On crap detection and the media

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

You’ve read, of course, the New York Times story from last week, yes? The one about how retired military officers were paid by the Pentagon to sell the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq by spewing administration propaganda to the “news” media?

It was a breathtaking and horrifying account of the lengths this administration will go to to lie to the American public so that certain people (not you and me) can get richer, and the level of disgrace that certain members of the military are willing to bring upon the uniform by prostituting themselves for an illegal war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.

As I read the article, I thought of a snippet from a book I had read and re-read in high school:


[I]n the early 1960s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required for a person to be a ‘great writer’. As the interviewer offered a list of various possibilities, Hemingway disparaged each in sequence. Finally, frustrated, the interviewer asked, ‘Isn’t there any one essential ingredient that you can identify?’ Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.’

                   – Teaching as a Subversive Activity,

                     by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner

                     (excerpt; PDF file)

Accepting Hemingway’s statement as true, and knowing the revelations contained in the Times story, and recalling the gusto with which nearly every talking-head newsreader and access-grubbing hack writer from virtually the entire corporate media world swallowed the administration’s line of bullshit about Iraq for almost all of the past six years, one can only conclude that there are very few great writers working in American journalism today. Almost none, in fact.

The crap that the bloody-handed Pentagon whores cited by the Times were peddling was eagerly gobbled up by johns stenographers “reporters” across the country, “reporters” who had dropped their crap detectors where they stood to join in a mindless stampede of groupthink, jockeying and jostling for position to see who could bury their nose furthest up the collective ass of the BushCheney administration and their loathsome enablers.

It is hard to argue with the logical extension of Hemingway’s assertion when applied to modern American “journalism”; indeed, the art and science of crap detecting has never in my lifetime been in a sadder state. And that is no accident.

Take a look at what the Times article said:


Internal Pentagon documents repeatedly refer to the military analysts as “message force multipliers” or “surrogates” who could be counted on to deliver administration “themes and messages” to millions of Americans “in the form of their own opinions.”

It requires no great leap of imagination to infer what Enemy these “force multipliers” were sent out to attack and destroy.  It is the same Enemy that has proven to be such an inconvenient stumbling block for so many Republican plans over the past 35 years. These REMFs were and are mercenaries – erm, security contractors – in the BushCheney administration’s Global War On –

Truth.

Or, as it is known in some circles, Reality.

The Enemy for Republicans is, was, and always will be The Truth. Reality. They and their plans don’t tend to do so well when subjected to Reality, so they prefer not to deal with it:


”That’s not the way the world really works anymore . . . We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The technical term for the “reality” the BushCheney administration has “created” for itself and its followers is “bullshit” – or, to use Hemingway’s more polite coinage, “crap.” The economy, Iraq, the environment, the Constitution, America’s standing abroad, the U.S. military, America’s infrastructure, product safety – the list is nearly endless, but the point is simple: every single “reality” the BushCheney administration has “created” has been a disaster.

Unfortunately, over the past 35 years Republicans have on the one hand developed crap proliferation to a high art while on the other hand degrading the ability of and incentive for the American populace and the American media to exercise their respective crap detecting faculties. This result has been achieved incrementally, deliberately and without fanfare through the consolidation of corporate media, the rescission of the Fairness Doctrine and the intentional redirecting of school curricula away from the development of critical thinking skills.

All of which explains how the current administration has been able for so long to sell so much crap to the American media and public: so few still had the ability to see the crap for what it was.

The results of the 2000 presidential election would seem to bear that out. Strongly encouraged by the corporate media, a lot of Americans just put their crap detectors in storage eight years ago, figuring, What do I need a crap detector for, when I can just have a beer with this guy?

The press – for so much of our nation’s history, the watchdog of our democracy, the unofficial “fourth estate” of government – evidently heard the siren call of Gee Dubya’s tall cold one as well, abandoning the field to Crap back in 1999, powering down a whole frosty 40-ouncer of Compassionate Conservative:


[Bush says,] “I worry about the haves and the have-nots. [Mine] is a message that says nobody should be left behind.” . . .

There are important differences between Reagan and George W. Bush. Reagan paid only lip service to maintaining a safety net for the poor. Bush seems determined to improve their lives. . . “People who adhere to the conservative philosophy better figure out how to make sure it includes everybody,” he warns. “Not just say it, but mean it.”

(For those still nursing that 40-ouncer, our apologies if reading that little gem nine years later made you lose it all over your monitor. – o.h.)

It’s sad, really. Pathetic, in fact. Modern-day “news” gatherers have mistaken “access” for openness. Their crap detecting skills are so poor, and they are so desperate for what they stupidly believe is “access,” that they can’t even tell when they’re being shat upon – and, just as pathetically, they don’t care. Members of the modern corporate news media don’t even recognize crap when they’re being forced to eat it. Rapping with Karl Rove has been the least of their embarrassments, and the fact that they don’t even realize that is a sad commentary.

The irony, of course, is that many “news” gatherers believe they could not do their jobs without the golden-shower-masquerading-as-“access” that they are “granted” by the BushCheney administration. This would no doubt would be true, if it were not for three things: (1) their “access” is nothing of the sort; (2) they’re not doing their jobs anyway, with or without “access”; and (3) the kind of “access” that puts you onstage with MC Rove is not the kind of access you need in order to do real journalism.

The problem is that most “news” gatherers don’t understand Quality – or they don’t care about it. From amid the entire universe of facts out there waiting to be reported on and investigated, from amid the literally countless possible subjects that today’s corporate media “journalists” could choose to spend their time, money and talents on – the occupation of Iraq, food riots across the globe, an economy teetering on the edge of depression, the systematic destruction of the United States Constitution, the hunt for Osama bin Laden – out of all that, what do modern-day corporate journalists, those who would inherit the mantle of Edward R. Murrow, choose to give us?


Hannah Montana! (her back!)


Reverend Wright! (he’s black!)


Lapel pins! (tie tack!)

Corporate media? They’re hacks!

In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig discusses the need to use Quality as a filter when processing the huge volume of raw data that we as humans – and members of a democratic society – are inundated with every day. He cites the work of French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Jules Henri Poincaré. Poincaré tried to figure out how it was that good scientists, out of literally an infinite number of possible hypotheses for a given phenomenon, knew which hypotheses to pursue. And Poincaré boiled it down to a question of Quality (all emphases added):


Poincaré laid down some rules: There is a hierarchy of facts . . . Poincaré concluded [that] a scientist does not choose at random the facts he observes . . . Mathematics, he said, . . . doesn’t merely make the most combinations possible according to certain fixed laws. The combinations so obtained would he exceedingly numerous, useless and cumbersome. The true work of the inventor consists in choosing among these combinations so as to eliminate the useless ones . . .

Pirsig – as the title of his book suggests – uses motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor for life. In one of the book’s most telling passages, he deconstructs the problem-solving process of a mechanic confronted with a stuck crankcase-cover screw. Pirsig examines what will happen – or won’t happen – if the mechanic – faced with a universe of facts from which to choose – fails to bring the filter of Quality to his assessment of those facts:


We have been looking at that screw “objectively.” According to the doctrine of “objectivity,” . . . what we like or don’t like about that screw has nothing to do with our correct thinking. We should not evaluate what we see [, according to the doctrine of “objectivity”]. We should keep our mind a blank tablet which nature fills for us, and then reason disinterestedly from the facts we observe.

But when we stop and think about it disinterestedly, in terms of this stuck screw, we begin to see that this whole idea of disinterested observation is silly. Where are those facts? What are we going to observe disinterestedly? The torn slot? The immovable side cover plate? The color of the paint job? The speedometer? The sissy bar? As Poincaré would have said, there are an infinite number of facts about the motorcycle, and the right ones don’t just dance up and introduce themselves. The right facts, the ones we really need, are not only passive, they are damned elusive, and we’re not going to just sit back and “observe” them. We’re going to have to be in there looking for them or we’re going to be here a long time. Forever. As Poincaré pointed out, there must be a subliminal choice of what facts we observe.

The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality. He has to care! . . .

By returning our attention to Quality [we can get] out of the noncaring subject-object dualism and back into craftsmanlike self-involved reality again, which will reveal to us the facts we need when we are stuck.

Read that last sentence again:


By returning our attention to Quality [we can get] out of the noncaring subject-object dualism and back into craftsmanlike self-involved reality again, which will reveal to us the facts we need when we are stuck.

“The facts we need when we are stuck.” Hmmm . . .

Let’s take what Pirsig says about scientists and mathematicians and see whether we can apply it equally to another pursuit:


The difference between a good mechanic reporter and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality. He has to care! . . .

How often have you heard representatives of the corporate media defend the mediocrity of their product by protesting that, gee, all they’re doing is being “objective,” presenting “both sides” of an “argument”? Like, say, “both sides” of the global warming “argument”? Or “both sides” of the evolution “argument”? Or “both sides” of the illegal wiretapping “argument”? Or “both sides” of the torture “argument”?

As if there were an “argument” in the first place. As if “both sides” of such an illusory “argument” carried equal weight.

The reason we are bombarded 24/7 with crap in the corporate media is because most of the so-called “journalists” in this country have been out of the crap detection business for years. Their corporate masters have decided instead that crap dissemination is more profitable. No one involved in running corporate media – and way too few people involved in consuming corporate media content – gives a tinker’s damn about Truth, about Quality.

Whereas once upon a time in America, journalists served as a front line of Crap Detection against the torrents of Crap spewing from the seats of government and the corridors of corporate power, now, if anything, most corporate media outlets serve their literal corporate masters; rarely does one see a Quality-driven decision about which content to foist upon a heedless public.

As Pirsig would argue, what the corporate media have abandoned in their supposedly doe-eyed, innocent, oh-so-fair-and-balanced presentation of the “facts” is an application of Quality. To give airtime and ink to the repeatedly and provably incorrect assertions and predictions of idiots like William Kristol or Doug Feith or Dick Cheney or Alberto Gonzales or John Yoo, or the global warming deniers, or those who would replace the teaching of evolution with the teaching of creationism, is to throw Quality out the window, and leave the consumer to decide what is valuable and what is, well, Crap. Caveat viewer.

To cite one very current example, it is only because our corporate media and many of our educational institutions have promoted such a climate of “all-hypotheses-are-of-equal-merit” that it is even possible to make and market a film such as Ben Stein’s recent laughfest, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, about which (in spite of its unintentionally hilarious self-referential title) the right is in a fervor. And why wouldn’t they be? According to Scientific American (whose editors I am more inclined to believe than, say, those of The Washington Times),


Stein . . . is uninterested in paleontology, or any other science for that matter.

So in our Quality-devoid corporate media environment, a film that über-seriously tries to (get this) blame the Holocaust on Charles Darwin (no, I am not making this up, and – OMG!! – I can already see the sequel: Rick-Santorum-as-Arnold-Schwarzenegger-as-T101 going back in time, racing frantically to prevent a buffed-out Ann-Coulter-as-Linda-Hamilton-as-Sarah-Connor from stowing away to the Galápagos on HMS Beagle with a flintlock set to full auto, intent upon blowing away a bespectacled Darwin as he looks up uncomprehendingly from scratching notes in his journal) is treated seriously instead of as the pitiful, expensive joke that it is.

C’mon, face it: Irony is dead. Dead from an overdose of right-wing hypocrisy administered over 14 years. While right-wing true believers and blowhards like Limbaugh and O’Reilly make a great show of protesting “moral relativism,” the right wing itself, of course, engages in moral relativism to a degree unheard of by anyone on the left.  Hookers with diapers, pedophilia, gay sex in bathrooms, torture, corruption, stealing presidential elections, advocating genocide, wishing death upon Americans – all of these are okay if you’re a Republican “limited to the present circumstances”.

And at the same time they supposedly eschew moral relativism, they are perfectly okay to live with relativism when it comes to science.  Assertions that would have sent my eight-grade science classmates into paroxysms of laughter nowadays often are accorded equal time with real science in the news media, in the halls of our deliberative bodies and, God help us, in our schools.  An unwillingness to use the knife of Quality when weighing scientific evidence is what makes possible a waste of time, energy and money such as Stein’s film.

The slippery slope to fascism is greased by media consolidation and its accompanying destruction of high-Quality news reporting. Silvio Berlusconi’s party has risen to power in Italy, fascist salute and all and, as commenter droogie6655321 put it,


This is what happens when you deregulate media to the point that one guy owns everything.

America has been on that slippery slope for the past 20 years. The Fairness Doctrine was rescinded under Reagan in 1987. The Telecommunications Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996; Fox News was launched the same year.

The past seven years have seen a deterioration in the Quality of American journalism unprecedented in recent history, as witnessed by the amount of Crap that Americans are evidently willing to put up with. Torture. Secret trials. Renditions. Outing of CIA agents. Illegal surveillance. Destruction of an American city. National debt exceeding $30,000 for every man, woman and child, while the wealthiest Americans get tax cuts. Gasoline at $4 a gallon while oil companies wallow in record profits and receive tax subsidies.

And we’re OK with all of that now, after seven years.

Seven years of political decisions based on fear, ignorance and cynical power-grabbing. Seven years of treating the Constitution like a goddamned piece of toilet paper. Seven years of treating the U.S. Treasury like an ATM for the super-rich, and the U.S. taxpayer like a hapless boob.

Seven years of a snarling, mean-spirited, self-loathing vice president, the Willie Sutton of Big Oil, the president of the Senate who would tell a colleague, Go Fuck Yourself, and who would say, “So?” when told that 70% of the American people oppose the war in Iraq.

Seven years of those who would deny the reality of global warming, the reality of evolution, the reality of contraception, the reality of hazardous mines, the reality of 2,000 people drowning in a major American city.

Seven years of lies, added to and embellished, built upon unchallenged by the corporate media, bought into and spouted by sheepish Democrats in Congress, cowed into submission and timid silence by the sheer weight and breathless audacity of the lies.  Cowed, with a few notable exceptions, into timid silence. Suckered by the notion of “bipartisanship” – only, when Democrats are in charge, “bipartisanship” becomes another word for “appeasement.”

Seven years of Are You F-ing Kidding Me? No Child Left Behind.  Clear Skies Initiative.  Patriot Act.  Protect America Act.  It’s part of the dumbing down of America; the effort to create, not well-informed voters, but over-pressurized consumers.  Operation Iraqi Liberation didn’t make the cut, because it was The Truth.

Seven years of You Can’t Make This Shit Up has left me tired. Seven years of asking the question, Just Exactly How Dumb Do You Think I Am, Anyway? is enough already.

As the Times story of the co-opted Pentagon whores illustrates, modern Republicans have learned well the lesson of Don Corleone: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.  To a Republican, truly independent, critical thinking journalists are the enemy – or at least an ally of the Enemy; the real Enemy is Truth.  So when the administration invites journalists in, those journalists should be doubly wary.  Unfortunately, when the current crop of slavering, lazy, spoonfed stenographers are with great fanfare given a peek behind the curtain chosen by the administration, they never bother to ask the obvious question: So,  what is it you are choosing not to show me? The result is an uninformed, apathetic electorate.

But that electorate is beginning to wake up. In the next installment, we’ll work together, you and I, to compile a catalog of the crap the BushCheney regime has tried to foist upon the American people over the past several years, and we’ll look (audaciously) for hope as America starts to bring out of storage those rusty crap detectors.

Thanks for reading!

Also available in Orange

33 comments

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  1. For the pursuit of journalistic excellence.

  2. So much there, its hard to summarize my reactions. But its a masterpiece of truth and quality!! I really appreciate all the work you’ve done to put it together. Thanks.

    • Edger on May 1, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    Let’s hope that electorate is beginning to wake up also to the equal if not greater crap spewed by Democratic leaderfollowership.

    Because at the rate things are going not much is likely to change after November, imo, except that we’ll have a bright shiny new paintjob on the same old deathtrap. Look at that baby go!

  3. my ability to detect crap is wasted on a nation of Helen Kellers.

    • kj on May 1, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    crap detector by a fancier name.  😉

    • kj on May 1, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    OC for an essay of substance and not another echo-chamber rehash “spiced” with dollops of crap and spittle.  🙂

  4. that’s the thing… we are waking up to this. crap does not outlast the truth.

  5. …and people can finally smell the crap that’s being shoveled by the traditional media.  The crap slingers will continue slinging as long as there’s a buck in it for them–they’ve made it pretty clear they have no shame (certainly no integrity).  

    • DWG on May 1, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    All it took was one terrorist attack to make too many Americans so fearful that they willingly swallowed every lie from an administration that promised security, even when every lie (Iraq, global warming denial, supply side economics, etc…) brings long-term insecurity.  Suckers…

    Seriously excellent essay!

  6. Kerry has asked the GAO to investigate.  There’s a pretty good diary on the subject up right now at dKos:

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/

  7. this  when all else fails.

    • geomoo on May 2, 2008 at 12:08 am

    while naming the problem.  It is certainly a quibble, but I would like to rehabilitate the notion of objectivity.  Objectivity is very different from “fair and ballanced,”  which was brought in to journalism by the right to take the place of the troublesome objectivity which kept making them look so darn stupid.  And those who strive for it know it is not easy to achieve.  Wise historians, in a form of throwing up of the hands, have decided that the closest one can get to objectivity is to do one’s best to lay one’s prejudice right out on the table at the outset so the reader can judge how well you achieved objectivity.  In our self-obsessed, non-contemplative times, objectivity is more elusive than ever.  And from there we can add the filter of quality you describe so well.

    I’m afraid it’s more than a question of choosing reality these days.  We are actually losing our ability to reason well and carefully.  I would add several hours a day in front of the big ole tv screen to your list of factors causing this decline.

    Finally, I’m reading The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.  That book is putting a sharp point on my views of what is happening in this country.  It is giving me the feeling that, until we study and understand the theories and motivations of our neoconservative adversaries, we will be spinning our wheels at best and fighting machine guns with pitchforks at worst.

    Thanks for a terrific essay.

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