der Spiegel scandal is mostly due to hiring a charismatic greenhorn into a prominent position, without having put him through an apprenticeship. Odds are, the people who hired him had never been local reporters or had to edit copy for a small publication. Like Claas Relotius, they popped out of good schools and the right families into elite media.

This is, of course, the problem faced by all media now. For example, this post in The Atlantic is supposed to be expert speculation about the Treasury Secretary’s maneuverings in response to the bear market. The Atlantic is a prestige publication of the ruling class that is supposed to provide informed opinion and commentary. The post, however, does not rise to the level of daydreaming. Like everything you see in the prestige media these days, it is pointless drivel written by an airhead.

The authoress is someone named Annie Lowrey. A quick search reveals she reports on politics and economic policy for The Atlantic magazine. She also went to Harvard. More important, she is married to Ezra Klein. He went to UCLA. Nepotism is nothing new in the media, but shouldn’t she be covering something for which she has some qualifications, like the Westminster Dog Show? You don’t have to know anything to report about a dog show. She just has to like dogs and being around gay men.

Of course, it raises an obvious question, how in the hell are these people getting into Harvard? It’s not hard to see why the Asians are angry about admissions. They may lack social skills, but they can do math. Ezra Klein appears to have no useful skills. If he is, as they claim, a top-1% intellect, he has yet to display a hint of it in his career as a mover and shaker in the media. His career, according to his bio, is devoid of anything that would prepare one for having an opinion anyone should consider.

It’s not just that these two have zero useful experience. It’s also that they raced ahead to take up senior positions, decades before it was normal. In the old system, Ezra Klein would have just landed a job with a major daily, covering politics. In a couple of decades, he could expect to get his own column, where he could opine about the people he covered for decades. In other words, the major media is now populated with people who know nothing useful and have not had the time to observe people who actually know things.

This is a familiar rant, of course, but the puzzle is how the mass media has evolved into a weird playground for the stupid children of rich people. One clue is the guy who runs The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg. He is a serious guy who used to take pleasure in torturing Palestinians on behalf of his people. No kidding. His vice, however, is he likes to be surrounded by shiksas and toadies, so The Atlantic is now festooned with silly girls from good schools and young men fond of hearing Goldberg’s IDF stories.

What seems to be happening is the modern mass media selects for the ability to ingratiate oneself with the powerful. Ezra Klein has a reputation for being a world-class rumpswab, but also a ruthless courtier, who would stab his mother in the neck to gain favor with the boss.  That’s how he rose so quickly in the Washington media ranks and why he is now installed in a seven figure job at a media outlet with no customers. His wife knows how to play on her boss’s vanity and inclinations.

The old joke about the new economy is you can’t have society based on everyone selling each other insurance. The modern mass media is trying to build a business model around people who wash each other’s balls. A media ball washer writes a column and the other ball washers tweet about it. The same is true when one of them writes a book. The ball washers slobber all over it, claiming it is the greatest book since the Bible. It’s no wonder that the rest of us are slowly tuning out or turning to alternative media.

Gefälschte Nachrichten

Last week, the German publication Der Spiegel was forced to fire its star performer, when it was revealed he was a fabulist. Claas Relotius had written for the publication for close to a decade. He had been handed several awards by other media organs. His exposure as a serial fabricator was the result of his piece on the small town of Fergus Falls Minnesota, after the 2016 election. The thrust of his story was that rural America voted for Trump, because it is full of xenophobic weirdos and economic losers.

His mistake was to pick on a small town in the age of the internet. The yokels were able to look up the article and compare his version of reality with their own. More important, they could go to a popular platform and post their reactions to his article, so the world could then compare his work to reality. Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, who live in Fergus Falls, posted their analysis of the article on Medium. Eventually, it took over a year, Der Spiegel was forced to address the issue publicly.

In Germany, this is quite a scandal in media circles, because Der Spiegel is like their version of New York Times. That is, it positions itself as the official arbiter of truth, with regards to public morality. They not only decide what is true, they decide which truths can be said. Worse yet for them, they have been bragging about their fact checking for a long time. As a result of this tent pole toppling over, the German media is scrambling to convince everyone that it is an isolated incident, not a system failure.

The amusing bit is the German media is rushing around looking puzzled, as to how the vaunted fact checking system could have failed. After all, the best people are in control of the media. How could the best people have made such basic errors? As is the case in America, whenever these things happen, the media hand-wringing is just a dodge. What really concerns them is how easy it was for two bumpkins from dirt country to sluice out the facts from the fiction in this particular article.

That’s always the thing with these scandals. The media big shots always come off as if they have been insulted about their shenanigans being revealed. In this case, the other major media outfits are rallying to defend Der Spiegel. In the dreaded private sector, competitors are always quick to take advantage of the mistakes of a competitor. In the main stream media, the opposite is always true. They circle the wagons and begin lecturing the hoi polloi about the dangers of questioning the media.

That is the real cause of these scandals. For a long time, the mass media in the West has been a mono-culture. You can’t have a career in the media if you don’t hold all the right opinions. To call the media an echo chamber for the left is to understate the problem. The better analogy is a school of fish. Each individual just reacts to those around him, giving the effect of the school having agency as a whole. What looks like collusion is just the result of a uniformity of mind, experience and social class.

That’s why no one at Der Spiegel, or anywhere else in the German media, noticed the fraudulence of Claas Relotius. He was writing the things his coevals and superiors said at luncheons, cocktail parties and in the office. His story about slack-jawed yokels in the American heartland ticked all the boxes popular with the left-wing cultural outlook. He was not sent there to report on the place. He was sent there to confirm what his employers already knew about Middle American and Trump voters.

This is why Western media is something worse than propaganda. The person hired by the state or hired by the corporate marketing department has self-awareness. They know their job is to polish the apple of their superiors. The tricks they employ to do that are done with a knowledge and forethought. The guy telling the public that his employer, the pesticide company, is deeply concerned about the environment does so knowing full well that no one believes him, including his family.

The media is a different thing. They really believe their own nonsense. They think they are part of a special class of human, a priestly class that not only reports facts to the public, but provides moral instruction. The mass media is so intoxicated by their own self-righteousness, they lack the ability to question their own actions. When Claas Relotius came back from the bush, reporting exactly what his bosses knew was the case, they had no reason to question it. It was too good to check.