Journalism and history

During the Depression, Lake Wobegon Herald Star editor Harold Starr scoured the countryside for potential subscribers, willing to deal. Starr saw an old Norwegian bachelor farmer and asked if he'd trade a load of cobs for a newspaper subscription. The bachelor replied that if he had a load of cobs, he wouldn't need his newspaper.
-- Garrison Keillor

Fake news and responsible journalism

In the 1930's, the terrorists of the left claimed that the terrorists of the right were doing a bunch of nasty things that were actually the things that the terrorists of the left were doing - and vice versa. Maybe that's not a rocket science observation since they were both using the same sorts of disinformation and character assassination tactics. As the leader of the right said, "Nobody will care whether the victor told the truth."

Though never exactly, history does repeat itself: the fake news industry calls responsible journalism "fake news".

How can one tell responsible journalism from agitprop?

Investors learn the hard way to be wary of fake news; voters should as well.

Bret Stephens identifies the role of journalism as "clarify the terms of debate by championing aggressive and objective news reporting, and improve the quality of debate with commentary that opens minds and challenges assumptions rather than merely confirming them" rather than "to be to push a party line, or be a slave to Google hits and Facebook ads, or provide a titillating kind of news entertainment, or help out a president or prime minister who they favor or who's in trouble." But America is sorting itself into those who believe in objective intellectual reality and those who believe in tribal emotional reality. Devin Nunes - meet Hannah Arendt - "dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose."

It's revealing that although Trump watches Fox and Friends to feel good, he reads the Washington Post and New York Times to find out what's really going on, just like everybody else. Jarred Prier wrote Commanding the Trend: Social Media as Information Warfare summarized by David van Drehle: journalists must curb their overreliance on social media for breaking news.

But is anybody ever wrong any more?. I learn a lot more from my mistakes, and their corrections, than from being right.

What about blogs?

I don't read blogs and especially their online commentaries. To see why, take a quick look at the last one I tried: washington-post-still-beating-the-the-electoral-college-can-do-something-drum. One guy called Michael Cannon a liberal! Another guy corrected him - Cannon is with the Cato Institute! The first guy ignored the factual correction and stuck to his guns - that guy truly belongs in the "basket of deplorables". Who has time to wade through this sort of thing?

What about tweets?
revised 4 August 2019

It is necessary that the war should continue everlastingly and without victory.
 -- George Orwell

Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. The pernicious aspect of television was its evolution from an alternative channel for print-style journalism to a new channel of direct mass emotional manipulation. I wonder what McLuhan would have said about Twitter. There aren't any important issues that can be compressed into 280 characters with intellectual honesty, and the president doesn't get to decide any but the most important issues, so what happens when the president receives and sends information in tweets? Will the free press still be a check and balance in the future? Nicholas Kristof argues that the media preferred Trump, especially TV, because reporting Trump's shenanigans gained higher ratings than reporting substantive issues. The National Enquirer probably has a higher circulation than the NY Times. Thanks to automation technology, aggressive tweeters can act even in their sleep.

Twitter's fading prospects suggests a potential bargain, and perhaps the DNC should buy it before the KGB does.

However Cicero says: ignore tweets!.

Being hitched to the twin necessities of constant warfare and the public’s limited attention span...
suggests that Mr. Trump’s eventual downfall may be less like Richard Nixon’s than Paris Hilton’s.
  -- Tim Wu

What about primary sources and the internet and Putin?

When people researched the Federalist papers to justify the Hamilton Electors, how did they know that the faded pdf's they found were genuine? How did they know that they weren't cleverly revised to fit a particular agenda? Revisionism used to be a major industry in the Soviet Union, and probably never went completely out of style.

The answer is that in principle you could consult the primary sources - travel to various libraries where they have actual historical books and newspapers and check the original documents... if you could get access to the rare book collections! You'd probably have to blow the dust off and that would make you sneeze. But be thankful for the sneeze - that dust is valuable evidence that the historical record is intact. Even in its heyday the KGB would have had trouble adulterating all the copies of any particular American historical paper document.

But now it's all on the internet. Not necessarily in very many copies, much more susceptible to remote revision, which the KGB has the means and now the will to do. One of the downsides of the electronic information age is that it's technically indistinguishable from the electronic disinformation age.

What if somebody wants to save taxpayer dollars by "driving out costs" and getting rid of all those dusty stacks and having all reference materials only on the internet, where they won't age and get dusty?

Auf wolkigen Höhn wohnen die Götter: Walhall heisst ihr Saal... sicher vor Bang' und Grau'n!

If the ultimate truth about everything is somewhere in the cloudy heights, it will be safe there - numerous technology marketing executives will swear to that on their MBA's. And once somebody owns this valuable asset, how shall it be monetized? Is it really the plan that all information should be free to everybody forever? How will anybody become a billionaire that way?

Take a stand for or against Truth, and defend the validity of your position. --- question on an April Fool's college exam I remember from many years ago

If there are no immutable primary sources then it's that much harder to establish absolute truth. This is uncomfortable to a technologist like me - most kinds of engineers have studied physics and understand that there is some absolute objective reality operating in the universe, whether or not there are any pundits to blog about it or philosophers to deconstruct it.

But if an earth-like planet were revolving around a sun-like start, but without Jupiter to advance Mercury's perihelion and without a Moon to create total solar eclipses, would general relativity have ever been conceived, much less demonstrated? In contrast, special relativity is inescapable for any civilization advanced enough to accelerate atomic particles.

When dealing with human history, objective reality is a bit more slippery, but that's no excuse to deliberately avoid seeking it.

At least among leaf-node engineers in Silicon Valley, a person is judged by the power of his ideas. In the nation's capital is located at the absolute opposite pole, ideas are judged by the power of the person espousing them. So no surprise if there is an occasional disconnect between poles with necessarily different views of reality.


Speaking of Russia, this website went live on December 15. Before it had 50 individual visitors, it was visited by a search engine on December 18: = for the Russian Yandex. (Note that getting noticed by Yandex might mean more than you think.) Finally on December 28, Yandex was joined by Bing: = . No other search engines noticed it until January 23.

Consolidating paper libraries online is an example of "driving cost out of the system." "Driving out cost" is one of the mantras of modern technology marketing. But often it means "driving out cost from my organization and bottom line into your organization and bottom line." Phone trees leading to technical support in distant lands are examples that everybody can understand. Somebody saved a lot of money on his bottom line and achieved his quantitative goals. Everybody else paid the price though. In California, we daily see the example starting with the Reagan administration of "mainstreaming" as many patients as possible from the state developmental centers into the general population so that they become the homeless problem of local government. The state only seemed to make progress because it only considered its own cost.

It's not just fake news - now there are fake scholarly journals.

What about the free press - can it ever be free?
revised 13 April 2018

It's easy to bypass the requests for paid subscriptions requested by the online Washington Post and NY Times. I read all their articles that I cited for free. Then my conscience was pricked: by-attacking-the-press-donald-trump-may-be-doing-it-a-favor... so I bought a subscription to the online Washington Post. Then when I went back to the Post, I couldn't find this conscience-pricking article - I had forgotten that I read it in the NY Times. So I subscribed to the online Times as well.

I do subscribe to the paper San Jose Mercury News since I live here. I only use its online edition for URL's to send to people who are outside its circulation area. It's hanging in there as a good local newspaper, but its national news and opinion is almost all syndicated - often from those two institutions I just mentioned. Somebody has to take some action to keep that flow going. That action has to involve some money. The free press might survive presidential assault but the outcome of assault by economics is very much in doubt. America's free press has mostly depended on advertising revenue for most of its history. That era is almost over, and its accidental destruction by Craigslist, Ebay, Facebook, Google... seems destined to have consequences far more profound than any intentional act of censorship. Newspapers have petitioned Congress for an antitrust exemption to strengthen their relative economic power against Google and Facebook.

Some years ago, before the internet, I remember the Mercury ran an article critical of sales practices at a number of local car dealers. The dealers all pulled their display ads for a couple of weeks. Now the Mercury prints only bland syndicated editorial content in the car ad section. Prescribed blandness is coming to YouTube, too. So much for the internet as a galaxy of free printing presses.

What about Wikipedia? I link to many of their pages too, and they are asking for money too. They don't sell subscriptions though, they just ask for donations. Their fundraising has been questioned in the Washington Post but I donated anyway.

There is nothing to buy or sign up for on this website.
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