THE IRON LAWS FOR DISCUSSING ELITES:
Honesty stops at the press corps’ edge!

FRIDAY, JULY 27, 2012

Part 4—Chris Hayes seems to deep-six the press: A funny thing happened last night on the repurposed cable show, Hardball.

As Chris Matthews teased his final segment, he talked about Ann Romney’s horse, who will compete in dressage in the London Olympics.

As Matthews framed the pointless discussion, it was all about Them—and Us:
MATTHEWS (7/26/12): Up next, why did Mitt Romney say he won’t even watch the dancing horse? He’s got a horse in this race. He says he’s not even going to watch that horse. He says he’s going to let his wife Ann worry about that.

Is he embarrassed by his wealth and the way he spends it? Could it be he is one of Them, not one of Us?
Reportedly, Matthews was paid $5 million last year. (Beyond that, his wife is a Marriott exec.) Romney’s income: $27 million.

On that basis, Matthews says Romney is one of Them. Matthews is one of Us!

Do other viewers roll their eyes when Matthews postures this way? We have no way of knowing. But as with Fight Club, so too here: The first rule of the press corps is you don’t discuss the press.

Press corps salaries are avoided; millionaires are permitted to posture. Everyone agrees to play. It’s the first rule of the (elite) mainstream press.

Journalists don’t discuss the press corps except in certain approved standard ways. This agreement extends even to your favorite young liberal stars.

That said, a funny thing happened on Wednesday night when Ezra Klein guest-hosted for Rachel.

Norman Ornstein appeared as a guest. At the end of his segment, Brother Ornstein broke the rules—and Ezra enacted a dodge:
ORNSTEIN (7/25/12): Figuring out who to hold accountable is fuzzy now and it’s the biggest one we have, given the way the parties are operating. They not only gridlock and do great damage, as you say, and it really is damage to the country, the fabric of the economy, but they leave voters with little opportunity to figure out who genuinely to blame. And frankly, the press corps is an unindicted co-conspirator to that.

KLEIN: I cop guilty to that.

Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, and Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution, co-authors of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, which I have read and is terrific. And you guys should all check out. Gentlemen, thank you very much for being here.
Oops. Ornstein mentioned the role of the mainstream press in our broken national discourse; you're not supposed to do that. Skillfully, Ezra said he accepted the blame, then signed Norman off.

Does Ezra really mean that? Has he really been guilty of conning the public? If so, why has he done that? Plainly, you aren’t supposed to think such a thing. Ezra was just throwing off a line, in the process of escaping a topic that’s avoided all over the press corps.

Famously, the first rule of Fight Club is this: You do not talk about Fight Club! (The second rule of Fight Club is this: You DO NOT talk about Fight Club!)

But that’s also the way with the mainstream press. Ezra Klein has learned this lesson—and so has the plainly honest Chris Hayes, the scrub-faced fellow who seems to con the nation a bit in his upstanding new book, Twilight of the Elites.

Hayes’ book is all about our elites—all our elites except one. By page 12 of his heartfelt tome, he has already made his key move:
HAYES (page 12): Declining trust in the mainstream media isn’t helped by the simple fact that it hasn’t performed particularly well during the past ten years. By and large the media managed to miss the two most consequential stories of the decade—the manipulation of intelligence that led to the Iraq War, and the growth of the housing bubble and associated financial chicanery that would ultimately cause the crash.

But after surveying the wreckage of the fail decade, it takes some willful delusion to blame the media or an ungrateful public for our predicament. We do not trust our institutions because they have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. The drumbeat of institutional failure echoes among the populace as skepticism. And given both the scope and the depth of this distrust, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of something far grander and more perilous than just a crisis of government or a crisis of capitalism. We are in the midst of a broad and developing crisis of authority.
Hayes often seems like a puppy dog shaking a chew toy—but he also can be rather slick. Ignore the fact that he limits his scope to the past decade, freeing himself from explaining the decade in which the press corps invented long strings of pseudo-scandals about Bill Clinton, then Candidate Gore.

Ignore that helpfully limited scope. Instead, look at the logic employed in the highlighted passage.

So slick! Just like that, Hayes links the media to the public, decoupling it from the elites his book is designed to explore. He also splits the media from “our institutions,” accomplishing this in one move.

“Our institutions” have “shown themselves to be untrustworthy,” Hayes quite correctly says. It’s safe for Hayes to say this thing because the elite institution to which he belongs has now been severed from this sweep of blame.

“We are in the midst of a broad and developing crisis of authority,” Hayes correctly says. He can say this because, by the rules of the game he has drawn, the mainstream press corps has ceased to be one of our institutions of authority. He can safely continue on the next page, throwing down thunder like this:
HAYES (page 13): We now operate in a world in which we can assume neither competence nor good faith from the authorities, and the consequences of this simple, devastating realization is the defining feature of American life at the end of this low, dishonest decade. The failure and the distrust it has spawned is the most powerful and least understood aspect of current politics and society. It structures and constrains the very process by which we gather facts, form opinions and execute self-governance. It connects the Iraq War and the financial crisis, the Tea Party and Move On, the despair of laid-off autoworkers in Detroit to the foreclosed homeowners in Las Vegas and the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans: nothing seems to work. All the smart people fucked up, and no one seems willing to take responsibility.
Hayes signals authenticity with his rough, earthy talk. “All the smart people fucked up,” he says, unable to restrain himself, “and no one seems willing to take responsibility.”

Of course, on the previous page, Hayes has seemed to excuse his own elite from any real share of responsibility for the disasters under review. “It takes willful delusion” to blame his elite, our earnest young straight-talker said.

So it has gone for the past twenty years as the press corps keeps conning us rubes.

It isn’t that Hayes never mentions the press as he explores elite failure. At occasional points, the press corps does get mentioned, almost always with modest billing and with no names disclosed.

As Hayes nears the end of Chapter 1, he describes our troubled state of affairs. If you use a magnifying glass, you will see the role of the press corps:
HAYES (page 28): At the moment, we are caught in a strange limbo between stage one and two. While the pillar institutions of American life are now, almost without exception, viewed with deep skepticism by the American public, these institutions remain largely unreformed, helmed by the same elites who screwed them up in the first place. The men who oversaw baseball’s scandal-ridden steroid era still run the sport. The same bishops who lied about and covered up serial sexual abuse of minors are still running dioceses around the country. In Washington, the very architects of disaster—the pundits who sold the Iraq War, the prophets of deregulation, the corrupt and discredited lobbyists and merchants of influence—return time and again, Terminator-like, to the seats of power. We’ve swapped out the party in charge in three successive elections, and yet the country’s key unelected power brokers remain unchanged.

In the case of Wall Street, the situation is even worse. Thanks to unprecedented government assistance, Wall Street has managed to increase its economic and political power. Bonuses and profits are near record levels, as is the money the financial services industry is spending on lobbying and donating to campaigns. Just a year after they induced the worst financial crisis in eighty years, Illinois senator Dick Durbin was moved to tell an interviewer that banks’ influence on Capitol Hill was so great that “they frankly own the place.”

The American body politic is sick. We are stalked, as a patient with a fever might be, by the maddening sensation that things aren’t right.
The press corps doesn’t escape all mention as Hayes describes our parlous state. In this summary, the pundit corps gets seven words—although no names have been named.

Does Hayes ever do justice to the failures of our press corps elite? Hayes now belongs to this failing elite; presumably, he’s paid a good wage.

Does he bite the hand which feeds—the hand which will feed him in seven figures (and with great fame) if he can just stay on course?

The rubber hits the road in Chapter 4, of seven chapters in all.

Chapter 4 bears this title: WHO KNOWS? In this chapter, Hayes discusses the way American citizens garner their facts and their knowledge. But how strange! Instead of organizing his chapter around the famous elite institutions which are designed to inform us, Hayes adopts a framework which strikes us as odd, especially given the stated focus of this high-minded book:
HAYES (page 106): Which brings us to the most destructive effect of the fail decade. The cascade of elite failure has discredited not only elites and our central institutions, but the very mental habits we use to form our beliefs about the world. At the same time, the Internet has produced an unprecedented amount of information to sort through and radically expanded the arduous task of figuring out whom to trust.

Together, the discrediting of our old sources of authority and the exponential proliferation of the new ones has almost completely annihilated our social ability to reach consensus on just what the facts of the matter are. When our most central institutions are no longer trusted, we each tale refuge in smaller, balkanized encampments, aided by the unprecedented information technology at our disposal. As some of these encampments build higher and higher fences, walling themselves of from science and empiricism, we approach a terrifying prospect: a society that may no longer be capable of reaching the kind of basic agreement necessary for social progress.
You’ve heard that general story a million times, but Hayes takes a peculiar, novel approach as he continues this 34-page chapter. Despite the fact that his book, right in its title, claims to be about our elites, he builds this chapter around our “mental habits” (see bolded text above), not around the “central institutions” which have failed us so.

In this way, major news orgs escape inclusion in this chapter’s featured topics. Instead, the chapter is broken up into discussions of our mental habits. Adopting his super-academized tone, Hayes examines the “mental shortcuts” “most of us have grown accustomed to using” as we try “to stay informed.”

He doesn’t feature the major news orgs which comprise the press corps elite.

What gets featured in the sub-headings of this chapter? Hayes doesn’t feature any elites. He doesn’t feature any central institutions.

He doesn’t feature the press corps itself, or its more famous members or orgs.

Instead, Hayes builds his chapter around three of our mental habits: “Consensus,” “Proximity” and “Good Faith” become the erudite fellow’s sub-headings. In this way, our focus is turned away from the press corps elite—away from the famous institutions which have repeatedly failed us.

Again, Hayes doesn’t completely ignore the press; in his discussion of “Proximity,” he gives the press corps somewhat less than four pages. Judith Miller, the safest of all mainstream press corps bĂȘtes noirs, rates one full page of discussion; Hayes then turns to “the business press” for roughly two pages, a safe place to go for a liberal. (CNBC’s James Cramer is named.) Even here, this rising young member of the press corps elite is laughably soft in his assessments and judgments.

Is this the work of a fiery progressive, or of a trusting child?
HAYES (page 117): While proximity grants access to information others do not have, it also has a tendency to produce cognitive capture: reporters who spend all their time covering and talking to investment bankers come to see the world through their eyes and begin to think like investment bankers. There’s nothing nefarious about this tendency—it’s an inevitable outcome of sustained immersion—but what it meant was that when all the investment bankers were seeing a bull market and a securitization bonanza that would last forever so were many reporters on the beat.
Hayes can’t even bring himself to cast blame on the business press! There was nothing nefarious about what went on! The errors made here were inevitable!

We have no idea why Hayes is so soft in his (very short) discussion of such a very important elite. Correctly, Hayes says our elites are "corrupt." In our videw, hints of corruption are floating around all through the mainstream press.

But Hayes can't pull the trigger here, to the extent that he looks at the press corps at all. In such ways, grasping young scribes may perhaps ingratiate themselves within the elite in which they’ll continue to rise.

People who may be a bit like Hayes have been described through the ages. Stendahl described the grasping young Julien Sorel; Oliver Stone had Bud Fox. Each reader of Hayes will have to decide what he or she thinks of the strangeness of this book, in which one of our major failed elites—the elite to which Hayes himself belongs—seems to get a rather large pass.

It would take some willful delusion to blame our state of affairs on the press! So Hayes quickly declares, on page 12. Later, his highly peculiar Chapter 4 keeps us from such delusions.

Suddenly, elites are gone. We focus on our own mental habits!

Each reader will have to decide for himself about Hayes’ treatment of one key elite. Does the first rule of Fight Club obtain when Hayes seems to deep-six the press?

Tomorrow or Monday: High self-regard and errata

5 comments:

  1. I like Chris Hayes and have defended him on this blog, but here you've got a point.

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    1. In fact, if I can find the address I may email him a link to this page. It'd be a real test of his sincerity or of what he is allowed to talk about if he addressed this topic on his show. I don't really expect him to go after his own network, (that's the end of the Chris Hayes show) but maybe he could talk about the rest of the press anyway.

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    2. "that's the end of the Chris Hayes show"

      And that is part of the problem. Criticism from outside is easily dismissed as sour grapes or favoritism; it's much harder to dismiss criticism from an insider who is in a position to know what he's talking about.

      I do expect Hayes to go after his own network, if he finds they are acting contrary to ethical journalistic practices. If he doesn't, then he's just another shill.

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    3. Well, no, he's not just another shill. There's too much of this "either someone is 100 percent virtuous or completely worthless" thinking in politics. If Hayes doesn't go after his own network, it would make him like most people who want to keep their jobs. He does very good work on most subjects (I'm not wild about what I've seen when he does discussions on Syria), but if he doesn't tackle his own network it means he is compromising, probably for a mixture of good and bad reasons, like most people in the real world tend to do.

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  2. " There’s nothing nefarious about this tendency—it’s an inevitable outcome of sustained immersion—but what it meant was that when all the investment bankers were seeing a bull market and a securitization bonanza that would last forever so were many reporters on the beat."

    But that's just what's wrong. Of course commission salesmen tell themselves the gravy train will roll on forever, even when they know it can't happen.

    The reporter is supposed to tell us that the salesmen are living in a fool's paradise, not join in.

    It was not due to a sort of "Stockholm Syndrome", it was laziness and incompetence.

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