The Information

From the New York Times of Sunday, February 26:

“To some extent, the clash with the press was inevitable. Mr. Trump may be noisier and more confrontational than many of his predecessors, but he is being force-fed lessons all presidents eventually learn — that the iron triangle of the Washington press corps, West Wing staff and federal bureaucracy is simply too powerful to bully.”

I’d hate to see this allegedly unbreakable alliance, this alleged iron triangle, undergo a prolonged stress test. It might occur to the federal workers, both inside and outside the White House, that their paychecks are more important than their contacts with the press.  I know that the Trump administration seems scattered and incompetent but, as we have seen on our borders, scattered and incompetent can do real damage to real people.

The press shouldn’t be quite so sure of itself. It’s been smug before; it’s been arrogant before; suddenly it’s in the fight of its life, and it turns out not to have as many supporters as it thought it did.

Certainly that has partly to do with the White House’s persistent disinformation campaign, characterizing the  fact-laden Trump-skeptical media as “fake news”. (One believes strongly that this vociferous campaign was initiated because Trump does have something to hide, probably about Russia). But the press was pissing people off long before Donald Trump got involved.

Here’s the thing. The media were given a gift. Call it The Information. That’s why “freedom of the press” was written into the Constitution; what they meant, of course, was Freedom of the Information, but the press was the sole custodian of the Information. That’s why it was sacred; that’s why it wasn’t just another business in what would become the greatest capitalist society on earth.

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The information shines on the just and unjust alike

(I like to think of The Information as one of those glowing oblong presents from a distant civilization, floating a mile above earth and casting a large shadow. A disembodied voice — with an English accent — says, “it can be used for good or ill, people of earth. Choose carefully.” Then The Information scatters into a billion sparkly bits and falls like new snow on all the creatures of the earth. And only man screws it up.)

In the nineteenth century, the media thrived because it was the only one that had The Information.  It could decide what was clean data and what was not. Also, it could bring the country together by showing a community of values, as well as a community of facts.

The model was one-to-many. One large bullhorn; many passive listeners. The Information was something that happened to you. It required trust. But that was OK; if the media said that the transcontinental railroad had been completed, or that Grover Cleveland had been elected president, or that black savages had attacked a blameless white woman, they were believed.

You see what I’m getting at here?

It’s hard to blame the 19th Century media for being so, well, 19th Century. But, clearly, the media was the media of the white elites. Then there was a shift in the country, and the media lagged behind by decades. At the start of the war in Vietnam, the media were all for it.

The media didn’t realize that the information was already floating free. It had been floating free for decades, gradually expanding from the immigrant communities, painting a different picture of America. Black people found their voice; sexual and ethnic minorities found a home in some elite institutions. That information finally reached the people in power, and the media shivered in the long grass and raised its head.

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They got their information from covert sources

Stewart Brand once wrote: “Information wants to be free.” At the time, I think, it was mostly a flash of insight rather than any kind of predictive or cautionary pronouncement. He said that at the dawn of the internet, and the internet is what finally took the constraints off information. That’s a banality now; for the media then, it was just a distant bell tolling into mostly deaf ears.

“No, no,” they said. “The Information is still ours. God gave it to us to promulgate and define and analyze and protect. Our Information is the true information.” But it wasn’t, and it hadn’t been for a while. The media confused information with facts, but the information was never facts. It was always rumors, feelings and lies too. That’s what careened madly in cyberspace. That was information, wanting to be free.

The media had to share its gift, the gift that it had disrespected since the dawn of our nation. The media had always trafficked in received wisdom and common hallucinations. It never did the work to free itself from its assumptions. It’s hard work; I know that. But a great gift always demands great effort. Our nation had a great gift, a true functioning democracy. But it was ruined by racism and imperialism, and now we are not special, despite the ongoing yelps of American exceptionalism.

Live by the gift; die by the gift.

Let’s talk about the election that will live longer in infamy than Bush v. Gore. You remember the one, where the media got everything wrong, from polling methodology to a sense of the electorate.  They had information, but it was bogus. They knew what sensible people knew, what educated people knew, what people who still thought that New York was the information capital of the country knew. But the Information had been redistributed.

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Maybe it’s best to read Tolstoy

The media knew Donald Trump was a clown, but he delivered the ratings. He brought readership up. Every speech in Grassy Shades,  Iowa, was covered live by four, five, SIX channels. Clown show! Funny! Give him free publicity, lots of free publicity. He’s an outrage-spouting machine! Chatter chatter chatter. Hey, it was good for everyone. CNN, the network Trump now despises, made good coin off his race-baiting. And so the media became the indicted co-conspirators in the election of Donald Trump. Clueless conspirators, too, because they still all thought Hillary would win.

They gave Trump the Information. They gave Trump the gift.

Trump gathered up the strands of the information. He liked facts if they made him look good.  He liked the lies if they made him look better. He encouraged magical thinking. He encouraged bigoted thinking.  He encouraged anything that redounded to the glory of Trump.

For our purposes, it does not matter that the Trump voters were wrong about the major issues. (They’d been lied to by religious demagogues who kept getting elected by keeping their voters stupid). Climate change is real; immigrants do not kill people more than non-immigrants; there is no voter ID scandal; Hillary Clinton’s emails were not evidence of corruption, or Satanism, or pedophilia.

But their wrongness was not the point; reporters report what’s going on, and what was real was what animated the base. You have to report on what the people are feeling, not just those emotions you approve of. “Truthiness” is a lovely word for a lovely concept, but it is not an excuse for lousy reporting. How did Trump voters view the world? What were they saying among themselves? That’s a story. That’s some information. Maybe it’s distasteful to your delicate sensibilities, but it’s what’s going on.

It’s hard to talk about racism. It seems impolite to accuse someone of racism. Racial slurs: So tacky. But if racism is what’s going on, then you better talk about it, bucko. If hating Obamacare is all about hating a black president (and, really, it must be), then say that. Liberals think that by wiping prejudice out of the language, they wipe it out of the culture. Nope. Forget for a moment about speaking truth to power; how about speaking truth to us?

If someone had done that, maybe someone would not have been surprised. If someone had known about that earlier, maybe someone would have had a firmer grip on reality. For people so prideful about their proximity to the truth, the media were surprisingly deep in a fantasy world.

(I hope it is clear that I am including myself in all this. I had a platform, but I didn’t think it was my job to move out of my comfortable belief system. Maybe it should have been, after all. Maybe I was cavalier with the gift. In fact, let’s say I was. I was. My bad.)

The media no longer have control of the Information. But they still have some of the gift left. They don’t have a clue — we none us have a clue yet.  If we’re all going to be partners in this adventure in democracy, fine. But if you’re still going to spend a lot of time demonstrating how very cool you are, then prattle on somewhere else.

And stop telling me about iron triangles. Do you really think there’s an iron anything around D.C. just now? We have a government that doesn’t know how to govern, and all bets are off. But hey, go find the information. It’s gotta be there. Please find it. We do need you, and we sort of trust you some of the time, but you gotta do a better job.

Love, Jon

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They still have the gift

Photography by Tracy Johnston

Useful techie things by Michelle Mizera

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40 thoughts on “The Information

  1. Hard to say who screwed up worse – the media, or the know-it-alls creating the Democratic party’s “strategy.”

    From: Jon Carroll Prose To: modspeed@sbcglobal.net Sent: Thursday, March 2, 2017 3:27 PM Subject: [New post] The Information #yiv4219117864 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4219117864 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4219117864 a.yiv4219117864primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4219117864 a.yiv4219117864primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4219117864 a.yiv4219117864primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4219117864 a.yiv4219117864primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4219117864 WordPress.com | joncarrollprose posted: “From the New York Times of Sunday, February 26:”To some extent, the clash with the press was inevitable. Mr. Trump may be noisier and more confrontational than many of his predecessors, but he is being force-fed lessons all presidents eventually learn — ” | |

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    1. I don’t know if you read Nick Hoppe’s column in the Chronicle, but not long after Trump was elected and people were going nuts, he wrote a column that essentially chided protesters and said it was time to accept Trump as president. This despite his obvious left-leaning opinions.

      Then, lo and behold, Trump goes batshit crazy on the press and Hoppe suddenly writes that he’s mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore (or words to that effect). A perfect example, IMHO, of a member of the press who has an inflated view of his own importance. And so typical. Trump may be wrong about nearly everything, but sometimes one of his shotgun pellets hits home. The liberals of Clinton, et al should just kindly check their baggage and leave. We need real leaders in touch with reality now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Too many “sources” spouting disparate “Information.”

    It comes down to “faith” again.

    If your God blames the Sons of Abraham, are you going to disbelieve your God?

    We gather as much as we can hold, quickly sift through it, and discard what we think (have been told?) is not the real thing.

    These days, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, we are still the bling men trying to describe the elephant.

    Where is a source you can trust and believe?

    For my money, I think I know the President and his cadre are ducks…

    But I don’t live in The Heartland where there is no PBS, no NPR, no New York Times, but plenty of Jesus Radio, Country Music, and Limbaugh, Limbaugh, Limbaugh.

    We need help, Jon, not just berating.

    Guide us, and help us guide “them.”

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  3. Insightful, thanks Jon.

    My nitpick: the commonly used “my bad” is a shrug off. To say “I apologize” seems more sincere.

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  4. It’s actually worse than you think, because many of us no longer listen to or watch the news. The reason? We don’t watch “television” any more. I used to watch TV but in the end I could no longer stomach paying Pish Network for content 95% of which was junk. So now I just watch movies and series. I bet there are many more like me.

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  5. Media told us that Hillary was OK, even though she’d birthed her own gawdawful healthcare scheme during her hubby’s first tour. Media didn’t talk about her lack of success in NY or even as Secretary of State. Media told us she was OK.

    Personally, I hated her obvious fear of black people, southerners, or other real world people….but I wound up voting for her despite the support given her by the obviously failed and absurd Dem party.

    So all of us wound up with our favorite nightmare.

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  6. It has taken a while, as various elements in our society work their way through the stages of grief or ecstasy over the events that led up to November 8, 2016 and the aftermath. But we are now beginning to see some elements of the media/press/information gatherers et alia start to examine what real people who voted thought and are now thinking about what they hoped to accomplish by putting Trump in the White House. The ignored and the forgotten and the shunned are finally getting their stories told, here and there.

    The first reports I read were online via The Guardian, and It was almost shocking to discover that ordinary Trump supporters/voters out in the so-called hinterlands were simply honest folks who were tired and despairing of the status quo. They voted for Trump, if I can accurately summarize their motivations, basically because they were mad as hell at the way things were, and couldn’t take it anymore. They wanted a disrupter, and Trump was the closest thing to one on the ballot, never mind his failings and weaknesses.

    What I’m now learning about Trump voters is that they are not crazies and racists and bigots and idiots. Lord knows, there are enough deplorables in all political camps. The stories I’m reading now are describing Americans who are anything but what the mainstream media’s campaign information suggested: you’d have to be crazy to vote for Trump.

    The danger for Trump and members of his administration and the Republican Party is that the people who put all of them in office expect results. My guess is that Trump’s got to start delivering tangible results by the Fourth of July, or he’s a goner. As for the media — the Fourth Estate — it’s encouraging to see the reinvigoration and the knuckling down to honest reportage, but let’s hope it’s not too little, too late.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, yeah. I too thought Michael Moore was crazy when he predicted a Trump win six months (at least) before November. Although I saw and heard what the Trump supporters profiled on PBS and interviewed on NPR were saying — and had no trouble understanding why they were so upset — I couldn’t (and can’t) fathom how any sentient being could possibly consider Trump to be the solution to any of their problems.

        That said, I think you’re right — it was a cry for help wrapped in a scream of rage. That the liberal establishment considered Trump such a buffoon only added to their zeal: this was a chance to stick it to those who had so long ignored the flyover fears and concerns of Trump’s base.

        And oh boy, did they stuck it to us but good…

        What will happen, of course, is that we’ll all pay the price for this tragic error, but — irony having been burned into our social and cultural DNA — those who so fervently supported Trump will suffer the most from his con-man lies and ultimate betrayal.

        So what happens when the great populist beast finally realizes that it’s been duped again, that those jobs really are gone for good, along with their health care — and that the New Boss isn’t merely the same as the Old Boss, but ever so much worse?

        Clockwork Orange, coming to a city near you…

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Watergate was only a smokescreen that came along at the right time to hide the GOP’s pre-election manipulation of Vietnam’s “President” Ky. The GOP instructed him to prevent approval of Paris Peace Accords…leading to half of America’s and Vietnam’s dead before we finally did sign on to the same deal, nearly a presidential term later.

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  7. Once again you have nailed it….no matter if you were not up to hammering nails for a bit…it is so important to us all that you are now

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  8. I am not convinced that what you are doing is sounding the death knell of the news media as we have understood it. There is so much going on, so fast, so frenetically that it is almost impossible to hold onto it, to fit it into any coherent story and you gotta have a story, one that people can grab onto and believe. Watergate was a wild story, an unfolding story. Does any of this shit going on now (like the Russian stuff) read like a story?

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  9. The Information – sounds like the Knowledge for a London cabbie.
    This is parallel to Mike Daisey, but he’s long form, two hours in a theater seat.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I never thought I would see a black President in my lifetime. I voted for Obama (twice.) When he won the first time, I remember thinking, “Maybe we’ve finally turned the corner in this country. Maybe racism is dying. Maybe now it will even be cool to be black.”
    Then the Tea Party started up. White people in tears with signs that read, “We want our country back!” I knew what that meant. White people were losing the entitlement given them hundreds of years ago. They couldn’t endure a black man as President. Half the people in this country were intractably, irredeemably racist.
    The media never confronted this. It was “A different point of view.” Limbaugh and his acolytes spouting toxic, white victim lies, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. No outrage or challenge from the media.
    It’s all about race. White people invented “race.” Trump played em real good. We’re screwed.

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    1. It was inevitable that the Empire would strike back in some way, but never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d end up watching Emperor Trump addressing congress and the nation as president. I don’t think even George Lucas could come up with a plot twist this insane…

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  11. Dude, you nailed it… this time, you did the ultra rare thing, you criticized a creaky, arrogant institution. Of course, the media will do their typical one-sided come-back and simply say, you’re wrong & they’re right, kinda like the John Houseman character in The Paper Chase when he slapped down a childish student.

    trump has peeled back the thin veneer of a hoped for progressive society… all the niceties of the Peace Corps, liberal educations, equalities and fairness have been vaporized and those that believed in those values are coming to grips w/ the repudiation of their core beliefs.

    trump has an imperial CEO mindset, not much different from that of past egomaniac, obsessive rich guys – Carnegie, Rockefeller, Standford, Ford, etc… But this time, instead of a disgruntled labor force left in the billionaire’s wake, it’s the entire liberal/progressive politic… and no one knows what to do… except trump, that is.

    George Carlin was correct… we’re circling the drain

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    1. Hey, don’t despair yet–the Liar-in-Chief has brought progressives into the streets and taking other political actions in massive numbers. Meetings of progressive political groups all over the country have grown from 25 to 200 attendees ever since November and continuing. Many or most of the new people say “I haven’t been politically active before, but now I see that I need to be.” Check out Indivisible, MoveOn, Together We Will, Our Revolution, Public Citizen, Common Cause, People for the American Way, Color of Change, Avaaz, Credo Action, Progressive Democrats of America, Democracy for America, and many others focused on single issues (health care, the environment, black lives, income inequality, etc.). When you despair, they win. When we fight back for our values, we sometimes win, we can increasingly win.

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  12. hi jon,

    good and important post. nothing like eating humble pie. it’s actually usually nutritious.

    I like the new look! x judith

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  13. Like so many others, I too swallowed the Kool Aide in accepting the conventional wisdom that — thanks to the inevitable tidal force of demographics — the GOP would never again occupy the White House, and that a more-or-less progressive wave would slowly but surely envelope much of the country as the elderly Republican base gradually succumbed to old age, and their retrograde rich mans party finally withered away into irrelevance.

    But like the Titanic, our happy narrative hit an unseen iceberg late on the night of Nov 8, and by dawn rested in a cold, watery grave. This was one hell of a wake-up call, all right.

    As mom used to say, “no good can come of this…”

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  14. I once had a professor who wrote the text book for the subject I was taking. After long chapters of dense reading, he would invariably include only 3 or 4 end-of-chapter questions for those wanting to explore the subject further, rather than the usual 2-3 pages of questions found in most textbooks. So one day I asked him why, and he said this: “I’ve learned over the years that if I put more than 8 or 9 questions at the end of a chapter, students will only answer 1 or 2. If I put 10 or more, most students won’t answer any … But 3 or 4? you’d be surprised how many kids will give all of them a shot.”

    My point? There is such an un manageable and frustratingly unworkable amount of information and dis-information out there in the “media”, that most people just tune out altogether. and there are too many folks with too much of a vested interest in keeping it that way to leave me a lot of hope things will get better before they get worse…..

    What used to be thought of as “the Media” no longer exists — too splintered; too hard for the average person to discern truth from fiction (or worse); too susceptible to willful dilution and denigration by those folks who benefit from tying everything up in knots while they keep going about their business.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. This is kind of fun and kind of scary: at this moment we don’t know if we’re watching the beginning of the collapse of our national culture or if we are just going through a major shake up. This is both historically fascinating and existentially disturbing. And clearly nobody knows for sure how things are going to turn out. It’s like both watching a disaster movie unfold AND being in the movie at the same time. One thing we can count on, though, is that we are all in the process of being taught some very eye-opening lessons. We live in interesting times…possibly regrettably.

    Thanks, Jon, for allowing us to share our thoughts and misgivings.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Sorry, sorry to be so dense. My husband just told me it WAS in the NY Times. My only excuse for not noticing: Have that respiratory virus which saps energy and apparently one’s brain as well. (My only hope is that you get so many messages, mine got lost in the shuffle.)

    > Begin forwarded message: > > From: Nancy Kull > Subject: Any way to get the NY Times, etc. to publish a slightly shortened version?? Re: [New post] The Information > Date: March 2, 2017 at 8:27:09 PM PST > To: Jon Carroll Prose > > This is a really important “column” that should be as widely read as possible. > > > > >>

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  17. I read your column every day for years and really miss it. How about going back to the old length and subject matter including the dog. Doris Michael

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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