June 9, 2014
Bowe Bergdahl and the Mobilization of Bias

So is Bowe Bergdahl a sinner or a saint? A deserter or a victim? A naive idiot or an active enemy of the United States?

Here’s the one thing: I don’t know.

Here’s the other thing: neither do you.

Oh, lots of you THINK you know. You’ve “heard” things. You’ve “seen” things. In most cases, if you are conservative in your mind set the things you’ve said and heard suggest convincingly that Bergdahl was a bad soldier and a bad American. If you’re somewhat more liberal in your politics, you’ve wiling to attribute any errors to complex times and the failed policies of the Bush administration.

The Bergdahl flare up is a classic case of what E.E. Schattsneider referred to as the “mobilization of bias.” What Schattsneider realized was that persons and institutions with power can mobilize that power in an array of direct and indirect means to achieve their goals. One indirect way is to drum up public opinion or social pressure against someone.

Think about it.

Almost no one in America knew anything about Bowe Bergdahl before his release. They might — MIGHT! — have known there was an American soldier in Taliban captivity, but they probably didn’t even know that. Then, suddenly, just a few hours after he was released, millions of Americans “knew” so much about Bergdahl they could cite chapter and verse about his military record, his political ideas, and his identity as a “bad” soldier.

This doesn’t just “happen,” folks. Lots of people had to coordinate their activities to construct this image of Bergdahl. Sources had to be found and made available to the media; media sources had to cooperate (not hard in the age of FOX, talk radio and the internet.) Into the void of NOT information poured the vitriol of biased information. And suddenly everyone “knew” what Bergdahl’s story is … and he hasn’t opened his mouth to talk to anyone other than military officials that we know of.

One needs to be on guard for the mobilization of bias at all times. Whether it’s the Dixie Chicks facing a “spontaneous” boycott of their music (all on Clear Channel Communications radio stations, mind you), or the “surprise” of being accused of a crime you did not commit (the “we’re sorry” coverage never seems to fix what the “this person is guilty!” coverage caused), powerful people and institutions have powerful incentives to use their power to make their enemies and opponents look bad.

I don’t know Bowe Bergdahl’s story. Then again: neither do you.

May 14, 2014
The Rove Gambit

By now, many of you have probably seen Karl Rove’s claim that Hillary Clinton just had a traumatic brain injury. You may have even seen his admission that this was, in fact, not true.

Likewise, by now many of us have participated in some version of a “Karl Rove is an ass” response, and likely have felt good for our disdain. Which is fine. But it’s not enough.

See, what Rove did is part of a deliberate strategy. Indeed, it’s so predictable there’s a virtual script governing the whole affair:

  1. political figure makes absurd claim about an opponent/policy;
  2. partisans respond, defending or the denying the claim according to their ideologies;
  3. the focus rapidly turns onto the person or policy against whom the original charge was made: the person or policy has to “prove” it does not do/say what the accuser claims;
  4. the firestorm cools down until new charge X is made and the cycle repeats.

The goal of this strategy is two-fold. First, in the simplest terms, it is intended to dominate the news cycle for some period of time. Grounded on the notion that the best defense is a good offense, the accuser is forcing the accused to play politics on the accuser’s terms, answering questions the accuser wants answered. (Just ask John Kerry, who got his military service mocked by a president and vice president who avoided Vietnam like the plague.) Time spent answering ridiculous accusations is time lost towards explaining one’s own agenda.

Second, it’s intended to plant seeds of later doubt. At some future point someone will make a claim about Hillary Clinton’s health, and while the issue of brain damage won’t come up, some number of people will have a vague sense that her health has been an issue in the past. A cursory Google search could well bring up Rove’s claim … and most Americans have no idea who Karl Rove is. So, maybe she has health problems.

The only way to beat this strategy is to recognize it and not play according to its rules. As Bill Clinton learned, the only defense to the rumor mill is offense against it. That same war needs to be going on in your head if you want to protect yourself against the lies and BS spewing from Karl Rove and his ilk.

June 3, 2013
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April 29, 2013
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January 23, 2013
Twitter and the Pack

One of the great curses of contemporary journalism today is the pack.

In this case, the notion of a pack refers to the way that once a story is understood to be “important” or “relevant,” everyone in the mediaverse chases it, covers it, photos it, videos it, or presents it to your eyeballs one way or another. Back in ancient times — you know, 10 years ago — this chasing would have been aimed at driving newspaper sales and news broadcast viewings. The intent was to get you to buy a paper (and its associated advertising) or watch a cable or network news broadcast (and its associated advertising).

Now, of course, it’s all about pageviews (and associated advertising). The nature of digital media is such that if one can get one’s page to be the “base” page from which all subsequent coverage of an event draws life, your site can (hopefully) make money and be recognized as “mattering.” (This is why the people who break stories care so much that you link to their page when you reblog something: it drives traffic, and it recognizes the work the people did creating the content. Which is why you should link to the base pages, people!)

There are consequences to this kind of pack journalism, however. One became evident in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown, CT shootings: seemingly every site went viral with the wrong name for the shooter. (The guy’s poor brother saw his name plastered everywhere.) Another is the obsessive focus on what’s trending and what’s hot rather than what might actually matter. (The Daily Show offered an epic takedown of this kind of thinking in relation to investigative journalism that if you haven’t seen, you ought to watch.)

Alas, after several months of Twittering, I’ve concluded that more often than not, Twitter only makes this worse. Any time anything hits, it seems that everyone in the Twitterverse comments, retweets, snarks and otherwise participates in the conversation of the moment. Until the moment something else hits. 

It’s like news for squirrels. Or Dug, the dog from “Up.”

There are exceptions to this, of course. Given that the US media have basically shut down their international news bureaus over the last decade or so, Twitter is a great resource when events break overseas. It can be useful in emergencies. But as a source of daily news, Twitter just amplifies the pack. 


December 23, 2012
My nominee for the dumbest article of the year …

It’s a no brainer: Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in the Atlantic: “The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control.”) 

It’s epically bad. Mind numbingly bad. Even in the context of the 2012 presidential election, it stands out as quite remarkably astonishingly bad.

It’s filled with “feelings” but no analysis. It relies on the thoughts of advocates for one position or another while dismissing the actual research both on guns and violence and the decline in crime in the US over the last 20 years. And, most strikingly, it doesn’t even touch on the obvious point: what happens when armed civilians miss their “bad guy” targets and kill or wound innocent bystanders? Are we going to give them a pass for their acts of manslaughter? Or send them to jail?

Not a word on that one.

Some Atlantic editor had to buy into this. Shame on them.

December 4, 2012
A Media “What’s Next”?

So if you figure that the key to getting attention in our media-saturated age is screaming at the tops of our lungs, and you realize that the most-common way to scream these days is to insist that you are “outraged” by something (or you are outraged at the lack of outrage about some outrage-worthy thing), a question:

what’s next?

That is, once the “outrage machine” breaks down, once outrage no longer draws attention (as it will eventually fail just like the “boy who cried wolf” eventually fails), then how will all the screamers draw attention to themselves post-outrage? Quiet murmuring? (Umm, no.)

In other words, what’s more outrageous than outrage? How will we know to pay attention to the “WAR ON CHRISTMAS” if OUTRAGE ABOUT THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS no longer brings us to focus on the faux “news”?

Because don’t kid yourself: it can get worse. And almost certainly will. 

November 26, 2012
Hey—wasn’t there a war going on in Syria?

What with all the Gaza and Thanksgiving coverage, I can only assume that the whole Syria kerfuffle has been solved.

So we’ve got that going for us.

November 12, 2012
So now my question is …

Is the activist wing of the GOP cynical, or stupid?

See, I have to admit that I’ve been assuming that while the “journalists” at FOX News and their related ilk were peddling political bullshit to their viewers and supporters because peddling nonsense made them rich, the elite activists in the party actually knew what they were peddling was bullshit. It is one thing, after all, to know the emperor has no clothes, and quite another to say it.

Now there has been a burst of analysis that suggests that even the elites drank the Koolaid. Dick Morris claims his “analysis” of the 2012 election was based on his estimate that the electorate in 2012 would be like that in 2004 not 2008 (and hence whiter, maler — more pro-Romney). Karl Rove’s infamous disputation of FOX’s election night call of Ohio for the Democrats fits in this vein as well: it was sincere enough and public enough that I am convinced he actually thought several months’ of polling data was wrong, and his analysis of the likely vote in Ohio was right.

This question—are the elites stupid, too?—is important for the future of the GOP. If the leadership of the GOP drank the Koolaid and actually believed the crap they peddled, then they have a great reckoning to face. If, instead, they are selling the “I was fooled” line to protect their own positions at the top of the party, then the other members of the party need to ask whether having cynical losers willing to say anything to stay in power really is the best idea.

In either case, the question that GOP supporters ought to be asking, “were our leaders stupid or cynical?,” is hardly the most positive one going forward.

November 2, 2012
The Media Conspiracy to Protect Barack Obama … and Richard Nixon?

So yesterday I had a series of exchanges with a couple of conservatives about how I think the fact that many Republicans are focusing on Benghazi suggests that they think they’re going to lose: they don’t have anything else. You can see those exchanges here and here.

The first of the complaints I received about my comment rested on a series of statements about Watergate that I think I fairly debunked in my response. But it also made a reference to how the media conspired to cover up the Benghazi disaster just like the media covered up Watergate. 

Which got me thinking.

First, as I said in my reply, the media didn’t cover up Watergate, it EXPOSED it. Two entrepreneurial Washington Post — a mainstream media source if ever there was one — reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were the first to explore the Watergate break in and cover up in any detail. While their reporting did not bring Nixon down (contrary to popular myth), it was their work that turned Watergate from a minor break in to the scandal that destroyed a President. You can read all about it or see their work depicted in their book All the President’s Men, or the film version with the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.

Likewise, it was media sources that broke the story about Benghazi. And, it should be added, broke it quickly: the Watergate break in (and its associated scandals involving the White House operation known as the “plumbers”) took years to expose.

The notion that it was a “media conspiracy” to protect Nixon and/or Obama is just absurd.

Second, while my respondent insisted that the media protected Nixon, that certainly would have been news to Nixon himself. My respondent claims to remember Watergate and the era (as do I), but seems utterly unaware that Nixon hated the media. Hated it. The Watergate tapes are filled with his loathing, sneering comments about reporters, as well as his efforts to have the FBI and the CIA undermine reporters’ and critics’ credibility. It takes a remarkable mind to imagine Nixon as having been protected by the media. That it took years to expose Watergate was not the result of a media cover up. it was the result of the fact that the President of the United States used his vast powers to enact a multi-layered, Gordian knot of a conspiracy. A conspiratorial knot that took a while and several court cases, including one of my favorites, United States v Nixon, to untangle. (I think it’s amazing that the government can sue the president in this country. Freaking amazing.)

Third, my conspiratorial respondent also forgets the commercial incentive that media sources have to expose government wrongdoing. Most media is for profit in the US, meaning that if you have a story that is going to generate vast attention—and thus sales, web hits, and other revenue-generating actions—you have a commercial incentive to go ahead with the story. The notion that the media actively protects someone they might make profit from exposing runs afoul of simple commercial logic … and the existence of tabloids, the Drudge Report, FOX News and Perez Hilton. (I am trying to figure out how to purge that name from my memory banks, but am failing.)

Fourth, and finally, my conspiracy-minded interlocutor forgets the fact that reporters have a career incentive to break a big story. Bob Woodward, in particular, has made his entire career following up the Watergate story with intimate portraits of policy-making in Washington, DC. Thus, let’s say I “knew” that Barack Obama was really a Kenyan Muslim member of the Communist Party. (Only one of those things bars you from being president by the way, but this is the world, so, whatever.) Why wouldn’t I show what I have? My career would be made, particularly on the right. I could be famous, get invited to all the “in” parties, and probably get rich. And I am going to sit on this, why?

It is easy to see conspiracies. It is almost never worth thinking about them. And while it is true that even paranoids have enemies, it is also the case that some things are true and some things are false. One of the true things is that the press did not protect Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Another is that the press is not protecting Barack Obama on the Benghazi tragedy.