Against journalism: summary and conclusions

To summarize, journalism presents a dangerously distorted view of the world, because

  1. It reports only violations of social roles (e.g. bad fathers, bad priests, bad soldiers), rather than their essential nature (e.g. what it means to be a father, what is perfection and what is perversion) or their typical fulfillment.
  2. By emphasizing violations in social roles, it undermines the expectations attached to these roles, which impedes their ability to function.
  3. It discredits in the eyes of the public laws and customs that directly bring inconveniences while indirectly bringing vast benefits.
  4. It ignores the disciplines that provide true understanding of the world–statistics, history, sociology, etc–but rather forms general impressions of the world by extrapolating from sensational and often unrepresentative single events.
  5. It undermines all authority figures and all defenders of public morality by emphasizing their failings as “hypocrisy”.
  6. It discriminates in favor of revolutionaries and libertines by failing to draw attention to their evils.

Some say that journalism is a necessary evil, because it holds authority figures accountable and keeps them from preying on their subjects.  This claim is false because

  1. A hostile press forces authority figures to cover up misdeeds in their organizations in order to avoid devestating bad publicity.  This prevents them from being able to suppress corruption as straightforwardly as would otherwise be possible.
  2. A hostile press destroys the morale of an institution’s leadership class.  Without high expectations and positive role models, leaders lose much internal motivation.  Also, it becomes much more difficult to attract talended, energetic, and idealistic recruits into the leadership class, thus further eroding the institution’s quality of leadership.

Others admit the malignity of journalism’s influence, but think this to be contingent on its current practitioners:  if only journalists weren’t so liberal, or socialist, or anti-Catholic, or whatever, these negative effects of journalism would allegedly cease to exist.  This also is false.  The effects described above proceed from the very nature of journalism.  It would not help to have more scientists, philosophers, conservatives, or Christians in the newsroom.  The things these groups care about–statistical correlations, essential natures, the global function and context of a custom for a society, the manifestations of God in the world–are by construction not what newspapers report.  What newspapers report, what counts as news, are violations of social expectations, a thing that always erodes these expectations and thus serves anti-traditional ends.  Journalism is not a neutral force, a weapon that can be wielded equally well by conservatives or liberals.  It is inherently liberal.  We should thus not be surprised that more liberals are, and always will be, attracted to this unfortunate trade.  Conservatives see much less value in what newspapers report; to them it seems a very partial and superficial view of society.

So, the goal should not be to take over the newspapers; the goal should be to get people to stop reading them.  We need to make it socially costly to admit to reading a newspaper.  When a fellow at a party brings up an editorial he read in the New York Times, we should treat him as if he just said that he read something in a children’s comic book, a celebrity gossip magazine, or a pornographic magazine.  Referencing newspapers must come to be seen as a thing stupid people do.  We should reply to the newspaper reader, “Well, of course, I don’t keep track of that trash.  When I wanted to understand this issue, I read this new history of Afghanistan/read this article in the Journal of Social Psychology/looked at the primary sources/did an order of magnitude estimate based on…/etc.”  We have to get the word out that journalism doesn’t give you “the Truth”, and we should look on anyone who thinks otherwise with the same disdaining pity liberal academics have for people who think Fox News gives them “the Truth”.

I would be as horrified to find that a child of mine had taken to reading newspapers as I would be to find that he’d taken to reading pornography.  I suspect the former is the more deeply corrupting.

A Throne for Israel

Michael Wyshogrod has just cemented his position as my favorite Jewish theologian.  I loved his book The Body of Faith, which defended the illiberal aspects of Judaism (particularity and ritual sacrifice).  Now he’s called for monarchy in Israel.

Against journalism: the nominalist lens

Now we come to the deepest problem with journalism.

From time to time, I’ve been told that I “really should” read a newspaper like the New York Times so that I can “be informed”, “know what’s going on in the world”, etc.  It seems that many people regard newspapers as not only necessary but also sufficient for being properly informed.  No one has ever told me that to understand the world, I must have read the Koran, understand atmospheric physics, take a course in macroeconomics, or study history.  If something in these subjects is important, I suppose I should expect to hear about it from journalists, who will distill what I need to know.  Like physics and sociology, journalism presents a self-inclosed view of the world–because it seems to say something about everything, it is easy to imagine that journalism is the truth about everything.  Now, in the case of physics (and, to a much lesser degree, sociology), the insight we gain into the world by looking at it in this particular way is so vast as to make the danger of epistemic arrogance worth taking.  For journalism, the case is very different.

News distorts the world because it only concerns itself with individual cases and with direct causes.  The disciplines concerned with rigorously extracting general principles from compilations of individual cases–statistics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and philosophy–are outside the domain of journalism.  When a person forms his worldview, however, what he needs are general truths, not a collection of disjointed facts.  Newspapers should admit that they cannot provide any general truths, i.e. that they concern themselve entirely with ephemera.  The New York Times is really no different from a celebrity gossip magazine, except that the celebrities it follows are politicians.  But newspapers don’t admit this.  Instead, they have “editorials”, in which other journalists extract general truths from the daily headlines for us.  These editorialists, however, need have no special training in statistics, the scientific method, or the social sciences.  Even if they do have such training, they are not paid in their columns to use it.  One will never see an attempt at rigorous scientific analysis in an editorial.  Rather, editorialists just take the news story of the day which is most emotionally gripping, or the one that just happens to suit the writer’s own prejudices, and then they recklessly overgeneralize from that case.  For example, if page one presents a corporation being exposed for some financial malpractice, an editorialist might sight this as proof that capitalism is irredeemably corrupt.  The next day, the headline might reveal a case of egregious waste in a government program, and a libertarian editorialist will declare this proof that all public services should be privatized.  The issues raised in both cases are economical, and they can only be really addressed through the general science of economics:  analyzing incentives, constructing mathematical models, etc.  Exceptional individual cases, which tend to involve unrepresentative circumstances, are of very limited use in getting at the general truth.

This reckless extrapolation from particular cases would be bad enough if it just gave random answers.  In fact, it’s even worse, because it skews the conclusions one is likely to get in a particular, pernicious way.  It is the case with many social restrictions that they inconvenience or harm a few people directly while benefitting many people, but indirectly.  Newspapers are designed to register the first effect, but not the second.  For example, there used to be a strong stigma attached to fornication and illegitimacy.  This was certainly unpleasant for unwed mothers (and unwed fathers, when they were identified), although being fornicators, they deserved at least some of their shame.  For the bastards themselves, it was quite unfair.  This stigma had a powerful, positive effect on society, though.  Boys and girls knew there could be a real penalty in status for them if they failed to remain chaste until the wedding night.  A man who impregnated a woman and then ran away would have a strong extra reason to feel guilty.  Many couples were moved to continence before marriage and fidelity afterwards.  However, in almost no case was fear of the illigitimacy stigma the overriding conscious consideration.  When the stigma served its function well, it never got the credit it really deserved.  Couples did the right thing partially out of fear, and doing the right thing caused them to grow in virtue and love until the fear was unnecessary, and they forgot (as we always forget what we don’t want to remember) that the fear had ever been a factor at all.  So, when the news looks at this situation, what does it see?  “Poor woman and child looked down on by heartless society!”  What about the other side?  There will be no child to step forward and say “Fear of the social stigma against unmarried sex led my parents to marry, so I owe the stigma for the fact that I’m being raised by two parents!”  The stigma doesn’t work that directly.  (Nor would we want it to.)  Thus, the newspapers couldn’t see the value of the stigma at all.  Not surprisingly, the editorialists jumped in to declare the illigitimacy stigma to be “cruel”, “irrational”, “superstitious”, and “outmoded”.  So it fell, and now half of all children are bastards.

One could name all sorts of issues like this, where the victims of a law or custom are much clearer (but much less numerous) than the beneficiaries, or the ill effects are much more direct (but perhaps also smaller) than the good effects.  One well known example from urban economics is rent control.  Most economists, I believe, agree that rent control is a bad idea, because it just creates shortages.  Public perception, of course, goes the other way because of newspapers.  Journalists can point to particular people who can’t afford an apartment at the market price.  To think about how a price cap would affect the business decisions of landlords would require that one for a moment stop being a journalist and think like an economist.  Then there are the journalistic world’s favored solutions to all of Africa’s problems:  debt relief and condoms.  What they never consider, because they’re incapable of considering, is how these policies 1) affect incentives so as to encourage self-destructive behavior, and 2) affect the percieved meaning of loans and sex in was that encourage self-destructive behavior.  Not surprisingly, our “help” for Africa has been futile at best, and so it will remain as long as we see the world through the eyes of journalists rather than social scientists or philosophers.

Against journalism: how the press demoralizes society

Consider the following:

  1. A soldier bravely risks death in battle to defend his patria.
  2. A soldier is caught raping a civilian woman.

or

  1. A father works long hours to provide for his wife and children.
  2. A father is caught selling his daughters as prostitutes.

or

  1. An elderly couple is assulted by inner-city gang members
  2. An elderly couple is assulted by Franciscan Friars.

What do the 1’s have in common as opposed to the 2’s.  One correct answer is that the 1’s show behavior consistent with social expectations.  “Soldier” and “father” are respected social roles, and in the first two examples, someone is fulfilling those roles properly.  “Gang member” is a recognized but disapproved social role.  We expect gang members to do bad things, although we would prefer that no one took up this role, and we do what we can to stamp it out.  In the 2’s, a social role is being violated.

What else do the 1’s have in common as opposed to the 2’s?  How about this:  the 2’s are news, but the 1’s are not.  Nobody would ever write a story about the daily sacrifices parents make for their children.  It’s only news if they act against their role and abuse their children.  Similarly, the same mugging would be page 1 if the perpetrators are friars but page 10 if they’re lower-class minority youths with criminal backgrounds.  So we have the following definition of “news”

news = violation of social roles

newspaper = a compilation of social role violations

Now consider what a distorted view of the world one gets from newspapers.  You would get the impression that most parents are negligent or abusive, most soldiers are sadists, most friars are violent, and most gang members and drug addicts are innocent saints.  All of this is, of course, exactly backwards.  Having a distorted view of what the average father, priest, drug addict, or whatever is like is bad enough in itself, because it can lead us to make bad decisions.  “I’d better walk down this gang-infested inner city street so that I can avoid having to walk by the rectory!”  That’s not the worst of it, though.  Constant reading of newspapers causes a person to actually associate the vices opposed to a given social role with that social role itself, because that’s all that gets reported.  If the press digs up enough stories about cowardly soldiers and heroic deserters, people will start to associate “soldier” with “coward” and “deserter” with “hero”, even though these associations are exactly backwards.  This would lead people to despise the role of soldier itself.  This in turn will demoralize soldiers and make them cynical, so that in fact they do become less heroic.  Now, the news media is doing this to all of our social roles, so the entire society is being demoralized.

This has got to stop, so for heaven’s sake, put down that newspaper!

Against journalism: the downside of accountability

“Oh, but we need a free and adversarial press to keep people in authority honest.  Without someone watching them, they would abuse their position.”  Nobody seems to doubt this statement, but is it true?  Note that the claim “people are more likely to abuse power when they’re not monitored” is, by its very nature, unverifiable and therefore in a sense unscientific.  We can’t take two sets of authority figures, monitor only one of them, and then see which abused power more often.  We have to make inferences from what we know of human psychology.

Why is it that people with power generally don’t abuse it for selfish ends?  Apologists for journalism follow the “accountability paradigm”:  abuse is limited by the fear of exposure.  A more sophisticated version might admit that many people use power responsibly for other, more creditable, reasons.  However, some subset will be motivated only by the fear of accountability, and these the press can influence in a positive way.  What about the others, though, who use their power well?  What are they’re reasons?  If press campaigns undermine them, they may prove to be counterproductive overall.  For example, if negative press coverage instills fear in 10 basically bad officers but destroys the idealism of 90 basically good officers, the overall effect may be negative.

Many people in authority positions are impressed by the dignity of their office.  They see it as an enormous honor to which they must aspire to be worthy.  They look back to the deeds of exemplary past officeholders for inspiration.  What happens when a media campaign against a certain office destroys the dignity of that office, so that the office’s code of excellence is regarded as a joke and all officeholders are presumed by the public to be venal, lazy, and cruel?  Remember that accountability by journalism is a particular kind of correction–it is correction by public humiliation.  Any organization that gets serious journalistic oversight can expect to have its reputation in the dirt.

Do negative stereotypes and presumption of guilt encourage good behavior?  Sociologists have studied this question in the context of racial stereotyping.  While I think these studies tend to overstate the degree of race-based stereotyping in American schools and workplaces, there is widespread agreement on the effects of negative stereotypes.  They discourage good behavior; people tend to live down to them.  With no positive role models, minority youth drift into delinquency.  When people assume that you’re a crook, you’re much more likely to end up a crook.  Nor do negative stereotypes tend to prompt constructive self-criticism.  Rather, they make the stereotyped class hostile and defensive towards outsiders.

When journalists put the heat on a crooked politician or bishop or general, they will often make that individual watch out and behave better.  The cumulative effect of these sorts of exposes, however, is to demoralize the occupation as a whole.  These authority figures lose their sense of the dignity of their office (because it no longer has any) and the high responsibilities it entails; they see that they’re just public punching bags, and they become cynical.  Furthermore, fewer honest and motivated people will be attracted to the beleaguered profession, causing it to sink still lower.

So, does accountability by a hostile press improve the honesty of an organization overall?  The answer is less clear than it first appears.

This is how you criticize the health care bill

Regular readers will remember that I’ve been critical of some attacks on the recent health care legislation.  These attacks criticize the “dependency on the government” that will be supposedly fostered, while implicitly or explicitly promoting an ideal of independence (i.e. dependence on the impersonal market).  I said

Dependency is the most basic fact of human existence.  The independent man is a fantasy, an imaginary creature like the Tooth Fairy, the noble savage, the state of nature, and the social contract.  The project of conservatism is precisely this:  to moralize and dignify the dependence of man on his fellows.  Nor is dependence on the government an inherently bad thing.  We are supposed to depend on the government after all; that’s what it’s there for.  Conservatives only object to dependence on the government when it undermines other meaningful dependency relationships, e.g. dependence on one’s family or local community.

Now Anthony Esolen has, in the context of the health care bill, stated the argument against government overcentralization in terms that a conservative can whole-heartedly endorse.  Here’s an excerpt:

The Thomistic view of the polis underlies the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity, which asserts that communities closest to the issue at hand should be allowed the freedom to tackle it. That is not simply because they do a better job of it, as some conservatives insist. It is because the fullness of community life is essential to our being human. It is doubtful that the state, much less the federal government, is better at educating children than were the fully engaged American townsmen of old, who hired and fired their own teachers at will, and had a fairly clear idea of what their children ought to learn. But even if it could do the job well, its assumption of that role would take from the community one of the most important responsibilities it possesses. It would overstep its own zone of authority to usurp another. Supposing some state agency could, with wonderful efficiency, feed children and make them do their homework and put them to bed; still, its exercise of this role would rob from the people one of the great challenges and joys of life, the raising of children according to one’s own best lights.

Professor Esolen is one of my favorite traditionalist writers, and he states our fundamental positions well.  I’m still not sure how this applies to the issue at hand, namely health insurance, which is not a traditional function of the family, the Church, or the local community.

Against journalism: destroying trust

Consider the difference between accountability-by-government-regulation and accountability-by-press-defamation.  An example of the former is government regulations on businesses:  laws against false advertising, laws against contract violation, laws against iniquitous contract terms, etc.  Examples of the latter would be the media “supervision” of the Catholic Church and the U.S. military.  The main difference between the two is that government regulation is designed to encourage trust for the monitored institution, while adversarial journalism is designed to destroy trust for the monitored institution. 

Consider how business laws function.  When they’re functioning properly, people hardly think them necessary.  They just assume that their friendly neighborhood businessmen aren’t out to rip them off.  This is exactly how the government wants it to be, if it’s a good government.  Only an aspiring tyranny would want the people to fear and distrust each other and to look to the government as their sole protector.  What’s more,  in a good regulatory regime, fear of the law won’t be necessary to keep most  businessmen honest.  There will be a strong culture of honesty in the business profession that will motivate most of them.  Of course, the existence of such a culture is not a reason to get rid of the regulations, because the regulations–if they’re good ones–have been designed to promote and safeguard the good business culture.  Government regulators should want their influence to be largely invisible.

Suppose we used the adversarial media to regulate business instead.  Every time a businessman uses rigged scales or uses tricky language in a contract, the press raises a national cry.  It claims that there’s a “crisis” of crooked businessmen and fills peoples heads with fears about being cheated.  Journalists tout themselves as the champions of the people, without whom the consumers would all be fleeced.  The effects of this kind of regulation will be the opposite of those of benevolent government–collapsing trust rather than increasing trust.  People stop doing business with local merchants, the economy collapses, and everyone but the stupid, self-righteous newspapermen lose.  Is this what we want?