Balkanizing the News

Separation of People and State

It is curious: Though I have spent a lifetime in journalism, I do not read a newspaper, not the New York Times nor the Washington Post nor the Wall Street Journal. Nor do I have television service.

Why? Because, having worked in that restaurant, I know better than to eat there. The foregoing media are quasi-governmental organs, predictably predictable and predictably dishonest. The truth is not in them.

Within the news racket, this isn’t news. More interesting is that a large part of the intelligent population agrees. We now have a press of two tiers, the establishment media and the net, with sharply differing narratives. The internet is now primary.The bright get their news from around the web and then read the New York Timesto see how the paper of record will prevaricate. People increasingly judge the media by the web, not the web by the media.

The major outlets (this will not be a blinding insight) as always are in near-lockstep—that is, controlled. Reporters understand the rules perfectly. You do not, not ever, criticize Israel. You don’t say anything remotely interpretable as racist. Women are sacrosanct. Do not offend the sexually baroque. The endless wars get minimal coverage and almost nothing that would upset the public. Huge military contracts get almost no mention.

None of this is accidental.

It is well and slickly done. We have all heard Lincoln’s dictum, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Being a pol, he didn’t add the crucial, “But you can fool enough of the people enough of the time.” Here is the secret. You don’t need to ban unwelcome books, because the only people who read them already agree with them. You don’t need to kick in doors at three in the morning to seize forbidden typewriters. People might revolt against that sort of thing. Just keep prohibited topics off the networks and out of the papers. It is enough.

Or was enough. It was enough in part because there were no means of lateral communication among the public. CBS could put its view of the world on your screen and, though in principle you could write the network a letter which someone might read, you had no access to differing views, and no way of knowing what other viewers thought. Bingo.

This system is breaking down under the onslaught of the internet. Papers are losing both credibility and circulation. So are the networks.

Race is the obvious example of the decline in control. The spin and censorship have become so heavy-handed as to be comic. For example, there recently appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a story recounting that three, er, teens had beaten a man to death with hammers. (By now, everyone knows that when a writer says “teens,” feral blacks are meant.) Predictably the police chief discounted racial motives, though obviously those were the only motives. While the Post-Dispatch is a third-rate paper, it closely follows the rules of the Times et al.

However, readers on the paper’s site who commented on the story overwhelmingly expressed anger that the racial provenance of the killing was being covered up. One pointed out that one sees headlines, “White Cop Kills Unarmed Black,” but never “Blacks Kill Unarmed White Man,” which is what happened.

Here is a stark example of the evolving two tiers of the news business. Editorially, the Post-Dispatch peddles the mandatory narrative while what appear to be a large majority of its readers know it is lying. Readers, seeing the comments of other readers, learn that they are not alone in their disgust: Lateral communication. This may have consequences.

Papers do not like this at all. It seems that they are beginning to pull their comment columns. Few dare publish views that contradict the anointed story line. With respect to race, the comments reveal a very real and major racial anger that does not involve only a small number of KKK members.

Barely possibly, papers will be pushed into, or at least toward, honesty if they want to keep their readership. As I was writing this, a friend sent me a link to a new Post-Dispatch story about a Bosnian woman beaten unconscious and left beside the road by several blacks. The story actually said “blacks.” An almost unheard of admission.

Another problem that the internet poses for papers is the divide between the intelligent and the rest. Again we see two opposed poles, though in this case blending imperceptibly into one another. The major media are not comfortable with intelligence. Television is worst, the medium of the illiterate, barely literate, stupid, uneducated, and uninterested. It cannot afford to air much that might puzzle these classes.

Newspapers can assume that their subscribers can at least read but, intelligence being pyramidal in distribution, have to focus of the lower end. They also have to avoid offending the advertisers, the politically correct, or the corporate ownership.

By contrast, web sites have few of these problems. Since they aggregate their readership from the whole planet, they do not have to concern themselves with grocery ads in St. Louis. They cost little to run. They do not need the bottom end of the distribution. And they have become multitudinous. Collectively you might call them “a free press.”

There are for example Taki’s Magazine, leaning hard to the political Right but thoughtful, beautifully written, fearless, and possessed of a beguiling aristocratic snottiness; the Unz Review, leaning hard in all directions at once but written by and for a cognitive elite; Anti-War.com, not sucking up to military industry; Tom Dispatch, extraordinarily informed analyst of imperial policy; Counterpunch, hard Left but highly intelligent, and the Drudge Report, half grocery-store tabloid and half unintimidatable teller-like-it-is, sort of America’s thermometer.

These and countless others are all over the spectrum, any spectrum, every spectrum, off spectrum, but in most cases assume a post-graduate intelligence and knowledge. No newspaper of which I am aware comes close.

It amounts to distributed cognitive stratification. Before the internet, people who wanted a high level of intellectual community had to move to a large city or live on the campus of a good university. Magazines of small circulation delivered by snail mail helped a bit, but not much. Today, email, specialized websites, and list serves put people of like mind in Canberra, Buenos Aires, Bali, and Toronto in the same living room, so to speak.

Which we all know already. But what does this globalization do to newspapers? How can they compete for the intelligent market? Or for readers who simply do not believe them? They are dull because they have to be, bland because they must avoid offending anyone, controlled because they can be. They write to the least common denominator of their clientele because they have to be comprehensible to non-specialist readers and, in the United States, are quasi-governmental. (Note that the decade’s biggest story, Edward Snowden, was broken by a Brazilian reporter in an English paper.)

The future? Good question. A reasonable guess: We will see growing global intellectual electro-Balkanization. Declining circulation of newspapers as fewer see any reason to read them. The separation of people and state. Television becoming even more of a cultural slum, if that is possible. Decreasing ability of the guberno-media complex (I actually said that, didn’t I?) to control opinion. Because of lateral communication, growing ability of voiceless groups to realize that they are numerous and have interests in common. It’s a new ball game.

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