Death of news, “We All Want to Save the World” edition

labyrinth

The following correction recently appeared in the Boston.com website, a property of the Boston Globe newspaper:

Earlier today, Boston.com published a piece suggesting Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman sent an email with racist overtones to Sichuan Garden.  We cannot verify that Edelman, in fact, sent the email.  We have taken this story down.

Consider that fatal phrase, “in fact.”  The defense of the news media rests entirely on the claim that editors vet the facts communicated by a news report.  Unlike, say, social media, journalism is supposed to be factual, empirical, objective.  On that single claim an ambitious ideology of news has been erected:  what’s good for the news business is said to be good for democracy.

So what happened at Boston.com?  It had access to the Globe’s densely-packed phalanx of editorial personnel.  How could it go public with a story that, in fact, it couldn’t verify?

I don’t know the details.  I never read the offending piece.  But, having studied the news business for some time, I can easily come up with a theory of the case.

You have an accusation of racism.  You have a business school professor.  Capitalist pig stereotype, meet racist monster stereotype:  the two belong happily together.  If you are a young reporter of the usual social background and political predilections, eager to expose injustice, this marriage of stereotypes assumes the authority of Platonic truth.  It is, in fact, cosmically verified.

***

The same devotion to ideal forms explains the fact-blindness displayed by Rolling Stone Magazine in its story about a rape in the University of Virginia.  As with the pre-emptively racist professor, that blindness was self-induced.  Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author, hitched her wagon to a higher truth – exposing the “rape culture” in American campuses – but paid no attention to the potholes in that lowly road to uncertainty most of us call “reality.”

Rubin Erdely, 42, has penned articles on transgender longings, Catholic “secret sex files,” and the abuse of gays by Republican evangelists.  She’s a woman on a mission.  The details of the rape she reported were horrific, but they were also a grotesque stereotype of frat boy behavior.  She had spent six weeks hunting just such a stereotype, and found it at UVA, with its “aura of preppy success” and “throngs of toned and overwhelmingly blond students.”  Plus, it was Southern.  You have stereotype heaven.  What more likely setting for a sexual horror show?

Rubin Erdely was reporting on the pictures of the world inside her head, as confirmed by her solitary source – the supposed victim, Jackie.  It is now clear that she lied about cross-checking Jackie’s account, and that Rolling Stone, for all its democracy-preserving editors, bought the lie at face value.  Bill Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, said in 2006:  “we’ll write what we believe.”  The rape story fit the pictures inside his head.

That the story has come undone – Jackie, it turns out, was lying too – is less surprising than the reaction of many right-thinking observers.  They seem upset that anyone would question even a single instance of sexual assault.  They believe in “rape denialists”:  people who deny rape exists.  In rape cases, they maintain, we “should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says.”  Facts matter less than theology.

The existence of this cult places Rubin Erdely’s high-risk deceptions in perspective.  She imagined that the only permissible response to a charge of rape was dogmatic applause.

It could be argued that Rolling Stone is a pop culture rag, and Sabrina Rubin Erdely is less a journalist than a manufacturer of moralistic fables.  But real people were accused.  Real damage was done.  All this was invisible to Rubin Erderly.  She failed to interview the alleged rapists because she already knew who they were:  a combination of the “overwhelmingly blond” bad frat guys from Animal House and the vicious serial torturer in Silence of the Lambs.

animal house blond frat

The aftermath demonstrated another peculiarity of journalists:  although they claim factuality and objectivity, they never reveal much about their choices, and they rarely accept responsibility for their errors.  Rubin Erdely, that fierce exposer of injustice, retreated behind Rolling Stone’s public relations staff.  Rolling Stone, in turn, initially passed the blame on to Jackie, complaining that its trust in her had been “misplaced.”  This caused such an uproar that the magazine followed up with a “Note to Our Readers” blandly acknowledging bad “judgments” and “mistakes” with a palpable lack of regret.

***

Somehow, the voices from heaven never command that the news business expose itself to scrutiny.  Reporters cover everyone except other reporters.  When it comes to the anthropology of journalism, we don’t know what we don’t know.  Occasionally, however, someone breaks omertà, and what emerges is never pretty.

Matti Friedman, a former AP correspondent, has written a depressing piece for The Atlantic about news coverage of Israel.  Here, far afield, we find the same cast of characters that we have encountered before in Boston and UVA:  men and women from a certain class, on a mission to “help.”  They work for NGOs like Amnesty Watch, international agencies like the UN – and, of course, for news purveyors like AP.  They drink together and court and no doubt bed each other.  They share information.  They come to think alike.

In these circles, in my experience [writes Friedman] a distaste for Israel has come to be something between an acceptable prejudice and a prerequisite for entry.  I don’t mean a critical approach to Israeli policies. . . but a belief that to some extent the Jews of Israel are a symbol of the world’s ills, particularly those connected to nationalism, militarism, colonialism, and racism – an idea quickly becoming one of the central elements of the Western “progressive” zeitgeist, spreading from the European left to American college campuses and intellectuals, including journalists.

The Jews are the white frat boys of the Middle East.  They are invisible as a people, and can be perceived by Western reporters solely in the guise of a crude stereotype:  the human monsters of their imagination.  Israel is the only democracy in a desert of despotism, but that truth is selected out of their field of vision.  Friedman cites Orwell:  “The argument that to tell the truth would be ‘inopportune’ or would ‘play into the hands’ of someone or other is felt to be unanswerable.”

“Inopportune” to those who “have largely assumed a role of advocacy of the Palestinians and against Israel.”  “Play into the hands” of the forces of evil – the devilish Jews.  Journalists covering the conflict have made a canonical choice.  Readers back home, they have decided, are best served when exposed to just one side of the story.  Friedman was forbidden from interviewing the head of a rare pro-Israel NGO:  “In my time as an AP writer moving through the local conflict, with its myriad lunatics, bigots, and killers, the only person I ever saw subjected to an interview ban was this professor.”

I have argued argued elsewhere that there’s no special category of information we can call “the news.”  This applies with particular strength to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.  What we get isn’t a slice of reality, “new” information, or facts about important events, but rather “a kind of modern morality play in which the Jews of Israel are displayed more than any other people on earth as an example of moral failure.”  This attitude, Friedman reminds us, has “deep roots in Western civilization.”

***

The final act in the recent self-detonation of the news media may seem unconnected to the rest:  the fatal assault and battery on The New Republic by its owner, Chris Hughes.  Some, indeed, contend that no significant lessons about journalism can be derived from this episode.  It’s just another case of digital technology disrupting the print media business, or maybe “the story of one incompetent media mogul.”

Both explanations are valid – but let me suggest another.  The relationship of this specific disruptor-mogul to the news business can only be described as pathologically subjective, and can only be explained in the context of my other stories.

The facts of the matter are well known.  Hughes purchased TNR, the faded beauty queen of the intellectual left, at “fire sale” prices in 2012.  He has since managed to antagonize most of the staff, who felt that he lied to them and betrayed the historic mission of the magazine.  When Hughes fired Frank Foer, the editor, after publicly endorsing him, all senior and contributing editors walked out the door – horrified, as one put it, that the dowdy old institution was being “vandalized” by ownership.

Think of Chris Hughes as Sabrina Rubin Erdely plus $700 million.  His wealth added a certain density to the fantasies inside his head.  His goals for TNR were famously captured by the CEO he brought in to run the magazine:  “We need to just break shit.”  Likely translation:  “Go find stereotypes of human devils we can smack around like pi­­ñatas.”

Hughes, 31, made his money by being Mark Zuckerman’s roommate at Harvard, and has spent much of his short life trying to find a suitably idealistic way to justify this accident of fate.  Purchasing TNR was part of his personal quest.  He wanted to break shit, center stage.  He longed to hear the dogmatic applause of sectarians.  He could trample on the work and reputation of others because he was rich, but also because they were invisible and he was headed to a far better place.

The significance of the news business for Hughes – as for Rubin Erderly – has nothing to do with facts, objectivity, reality, democracy, or even the reader.  The news, for both, is a field of dreams for the game of social identity and personal justification.

erderly and hughes

Traditional news reports, Walter Lippmann warned long ago, should not be confused with truth.  But journalism today seems to have strayed into a labyrinth of blind subjectivity, where wish-fulfillment controls information and the sole permissible activity is the ritual slaughter of imaginary beings.

The sociopolitical implications aren’t trivial.  An institution once devoted to the manufacture of mass opinion has turned divisive and inquisitorial.  It plays favorites and lacks even the pretense of integrity, thus contributing to the contemporary delusion that public debate must mean making a vast noise of negation.

The difference between social media and the news, in fact, is that the rant appears honestly and openly in the one but comes sneakily, with a bad conscience, in the other.

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