What’s wrong with being ruled by the New York Times?

In a democracy, ultimate power rests with those who dictate public opinion, that is with the press.  The existence of a centralized media complex for controlling public perception is a universal feature of a mature high-technology democracy.  Even if the office of opinion-controller is initially vacant, it will soon be filled, so great is the power that accrues to any corporation that advances toward such a role.  Even the 19th century setup of two rival press organs is unstable, because any small advantage can quickly amplify itself.  In the United States (and, by extension, those parts of the world under its dominion), this position of ultimate power belongs to the New York Times.

What’s wrong with being ruled by the New York Times?  As a conservative and an authoritarian, I shall not object to those aspects of the above description which will sound most sinister to an average reader.  I do not object to rule per se, nor that reporters and editorialists hold power without being chosen by their subjects.  The sovereign always exists; it is always ultimately unchecked; the grounds of rule are never a matter of free choice.  Nor do I object to the NYT telling people what to think for love of some specious ideal of people making up their minds “by themselves” without social assistance or pressure, as if such a thing has ever existed, or could ever exist, or would be desirable.  In an ideal reactionary state, the king would rule, and the Catholic Church would (in some matters) tell people what to think.

Conservatism is metaphysical politics, in that it refuses to build a political order out of mere neutral procedure, independent of the truths about God, morality, and human flourishing.  It is acceptable for us to say that rule by the NYT is unacceptable because the ideology taught by the NYT is false and immoral.  Nevertheless, in the case of rule by the press, the reactionary’s objection is to the procedure itself.  A clerical democracy, in which the episcopate took over the NYT, would have many of the same fundamental vices as the current system.  I suspect, what’s more, that the episcopate itself would soon take on the same vices as the current NYT, that rule by control of popular opinion is less like a neutral technology and more like the Ring of Power, which soon remakes any who wield it according to its own malevolent essence.

One strong objection to rule by the press is that it means power without responsibility.  The press does not officially rule, so it has no official responsibility for the outcomes of the policies it advocates.  Unofficial rule is irresponsible by definition.  Politicians have often been shamed for failed policies and lost wars, but when has a newspaperman ever lost status for having advocated a ruinous policy?  Even in the days of absolute monarchy, the idea of a power behind the throne was always a menacing one.  It could be assumed that the over-powerful minister or favorite mistress would pursue private interests rather than the common good.  Why expect anything different, when such persons aren’t even supposed to be responsible for the common good?  The consensus of mankind is for responsible government, even when accountability is only to God.

The reporter will reply, probably honestly, that he is only providing a service in giving his readers a picture of the world and telling them how to vote.  Providing information usually is regarded as a service.  I am a new homeowner and find there are a lot of things I don’t know about maintaining a house, buying appliances, etc.  Sometimes, I ask relatives, but more often I consult Google.  Certainly, Google can be biased, directing me toward certain vendors rather than others, but overall our intuition is that by directing me to practical information I want Google is empowering me, whereas the NYT telling me what to think about politics is me empowering the NYT.  There are good reasons for this impression.  With Google, I determine the question for the search.  With press propaganda, both question and answer are supplied to me.  For example, I never got to decide that the one question of education policy debate is how to close the gap between white and black performance.  I’m a little bothered by the way global warming has eclipsed all the other legitimate concerns of the environmentalist movement.  It angers me that debates over how to eliminate “sexism” and “homophobia” consider liberal beliefs on sex roles to be unquestionable from the start.  As I said, having been given both the questions to be concerned with and the answers to those questions, I am clearly the passive partner.  This isn’t necessarily bad, though.  We reactionaries don’t share the modern world’s excessive fear and envy of power.

Being given information can be a good thing, but this must be evaluated in light of a robust understanding of human flourishing.  Does reading the New York Times truly promote human excellence?  There are several ways providing information can help a man achieve his telos.  It can promote his salvation.  It can help give him mastery of his environment (like the youtube video I found on how to change my furnace filter).  It can promote the good of contemplation, helping him to more fully appreciate the world around him (as I hope to do in my introductory astronomy classes).  Lastly, in these and other cases in which knowledge is good for us, it provides a discipline to to the mind.  There is a reason real bodies of knowledge are called “disciplines”.  Learning algebra, Newtonian physics, computer programming, Catholic theology, or even Marxist dialectics is work.  One must conform one’s mind to a particular way of thinking; one must internalize the rules.  They are public and objective, in that others more deeply initiated into the discipline can discern whether one is applying it correctly, and correct reasoning leaves no trace of the reasoner’s personality.  One instinctively has respect for other accomplished practitioners of one’s discipline, even if one disagrees with them on some disputed problems.  In one sense, a discipline is the height of impersonality, in another of intellectual community.

Democracy under press rule (that is, democracy in its mature form) seems perversely designed to provide information (or misinformation) in ways that frustrate these virtues.  By teaching hatred of Christianity (as they all do), it impedes personal salvation.  Simply by drawing so much of our attention to itself, it atrophies local organization where independence and mastery of one’s environment can really flourish.  Like most people, I know much more about national and global affairs than about the issues in my own city which I might have directly affected.  The media is centralized (as will always be the case in a mature democracy), so we are forced to “think globally”, the realm in which we are completely passive.  By teaching a reductive ideology, the press reduces our appreciation for the world around us.  The attitudes it instills–incuriosity (because as a member of the Enlightened, what could one have to learn from anyone else?) and smug self-satisfaction–remove the desire to learn.  Press-induced thinking is undisciplined in every way.  There is no work to master a technique of thought; just sign on to the newspapermen’s beliefs, and one effortlessly becomes one of the Enlightened.  Logical consistency is not required, and a clear understanding of alternate positions is actively discouraged; all that matters is affirming the pre-approved correct position.  Or, more accurately, the correct attitude, the correct animus.  So far from personality being effaced by precise thought, one displays one’s superiority by outlandish accusations against the white-cis-hetero-patriarchy, that dastardly specter whose members are morons accomplishing a sinister conspiracy against the rest of humanity, utterly selfish brutes who don’t understand their own self-interest, materialistic boors in the grip of religious fanaticism, losers living in their moms’ basements who bestride the world with their privilege, defenders of an all-powerful establishment who must be exposed so they can lose their jobs.  The worldview of the press inculcates stupidity not because it is false, but because it is so crude and one-sided that it couldn’t even possibly be true.  Is it really possible that all the virtues are on one side, that everything is a matter of absolute good versus absolute evil, never a matter of balancing competing interests?  The ideal citizen would never think to wonder.