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.

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.

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.

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

They still have the gift

Photography by Tracy Johnston

Useful techie things by Michelle Mizera

Who are you again?

I’ve been face-blind all my life, and it’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. A surprising number of things have gotten better as I’ve gotten older — my Gross Happiness Index (GHI) is higher than it’s ever been, as has my Sudden Understanding of Previously Mysterious Things. On the other hand, my body is slowly dying. That’s been true forever, but somehow it comes up more than it used to.

Alison Gopnik? Is that you?


Usually it’s not a problem. All the faces I see in daily life are familiar, from Darcy (the baby next door) to Omar (the mayor of Glenview) to my friend Brian (who hates the Internet and will never read this). I recognize them. But anyone I haven’t encountered in the last six months: Absolute blank. I know I know them, but I don’t know who they are. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to like them.

Actually, it’s worse than that. When I retired, I threw a small party for 50 or so of my closest friends. Naturally, not everyone could come. Terry and Pete were off in New Zealand, Peggy couldn’t make it up from Santa Cruz, and my daughter Shana couldn’t make it out from Montreal because she had a thing. (My daughter Rachel, who lives in the Bay Area, could and did come). So the day before the party, a Saturday, I was watching sports on television, probably college football. There was a knock on the door.

“Goddamit,” I thought, and probably said. A mid-afternoon unexpected knock is probably  a door-to-door solicitor, often one of the kids from an “American Honey”-like scam. Second choice: A neighbor with some questions or some data, including things like “did you know you left your groceries on the sidewalk?”

I opened the door. Standing there was a middle-aged woman. “Yes?” I said, and then the world went out of focus momentarily as I changed the parameters in my in-brain recognition software.

“Shana!” I said.

“Daddy!” she said.

She was the surprise guest for the party. I was perhaps a little too surprised.

Someone said that was Leonard Pitt. I think.

Last week I went to the Berkeley Public Library’s annual author’s dinner. Tracy and I were being honored or something; our names were on the program, but we didn’t get a plaque or anything. (I like me my plaques you bet). We were part of a fund-raiser, and who doesn’t want to help libraries? Plus, free food, and the opportunity to meet people I hadn’t seen for a while. Uh-oh.

All  of which was complicated by the presence of people whose names I knew but whom I had never met. Probably. Did I ever shake hands with George Lakoff? Had I hung out with David Goines? I’ve had several long conversations with Dave Eggers, but would I recognize him? He’s a big guy, right?

I entered the fray. Tracy went one way, I went another. Everyone was smiling in a vague, non-threatening way. A short woman in a flowered dress came up to me. “You probably don’t remember me,” she said.

“I’m sorry, I don’t.”

“I took a class from you.” Lord, I should remember this person. I peered at her name-tag. Problem:  The name-tag design team had made the first name real big, and the last name real small. I leaned forward to look at the name tag. She flinched a little bit. I realized that my face was about two inches from the woman’s left breast.

I jerked back to the full upright position. “Arlene!” I said. She nodded and noticed an entirely imaginary person over my right shoulder. “Excuse me,” she said brightly.

In that case, I did the right thing. I’d said, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name”. I said it lot that night, and only occasionally was it really embarrassing. “Vicki!” I said, forgetting the face of a woman I’d known for 40 years, a woman who was indeed my agent for 10 of them. (Technically, she’s still my agent, although there ain’t no money in being my agent any more).  She was gracious. She may even have forgotten who I was, since many of us share the similar shameful secret.

Dawanau Market Series.
I’m pretty sure that’s Robert Reich

Ten minutes later, I was chatting with a gray-haired man who quickly assured me that I was not supposed to know who he was. “I just want to say,” he said, “that I still remember a column you wrote. You said that  ‘Guitar Town’ was probably the best song ever recorded.”

Fortunately, I know what I’m supposed to do. Unfortunately, I didn’t do it.

“Ah,” I said, looking vague. I could certainly figure this out from context.

“Well, I agree! ” he burbled. “It’s just a great, great song. I think he’s touring now. Have you heard him recently?”

I did not know the song “Guitar Town.” I did not know who recorded it. Usually, I can pick up some sort of hint, but my guy kept just using the third person pronoun. He this, and he that, and I’m thinking: Who he?  I was in too deep to admit error now.

It was ghastly.

I later learned that “Guitar Town” was a much-praised song by Steve Earle. I know who Steve Earle is, sort of, (wasn’t he shot in the face on “Treme”?) but clearly not enough.  So, lovely enthusiastic gray-haired man, I apologize for misleading you. My favorite all-time song is either “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon or “Sinner Man” by Nina Simone. Unless it’s “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (not the Joan Baez version). Or maybe “Numberless are the World’s Wonders”  by…OK, I’m stopping.

So on and on. I met Steve Wasserman, the new boss man at Heyday Books. His nametag said “Steve (Unreadable)”. I searched my database for Steves. I just don’t live in a universe of Steves — except of course for the very famous Steve Earle. But then my Steve said something that provided context, and almost immediately I was chattering away like anything.

Later I met up with Dave Eggers — he is a big guy — who was chatting with a tall vivacious woman. I offered my hand and said I was sure we’d met somewhere before. Maybe some City Arts and Lectures. I wondered what kind of books she wrote. Probably works of philosophy; it is my impression that women philosophers are often beautiful. But who…

Dave, God bless him, could see that I was struggling. “Jon, I’d like you to meet my friend Connie Nielson.” He said the name distinctly, with emphasis on each syllable. “Con. Nee.  Neel. Son.”

Oh, right. The famously beautiful and intelligent actress. Was in “Gladiator’ (Russell Crowe, Joaqin Phoenix and Oliver Reed  all chewing the scenery with great appetite), “The Devil’s Advocate” (Al Pacino wiping the floor with overmatched Keanu Reeves) and “Rushmore” (Bill Murray being wry, so wry).   And here she was, waiting for words to come out my mouth.

“So funny, ha, I thought I knew you but only from the movies, I guess…”

“I get that a lot,” she said kindly, and moved her gaze back to Dave.

And then it was time to go into dinner. Later on, I was pretty sure Lakoff was at the next urinal, but it seemed like a bad time to talk about my enthusiasm for “reframing”.  Besides, it might not have been him.

After dinner, we thanked the appropriate people and I went home with a woman  who may very well have been my wife.


Photography by Tracy Johnston

Useful person in moments of panic: Michelle Mizera

Joel Selvin and Geoffrey Nunberg, chatting informally

You know, “Madam George”  by Van Morrison may be my favorite song.