It’s interesting to read in light of the JournoList business. It’s also a good example of Moldbug’s ability to clarify things be re-naming them, which something Devin and I discussed last week over beers. Anyway, here are some excerpts:
Of course, this is consistent with the Polygon hypothesis – that power in modern democracies belongs to those who manage public opinion. This hypothesis is actually not mine – I believe it was first stated by Walter Lippmann in 1922, in his book of that name. And Lippmann himself did quite a bit to put his system into practice. The Polygon is not so crude as to have a name or a mailing address – it is a movement, not a conspiracy. But if it did have a name and address, its name would be the Inquiry and its address would be 68th and Park.
The key to the Polygon hypothesis is that three words are synonyms: responsibility, influence, and power. The New York Times, for example, is responsible because if it does the wrong thing rather than the right thing, it can cause a great deal of suffering. It is influential because its actions affect the lives of many people. And it is powerful because there is no conceivable meaningful sense of the English word power which is not synonymous with responsibility and influence. Power is the ability to make a difference, to change the world. Remind me again what people say on their J-school applications?
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For example, suppose you see an article about Israel on the front page of the Times with the by-line "Steven Erlanger." Perhaps there is one of these every few days, and no doubt if you put them together they tell a story. But the one thing you are guaranteed not to read in this story is that one of the ten most powerful people in Israel – maybe even one of the most five – is… "Steven Erlanger."
I recommend a lot of old books, but let me switch gears and recommend a new one, Mark Moyar’s revisionist history of the first half of the Vietnam War. What Moyar did was to go back through the archives and rewrite history as though the American correspondents in Vietnam were human participants in the story, not dispassionate, angelic observers. It’s really a remarkable read.
There is a sense one gets when one reads a history in which some of the players have been airbrushed out. It’s like being in a novel in which there’s a poltergeist. Plates suddenly fly out of the cabinet and leap across the room to smash on the wall. Flying plates! Irresistible forces of historical destiny! When you see the same story with all the characters restored, and you realize that someone actually picked up the plate and threw it, you get this very comfortable feeling of reality returning.
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Yellow journalism, such as that practiced by Hearst, Pulitzer, etc, used its political power to serve a variety of divergent private interests which did not always coincide with the interests of the State. Gray journalism has learned its Hegelian manners, and invariably serves and upholds the State.
(Of course, this does not mean it serves "the government." It means that when the New York Times attacks the White House, it sincerely believes that it is serving as a nonpartisan watchdog in the public interest. Apparently the State Department never does anything wrong, and thus never needs to be barked at. Perhaps this is because State too is a nonpartisan agency, selflessly performing its difficult work of diplomacy in the public interest. Ladies and gentlemen, the Polygon.)
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For me, the reason I see journalism as official is that I think journalists are civil servants. Stators, we might say, in the rotary system. They have the same ethos of public service, they have the same protection from political interference, they are nonpartisan – they serve only the State. If you believe in the Hegelian apolitical civil-service state, you believe in official journalism. Of course, then you have to explain what was so wrong with Brezhnevism, but that’s another story.
Moreover, the Department of Journalism is clearly one of the most powerful departments in the Western civil-service state. A journalist can attack anyone, and no one can attack him – except a judge, and then only in a limited set of ways that correspond to approved procedures, aka "laws," which journalists have great influence in designing.
This is perhaps the most salient remaining difference between the post-Communist civil-service state, as seen in China and increasingly in Russia, and its Western cousin. In the post-Communist system, power is in the hands of the security services, who can command the journalists and judges. In the Western system, it’s the other way around. Of course, as a Westerner, it’s easy to see the advantages of our approach. But it’s also interesting to look at who runs a trade deficit versus whom.
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Losing your faith in official journalism is an extremely large mental step. It’s really in the category of giving up a religion. It creates an enormous set of questions which you thought were answered, and now suddenly are questions again. And it’s very easy to get those questions wrong. To paraphrase Chesterton, when people stop believing in the Times, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.