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The Itch for Attention in News Media

Don’t feed the delusional bears.

Take the art for this post. What is the truth? Is it two or three in the afternoon? The left clock says two. The right clock says three. Is it afternoon? Could this picture be from extreme latitudes during summer? Both could be wrong. Timekeeping is arbitrary. There could be a temporal anomaly and both could be right.

We often see media posturing to get things right. To get the correct answer. To ace the test. But the media isn’t graded by actual correctness. It’s graded based on viewer consensus—or really viewer consent. It’s graded by getting eyeballs to look at it. If the eyeballs show up, it’s got it right, hasn’t it?

And it mainly learns how to do that. Is it any wonder that the right-wing media often makes things up? It is less concerned with being the wrong clock in the picture, exactly because it is more comfortable with its true role of being a magnet for eyeballs. It is so unconcerned that parts of it often read and look more like a factitious disorder imposed by media.

What does that mean? You can see Wikipedia: “Factitious disorder imposed on another” for an overview, but basically it means the RWM often invents problems—CRT, Jade Helm, social media censorship—in order to draw attention. It shops some new fake symptoms around, some claim of calamity, some cry of wolf, until it finds another crack in the broader media to draw eyeballs in.

A crudely drawn wolf arm holding up a mirror with a cruder reflection of a wolf in it. Thought bubble reads, "Wolf! I've spied a WOLF!"
The RWM looks in a mirror.

This isn’t something exclusive to the RWM. The Times had a recent story about the Russian Federation engaging in the same kind of stuff via social media in 2017: (Paywall) The New York Times: 18 September 2022: Ellen Barry: “How Russian Trolls Helped Keep the Women’s March Out of Lock Step” (emphasis added):

At desks in bland offices in St. Petersburg, using models derived from advertising and public relations, copywriters were testing out social media messages critical of the Women’s March movement, adopting the personas of fictional Americans.

That part is key. The advertising industry (and factions of media generally) is known to impose on its consumers’ insecurities in order to make a sale. They’ll invent all sorts of problems for you if it means you’ll buy a product. It’s the same for political disinformation, of media meant to fabricate illness in society so that you’ll donate to their cause or you’ll vote for their lackey.

The RWM is locked into this kind of concocted illness drama. Them, with the Repub politicians, are in a kind of activated state of disinformation. Like an abuser, they have learned they are rewarded for disinformation, for faking the illnesses of America and causing a big hubbub.

They create false grievances for the business class to worry over. They basically put up a second clock with the wrong time and then want to fight about which one is right.

In order to combat this abuse, the rest of the media has to both point out the reality, point out the clock that is correct, but also minimize coverage of the argument. Two clocks disagreeing makes a funny picture, but it doesn’t make a useful argument. And once you know a clock is wrong, it doesn’t make sense to keep checking it. It’s wrong. It’s a Joseph McCarthy. It doesn’t serve the public interest to keep pretending it might be right when we know it won’t.

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The Need for Good Right-Wing Media

The shape of American media and politics is a lukewarm pool of the Democratic mainstream next to a “Republican” spike pit covered by a confederate flag wearing a MAGA hat.

One thing that keeps coming to mind in thinking about the political problem is the separation of the right-wing media, how to deal with it. Occasionally we see stories about how conservatives can’t be persuaded, but the fact is they are very much persuadable by their own media. The fact that mainstream media can’t persuade them has more to do with the source than their minds.

The need for a Brand New Party and less toxic right-wing media go hand in hand. Digging out these lost souls requires persuading them, and that requires alternative media programming. We do see the same pattern between conservative media and conservative politics: trying to outflank competitors to the right (the more I think, read, learn about politics, the sillier I feel using terms like right-wing, conservative, and even Republican to describe what they stand for).

The whole point of my writings about a BNP is that you have to anchor it elsewhere. It’s always possible to get a frat boy to host a rant-show where they virtue-signal about racist replacement theories. There’s always a more vile and maniacal candidate to the right. The reason that GOP politics gets so toxic is the business community doesn’t want regulation or taxes, will fund crazies who can draw votes, don’t really care about the consequences. Some real crazies get in office that way and the whole country suffers from their instabilities.

The anchor point is center-right. Center enough that you can draw some folks who won’t listen to crazy People’s Republic of Donald John Trump bullshit, but far enough right that it’s still tolerable by traditional Republican electors. Is there such a place to set an anchor? Not under the current policy preferences of Republicans. But more on that below.

What does the anchor give you besides avoiding chasing competitors to the right? It sets expectations for audience share. You’re not trying to win over every conservative viewer or reader. You’re limiting yourself such that the dregs can and will fall away from you. That helps with advertising and content volatility issues. It saves your soul, as well, if you care about that sort of thing. If big business wants you deliver outrage-on-tap, that’s not your game, and they can piss up a flagpole.

One challenge of anchoring is that competitors may be juicing a bad story for cynical reasons. Opposition coverage tends to focus on a framing: “Can you believe how bad our competitors are?!” But Brand New Media could focus on why and what without necessarily acting judgmental about it. In doing so, they would check two boxes:

  1. Still being acceptable to the right-wing and centrists at the same time.
  2. Having some coverage of a story they would prefer to avoid entirely.

The idea of conservative-lite media requires new policies. Providing real market-driven solutions is key, but it also require acknowledging that many of the problems Democrats highlight are real problems. It’s been a long time since most Republicans have had to think about some of those problems: denying them was cheaper. But it’s better business to address them. There’s a lot more money to be made through competition than oligopoly or monopoly.

Simplifying regulations is a big winner. Keyword there is misregulation. Traditional Republicans talk about overregulation or simply use the word regulation to mean that any regulation is bad. But if you focus on the real problems and on alternative solutions, you can actually get more changes through that wouldn’t be possible through slashing all regs.

The current crop of Republicans in Congress believe obstruction is key, but if ten Republicans negotiated on the reconciliation bill, they could cut it by a trillion bucks and make it worth twice as much to the country. Instead, we end up with either a more expensive bill that does less, or a bunch of wasted time and no benefit—that still costs us trillions in both opportunity costs and damages from a less functional economy. Businesses are pissing a lot of money away by backing obstruction rather than smarter legislation. Dumbasses.

The Democrats tend to propose to make things less expensive by having the government pay for them instead of individuals paying for them. They don’t actually work to make the things cheaper, just to remap the path the money takes. But many things should get cheaper over time. That does require tradeoffs of labor for automation or structural changes to markets. But the result is better products and lower prices both, rather than inferior products at premium prices.

Another feature of a Brand New Media is a focus on experimentation, on trial and error. There is an easy-to-build hope and pride in a society that solves problems by giving different policies a chance and evaluating them. If a new center-right media presents such efforts in that light, it would help them build good will that the doomsayers they compete with couldn’t match.

Reconsidering Media Diets under Biden.

Under Donald John Trump, keeping up with news felt necessary in a way it seldom has. What should it be under a better presidency?

It’s important to establish some kind of personal boundaries with news. Choose what you engage with, how you do so, how much. The question as we’ve now entered the Biden presidency is how should people shift their media consumption habits?

The sad fact of media is there is too much of too many kinds that even if you wanted to, you cannot read or be aware of everything. Podcasts and newsletters and doomscrolling will not even scratch the surface of the total information both available and important. Indeed, any service or system or group that promises to tell you everything you should probably be aware of is lying. There’s just too much to ever keep up with.

On the other hand, giving up and heading to the seamster to get measured for a bespoke veil of ignorance won’t do. We have to try to grok some amount of the world’s events in something like realtime.

Under Donald John Trump, there was this sense that at various points things could really deteriorate, and there was no steady hand available if it happened. Over the coming decades we will continue to find out just how true that was, just how bad it got at times.

But under Biden we can break habits, find better ways to keep up. The good news is that Biden will help. There will once again be regular and ruly press briefings. There will be policy roll-outs. There will be policy itself.

The bad news is that there will always be too much information available, lots of it wrapped in boilerplate and lead-ins, other bits swimming in seas of empty copy put out as a placeholder, maintenance for beats that don’t generate too regularly, or as something approaching native advertising or pitched content.

In any case, now that we have a new administration, try to figure out how to adjust your media consumption. Try to find some ways to keep yourself aware while not stressing too much about all the things we cannot read and do not know.

The other side of news, journalism, has its own challenges ahead. Already there are attempts to say the inauguration coverage was too soft on Biden, and there will be attempts by conservative media critics to cause reversion to the mean in media. They seek the return of “but the deficit!” and other tried knee-jerk tactics that were popular back under Obama and Clinton. The media should resist that easy path in favor of breaking its own habits and finding its own better ways to be critical of government.

The last four years showed how too short life really is. Any media that forgets or pretends to forget these four years have happened are not worth our time. It matters what was done, it was wrong that it was done, and it must inform our media and our policies moving forward.

At the same time, it’s a new administration that must be treated the way any future administration should be: tough but fair. Build back better, media. Establish new routines and practices that will define modern journalism moving forward with an eye on preventing anything like the administration of Donald John Trump from dirtying America’s doorstep ever again.