Thursday, October 24, 2013

Journalistic decline and GOP dysfunction

Picking up from Tactics, Schmactics...

When we talk about the mainstream media and the right-wing media and all the other little sliver media out there, there are all sorts of standards with which we can make our distinctions. The one I prefer, at least for this discussion, is axiom-based.

In the New York times, or Time Magazine, or slate, or in any section of the Wall Street Journal except the editorial pages, most of the writers start from the same basic set of assumptions. To a slightly lesser extent, you can say the same thing about the right-wing media: Fox news; Rush Limbaugh; red state. We could argue about the validity of each of those sets of assumptions, but the important part for the moment is the difference between the two sets.

Though there had always been right wing papers and left wing papers, it has only been in the past few decades that it is possible to completely immerse yourself in one set of assumptions while your neighbor is completely immersed in another.

That's part one of the story. Parts two and three are what happened to the two halves of the journalistic universe since then and how those changes have affected the breakdown of the Republican party.

On the mainstream side, simplistic narrative journalism, dogmatic centrism, and a increasing disregard for accuracy and for holding subjects to a high standard of honesty all acted together to weaken the press's traditional role in checking party extremes. Since these practices had long been coupled with a sense that the Republicans were the dominant power and a fear of conservative pushback, this primarily worked on the right,  allowing unpopular and extreme Republican policies to gain traction. This was particularly true in the area of governance. Unprecedented use of filibusters and other obstructionist techniques were practiced up until recently with relative impunity due to the "both sides do it" mentality of many journalists.

On the right wing media side, journalists traded off their normal role as providers of feedback in order to be more effective motivators. This is perhaps most obvious with Ailes and Fox News where the goal (after turning a profit) was clearly to shape (and in some cases, falsify) the facts in such a way as to keep the base loyal and energized. In the short term, the strategy worked well but it always had inherent risks, risks that have finally started doing serious damage.

You can read this partly as a cautionary tale of Straussianism gone awry. The first, the most fundamental assumption of any society based on the noble lie is that you have a hierarchy with well-defined classes of the liars and the lied-to and that all major decisions are made by people in the first class.

Here's an analogy: officers have been known to paint overly rosy pictures for soldiers ("Things are going great on the Western front." "The enemy's factories are in ruins." "Victory is near."). We can argue over the ethics of this kind of lying, but it's easy to see why some officers might do it.

Now imagine that through a combination of field promotions, broken lines of communication and general confusion,  strategic and tactical decisions start being made by people who actually believe all of the misinformation that was fed to the ranks. I'm no military historian but I'm fairly sure this would probably end badly.

We had a pretty clear example of this kind of a breakdown in the Romney team's analysis of poll data in the last days of the election. There was clear value for Romney in having his supporters believe that he was ahead but that value was more than negated by having his advisers believe the same misinformation. You can see similar dysfunction in the recent shutdown where many congressmen made what now appear to be disastrous decisions based apparently sincere belief in such Fox News talking point as "people won't get that upset about a shutdown."

Put more broadly, the processes that allow the right version of the truth to get to the right people – something that has been an integral part of the Republican strategy – has seemingly broken down entirely.

In addition to the largely random flow of misinformation, conservative media created an unforeseen problem in the rank and file with narrative momentum. When most members of a group get much of their information from outside, there's a natural friction on in-group narratives when members realize that their version is not shared by the general public. Conservative media is immersive to an unprecedented degree. Narratives like "the only time Republicans lose is when they become too moderate" are allowed to build unchecked.

On a related note, the immersive quality also greatly facilitates social norming. This greatly encourages extreme positions and widens the gap when members of the group try to communicate with outsiders.

More on this soon.

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