Review – The Bully Pulpit

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism

by Doris Kearns Goodwin, published 2013

I picked up this title for two reasons. The first reason was to try to explore the phenomenon of “fake news” and the mainstream media’s war on Donald Trump’s presidency (and vice versa), to better understand the modern concept of the official press as an important check on government/regime power. The second reason was because at (now) 2,024 reviews on Amazon with an average 4.5-stars, this book seemed to promise it’d be a great, and long at 700+ pages of narrative text, story and I was looking for a great story, something that, whatever I thought of the point being argued, at least proved to be interesting and artfully constructed.

On the second point, I find myself frustrated. The research that went into this book is clearly exhaustive– the author speaks almost as much through verbatim quotes from primary source documents of the period (journal entries, private correspondence, public speeches, newspaper articles and editorials, memoirs, etc.) as she does in her own voice. This lends itself to creepy quirks of the book, such as the preponderance of quotes in which Theodore Roosevelt is found explaining himself in confidence via correspondence with Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a character whose relationship with Roosevelt is never formally introduced or explained! It kind of makes Teddy seem like a tool of some higher, shadowy powers. Why was he constantly justifying himself to another politician when the author never bothered to tell us when and how they met?

But this doesn’t seem to make for a great story. The narrative is rather breathless and sycophantic in tone. Teddy, a progressive openly-hidden amongst Republican ranks, is one of the good guys, he never gives up and, progressivism being the inevitable enlightened state of the universe toward which historical events are constantly moving us all, he of course never meets any real resistance along the way and always wins in the end. And this is a good thing. We never see the author questioning him, catching him in contradictions (though there are many for the alert reader!) or asking how it is that this One, Good Man managed to succeed in a wholly corrupt system and reform it despite the various Interests who had so much at stake in stopping him.

For a critic of progressivism, there is no profundity to consider; for the advocate, no value in confirming what is already known. The story is boring.

As for the topic of “fake news” and watchdog journalism, that must’ve developed at some other time period. We learn again and again of how Roosevelt took various progressive journalists of the era into his confidence and made friends of them, and them of him, with many ebullient feelings being shared all around. We learn of his unique talent for cultivating relationships with these journalists who then heralded him and his policies for public consumption, and we also come to understand the important value this access represented to people who essentially are merchants of information those with access frequently come by. In some scenes, we see them conspiring so closely that it almost seems that the journalists are formulating policy, and the politician is writing the story.

In other words, we see a symbiotic relationship that serves power. Where’s the watchdog here?

One thing I wondered as I read this book was, “Was progressivism truly inevitable?” It’s hard to see how it could’ve been stopped, or what would’ve existed that was much different from it if it had been. Roosevelt’s insidious support for what every critic at the time could quite obviously see was socialism, from within the Republican party, which according to repeated insistence from the text had a stranglehold over the entire government, calls to mind the cliche, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” It seems that there was a competitive advantage in politics in moving further and further to the left, no matter what party you came from, and the investigative journalists of the era (such as the evil Lincoln Steffens, who spent many years becoming “educated” in Europe about Marxism on his businessman father’s nickel) were only too happy to assist in readying the public for this ideological assault. When you read the accounts of the period of union workers intimidating “scab” worker families (women and kids), beating strike-breaking workers and even dynamiting non-union workers in public places, it kind of sounds like terrorism, something that seems like it would be a hard sell to good-hearted middle class Americans.

Yet, that is the side of history that won, and guys like Roosevelt and the investigative journalists helped make it happen.

It seems like it’s worth not forgetting that when listening to the media today tell us the important role it plays in preventing democracy from dying in darkness while it does the bidding of the Deep State.

Advertisements

Blast From The Past: Mike Cernovich’s “Epistemological” Problems With 60 Minutes

This is from 2008, from the now defunct “Mencius Moldbug” blog:

In 1933, public opinion could still be positively impressed by group calisthenics displaying the face of the Leader, eagles shooting lightning bolts, etc, etc. By today’s standards, the public of 1933 (both German and American) was a seven-year-old boy. Today’s public is more of a thirteen-year-old girl (a smart, plucky, well-meaning girl), and guiding it demands a very different tone.

You are not a thirteen-year-old girl. So how did you fall for this bizarre circus? How can any mature, intelligent, and educated person put their faith in this gigantic festival of phoniness?

Think about it. You read the New York Times, or similar, on a regular basis. It tells you this, it tells you that, it reports that “scientists say” X or Y or Z. And there is always a name at the top of the article. It might be “Michael Luo” or “Celia Dugger” or “Heather Timmons” or “Marc Lacey” or… the list, is, of course, endless.

Do you know Michael or Celia or Heather or Marc? Are they your personal friends? How do you know that they aren’t pulling your chain? How do you know that the impression you get from reading their stories is the same impression that you would have if you, personally, saw everything that Michael or Celia or Heather or Marc saw? Why in God’s green earth do you see their “stories” as anything but an attempt to “manipulate procedural outcomes” by guiding you, dear citizen, to interpret the world in a certain way and deliver your vote accordingly?

The answer is that you do not trust them, personally. Bylines are not there for you. They are there for the journalists themselves. If the Times, like the Economist, lost its bylines and attributed all its stories to “a New York Times reporter,” your faith would not change one iota. You trust Michael and Celia and Heather and Marc, in other words, because they are speaking (quite literally) ex cathedra.

So you trust the institution, not the people. Very well. Let’s repeat the question: what is it about the New York Times that you find trustworthy? The old blackletter logo? The motto? Suppose that instead of being “reporters” of “the New York Times,” Michael and Celia and Heather and Marc were “cardinals” of “the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?” Would this render them more credible, less credible, or about as credible? Suppose, instead, they were “professors” at “Stanford University?” Would this increase or decrease your trust?

For a hardened denialist such as myself, who has completely lost his faith in all these institutions, attempting to understand the world through the reports and analysis produced by the Cathedral is like trying to watch a circus through the camera on a cell phone duct-taped to the elephant’s trunk. It can be done, but it helps to have plenty of external perspective.

And for anyone starting from a position of absolute faith in the Cathedral, there is simply no other source of information against which to test it. You are certainly not going to discredit the Times or Stanford by reading the Times or going to Stanford, any more than you will learn about the historical Jesus by attending a Latin Mass.

News Media Can Not Be Objective

A friend in the financial industry sent over an article that began,

Hedge funds run by women have outperformed a broad benchmark of alternative asset managers over the past five years, raising fresh questions about why there are so few female portfolio managers.

This is a great example of the “fake news” phenomenon and will serve to illustrate why news media is not and can not be objective in its presentation of facts.

First, news gathering and publishing is part of the discipline of history– it deals primarily with events and information that have already taken place, even while commenting on or attempting to predict events yet to happen. When you open up a newspaper, you are reading articles about things that happened in the past, albeit the recent past. The only difference between what you read in a history book and what you read in a newspaper is how much time has passed between your present reality and the events portrayed in the book or article. In a news article, that time period may be hours, days, weeks or even a few years; in a history book, it may be decades, is often centuries and is sometimes millennia.

Second, as a specimen of history, news gathering and publishing suffers from the same philosophical problem that history in general does, namely, developing a criterion for selecting meaningful facts and data to tell a particular story from the essentially infinite quantity of such facts and figures available. To write history, you first need a person (the author) who has a set of values or curiosity that dictate his desire to explore a particular historical topic. Once he has selected a topic, he has to come up with a theory about the topic and then use the theory to select from and interpret the available data to tell a story about the topic. The news journalist works the same way– start with a person, the journalist (or their editor, advertiser, owner or other primary influencer) who uses their values and judgment to determine what stories need to be told, then, using pre-existing theories of how the world works, select and interpret relevant data to tell the story that needs to be told.

History does not write itself, and neither does the news. Historians write history, journalists write the news, and some innate values and beliefs are necessary in each to cause sufficient motivation to inspire the act of writing and publishing in the first place. Given the motivation, pre-existing logical theories of cause and effect are necessary to determine which facts and data belong to the story and which do not and how they are relevant. At no point in this process up to this point, or after it, is any “objectivity” involved.

Returning now to the example of the story my financial friend shared with me, what can we make of it? A few questions and observations come to mind, using the framework above:

  • Why (what theory/value) is the proportion of female versus male money managers a story that needs to be told?
  • Why was a five year period of data used for observing the phenomenon of relative outperformance?
  • How did the female active managers perform against a genderless, passive index strategy?
  • Were any male active managers able to outperform the broad benchmark used? Were they able to beat the female managers’ performance?
  • Do women want to run hedge funds?
  • Is there is a systemic reason for female fund managers outperforming a benchmark that is persistent and not attributable to luck?

Of course, none of these are addressed in this news story. That is because the job of interpreting the news falls on the consumer of the news, not the news itself– for the news to attempt to interpret itself would be a highly problematic and morally suspect enterprise!

Why Are Journalists Considered Credible And Authoritative Sources Of Information?

From the blog of Mencius Moldbug, Is journalism official?:

When I think back to when I thought I was getting an accurate history of reality from the Times, I am full of amazement. I mean, when you read the Times, you are reading stories that were written by people. Their names are right there. “Steven Erlanger.” “Don Van Natta.” “Andrew Revkin.”

Do I know these people? Do I trust them? Do I have any reason to believe they are doing anything but feeding me a mile-long crap sausage? Why should I? Is it because they work for an organization called “The New York Times”? What do I know about this organization? How does it select its employees? How and why does it punish or reward them? Do I have any damned idea? If not, why do I trust its correct views on everything? Why not trust the Catholic Church instead? At least its officials make up cool names for themselves, like “Benedict XVI.” Imagine if all Times reporters had to choose a Pope name. Would this make them more, or less, credible?

You can see this quite clearly today when you look at journalists’ Twitter feeds. It is amazing what they put on these for the public to consume. More amazing still that they have any credibility left. Just try it yourself sometime. Read or watch something in the news, then look up the journalist’s Twitter feed and see if you consider what you just read/heard differently after the fact.

The Fed Grasps At Straws

Here is a really stupid headline and story summary from the WSJ, which I believe is worth saving for posterity as it is indicative of the times in so many ways:

Federal Officials Say No Thanks to Negative Rates
Fed officials don’t think negative rates are needed in the U.S. because the economy and job market are improving and they are hoping they will never have to use them in the future given their uncertainty about whether the policy works.

They claim they don’t “need” negative rates because things are improving, but they won’t raise rates, which is what typically happens when they’re done subsidizing with monetary policy.

But despite their present judgment, they’re simply “hoping” they wont have to use them in the future, which suggests they’re not confident about their present judgment.

Meanwhile, the reason they’re hoping they won’t have to use them is because they don’t know if they work. So, they’d be willing to try something that has some chance of making things worse, in order to see if it has a chance of making things better.

So this is the era we live in: the central bank refuses to return things to “normal” while insisting things are on the mend, is open to conducting monetary science experiments on the economy despite initial misgivings, and reporters write stories about this chicanery as if these are all serious and respectable ideas to entertain. Couldn’t a bunch of Fed chimpanzees at the trading consoles have a reasonably good chance at improving upon this model?

How “Rigged” Is The Major Media?

By way of the Articles of Style blog comes an anecdote on more media rigging, this time of a commercial nature:

The thing about magazines is that they are full of paid advertisements. Not just the pages and pages of “ads”, I mean the articles and editorials themselves. I have a colleague who works for a major magazine (both of which will remain nameless) who was in LA about a month ago for a celebrity interview in Hollywood. As we usually do, we had a long dinner and drinking session where we shared our thoughts and practices on all things regarding the business of editorial and publishing.

Over some fire grilled fish tacos he basically tells me that (at the major menswear magazine) they don’t begin a story until they have a paid sponsor. “We have a list of high-level editorial ideas, lined with fitting potential sponsors, and the sales team hits the phones to see who’s willing to pay the most for the product placement or mention. Once the money is there and we the product from the brand is confirmed…then we hire the stylist, model, writer, etc. to bring the story to life”.

This reminds me of a similar anecdote shared with me by a friend in the financial industry. He was explaining to me the relationship between PR firms and the financial news media. He explained that much of the “news” we consume in publications like the WSJ, NYT, etc., are actually drafted by PR firms who do the research and assemble the voices in the articles, most or all of whom are their paid clients. When the media need coverage of some event or recent development, they turn to the PR firms for ready-made stories complete with expert testimony strewn throughout. The media company will edit the article where necessary and then slap its journalist’s by-line on the article. Oftentimes, they don’t even edit the stories and publish them as provided.

The media outlets like this because they’re trying to reduce their costs and keep up with the 24-hour news cycle. The PR firms serve special, niche interests (their paid customers) and so can “be everywhere” news is happening, whereas it isn’t economically scalable to have paid journalists complete with intelligent source-networks all around the world where news might be happening. Meanwhile, the PR firms like this because it gets their clients exposure as an “expert” in a major public forum. Not only does it add credibility to a resume and generate search interest in the client mentioned, it could also subtly sway the agenda on the topic du jour which might be desirable for the client to have readers thinking a certain way.

If it really works the way it’s mentioned in the AoS blog post, and as my friend related to me (and I think it does), it puts the “news” in new light and certainly complicates the gatekeeper role of the media and the idea of an informed electorate. At least, it complicates it for statists who believe in this fantasy system and the way it supposedly functions. It doesn’t complicate anything for me.

What I Remember From Journalism Classes

One of the Trump mantras in the current US presidential election cycle is that the system is “rigged.” Part of what Trump includes in the rigging allegation is the behavior of the US media in being bitterly, but not openly, partisan. The reputation of the media in American political theory is that it is a non-governmental check on official political scheming which serves the vaunted public interest in educating Americans on fact and fraud alike. Through the media, the American people, especially as an electorate, can make an informed decision as they exercise their democratic muscle.

A problem with this theory is that the “gatekeeper” role for the media introduces the same risk of regulatory capture that faces an official government agency. If X is the watchdog of Y, then Y has an incentive to exercise influence on X, up to and including implicit or covert control of X, to ensure Y has the maximum opportunity to pursue its own interest without restraint. If journalists are the watchdog of politicians, or of government and the political process as a whole, than people interested in exercising power without restraint via the political process have a strong incentive to try to control journalists.

There’s plenty of evidence, scandal and recent revelations of such influence and control that has come to light recently, mostly via alternative media “institutions” such as bloggers and not-for-profits like WikiLeaks, such that anyone interested in evaluating claims of a “rigged” system can run a simple search and make up their own mind. I don’t really want to go there with this post. Instead, I want to share some brief reflections and anecdotes from my undergraduate education, which included substantial coursework in journalism.

When I went to college, I initially thought I wanted to be a professional journalist. I later came to the conclusion that the system I would be participating in was “rigged”, and that I couldn’t find any heroes to emulate and that it’d be very unlikely for me to profitably, and safely, practice the kind of truth-telling journalism I was interested in, so I decided to abandon that ambition after completing most of the coursework necessary (I did end up completing the degree). Part of my disillusionment came through my experience in my journalism classes.

The very first class I took was an “ethics of journalism” class, which explored this very issue of the role of journalists in a free society, and the special status as gatekeeper assigned to the profession in American political theory. Unfortunately, most of my classes were disrupted that semester because the graduate assistants in the journalism department were on strike and my professor decided not to hold our classes on campus to avoid crossing the picket lines, a decision she made out of perceived solidarity with their plight. On one occasion, class was cancelled entirely because she decided to participate in a protest. While I doubt all journalism graduate students are on strike all the time at all universities in the US, I also would imagine this experience was not entirely unique, and certainly the ethical or political predilections of my professor at the time were not unusual. If this is the mindset and behavior of people teaching introductory ethics courses to aspiring journalists, what do you think might be the impact on journalism as a system in this country?

Another class I remember taking was something like “topics in media criticism”. I think what I imagined the course would be was something like studying news reporting and investigative journalism pieces and looking at how members of the media critically covered certain issues and people, and also how they responded to criticism from those they targeted. Instead, we ended up writing essays about pop culture media through the lenses of things like Marxism, feminism and sexuality.

Things I found memorable and descriptive about the majority of my classmates: few, if any, were double majoring in or had pursued an independent course of study in economics, so they were unfamiliar with even the most watered-down official market-lite basic instruction on the topic, thus making them unfit to cover 95% of what is newsworthy; while they weren’t ascetics, they seemed to accept that they were unlikely to have lucrative careers and seemed suspicious of people who had higher income-earning potential than they; they were definitely not the sharpest, most ambitious students in the school and were closer to being art students than business school students if you could set those things up as two opposite characteristic poles; they were animated by “social justice” issues and assignments, rather than questioning their premises or the validity of that approach; for those who had double majors, they were typically in subjects such as political science, sociology, psychology and occasionally history (ie, philosophically wishy-washy, non-concrete and dominated by Marxist leftover academics); in physical appearance they were often sickly or weak looking, had more body piercings than average and were often disheveled looking, as if they didn’t much care about how they looked to other people; few if any came from true poverty backgrounds, and few came from any wealth, they all seemed “securely” lower-middle class in background.

Putting these three pieces together, a picture emerges. These journalism students were being instructed on their special ethical status and duties while learning from the example of a person whose behavior and loyalties were compromised; they were receiving explicit ideological instruction in their coursework under the guise of some kind of creative criticism curriculum; finally, their personal backgrounds, interest, capabilities and knowledge probably made them unsuitable, on average, for thinking very deeply about key “public interest” issues and their personal circumstances made it potentially easy to tempt or incentivize them in various ways.

Under conditions like these, is it difficult to imagine how journalism, as a profession, might cater to the kind of people who could willfully do the bidding of special interests in a “rigged” system and either not realize how they were being manipulated, or else be eager to take part in such capers?

Of course, it didn’t work on me, but then I decided not to become a journalist!