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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 16, 2023

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Richard Hanania has a new essay out, "Why the Media is Honest and Good":

He argues that the mainstream media is actually pretty good at its job and is good and respectable for every topic except race, gender, and sexual orientation. His argument has a few parts but the major thrust of it is that there is no better alternative--when everything is tallied up the MSM is far more truthful than competitors like Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Berenson, etc. He points out that the revealed preferences of intelligent right-wingers seem to agree with him--many still read the MSM and even those who do not don't object to Hanania linking their articles with commentary as "fake news." He attributes this to conservative incompetence at institution building:

"No matter how conservative you are, if you want to know what’s happening in Myanmar, the latest news on nuclear fusion, or what researchers have been saying about the pace of scientific innovation, one has to seek out liberal reporters and institutions. Your choices are to rely on leftists to be an informed person, or to live in ignorance. Nothing is stopping conservatives from building their own media institutions, except for their own incompetence and lack of idealism. Even the few conservative institutions that people take seriously like The Wall Street Journal have to rely to a large extent on left-wing staff. There is no shortage of right-wing grifters though, and the movement should spend more time reflecting on this fact and less time criticizing others. After the 2020 election, Fox lost much of its audience to other news stations because it dared to acknowledge that Biden had won. Fox should be praised for maintaining its standards here, as it appears the Republican base has a much larger appetite for delusion than conservative elites are willing to provide."

He goes on to use Vice as an example of good(ish) liberal media. While he says they publish a lot of disgusting and stupid content, he likes much of their reporting, such as when they traveled to Lebanon to interview bank robbers or snuck into North Korea. He thinks the good more or less outweighs the bad here, especially since reporting like this cannot be found elsewhere.

He then makes some concessions about bias in the coverage but goes on to argue that the media is far less bad than academia:

"But I don’t have high standards for humanity. “Be intelligent, don’t explicitly lie to me, don’t see yourself as on a team trying to ‘own’ the other side, and have some kind of professional standards where you at least care a little bit about truth” is about the best that I think we have the right to expect. And institutions like the NYT, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic generally meet that standard, at least to a much greater extent than most of their critics. I would argue that much of academia is broken in the way that a lot of media critics think the press is. In many fields, reading the scholarly literature will either be worthless or actually make you dumber. The press largely works though, and I’m afraid that if we dismiss the Atlantic as crude propaganda that is destroying society we won’t have any words left to describe Queer Studies or much of bioethics.

The MSM is at its worst when it comes to issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation because the left has lost its mind on these issues. One should be able to disaggregate various areas of coverage. If the media was as bad on every topic as it is on identity, I would probably join conservatives in suggesting we burn the whole thing to the ground, which is the posture I’m in favor of taking towards much of the academy. The press is committed to a narrative in which disparities are caused by discrimination and whites and men are constantly oppressing women and people of color. Even here, they’re usually not explicitly lying. For example, they’ll lower their standards in order to publish an unconfirmed report about an alleged hate crime against a minority, and often treat what should be at most local stories into matters of national significance. Recently, three black UVA football players were killed, and the Washington Post made it into a story about white racism, not informing the reader that the shooter himself was black until paragraph 8. This article may not technically contain a “lie,” but it is clearly giving a false impression regarding what happened."

Now, why does Hanania think we should care that the media isn't all bad? He thinks blindly hating journalists will simply lead to the right trusting even worse sources, and can even make people lose sight of the real issues in favor of lashing out to "own the libs." He sees the destruction of media as a pipe dream that is not even particularly desirable, and would rather reform it or create equally high-quality right-wing outlets. It also makes it more difficult for right wingers to achieve reform if they blindly hate media institutions and fail to see why the New York Times is read by many more educated, powerful people than Breitbart.

He ends the piece with an interesting example of counterproductive media criticism, partially from the right, which I copy below:

"To take a concrete example of this, in 2022 the labor union representing NYT reporters accused the paper of bias for giving minorities lower performance ratings than whites. This data should have reflected well on the paper; disparities are practically always a sign that a process is fair, while equality of outcomes should make you suspicious and can only be found in the most politicized industries and professions, or where standards are practically non-existent. Of course, the NYT was attacked from the left for its supposed bigotry. But the report was also featured in conservative outlets, with the articles not disputing the NYT Guild’s assumption that differential scores for blacks and whites indicates something is wrong. More broadly, the conservative press and even Republican politicians are generally inclined to support unionization for companies they dislike in the first place, often in the correct belief that it will hurt the institution in question by doing things like requesting diversity audits (sometimes they actually fantasize about unions being a force for conservatism, but this is a delusion that ignores not only what most unions are like today, but the long history of organized labor almost always being at the vanguard of far left causes, with the only exceptions being when it was in bed with organized crime). If your goal is just to harm your enemies, that’s a great strategy, but it will end up making society even more woke, since you’re not going to destroy these powerful institutions, and, as we already mentioned, conservatives have nothing to replace them with if they did. The NYT having dared to give black journalists low ratings in the first place should be taken as a sign that the newspaper isn’t nearly as bad as you think, and that if you engage constructively with it you can make it better. But if the Right is going to join the Left in accepting witch hunts involving unfounded accusations of racism, there will be much less of a tendency to maintain current standards."

I think his arguments are fairly convincing and the piece is a nice counterbalance to the usual MSM hate, but that Hanania underestimates just how damaging the MSM coverage of race, gender and sexual orientation has been. I am not sure I would say that the good from the large volume of pretty good reporting from these outlets outweighs the bad from what I consider the national gaslighting of the American population on these issues. He also sees the NYT's harassment of Scott as an unfortunate exception rather than a rule, which I'm not sure I am convinced by.

Curious what you all think.

His argument has a few parts but the major thrust of it is that there is no better alternative--when everything is tallied up the MSM is far more truthful than competitors like Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Berenson, etc.

Yes? And? So what?

This is not an argument that the media is honest or good. This is an argument that the media is more honest and better, but without making the case that it's good enough. This matters, because in a great number of things 'better' is not 'good enough'- a runner with only one broken leg, only an ounce of sewage in a bottle of win, a teacher who usually wears a condom when tutoring a student one-on-one. These may all be things that are strictly preferable to alternatives, but that does not mean that a lack of alternatives means any are acceptable, or not worse than going without.

To quote the article-

The problem with taking a nihilistic posture towards the MSM is that there’s nothing to replace it with. If someone spends all their time complaining about capitalism without making the case for a realistic alternative, what they’re advocating for is chaos, or more likely, socialism, which is much worse. Likewise, simply trying to discredit the media when it’s in many ways the only means we have to acquire accurate information about the world should be understood as advocating for making society dumber.

To which one might as well respond- and where are you going to start describing what's the problem with nihilism?

Setting aside that the Hanania doesn't identify how society is actually being made smarter by the current media, he also doesn't identify what society being 'dumber' even means. He raises the spectre of nebulous chaos as bad not because chaos is bad, but because of what the effects of chaos can do to a healthy society... but if the society is already sick or insane- and Hanania pre-emptively concedes that the other side has 'lost their mind' on extremely fundamental issues on social composition- this doesn't actually mean it's getting worse. 'Not having any words left to describe Queer Studies or much of bioethics' is not a loss when the the superfulousness of words to describe them is already bringing about the bioethics of queer studies to the applause of the media that is being defended.

If the consequences of a dumber society with no common media environment are different than the consequences of the current media environment, that doesn't mean it's worse. Hanania presupposes that everyone accepts the current dynamics as good enough and that an alternative is worse. While this is a fundamentally status quo bias that's understandable for how Hanania himself has personally benefited, it makes no such appeal to those who have not, or who have been harmed, or who see their long-term interests of the trajectory as being threatened by the very institutions supporting positions Hanania himself calls crazy.

Yes, a lack of common shared vision of the world will create a low cohesive society. This is not the same as making the case for why people should commit to a cohesive society that disagrees with them on a fundamentally cultural level.

As with Scott's attempt awhile ago, this falls into the trap of 'we must have something common and good to all believe in.' Hanania frames it as a resistance to nihilism, but it's really not. This is just the rationalist tendency to want other people to support social cohesion for its common good effects, without grasping on how dynamics like social cohesion come about. People do not subscribe to common beliefs because social cohesion enables good things- social cohesion comes about when people subscribe to common beliefs, which define what good things are. Appealing to people to submit their view of what is good for the sake of maintaining the benefits of social cohesion is fundamentally missing the cause and the effect.

Hanania wants people to separate the insanity he admits is fully present in the system. The system is broadly comfortable and profitable for him. It is not broadly comfortable or profitable for others, who he makes no case are being well served by the current institutions that 'only lie a little', and the fact that the lack of a superior alternative will make the lack of a single information sphere less comfortable for a lot of people is not, in fact, a compelling reason for others to defer to the established institutions who see them as the problem.

Curious what you all think.

I think he's self-centered and blind to his own mediocrity. No one so self-flattering of their own IQ should be making so many basic mistakes of argument, history, or social cohesion.