The New York Times Sunday edition came out with a remarkable editorial today.
The remarkable part wasn’t that they called upon President Trump to declare his agreement with the US intelligence community assessment on alleged (and it is, in actual fact, only alleged, albeit by very serious people who should be taken seriously) Russian interference in the 2016 election. It’s perfectly valid for the NYT Editorial Board to take that position and put it on the op-ed page.
What was stunning was that, as iconoclast journalist Glenn Greenwald pointed out, the NYT Editorial Board reiterated the conclusions of the intelligence community without referring to them as such–it just stated them as established, indisputable facts.
And Greenwald asks a good question: does the public need to see any evidence of this allegation other than that the intelligence agencies charged with defending the United States believe it to be so, based on their interpretation of whatever evidence they’ve seen? Is it responsible for the NYT to omit even the source for their information, so that a person who hasn’t been following the story would assume that the Editorial Board was referring to something established as a proven fact?
And keep in mind–this is while at least three investigations are ongoing into this very same issue: the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the FBI/Special Counsel investigation. It’s as if the NYT had reported that O.J. Simpson is a double murderer the day he was named as a suspect. Are they so confident the intelligence community got it right in 2016, or are they giving up on any concrete evidence emerging? It’s strange.
The heyday of consent
Pre-1980, before CNN became the first all-news channel, Americans had access to very limited, condensed immediate information about what was happening outside their immediate communities. There was the nightly news (usually a half-hour local broadcast and a half-hour national broadcast on the three main networks, which were all on at the same time so you had to pick one), there were special TV news programs like 60 Minutes and Nightline, there were wire reports from AP and UPI that local newspapers picked up selectively, and in major metropolitan areas there were major newspapers that had bureaus all over the world. If you didn’t live in a major metropolitan area, you could still access these national newspapers but you might have to go to the library or get a mail subscription that would get you the newspapers, in each case with a few days’ delay, so they couldn’t really compete with weekly newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek.
And that was it. If you wanted to believe something different from what was being reported in the news, you were basically resigned to being a more-or-less lone crackpot. Foreign news outlets really had no significant role in the US information space, and “citizen journalism” was confined to a tiny “alternative press” such as college newspapers, small and localized counterculture publications, and underground “‘zines,” which again, was pretty much limited to crackpots writing for other crackpots. There was talk radio–which got pretty crazy–but that was really much more of an exchange of opinions by people who all got their information from the same place, rather than a source of alternative news. Talk radio was kind of like the Twitter of its day but without the ability to link to anything.
So back then it was fairly effortless for the US media to create a quite narrow bandwidth of public discourse about key issues of importance for society and limit the range of possible debate. It was probably even more effortless for the US media than for, say, the Soviet media, which every Soviet citizen knew was state-controlled, so non-crackpot people assumed that they were being lied to and manipulated and that the truth was somewhere out there, but not in the Soviet news. The American press was a free press, but a structurally managed one, which meant that public opinion could be steered without most people feeling like they were being lied to.
Now flash-forward to today–it seems like nearly everything is up for debate, and conspiracy theories have gone mainstream. It seems nearly impossible to build an orthodoxy, and the question is: can a society exist without orthodoxies, and, by logical extension, without heresy?
From Galileo to Glenn Greenwald
Nowadays, we consider it patently obvious that Galileo Galilei got a raw deal when the Roman Inquisition forced him to recant his published works about the Earth revolving around the Sun. Now that science is a thing, heliocentrism is an excellent example of something that is empirically provable that was denounced by a hidebound, ultra-conservative institution (the Catholic Church) in order to preserve their authority.
But look at it from the Catholic Church’s point of view. In the early 1600s, the Church was still the ultimate source of legitimacy in much of the Western world, but its authority was under attack. Martin Luther had established the Protestant movement and Henry VIII had renounced Catholicism and founded the Church of England. The “shared reality” in the Catholic world, underpinned by papal infallibility, wasn’t just a matter of principle–it was a matter of political stability, of war and peace, of the entire social compact on which the elites’ status and the ordinary people’s lives depended. Weighed against that, it’s completely understandable why a responsible Catholic leadership could decide that one man’s theories–which, since there was no such thing as science as we know it in Europe at the time, were almost certainly assigned no value even if true–were a dangerous threat to the authority of the Church.
And in order to quash this heresy, the Catholic Church didn’t hire its own astronomers to publish papers countering Galileo’s findings–they just arrested Galileo and leaned on him until he recanted. They weren’t interested in a debate–they wanted to establish that the Church’s orthodoxy wasn’t something that could be debated.
The Editorial Board of The New York Times is almost certainly made up of people who consider themselves good people, people with a responsibility to shape public opinion. They understand that the IC’s conclusion that Vladimir Putin personally ordered the hacking of the DNC and John Podesta and the leaking of e-mails to Wikileaks is based on inferences, not empirical proof. In their op-ed calling on Trump to express unqualified agreement with the IC’s findings, they could have easily framed it as: the President has a duty to believe his intelligence agencies. But that still implies that some leap of faith is required, which is a fact, but it is not a useful fact if you believe it’s important that our shared reality–not up for debate–be that the 2016 election was stolen from Hillary Clinton and Trump came to power with the help of a Russian influence operation.
In their minds, the NYT editors believe that the alternative is too dangerous to contemplate: that Donald Trump was elected by Americans who chose to vote for him freely, and his presidency is the legitimate result of the US democratic process. They believe that Trump is a danger to democracy, the country and the world. They believe that Russia is a danger to democracy, the country and the world. And you can easily see that for people who believe all that, the greater Truth of protecting American democracy is much more important than the annoying Fact that there’s no proof that Putin masterminded Trump’s election victory.
And so Glenn Greenwald must be denounced as a heretic for asking the question of whether it’s legitimate to ask for evidence for the authorities’ conclusions.
And I have to admit–I sympathize with Greenwald. But I’m also trying to sympathize with the NYT and other pushers of the Russia hysteria who believe in their heart of hearts that they’re doing the right thing by getting out in front of the facts to shape public opinion so the people are fired up about protecting the legitimacy of the American political system against Trump and Russia.
Are some things more important than facts?
Let’s try a thought experiment. You’re the US president in a movie like Deep Impact or Armageddon. You’ve been told by your science team that there’s a comet headed for Earth, and there’s a 50/50 chance of an impact that will kill hundreds of millions of people. The problem is, we won’t know for certain whether the impact will happen until it’s too late to act, and if we want to prevent it we need to invest in a project that will cost trillions of dollars and require financial and other resources that could result in economic collapse, and it will be too big a project to hide–you have to say something. Do you go out to the public and tell them the nuances? Or do you just say–this comet will hit Earth if we don’t act now? If you’ve already decided to act, why burden the people with any doubt? Why allow any room for debate? What’s more important: to be honest in terms of facts, or to curate the information you provide so that the greatest possible number of people are motivated to protect the things you strongly believe need to be protected?
That’s another way I try to think charitably about Russia hysteria pushers. They believe that giving the public–the ignorant, impatient, short-attention-span public–nuanced information about what really happened in 2016 will not provide the result they feel is critical to protect America. Even if the truth about Russian interference in the 2016 election is much less dramatic than the intelligence community has reported, isn’t it better to be vigilant? That’s their thinking, even though the downside risks are huge, since hostile relations between Russia and the United States could be dangerous to the entire planet, not just American democratic institutions.
The temptations and risks of CogSec
I’ve already written about Cognitive Security, the proposal for the US government to establish an authority that would patrol the American (and possibly worldwide) information space to nip harmful influences in the bud.
But for people like the NYT editors, and other media elites–not to mention the national security establishment and government officials–returning to a managed information space, closer to what existed pre-Internet, is a very exciting and reassuring prospect. What if rumormongers and heretics couldn’t get their message out? What if some artificial intelligence and algorithms, administered by benevolent moderators, could amplify useful, cohesive messages and limit the spread of divisive and disruptive ones? The heretical information would still be there for those who are specifically looking for it, but what’s the harm in making sure that passive information consumers get information that builds their confidence in responsible, vetted voices and established institutions? Shouldn’t we banish destructive heresies to the underground and promote useful orthodoxies?
The harm is twofold: (1) it will cause heretical-minded people to abandon the platforms where CogSec is implemented in favor of unmoderated forums and (2) if implemented on a whole-of-Internet basis, Americans will react to the news they receive the same way Soviets reacted to the news they saw in Pravda: as being useful from the point of view of knowing what the government wants you to think, but not necessarily useful in terms of getting accurate information.
Back in 1980, when the American information space was structurally managed, there were still run-of-the-mill skeptics, heretical-minded people and out-there conspiracy nuts, who to varying degrees were annoyed at the way the news was presented. But it was so much of a pain in the ass to find up-to-minute alternative information sources that a lot of these people just didn’t follow the news on a daily basis. A lot of these people preferred to read books that gave alternate accounts of events, and there were plenty of these–it just wasn’t in real-time. Or they would listen to talk radio, which had content for every taste. Back in 1980, when there wasn’t some major national or international crisis going on I would estimate that almost half of Americans more-or-less ignored non-local mass media day-to-day until they heard at the water cooler or saw a headline that caught their eye. If you subscribed to Time magazine, which was like 30 pages a week, you could consider yourself plenty up-to-date. This is why, back then, when the media wanted people to pay attention to something, they’d “interrupt regularly scheduled programming” and have a special news alert.
Now the cat is out of the bag, the genie is out of the bottle, Pandora’s box has been opened. As much as the elites want to return to a time where consensus can be manufactured, I think it’s going to get harder and harder every year. I think that useful orthodoxies and “shared realities” on which entire societies agree may soon be extinct, and what ruling elites will have to do is deal with that as a fact on the ground, since efforts to stop it will fail, as they’re failing now.