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CSotD: Exeunt, laughing

Starting off today with John Aucther, both to pursue his point and to express how tiring it is to monitor social media these days.

He’s right about the foolishness of trying to gather everything under the umbrella of “media” in any meaningful way.

It’s ironic … or maybe just stupid … to hear people who are fans of Fox News and talk radio complain about “the media” or, more absurdly, “the mainstream media,” as if Fox were some tiny, underfunded, undiscovered outlet.

They insist that they are the Silent Majority and brag of Fox ratings, but then turn around and play the oppressed minority, downtrodden by “the mainstream media.”

They apparently believe George Soros is silently behind it all, pulling strings, but that Rupert Murdoch simply owns his companies and exerts no influence on them.

A combination of paranoia and gullibility that could not exist without each other.

 

Charles MacKay wrote the classic on all this, “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” which (A) is available free and is fine reading and (B) provides a worthy refutation to the concept of the wise, all-knowing “hive mind.”

Having been written in 1841, there’s all sorts of more recent nonsense that MacKay didn’t record, and it should be noted that he’s a little gullible himself here and there: The most famous section of the book, on Holland’s Tulipomania, is wildly entertaining but historically suspect, not that it didn’t happen but that it lacked the scope MacKay attributes to it.

Machs nix. We have done some stupid things in the past, some more significant than others.

And we surely haven’t stopped.

Hoarding toilet paper is foolish but essentially harmless. Tanking the stock market will ruin a few people in and of itself and will also set many others back because of its impact on the overall economy.

Plus there’s this: MacKay goes on about the foolishness of the Crusades, but Pope Urban II didn’t possess atomic weapons.

And one should never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones have been guilty of deliberate lies, but at least Fox is beginning to come around, not only acknowledging the reality of the pandemic but calling upon the inside traders to resign.

So Dear Leader has turned his affection to OAN, a network of gobsmacking dishonesty that won’t ask him “nasty” questions like how he might comfort a frightened public.

But deliberate lies are not the whole story, and perhaps not the worst part of it.

When newspapers were a major slice of the media pie, they were fully staffed such that reporters specialized in specific topics and sectors. The more you cut staff, the less expertise you have.

Hemingway famously said “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

But Hemingway wrote for newspapers a century ago. Bullshit detectors are no longer standard issue.

There was a case back in the early days of the ACA in which a young reporter with no expertise in either business or health care was assigned to find out how people were adjusting to this new system. She put out a public call for people to interview and, unbeknownst to her or her editors, Tea Party activists stepped up to provide their alleged experiences.

The result was a story reporting universal increases in premiums and great dissatisfaction with the new law.

That was several years ago, and newspaper staffs have been cut far more since then, the point being that it really doesn’t matter if “the media” is telling intentional lies or simply passing along undetected bullshit.

 

Meanwhile, Michael de Adder points out that, in the eyes of Dear Leader, the crisis is not a threat to the health and safety of its victims but to his own ego.

This is why, asked for words to comfort a frightened public, he interprets the question as a personal insult rather than an opportunity to say something helpful and inspiring.

And it’s not simply that he has no capacity for empathy.

It’s also that he not only ignores, or is unable to comprehend, the information provided by his staff but passes along nonsensical pseudoscience that his own experts then have to correct.

 

It does not help that he is aided and abetted by legislators so wrapped up in their own self-interest that conservative cartoonists like Gary Varvel are joining Fox commentators in condemning their rampant, blatant dishonesty.

That is, it doesn’t help him.

The pushback against them might save us.

 

Then again, it might not. Ann Telnaes notes that the same Sharpie used to alter the course of a hurricane is set to change the course of the Constitution, according to Trump’s attorney general and a book written even before the impeachment non-trial.

 

Of course, scribbling on a weather map did not cause the hurricane to change course, any more than King Cnut was able to forbid the tides to rise, as seen in this Dave Brown cartoon.

Note that this is Boris Johnson, not Donald Trump, but one ridiculous head of hair is pretty much like another.

Note also that, as Brown himself acknowledged in posting the cartoon,

Cnut was actually showing his flatterers that he couldn’t control the waves, but as we all know history repeats itself as farce!

It makes me wonder if there is such a thing as a “tragic farce,” because, if so, those who live in places ruled over by silly men with silly haircuts and silly policies are apt to die laughing.

 

Community Comments

#1 Sean Martin
March/22/2020
@ 6:29 am

They sent Martha Stewart to the Big House for this. I wonder who’s gonna go out there and bell the cat on these four?

#2 Charles Bosse
March/23/2020
@ 9:45 pm

I have to say that I subscribe to the “things may not be great, but they weren’t as good as we remember them either” philosophy of political observation (and life observation). Even though national leadership is at the worst it’s been in most of our lifetimes, local leadership has stepped up in many places, and we are reaping the benefits of a society and, broadly, a government that takes science seriously and funds its progress, and then, at least at some levels makes calls based on the advice of experts (who are also human and can get it wrong too but at least understand the stakes and impact generally better). Looking out to the rest of the world, it’s easy to see where our leadership has faltered, but also easy to see where our country could go if we took the grim path of totalitarianism, and just how much our system isn’t a failure.

In contrast, it’s easy to point at “the media” and single out “the press” as being worse than it used to be, but the reason I don’t subscribe to local papers as a millennial is because I clearly remember that, growing up, our local paper had a subtle but clear political bent, which came out in the stories that headlined, the language used, and the opinion pieces that they ran (because “opinion” isn’t just some new thing in the news media). I had no intention of supporting an organization that made subtle but consistent digs at things I knew (and still believe) to be right. It didn’t matter that they were “the newspaper of record”. I was much happier reading the independent rag that wore it’s bias on it’s sleeves but occasionally dug deep enough to find something genuinely new and not copypasta from other national news orgs without a second look at the sources.

We know for sure now that many newspapers “of record” are run by Murdock or Sinclair, both actively making executive decisions on what goes in the paper and how, so that stories may be technically true but full of dog whistles and cherry picked to fit a narrative, but didn’t just happen. And even when newspapers work hard to remain independent and be thorough in their reporting, we see giants like the NYT and WaPo get things dreadfully wrong – and I don’t mean the wrong spin, but rather the wrong information in topics like medicine and science where there are generally accepted right answers and are absolutely protocols for weeding out bull.

Pretty soon, it starts to feel like the only people digging deep and checking sources are freaking comedians. Sorry, this brings me close to hysterics. John Oliver, who is decidedly opinion, should not be regularly presenting more cogent stories than MSNBC or CBS. But then, newspapers have never been above the fray. While the existence of regularly produced and cogent opinion shows just how far Fox News has fallen off the wagon, it’s also a little dishonest to morn the death of a free and independent press. Good, well researched stories do exist, but we certainly have to check and make sure our sources are honest about their sources, and realize when we are getting taken for loop by language or by something that is only true until you include the omissions. We are lucky to live in a world where we can read three different stories on the same event(s) and put together a scene for ourselves but also cursed that with so much information available, we don’t have a good processing for what of that information is doing its hardest to be honest and what information is lazily misleading or intentionally misguided. And if we have a life, it’s pretty darn hard to spend that time too.

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