Sunday, July 30, 2017

Random thoughts

It has been striking to me, as I have been clearing out my archives, how different the reporting of mainstream journalists is now from what it was just thirty years ago. Comparing articles from the New York Times and Washington Post in 1985 and 2000 to 2017, there is quite a shift from news reporting to opinion and from multiple perspectives to a purposeful single perspective. Shifting through all the articles set me on a train of thought.

I am perplexed by the continuing level of hostility on the part of the mainstream media towards the new administration. In the first couple of weeks, I explained it away as a product of their disappointment at the election of a Republican administration given that the MSM is overwhelmingly Democrat. As the errant reporting continued and escalated into increasingly improbable accusations, I added other rationales to explain the behavior.
Insider versus outsider - Perhaps simply the fact that Trump was an outsider to politics was sufficient explanation. Yes, the MSM knew Trump as a celebrity but he was an outsider to politics and therefore there might be some sort of resentment from a social dynamic. This line of thought was leant credence by the MSM treatment of Bernie Sanders, another individual with whom they were familiar but who was an outsider to the Democratic establishment. The MSM treated him abysmally for political purposes, not in a dissimilar fashion as their treatment of Trump.

Class - Yes, Trump is wealthy and travels in the right circles but he is not an effete sophisticate and appears not to be invested in fads and concerns of the "right set." You cannot read some of the MSM analyses of "what went wrong" without picking up a strong sense of their revulsion at what they see as his crudity, gaucheness and vulgarianism. See for example this interview between two New York journalists and their frequent flinching at his mannerisms; A Conversation with Maggie Haberman, Trump’s Favorite Foe by David Remnick. You can almost hear the pearls being clutched and I wouldn't be surprised if, in flinching, they might have knocked over their bone china tea cups. Related to Class:

New York tribalism - I am not versed in the arcana of the New York City boroughs but in a good number of articles I have read, there seems a strong undercurrent of disdain for Trump as a man from Queens. It almost seems like a Manhattan versus Queens prejudice is in play.

Postmodernism - All our Ivy Leagues have become infected in the past couple of decades by the noxious poison of postmodern critical theory, especially the humanities and within humanities, especially communications and journalism departments. While postmodern critical theory also substantially infects the Democratic Party in its urban centers (not so much in the flyover states and the rural traditional county Democratic chapters), I wonder if the MSM journalists don't oppose Trump more for unconscious ideological reasons than necessarily partisan reasons. That is a pretty thin hair to split, but I suspect that there is something to it.
Those were my next tier suppositions for what was behind the rabid anti-Trump MSM dynamic. But the MSM opposition continued to double down on increasingly unrealistic reports and incidents. Breathlessly reported "treason" with absolutely no basis in reality. The most outlandish claims being made with no named sources or independent evidence.

From an outsider's perspective, this looks like reckless professional malpractice. What was driving them to this dangerous position? Maybe it is just some combination of the above reasons, but that seems insufficient motive. What other explanations might be reasonable to consider? In no particular order, here are the further hypotheses. None or all of these might be in play, and certainly there must be some hierarchy of which of these explanations is most relevant, but I have no idea what that hierarchy might be.
Intra-media sector competition - All the main cable and broadcast news as well as the LA Times, New York Times, and Washington Post are based in three staunchly Democrat cities. The news industry is struggling financially owing to advertising moving from TV and newspapers to the internet and from new competition on the internet from both alternate news sources and entertainment. The traditional media was financially lucrative for several decades owing to regulation and officially sanctioned local monopolies. With internet competition they are being forced to shed staff, hire younger cheaper reporters and cut costs (losing editorial quality). While trying to be national news sources, they also have to cater to their local customer base which is staunchly on the extreme side of the Democratic Party. They have to serve the extreme side of the party, with fewer resources, and with greater alternate competition. That means they have to outdo one another. I wonder if the extreme gullibility of some of the reporting is not a function of eight (ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, CNN, NYT, LAT, WP) competitors vying for a narrow market (the postmodernist critical theory Democrat).

Declining journalistic capability - Related to the above. As the MSM shed reporters and editors and fired older, more expensive reporters, I suspect that the average age of journalists is falling which in turn has three implications. The younger journalists are less experienced, less knowledgeable and more indoctrinated with the postmodern critical theory mindset. This was substantially the observation of Ben Rhodes when explaining why it was so easy for the Obama administration to manipulate the news ("They literally know nothing".)

Threats to sinecures and social status - Since 1992, journalists have had a free-floating ecosystem in which to flourish. The White House has been under Democrats for sixteen of those 25 years and fully anticipated that there would be another eight years. Journalists in that time frame, a full generation, could move between reporting, government jobs, academia and communication departments of corporations with ease. I wonder whether the Trump election victory, in combination with the decimation of the Democratic Party at both the federal and state level during the last administration, doesn't represent a perceived choking off of that secure safety net. Nothing sparks opposition so much as threats to income and prestige.

Democratic Tribalism - Republicans, in recent decades, have always been multi-factional with strong intra-party competition between social conservatives, Burkean conservatives, religious conservatives, libertarians, fiscal conservatives, etc. Will Roger's old line, "I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat" has in recent decades seemed more descriptive of the Republican party. Sure, there were factions of a sort within the Democrats (the Obama network, the Clinton network, the Congressional Democratic Caucus) but they were much of a muchness ideologically and in terms of policies. They competed with one another for influence and money and not so much about policy direction. At the federal level, the Clintons and Obama are sidelined and there isn't a coherent voice from the DNC or the Congressional Democratic Caucus and the State Democrats are in disarray. Journalists affiliated with the Democrats have gone from an understandable terrain of power and influence to a new and unknown environment. I wonder if this disorientation is not an element in their "resistance" reporting.

White House Career Diversity - Under Obama only 8% of his appointees had experience outside of government, (at least in his first term, I haven't seen analysis for the full two terms but I suspect it remained about the same.) Insider reporters were dealing with a homogenous insider crowd of people who were entirely government/political. Granting that there are major cultural differences between government and the private sector (and of course within different industries in the private sector), journalists are having to deal with people with quite different backgrounds from those with whom they were accustomed to dealing. People with greater diversity of experience and mindset. The new administration is much more diverse than the old. I wonder if this increased diversity is not perhaps disorienting to younger journalists who were accustomed to dealing with officials who all shared a common mindset.

Competence Gap - Somewhat related to the diversity referred to above. When you staff your government with politicians and bureaucrats, it is very hard to gauge their competence and achievement levels. Their status comes from their position, not their achievements. I suspect, under these conditions, it is easy for journalists to see themselves as peers with the politicians/bureaucrats. They are equally able to throw in some intellectual allusions, deal in abstracts, and indulge in college dorm room bull sessions.

Not so for those from the private sector and the military. Sure, they have credentials. But they advance to their positions based on experience and achievement. The achievement and experience gap between any private sector executive or military leader and even your best MSM journalist is huge. Where journalists were accustomed to dealing with near-peer politicians/bureaucrats, they are now dealing with leaders with a range of experience, a set of achievements, and a focus and diligence with which journalist are unfamiliar and cannot compare. I wonder if this competence gap is not a component to the MSM journalistic "resistance."

Real competition among leaders - Related to the above. When you have competent leaders tasked with goals, they fight their corner to achieve those goals. Under the prior administration, there was early talk about a "team of rivals" wth the promise being that excellent people would be appointed and they would contend with one another to reach the best solutions. In reality, this was simply the parroting of an eponymous book at the time of the election of 2008. It was an academic lounge room concept never actually implemented. The last administration ended up with a bunch of yes men in a hierarchical structure, taking orders as instructed. They were products of their political/bureaucratic cultures.

With real leaders with real accomplishments and real focus on achieving real results, we are in much more of a de facto team of rivals environment this time round. If you are a callow reporter working from your experience of the past eight years, then the energy and debate among the new team likely does appear chaotic and directionless. Reading articles from fifteen and thirty years ago, it is obvious we are merely reverting to the healthy checks-and-balances tug-of-war of the past. But if all you know are direction taking yes-men then you report chaos and mire.

Active interaction between WH and Congress - Finally, the fact that for the past six years there has been no real interaction between the White House and Congress has probably lulled younger and inexperienced reporters into the belief that this is how government works. Useless debate in Congress and executive orders from the White House. That is both a sharp departure from the past and has been disastrous for the democratic traditions of our country. We depend on the parties (Republicans and Democrats) competing with one another, we depend on the institutions (Executive and Legislative) competing with one another, and we depend on the levels competing with one another (Federal and State). This has been in abeyance for six years and if that lull is what you believe is the norm, then the newly invigorated tussles within and between branches looks like chaos and that is what you report. All it is though, is a return to the dynamism that has been the norm. The only difference is that we have a decade-long backlog of problems we have been avoiding that now have to be addressed
Or so it seems to me. A lot of possibilities and there might be yet more going on under the surface. Just trying to make sense of a fairly incomprehensible situation.

UPDATE: In the Class section, I mention Haberman. I forgot she was one of the reporters revealed in Wikileaks to have been collaborating with the Clinton campaign without revealing the conflict in her reporting. From Wikileaks, an internal planning e-mail within the Clinton campaign:
For something like this, especially in the absence of us teasing things out to others, we feel that it's important to go with what is safe and what has worked in the past, and to a publication that will reach industry people for recruitment purposes.

We have has a very good relationship with Maggie Haberman of Politico over the last year. We have had her tee up stories for us before and have never been disappointed. While we should have a larger conversation in the near future about a broader strategy for reengaging the beat press that covers HRC, for this we think we can achieve our objective and do the most shaping by going to Maggie.

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