As evidence I present "Meditations on Moloch," which the author describes as the best thing he's ever written, and a summation of his political philosophy. And indeed, it is a long, thought-provoking and well-written examination of the tragedy of the commons, game theory and the problems of unregulated multipolar actors, until the last paragraph where he says And Therefore The Solution Is Omnipotent AI.
Yes, he is one of the guys who's really into whatis somehow called the "Rationalist Community;" basically a load of guys who despite their total lack of any relevant skills are saving humanity by posting on forums about the best way to make our inevitable computer-kings want to help us. Basically imagine a guy drinking Soylent and having a flamewar about how in the future they will too be able to unfreeze his head and you've got a basic idea of the ideology at play here. Here's a representative example of the output and background of their intellectual leader:
As is fairly standard for this breed, Alexander is also a true-believing libertarian to a degree that can be shocking to the contemporary reader who knows a thing. But what distinguishes him from many of these people, many of whom are openly racist and reactionary, is that he is also a decent writer and appears to possess the basic capacity for critical thought and questioning bias in the evidence. He also seems to have a capacity for sincere empathy that is notable, so he's not just some random internet idiot we can fully brush off. This is why I found his review of Manufacturing Consent so baffling. What is it that allows men like him, men of some intelligence and sensitivity, to get so close to understanding and fail so miserably? Let's dive in:
Manufacturing Consent (...) claims that the media acts as lapdog of the dominant neoliberal ideology...
I decided to read Manufacturing Consent because of this basic puzzle: how can both the Left and Right be so certain that the media is biased against them?
The part that surprises me is: I thought that, even objectively, apart from the bias to be expected on both sides, the Right’s case for a hostile media was pretty good.
And this perception seems to be mirrored by the popular wisdom, where conservatives complain of media bias full stop, and liberals mostly just gripe about Fox in particular.
So Chomsky and Herman’s claim that the media is in fact biased towards conservatives is startling and interesting and deserves a further look.
Less than 10% into the article and already the premise, the impetus for even reading the argument, is irretrievably fucked. His primary complaint, one he never seems to get over, seems to be that he is personally aware of a lot more talk about liberal media bias than he is aware of talk of media being biased towards power. But the very concept is, and I quote, "surprising," "puzzling," "shocking," "startling" and "interesting"!
Note also that he appears to forget the basic argument itself in the last quote; going from "the media has a bias towards power" to "the media is biased towards conservatives," which is of course not the same thing. This is a fundamental error that more than anything will totally destroy his understanding of the book, as we will see.
Manufacturing Consent, by the way, is not an obscure book. It is probably the most known work from a leftist perspective published in the last century. Chomsky is probably the most prominent American leftist of the last 50 years. It's impossible to have anything beyond a high-school class understanding of media criticism without building on or at least touching on the work done by Chomsky. This is not to say that everything Chomsky believes is necessarily true, but it does mean that to Alexander these theories are shocking puzzles that appeared as if through a membrane from another dimension is a damning indictment of himself, one that he expresses freely without even knowing that he has immediately placed himself as a totally ignorant layman.
But oh ho! After this disappointing start he accurately describes the mechanisms of media bias Chomsky proposes, and even compliments Chomsky and Hermann for the robustness of their presented evidence. He speaks in detail and accuracy about the history of western-backed interventions in Third World countries, and although he didn't know anything going in, he appears to be learning quickly:
I am left with a greatly increased respect for the view that it was Western colonialism, broadly defined, that has caused Third World countries all their grief. The problem wasn’t just British people coming in and telling them to work on banana plantations for a while, the problem was the total destruction of the country’s usual rule of law, hierarchies, civic traditions, and social fabric by successive attempts by western-backed dictators to retain power. A couple of decades assassinating anyone who looks out of place and doesn’t do exactly what they’re told, of tearing apart any organization or community that looks strong enough to serve as an alternative to the State or offer resistance – the question is less why Third World countries are so screwed up, and more that they’re not screwed up even worse.
The fourth study deals with the Vietnam War, usually considered a case of the media breaking with the establishment and taking a more pacifist, leftist position. C&H argue that this was true only within a very narrow Overton window, where the two acceptable positions were “the US is right to fight for the freedom of South Vietnam” versus “the US is right to fight for the freedom of South Vietnam, but the costs are too high”. C&H argue that nearly everyone in South Vietnam supported Ho Chi Minh except for the dictator and his cronies. The US intervened to save the dictator from his own people, but cast this as saving South Vietnam from North Vietnamese aggression, even though North Vietnam’s involvement was modest. A more honest account of the US role was that they were coming from thousands of miles away to save South Vietnam from “aggression” by the South Vietnamese people. Absent any real enemy except the populace itself, they were backed into a strategy of burning down villages and killing indiscriminately, hoping to keep everyone in such a state of constant terror that they couldn’t do any political organizing. The US media never came close to expressing this position, and therefore at best they could be described as “pro-establishment” and pro-establishment but sick of losing.”
He seems to be Getting It! Will Lucy let us kick the football this time?? Let's keep on reading.
I mentioned before the case of Jerzy Popieluzsko, Polish priest murdered by the Communists. C&H make a big deal on how the US media was saturated with coverage and calls for justice; while they ignored the Salvadorean genocide victims around the same time.
But I notice that the Communists killed about a hundred million people over the course of the twentieth century. Most of these victims did not get the same coverage as Popieluzsko; in fact, we’ve discussed before here how in most cases the media erred on the side of covering these up.
The remainder of the post basically builds from this premise: Chomsky SAYS that the media is biased towards western power structures, but really they aren't; the contemporary media covered up Communism's crimes, because they loved Communism. No, scratch that, his thesis is even more laughable. He doesn't come up with anything that disputes what he himself says is exhaustive research proving that the media is biased towards western power, so his thesis is closer to: "Chomsky SAYS that the media is biased toward western power structures, but look over there: Communists did bad things and the media covered them up too! And not because of the structural biases Chomsky describes, but because they loved Soviet Communism!"
What Alexander has "discussed before" regarding this theory are obscure works which have been recently re-dredged up by the "neo-reactionaries" the "rationalist" community has grown like poison mushrooms from a turd. These works are considered comprehensive even though there are, as far as I can tell, two of them, both with with the same plot. Researcher goes to Soviet Union, sees terrible things, goes back to west, newspapers refuse to print unsubstantiated accusations, man gets mad and assumes it's because they're secret Reds. There are a few other stories Alexander likes to write about, which he has tied into this narrative, which involve a guy hearing or seeing terrible things from the USSR, then going to his socialist organization in 1950s Europe and becoming enraged that they won't denounce the USSR because they are so dumb and goddamn crazy. This is extrapolated into being the general mood of the population, and particularly its elite media apparatuses, for no apparent reason.
Here's a smattering of how western media outlets actually talked about the USSR:
These are NYT articles on the USSR between 1955-1965, beginning with the oldest - the years generally referenced in Alexander's "scholarship," and the years before opposition to the USSR became a consensus on the left. There are hundreds of articles there, but a pattern immediately emerges: the USSR and its allied states are called "Reds," "totalitarian," and "tyrannies;" a great many scary stories about the Soviet atom bomb, Stalin depicted as a brute, many stories of repression and about refugees fleeing from the USSR.
This is not to say that these are inaccurate, or that some of them are not valid criticisms. But it does paint a vastly different picture of the one Alexander is writing, that the media of the time loved the Soviet Union and were trying their best to cover up their crimes. Or look here, in 1963, the way Walter Cronkite, the most respected objective TV newsman of all time, dismisses the Soviet Union with summary contempt, an event apparently considered unremarkable:
"Radio commentator Valentin Zoran, one of their respected - as far as the Soviets go - mouthpieces of the Kremlin is trying to counter-charge on Moscow radio that President Kennedy was a victim of a leftist fanatic. He has said that 'those who know how the security of President Kennedy is organized know that it is not possible for a fanatic to commit such an assassination. A political crime, thoroughly prepared and planned has taken place,' Valentin Zoran says in this terribly inflammatory statement by one of the kingpins of Soviet propaganda in Moscow."
C&H give a table of various genocides and the news coverage allotted to each. They find that, for example, the news coverage allotted the Kurdish genocide by Iraq (US enemy) was four times greater than the coverage allotted the East Timor genocide by Indonesia (US ally). On the other hand, if they had included Israel in the table, the lesson would have reversed; we hear far more about what Israel (US ally) is doing to the Palestinians than about the Kurds or East Timorese, even though the latter two cases involved far more deaths.
Here is another severe error Alexander makes repeatedly: comparing modern media to the media of the time Manufacturing Consent was written. This is not to say that the structural biases on the "mainstream media" have disappeared or even become less relevant, but that today, there is such a vast variety of media organizations that anyone basically competent with the internet can find a far broader variety of opinions far more easily than in the early 1980s; so if you want to go out of your way you can find a ton of coverage on Israeli human-rights abuses, but it's difficult to see how, at least in the mainstream media, these get more attention and less defense than, say, contemporary human-rights abuses committed by Russia or Iran. And if we compare coverage of mid-1980s Baathist violence to mid-1980s Israeli violence instead of mid-2010s Israeli violence, it seems to me that the Baathist violence actually did get much more coverage - and since Alexander's standard of evidence here is zero research beyond ones' own vague feeling, I think we can all agree that my own vague feeling can be considered a slam dunk.
Or what if they had included Iran (US enemy)? How many people know about the Iran-PJAK conflict that has claimed almost a thousand lives in the past few years? It’s easy for C&H to cherry-pick examples of well-covered-US-enemies and poorly-covered-US-allies, but it’s not clear that reflects reality very well.
Wow! Almost one thousand! Israel's 2014 Operation Protective Edge alone killed over 2,200. Low-end estimates of the civilian-alone death toll of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are over 26,000 and 120,000 respectively. But let's not "cherry pick" to make a point here or anything. Also, the remainder of this section is denoted to cherry-picking errors in their scholarship, such as a fairly inaccurate depiction of the 1958 elections in Laos, which I think we all agree wholly disputes the idea that the media is structurally biased towards western power. Whew!
Alexander continues his skill at skirting the razor's edge of Getting It, talking about accusations that Chomsky is a Cambodian genocide apologist:
And usually I hate terms like “genocide apologist”, because very few people are actually genocide apologists so it’s usually a call to outrage aimed at riling up an angry mob against someone based on one comment they may or may not have said a long time ago.
And finally, at the end of part IV, he sets up the football again:
I think C&H handle this impossible balancing act better than most. I think Manufacturing Consent has serious issues with bias, sometimes inexcusably so, but I think its thesis survives these biases. I went into this book with more or less the attitude mentioned above: the classic story of America being great was a bit exaggerated and overenthusiastic, and in fact we did a lot of morally ambiguous things.
I came out of it with more of a primal horror that we spent a lot of the 20th century being moral monsters, and feeling like we have the same sort of indelible black mark on our name as Germany or Russia or Belgium. Whatever factors C&H may have exaggerated, and whatever exculpatory evidence they may have omitted, I doubt that any of it would fully reverse that unpleasant conclusion.
Part V gets back on topic:
C&H’s case studies of foreign wars aren’t great tests for their hypothesized mechanisms of bias. Their first two mechanisms are big media corporations pushing a pro-corporate worldview, and big corporate advertisers insisting on programming that reflects well on them and their corporate activities.
And I can see why a mass media dominated by corporate giants might be expected to agitate against labor unions, but it’s harder to see why it is so insistent on covering up a campaign of genocide by pro-American forces in El Salvador. It’s easy to see why they might avoid condemning oil companies in order to preserve ad revenue from Texaco, but harder to see why they would systematically underestimate casualties from US bombing missions on the Plain of Jars in Laos.
It is hard to see, if one finds it impossible to look at history, or class interests and biases. What we call "the media" - particularly the media of the 1980s - is in fact the content decisions of relatively wealthy and powerful editors who report to CEOs and boards of directors, and who can be removed from their positions by those executives in the rare instance that they get out of line. These editors and/or members of these boards of directors may be very opposed to the existence of leftist governments in Latin America, because of the history of these governments canceling debts to western corporations, nationalizing their assets, implementing labor protections, etc. These were things in very recent memory in the 1980s. And these people who work at the upper levels of the media apparatus may have previously lost investments in these companies as a result, or stand to, or know someone who has or might lose money as a result - not the least of which being major advertisers.
This can apply as a general bias towards continuance of government and against leftist organizations generally, as in his Laos example. This is even without getting into what is generally called "ideological" bias - the bias against Communism to be found in the opinions of those people at high levels in the media, divorced as well as they can be from material concerns. But another major error Alexander makes is to view each of these structural biases atomically instead of as a whole. The next structural bias Chomsky and Herman describe is the "Sourcing" bias:
“the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access , by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become 'routine' news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.”
So even if we were to agree that there were no particularly specific reason for media organizations to underplay bombing campaigns in Laos, the fact remains that the easiest and cheapest information about these bombing campaigns comes from the Pentagon, which in turn is biased by the fact that, even if we were to believe the military brass was not deliberately obfuscating the truth, also is affected by the fact that the easiest and cheapest information that the Pentagon has access to in Laos is the statements of the allied government on the ground there. The Pentagon can of course collect its own independent information, but is in fact unlikely to look at the situation objectively, let alone tell the whole story to the media; and a media organization can collect its own independent information about the situation in Laos, but at vastly greater cost and danger than by simply reporting the Pentagon line. Alexander even notes this:
Although C&H’s point that the police department, etc, can also be sources in this way is well-taken, this seems less pressing for a protest in Seattle than for, say, a bombing campaign in Laos, where a news source might have trouble getting Lao-speaking journalists into the midst of the carnage.
It is certainly true that it is easier to implement independent investigations in Seattle than in war-torn Laos, but this does not constitute a sufficient argument for such a blithe dismissal of the point. Let's say there's some discrepancy about who initiated violence at a protest in Seattle, and recall, this is before everyone had cameras. Simply printing the line of the Seattle PD on a protest is the cheapest and the easiest. Reporting that the SPD said one thing and some protesters said another is a bit more expensive and riskier; it requires sending a reporter out to interview protesters, and potentially might get some blowback from readers and police sources for printing the slander of dirty rioting hippies. Finally, to conduct a large investigation to determine the actual truth of the events, and then ultimately come out against the police is the most expensive and the riskiest. This is not to say that it does not happen; some of the best journalism comes out in questioning and debunking the official story. But these stories, recall, are so notable at least partially because they are so uncommon.
Besides, what about cases where this produces the opposite bias? Might newspapers be overly friendly to regulations because they rely upon the regulatory body? What if there is a protest by a large, well-organized group that has cultivated links with the press?
What regulatory bodies is a newspaper subject to? In WWII, it was subject to censor boards, which did demonstrably drive content. Other than that, not many. Broadcast news is subject to the FCC, which largely cares only about "decency" and does not generally regulate political content. Cable content is not under the purview of the FCC, and aside from perhaps printing operational details about military matters, the US government does not get involved in their content at all. There have been US-based major media outlets publishing leaked classified documents about major secret internal spying matters for over a year now and there has been no serious attempt to stop them by force, at least in the US. If anything, the content of cable and print is driven almost entirely by what advertisers and customers want to associate with, and minus decency questions, the same goes for broadcast and radio as well. To assert that these meager regulations might bias media towards "regulations" generally, and then to imply that this might be as strong as the bias towards advertisers, is grasping and laughable.
While we're on the topic of false equivalence, let's move onto Alexander's analysis of Manufacturing Consent's fourth mechanism:
Their fourth mechanism, flak machines, raise a similar issue. C&H view this as a rightist phenomenon almost by definition. They never consider the possibility that, for example, their writing an entire book saying the media is dishonest and biased might count as “flak” on their part. Any conservative criticizing the media is part of a “flak machine” intended to “keep it under control” and “destroy its independence”, but any leftist criticizing the media is bravely trying to expose its biases and bring the truth to light. This seems so obvious to them that they never even have to justify it.
This paragraph in itself contains every severe logic error he has made in this piece. First, as with the above, he attempts to equate some meager criticism of the media from the left with right-wing "flak machines," believing that if you can find some example of the opposite side also pushing the media, that means the equation is balanced, without considering how organized or effective either side's pushing is. He also implicitly seems to forget again that this book was written most about media in the late 1970s and 1980s. Today, in the age of Twitter, there is something like a liberal flak machine, which can pressure organizations to deal with people perceived to be bigoted. In the 1980s, there were essentially only right-wing flak machines, hierarchical and overtly political organizations that directed letter-writing and boycott campaigns against the content and politics of media, many of which still exist. Fox News itself largely emerged as a flak machine. Today, yes, the equation seems a bit more balanced, but only as regards social liberalism; see how much trouble you get into if you write an opinion piece that says Israel should bomb Iran, vs. a piece that says Iran should bomb Israel. Recall when the king of the American liberals Jon Stewart, as a result of receiving so much flak, apologized on-air for insinuating that someone might hypothetically consider the nuclear bombing of Japanese civilian population centers to be some kind of war crime. Political officials in this country get vastly more flak for homophobia than they do for bombing hospitals.
What follows later is a critique of the fifth point, that "anti-communism is the dominant religion in the media," a claim which he says "hasn’t aged well since Manufacturing Consent came out in the ’80s. Worse, C&H’s argument for this position is almost word-for-word the same argument that conservatives use to claim that 'anti-racism is the dominant religion of our culture.'”
I have never really heard any conservative say that, but then I don't hang out on messageboards with "neo-reactionaries," so I'll take his word for it. If they do say this, it's probably an appropriation this kind of language, which is by no means unique. Alexander knows this: he regularly dismisses criticism that his belief in an omnipotent intelligence inevitably coming to judge the living and the dead is similar to a religion by arguing, accurately in principle but not specifics, that most everyone tends to call ideologies they dislike a religion. But more to the point, the reason why this claimed bias seems similar to Alexander to right-wing claims about the media is because it is. Here, in my opinion, Chomsky and Herman were being far too specific to their time period, and the work suffers. The final structural bias of "anti-Communism" is better expressed as the structural bias of Ideology and this is the only structural bias that conservatives really claim when accusing the media of being biased against them. They do not claim that the media is liberal because it's really more expensive to cite the Pentagon than Laotians, they argue Ideology Uber Alles - that all these structural effects are mostly true, but these media operations deliberately defy good business sense because they are Reds/Liberals/SJWs. Sound familiar?
After some complaining about too much airtime being given to anti-police-brutality protests, which I frankly skimmed over because it was making me cringe like an ISIS video, Alexander comes to the end:
They say that the media is a profit-seeking free market, and the best way to get profits is to appeal to advertisers. And the best way to appeal to advertisers is to appeal to the population. And the population wants to hear things that tell them they are good, and their country is good, and don’t challenge or dismay them overly much. Hearing that your government just killed 50,000 Lao civilians is a real downer; hearing that the war on those nasty Commies is going well will keep viewers coming back for more.
But this represents a retreat from the book’s thesis. The media is not exactly a propaganda organ that manipulates the people to serve powerful interests. It’s a tool of the people, giving them what they want to hear – which turns out to be terrible.
The conclusion the author draws here -that these policies do not serve power- is utter nonsense. Yes, it is true that if the people found out that their government killed 50,000 Lao civilians, they would probably feel bad about it. But what would they do about that feeling, you impossibly oblivious cretin? Some of them would, first, presumably, just as you express that you yourself have, re-evaluate a lot of their preconceived beliefs about the efficacy, purpose and morality of the presuppositions of American foreign policy that allow these things to go on. Some might protest or demand that these things cease. Some might even want criminal trials, or include them as evidence in claims that the prevailing order is illegitimate. These are not things that those in power want. Keeping the masses dumb and happy is not done for the benefit of the masses.
Alexander's final germane criticism goes all the way back to his failure to comprehend the basic point and thesis of a book he clearly did read, and on which he wrote thousands of words, and it is: What About Watergate? The media went after a Republican President after he spied on a Democratic congress. How do we make sense of this?
Well, if we approach this from the perspective of the media being biased towards power, there's no discrepancy. It's actually exactly what you would expect. Chomsky and Herman point out that the Nixon administration was spying on and disrupting socialist organizations, black organizations, unions, protest groups, etc., but this meant nothing. They barely made the news. It was only when he targeted the power establishment -the Democratic Party, and the Congress- that it became a national scandal.
From our author's baffled perspective, however:
So for C&H, the media’s rightward bias isn’t “pro-Republican, anti-Democrat”. It’s pro- a conservative establishment in which both Republicans and Democrats collude, and anti- the real left, which it treats as a lunatic fringe too powerless to even be worth mentioning.
This is a new theory, quite different from the five points about corporatism that started the book, and it seems to resolve the paradox of both right and left seeing media bias.
No one said it was "pro-Republican, anti-Democrat." He missed the point for hundreds of pages, and now at the end, when he is finally starting to comprehend what the authors are talking about, he thinks it's some a new thing, different from the original points, and thus suspicious. But he's got it figured out:
Both the rightward and leftward fringes notice the same set of dirty tricks in the media, and describe them in almost exactly the same terms. Thus both sides complain about the other being a “dominant religion”, both sides complain that both major parties are part of the same con, both sides complain that the media restricts debate to a narrow range of acceptable opinion, etc.
If we're reducing this to "two sides:" Both sides do in fact see the existence of a power elite that biases the media. One side believes that the power elite does this because of a series of structural biases in favor of power, and an emergent prevailing ideology as a result. The other side believes that it does this because it is systemically corrupted by an insane ideology that causes it to act suboptimally for no good reason. And these two sides are, to Alexander, equally right.
So we come to answering the question I asked at the beginning: What is it that allows men like Alexander, men of some intelligence and sensitivity, to get so close to understanding, and fail so miserably, over and over? We can find the answer here at the end of his piece: we see that he stumbled, baffled, like a giraffe with a head injury loose in Manhattan, through the entire book, then through an entire long review, without comprehending its basic point. Until he finally found the technique that allowed him to resolve the dissonance: Both Sides Are The Same, The Truth Is Somewhere In The Middle, and I Am Smarter Than Both Sides For Seeing This. This underlies all liberal failures to Get It. They oppose any radical opinion or social change for this reason: Both Sides Are The Same, The Truth Is Somewhere In The Middle, and I Am Smarter Than Both Sides For Seeing This. It is ego and sloth.
Alexander would probably deny he is motivated by sloth; after all, he has written in depth about the coming Computer God - beliefs which have, of course, altered his consciousness and caused him to abdicate caring about the suffering today in favor of a childish perfect solution in the future. An opiate does not cease to be an opiate because you've imagined your god made of code instead of light. I do not mean to criticize Alexander specifically. As stated, I feel decency and intellect from him. If he abandons his faith in this bizarre eschaton and embraces material critiques of the world, he will grow tremendously, as:
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.