What the hell is going on with the Western “free press” system?
Matt Taibbi thinks he knows and as usual, doesn’t pull any punches.
In his latest Substack piece:The New Kremlinology: Reading the New York Times, the independent journalist makes the following observation (our emphasis):
Whether through Emily Bazelon’s Times Magazine piece “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” or Michael Powell’s “A Vanishing Word in the Abortion Debate: Women,” or even the Editorial Board argument from late May, “The War in Ukraine is Getting Complicated, and America Isn’t Ready,” the [New York] Times has become a place where the public often learns about key facts, pressing international controversies, or trends in American thought only once these have been deemed suitable for public consumption by an unseen higher audience. An all time effort in this direction was “Hunter Biden Paid Tax Bill, but Broad Federal Investigation Continues,” in which the paper allowed some of its better reporters to quietly confirm a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop two years after keeping more or less mum as the story was tabbed Russian disinformation.
He goes on:
Along with companion outlets like the Washington Post and The Atlantic (as pure a reflection of establishment thought as exists in America), the paper in this sense fulfills the same function that Izvestia once served in the Soviet Union, telling us little or even less than nothing about breaking news events (“Can NATO Long Exist?” was among Pravda’s final questions in 1991) but giving us comprehensive, if often coded, portraits of the thinking of the leadership class.
Some think Taibbi has gone off at the deep end with his criticisms of the Democrats and the media. He famously got the Russian invasion wrong and had to apologise for having become overly obsessed with America’s flaws to be able to spot the imminent dangers associated with foreign states like Russia.
That may be the case, but his analysis of what’s wrong with Western media is today right on the money. What’s more, it echoes exactly my view.
So much so, in fact, I am going to repost my little piece from March 31 recounting a somewhat similar take. I’ve highlighted the mindmelds:
I’m developing a theory that the key reason the West is seemingly throwing in the towel on press freedom is because social media has destroyed media segmentation.
This, by the way, particularly applies to the financial media.
There used to be a time when financial newspapers were considered the ultimate truth speakers (read by both the left and the right) precisely because the market assumed investors could not afford to be misled by their own propaganda. Greed, in other words, led to neutral media because money had to be led by dispassionate analysis and information advantage, not emotion.
But then came social media. This changed everything. First, everyone — including the financial press — wanted to succeed in the mission of achieving the ultimate number of eyeballs, clicks or viral episodes. This is because clicks meant more advertising and thus more sustainable business models. Then, they became paranoid about going viral for the wrong reasons and losing advertising altogether.
And since nobody can ever predict which story might go viral and which one will not, this led to a sort of “market for lemons” scenario for news stories. It was simply better to assume all of them might go viral than not. And if all of them might, then all stories had to be written to appeal to the broadest possible common denominator on the least controversial level. Voila. Cancel culture was born. And in this way extreme mediocrity in the “respected” channels became the norm.
This has now led to an even weirder scenario where the bulk of high-signal stories — even in the most respected publications — don’t get read at all. In fact, most of the best content is routinely under-absorbed and digested by only the tiniest specialist audiences, even at very popular titles. I know, because I’ve seen the numbers myself. But this state of affairs has also created a type of information blowback. The broader “intelligentsia” has not caught up with the reality that you can’t stay informed if you don’t read the newspaper from front to back. Nor do they understand that the stuff they see highly circulated on social media tends to be the common denominator filler that isn’t very meaningful at all.
What we have as a result is a super-star economy where a handful of stories increasingly crowd out the really informative ones in ways that mislead critical decision makers and influencers.
How this has come about is a function of how journalists have had to adapt to the “great social media filter” themselves. Anything actually capable of generating information advantage (or moving the Overton window) errs towards being under promoted or toned down to ensure it doesn’t go viral for the wrong reasons. Alternatively the news is packaged in highly caveated language or jargonised terms (sometimes Aesopian) just to ensure it doesn’t resonate with the common denominator who might misunderstand it at all.
On the rare occasion something controversial leaks through the filter the instinct for the rest of the pack is to deny or reframe it.
What all this proves, I think, is that in an age when all stories, information and news are potentially accessible to everyone — there’s an instinctive preference to guard against the adage that a little knowledge can be very dangerous in the wrong hands.
In the days of physical newspapers this was a naturally occurring phenomenon. The news was segmented and carefully packaged to suit specific audiences — and there was rarely any spillover. Highly contentious stuff — say like the stuff you might find in Jane’s Defence — was priced at subscriptions rates that were entirely inaccessible.
But all of this becomes much harder with the internet.
Even expensive paywalls are not enough to protect quality news outlets from dispensing inconvenient truths in ways that might upset a lot of people.
What’s more, just admitting that some audiences can’t handle the truth is taboo in its own right in a democracy. This is, after all, not Maoist China where the news was strategically tiered — propaganda for the masses, and truth for the elite.
The instinctive system-reaction as a result is to suppress controversial news stories across the board. Doing so, however, assures that even the “right hands” and key decision makers are deprived of the stories they need to make informed decisions.
To deal with this information trap we seem to have created a bizarre (albeit I think unwitting) public initiation ritual. Inconvenient or controversial stories are first flagged by system radicals. Anyone who dares to report them further, however, is suppressed, lambasted or stigmatised as a conspiracy theorist. This induces a public hazing ritual for those who stick to their guns.
Then, over months, the news is slowly normalised as a possibility. By the time it’s widely confirmed — like with the Hunter Biden story — it’s not considered shocking anymore and thus deemed fit for public consumption. The hazed become heroes and the didactic process is completed.
Which is a long way of saying that the famous newspaper scene from Yes, Prime Minster is much less relevant today than it used to be, and that this — kind of — is the problem. But it’s maybe also the case that segmentation is slowly reasserting itself through independent media personalities who know their audiences — and what they can handle — better than their mainstream rivals do. They’ve also given up on trying to be everything to all people, just for the clicks.
Sun readers famously don’t care who runs the country unless she’s got big tits.
The funny thing is… these days, as per the Hunter Biden story… the tabloids are often ahead of the curve. From the NY Post to the Daily Mail and The Sun…
Here, for example, is the stuff you didn’t read in the Financial Times in the run-up to the 2020 election but may have caught in the tabloid press:
- Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad – The New York Post (October 14, 2020).
- BIDEN’S WEB Hunter Biden ‘worked as go-between’ for Kazakh oligarch with links to Prince Andrew who called ex-VP’s son ‘my brother’ – The Sun (October 17, 2020)
- Joe Biden smiling alongside Kazak businessman who ‘hired Hunter to help broker US investments when he was VP’ – yet still Joe maintains he NEVER discussed his son’s business dealings – The Daily Mail (October 22, 2020)
Okay, perhaps you remember this report, published September 18, 2020, being reported on? No? Not surprising. There were only token reports about it like this, which implied that because the investigations were being led by Republicans they could not be trusted. So no reference to the findings anywhere.
What you did see in the FT pertaining to Hunter Biden’s corporate linkages in the run-up to the election, meanwhile, was a single story from March 18, 2020. It framed these connections as being “widely discredited during the impeachment proceedings”. And that was that.
Even after news broke about Hunter’s infamous laptop, however, there were only a handful of throwaway references to the reporting of others in peripheral sections like err, further reading, on FT Alphaville. Or in sections focused on technology or social media, obliged to report on the social media fallout. But, as you can see from the chronological archive listings below, there was never any serious analysis or dedicated reporting on the underlying story itself:
Search results pertaining to “Burisma” in the FT were plentiful, but only in the context of the quid-pro-quo impeachment affair that framed the whole thing as Trumpian fake news. There was one notable exception, which was this 2019 listicle story.
But rather than moving the dial on the story it merely sat there, awkwardly, contradicting the greater “nothing to see here” editorial standpoint. Readers seemingly weren’t supposed to be confused about this. Much like all the other contradictory reporting that has since followed, on everything from lockdowns to vaccine effectiveness, they were just expected to take it. As if expecting a consistent and logical line of argument is too much for readers today.
Everything else, meanwhile, looked like this:
Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump say congressional testimony by William Taylor, America’s top diplomat in Kiev, provides the clearest evidence that the president engaged in a quid pro quo arrangement with his Ukrainian counterpart by withholding US military aid in exchange for political favours.
A situation which has now ironically hyper-reversed.
How media segmentation works today
In old communist systems, the elites got the real news, and the masses got the propaganda.
But the West used to have its own “organic” equivalent of that arrangement too. In the postwar environment, elites got the real news from expensive broadsheets and trade press, while the working classes got propaganda from the tabloid press.
Then came Rupert Murdoch. He was a man who wanted to disrupt the entire British media structure by making popular press politically powerful and truthful:
As BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis notes in the above short film, things didn’t work out quite the way Murdoch hoped they would. Rather than destabilising the power structure, Murdoch’s machinations soon blew back on himself — casting him and his newspapers as the villains.
And yet, the mission to empower the masses by bringing them unfiltered knowledge and truth didn’t end there. Tech utopians soon transferred it to the internet.
Except, again, things didn’t work out as expected. Rather than empowering the people by shining a light on corruption, the internet — fueled as it is by the most intimate of our freely donated data — merely flipped the old communist media-control relationship on its head.
Today the masses get the unfiltered “truth” from forums, social media, hackers and samizdat-style sharing networks, while the elites – who dismiss the former as vulgar – cling to an overly sanitised and fake version of events that fits their moral sensibilities.
The reason the internet has done this, of course, is because it is a mirror.
For the paternalistic elite (who like to see themselves as benign), the unfiltered feedback from the internet is often too hard to accept. They do not like being shown their own flaws and failings in such intimate ways. They do not like being told that they might not always be representing the interests of the masses the way they think they are.
This in turn has prompted a deep-seated hyper sensitivity at the heart of the establishment, which has paralysed the old elite media structures and made them entirely ineffective at conveying any form of truth at all.
The result has come in the shape of psychological media safe spaces.
Bad news that might imply moral failings on elites’ parts is unconsciously set to slow-release mode all across the Western world. “If we don’t acknowledge it, it’s not happening” is the thinking — even if everyone more broadly already knows the truth. Like that sanctions are going to hurt us more than Russia. Or that Covid didn’t start because a pangolin caught a cold. If and when such news is eventually acknowledged, it’s been known for so long, that the impact of the acknowledgment has little bearing on public sentiment. Any revolutionary mindset or spark has by them been truly burnt out.
This denialism, however, prevents the usual corrective mechanisms from being applied. That means the bad stuff, like corruption, only festers further.
News that reinforces how the elites want to see themselves (compassionate, understanding, capable of self sacrifice, conscious of their own privilege and compensating for it) is instead prioritised and over-compensated to the point — in some cases — of total self-delusion.
Those who see this for what it is perceive it as a type of censorship. The elites deny this.
As one senior editor wrote to me when I questioned why we were so slow to do anything on Wuhan:
“Am not sure it’s institutional bias as much as not being attuned to the info that’s out there.”
To some degree they had a point. It wasn’t like the news wasn’t going around other media segments like Fox News. But since it’s our job to be attuned to the info that is out there this rationale felt absurd to me.
The same editor then challenged me on whether I had tried to write something and whether any other editor had pushed back?
But this, I would argue, was missing the point.
The truth was that the origins of Covid were far from my beat. FT Alphaville was already getting into internal trouble for daring to stray into commentary about US politics. It was not our place to question Fauci, it was the Washington bureau’s. How could I, the editor of a finance blog, take it upon myself to independently expose the possibility that a lab leak cover-up had occurred?
The real question for me was why were reporters whose beat it was failing to address these points? What was behind this incredible lack of curiosity? Why did it need an underling like me to flag the coverage gap to the higher echelons? (Which by the way I did to the very editor in question in Feb 2021.)
So yes, the elite perspective on all this is right to a degree. What is happening is not censorship in the strict authoritarian sense. It is instead a weird Western equivalent that crowds out uncomfortable truths from the corridors of power in favour of sycophantic attitudes that can get people job promotions.
All of the above, rather than representing a form of conventional censorship, amounts to a type of elite self-denial, self-therapy and last-breath survivalism.
And yet, for as long as the elite continue to hold onto power, which they still clearly do, these information failings will have meaningful and impactful consequences for the real world.
In the current moment, the absence of real leadership that this information collapse is encouraging is arguably sleepwalking us into an authoritarian technocratic nightmare. This risks making human leadership and politics redundant altogether. All we will have when that is gone is algorithmic consumption management as determined by our overall system compliance.
The Blind Spot is not a partisan organisation. We remain open to continuous persuasion by those we are inclined to disagree with. Our view is that you can’t invest wisely unless you see the full picture and all perspectives. If you’re blinded by political rage on any side, you will have a blind spot. Our biggest concern right now is that too much of the top-end media has been captured by the forces of access journalism, activism and possibly also tech-induced click corruption. We are not seeing clearly. We must turn our heads.
Democracies were not designed for ‘distributed systems’, where big globs of content are filtered by experts, consensus arrived at by ad-tech payments and then algorithmically propagated.
In theoretical computer science, the CAP theorem, also named Brewer’s theorem after computer scientist Eric Brewer, states that any distributed data store can only provide two of the following three guarantees.
Thus, for networks to support partitioned news, one has to choose between consistency [consensus] and availability [Talib/IK showed all news becomes available]. Thus, applying the CAP theorem to networked news, will drive the same news reporting from all publishers, and guarantee it, after we apply ad-tech payments to incent it.
Eric Brewer argues that the often-used “two out of three” concept can be somewhat misleading because system designers only need to sacrifice consistency or availability in the presence of partitions, but that in many systems partitions are rare.
We can post that big tech who is operationally underpinned and hires its engineering, product and executive staff with CAP theorem know-how, will exactly understand why huge network effects, and media segmentation cannot coexist with establishment media.
TBS is proof that news can be successfully partitioned by subscription payments.