Friday, April 19, 2019

The Problem With the News

At times in my life I've put quite a bit of emphasis on keeping up with current events. Reading daily newspapers, listening to the radio news and talk shows, watching TV news and political shows, reading - magazines and numerous websites.

I've taken breaks now and then but I'm almost at the point where I think following current events, in real time, is a waste of time. I like wasting time as much as anyone, but I guess I'd rather do it on something that makes me feel better.

I'm not sure if this is a good analogy but I'll try it...

Assume you are part of a group of people who designed a self-driving car. You equip your prototype car with a variety of sensors and recording equipment to collect data on the cars performance. You monitor the data continuously in real time and judge performance based on various pass/fail criteria. The problem with this method is there is no way to measure trends. You don't know if the things you measure are getting better, worse, or not changing - over time.

That's sort of how the daily news works - there's a ton of interesting data but if all you do is monitor it real time you have no idea how we got to where we are, or where we might be headed. You don't know if things are getting better, worse, or not changing - over time.

Because there are so many interesting things happening every day we (society) can end up moving very far from where we started because of unnoticed, or quickly forgotten, incremental changes. A leader calling the free press the enemy of the people (and a thousand and one other examples of broken norms, traditions, and traditional courtesies) are accepted as everyday events.

In the example of the design team collecting data; they know that the only way to ensure design improvement is to create records from historical data - benchmarks to measure performance which can be compared to real time data to evaluate the benefits/detriments of changes. Evaluating these trends also allows for predictions regarding future performance.

Just hearing presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg say the word data makes me sort of tingly ;-)


Assuming we want to know where we are, how we got here and where we might be going - rather than following the never ending news cycle, we might be much better served by studying history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, religion, economics, and political science.

Who has time for that? Maybe students studying liberal arts in colleges..or autodidacts with lots of free time, but not working people. So what can they do?


Read books, periodicals and websites that explore how the world works, that challenge some our preconceived notions, that are created by people who are interested in getting closer to truth.

A single book like American Amnesia - How the War on Government Led us to Forget What Made America Prosper contains elements of all the disciplines I mentioned above. That book took the authors four years to write with lots of help from other people. Those guys did all that work so you don't have too.

Don't trust experts just because they seem like they know more than you do - make sure you understand something about their motivations and potential biases. Determine their credibility based on comparisons between what they say and other independent sources.

If you don't trust experts, do your own research and become an expert. Anyone for do-it-yourself dentistry?


The Baffler has become one of my favorite periodicals for providing alternate points of view about culture and politics. Articles like The Century of Spin by Liz Franczak might take you 15 minutes or so to read but the nice thing is you might learn something new - about where we are, how we got here and where we might be headed.

The New York Review of Books has interesting long form articles about a wide array of topics - current and historical. If you love books it's a good source for seeing what books you might want to read. If you are pro-book and like libraries this recent article by Sue Halpern In Praise of Public Libraries may interest you. Sue Halpern is married to Bill McKibben the famous environmentalist.

I've liked The New Yorker magazine for a long time - initially the cartoons and as I got older the articles. Although these days I'm building up stacks of them - thinking I'll get around to reading them someday. You can learn all kinds of fascinating things from the New Yorker like all the different kinds of sand in the world.

I used to like picking up the Village Voice at Poor Richard's books when I lived in Bozeman. I haven't looked at it since they stopped publishing a paper edition years ago though so I don't know what the quality of the online edition is. This 1992 article, Bill Barr: The "Cover-up General" looks like it might fall into the - how we got where we are category.


I know what you might be thinking - aren't those periodicals all east coast elite liberal creations?

For the most part that is true...not all east coast but definitely elite liberal-type publications. It becomes a matter of perspective - how you think of the words liberal and elite.

Liberal, in the non-political sense, means being open to change and seeking knowledge in a broad range of fields - what colleges call the liberal arts. The liberal tradition emphasizes critical thinking - knowing what questions to ask and when to ask them - sometimes called the Socratic method.

Elite can be either the plural or singular form. Lebron James is an elite basketball player. Phrases like east-coast elite, or economic elite, use the plural form with negative connotations. We don't look down on Lebron James, Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods because they are elite athletes. Why look down on high quality authors and their writing because it's "elite"? Doesn't that just mean good?

You might argue that beauty (good) is in the eye of the beholder - isn't whatever writing I choose to call good just a subjective opinion? The liberal tradition asks us to exercise critical thinking before forming an opinion. It also supposes a broad-based interest in arts, history, philosophy, religion, science - the humanities. So...if we combine - asking good questions and having a broad based knowledge we can come to some general consensus on what constitutes "good writing".

I'm anything but an east coast (or any coast) elite. Because of the way I was raised I never thought anyone was better because of their economic, intellectual or social status. Sure they might be smarter or richer or belong to some other social strata - but not better people. The current occupant of the white house has a different outlook on people that some call the racehorse theory of genetics.

I try to read "conservative" publications like the National Review or the Weekly Standard but it often seems to me that they are not written in the spirit of furthering knowledge.

From my vantage point much of what they provide appears to be bad faith attempts to promote a particular point of view, without providing sufficient facts to let a thoughtful reader reach their own conclusion. To put it in another way - they often promote right-wing talking points you can find all over the right-wing media-sphere. If you live in that bubble much of the writing appears to hold to the theory that perception is reality.

They also lack what one might call - a cohesive (honest?) point of view, going from virulently opposed to Trump to "hey this guys not so bad he's implementing policies we like", in a few short months.

I also can't bear reading, listening to or watching most of the popular media conservative stuff because it's totally lacking humor, at least as far as I can tell - maybe I just don't get the joke. To be fair Jonah Goldberg who writes for the National Review and the Los Angeles Times does write some fairly light-hearted and amusing things...imho.


For awhile I tried to learn things by listening to right wing talk radio, reading Breitbart, watching Hannity and Carlson or Fox and Friends. I gave up because I'd fact check what they were saying with various sources and often found the right wingers were either not being truthful, eliminating important parts of stories, or not covering stories at all. It was interesting as a study-exercise in how propaganda works but stressful because of the cognitive dissonance and knowing this is the real world and not an academic exercise.

Rather than being enlightening after awhile it just becomes frustrating and maddening to watch, read and listen to the best propaganda money can buy. It's frustrating because you know the people shilling for the gilded class are not the least bit interested in working class people - unless they happen to employ them that is.

They are creating a show, with appropriate working class props - country music, flags, trucks, people in uniform - to convince working class people that government, liberals, democrats, coastal elites, brown people, you name it (anyone other than the plutocrats and their radical libertarian lackeys) are the problem.

One of the worst in my opinion, because it's so insidious, is a show on late night AM radio called Red Eye Radio. It's supposedly a show for truck drivers and maybe it's listened to by quite a few truck drivers. It's sponsored by Chevron among other corporate giants - employers of truck drivers, not generally thought of as advocates for truck drivers.

The hosts like to talk about politics, economics and government (nothing about trucks, truck technology, truck maintenance, tips for truckers, truck driving songs or anything like that). The main goal is not to inform truck drivers about politics, economics and government (or anything about trucking) but to demonize any group who might threaten the plutocrats power.

Their main product seems to be encouragement. They encourage listeners to be angry, hateful and to blame made up strawman versions of "liberals", "democrats" and "unions". Being a liberal, democrat, strong believer in unions who's married to a Republican I know that the stereotypes presented are like all stereotypes - inaccurate.

It seems like the height of hypocrisy that they run an advertisement for the Truckers Medical Fund (or something like that). The ad says truckers can't afford medical care so they often put off getting care until they are really sick (like those 40% of Americans who can't come up with 400 bucks in an emergency).

What's the solution to this problem?

Something like what every other rich country in the world has done - some form of socialized medicine?

Nope the solution is to create a charity where goodhearted people will donate to help those truck drivers get the medical care they need. If you look at that Truckers Medical Fund website you'll see they have currently helped (as of today) 2,549 truckers. It's estimated that there are 3.5 million truck drivers in the USA.

The Koch Trucking enterprise is a silver sponsor of the Truckers Medical Fund which gives you a preview of how medical care is apportioned in the radical libertarian utopia they envision - if you are poor hope for charity - if charity isn't available, die in the street - taker.


The propaganda network is vast and well funded. The corporation  targeting truckers with the late night trucker show also brings us Mark Levin, Michael Savage and Ben Shapiro among other right wing defenders of the plutocrats.

If you don't know who those people are...

Mark Levin tweeted this today -
Michael Savage on-air comments include: the Koran is “a book of hate”; some Muslims, at least, “need deportation”; and adherents of Islam would do well to “take your religion and shove it up your behind” because “I’m sick of you.”

I don't know what Ben Shapiro's shtick is but from what I know about the right-wing media-sphere I imagine he's a clone of some sort.


In 2008, Jim David Adkisson killed two people and wounded six others during the presentation of a children's musical at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Court records show he attacked the church in order to kill liberals "who are ruining the country." Inside Jim David Adkisson's house, officers found "Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder" by radio talk show host Michael Savage, "Let Freedom Ring" by talk show host Sean Hannity, and "The O'Reilly Factor," by television talk show host Bill O'Reilly.

Correlation isn't causation but if you spend any time listening to these propagandists it's easy to see how some already disturbed individuals may be incited to violent acts. Consumers of this media are left knowing less then they did before reading, listening or watching - but are quite sure that whatever they think they know is gospel....sort of like me ;-)