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Chefs in a city under siege

We are into October in an even-numbered year that happens to fall on a particular 4-year cycle—no, not the Olympics; it's an even bigger media circus in the English-speaking nations, for we are currently swamped by the angst, excitement, and general swithering that goes with a US election year. Because the United States predates the telegraph and the steam locomotive, elections had to be held at predictable intervals (with a couple of months between election and administration to allow the new incumbents to travel to Washington DC by river boat and on horse back), and like so many other aspects of the US political framework, the election cycle was effectively frozen in aspic by the US constitution.

Anyway. What this means is simple: for a period of several months, culminating on November 6th, mind-numbingly huge quantities of money will be spent on systematically lying to the US electorate. Meanwhile, the news media will make hay.

News—I use the word to describe the news distribution media—is not about informing us about newsworthy events going on around us. Rather, it's about delivering captive eyeballs to advertisers who in turn pay the news media the money they need in order to keep on doing what it is that they do, which is to say, making a profit. There are a handful of exceptions to this rule. State-owned propaganda media are there to push a particular political agenda on behalf of their owners, but they're vanishingly rare in the English language media. The BBC is a very peculiar entity, a halfway-house between a state-owned propaganda agency and a truly independent news organization funded by charter: but it's in competition with the regular commercial capitalist news media, and so has been co-opted into their advertising-driven rat-race to such an extent that it would be unwise to look to it for an independent view. In general, the English-language media are beholden to advertising as a revenue source, and this skews the way the news is presented to us, the audience of eyeballs they wish to attract and capture.

The need to sell eyeballs to advertisers means that news agencies need to maximize their audience. And because real news is random, chaotic, and incoherent, a big part of their job is to come up with a comprehensible narrative—a grand story of the world around us which makes sense and which keeps us sitting on the edge of our chairs, coming back for more each evening or morning. News—I speak here of the drug, not the pushers—needs to be attractive, enthralling, and addictive. Bad news (stories of horrible things happening to other people) is better than good news (stories about nice things happening) because our primate brains are wired to pay attention to disasters: paying attention to the bloody smear the leopard made of our neighbour yesterday is an important survival skill, which is why to this day you encounter highway tail-backs near any accident site as drivers slow down and rubberneck. The news content is therefore carefully packaged as a downer and delivered to us via drip-feed, a brightly-coloured candy shell wrapped around the faecal bolus of advertising that it is designed to make us ingest.

And so: the US presidential election.

There is no news here. On November 6th, a lot of Americans will go to the polls and tick a box for a candidate. The candidates on offer do not differ by very much; they represent, at best, different factions of the ruling oligarchy. We peer at them and magnify their differences and get upset about the prospects of the disruptive change that letting the wrong one in will cause—but in reality, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney will unilaterally scrap the Pentagon, end the "war on terror", or declare a Workers And Soldiers Soviet. Whoever occupies the Oval Office is a prisoner to the institutional interests of the various arms of the US government, and has to work with the Congress they're given—remember who holds the purse strings? Truly disruptive candidates get filtered out of the system before the election campaign even gets under way: we saw a classic example of this during the Republican primaries this year as each anyone-but-Romney contender was paraded before the cameras for their fifteen minutes of fame before their flaws became too obvious and they were tossed on the scrap-heap of authenticity.

(You shouldn't read this as indicating that I'm in favour of a Romney presidency, mind you. I think he's a classic sociopath, and likely to be as disastrous as George W. Bush. But Barack Obama isn't exactly an attractive alternative to this particular Scottish socialist, either. Douglas Adams said it best: democracy is all about not electing the wrong man-eating lizard.)

Not only is there no news here (the election of Mitt Romney will not stop the drone strikes in the tribal territories of Pakistan), there's not even much of a competition. The statisticians have been calling this 2:1 for Obama for the past nine months.

No, it's not a dead certainty. The election is Obama's to lose: he can screw up completely at one of the staged candidate debates, for example. He could be caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl. A random event elsewhere on the planet, suitably mis-handled, could blow up in his face. But it's hard to see Mitt Romney coming up with a convincing argument for why he should win—a hitherto-concealed positive that will pull the undecided voters towards him. US presidential elections are usually decided by macroeconomic factors anyway, and favour the incumbent. There is no natural drama to this process.

Which is why the news media are becoming increasingly desperate to shovel the sizzle at us, regardless of how little steak there might actually be. They're chefs in a city under siege, and whatever the pompous cordon bleu menu might say, they're trying to serve you a dog.

[ Discuss on Google Groups. ] Update: Or discuss this blog entry below, now that comments are working again!

10 Comments

1:

Another test post continuing the storm refuge discussion:

The hyping of WMD threats and dismissal of doubts about it. The speed with which those few pieces of evidence for them made public were shredded was rather startling. Perhaps many of those rushing to war believed this particular bit, but its a false pretense even if you fool yourself into believing it. I was paying attention then too and was quite convinced we would not find a real WMD program or weapons in Iraq. Though I did expect we would find more than we did. I was closer to correct than you, but in backwardoworld the closer you were to the truth the less your judgements count.


You were paying attention? What percentage of the 200 or so UNSCOM/UNMOVIC reports did you read? How much of the external analysis, supporting documentation, etc?

I have yet to find anyone who ACTUALLY was paying detailed attention willing to make those statements. It's a lot easier to assert than to have been doing homework.


Coming in late but this is such a massive rewrite of history as well as a complete disregard for evidentiary standards that I had to reply.

First, a lot of people - myself included - were saying the evidence didn't stack up. Unfortunately, the relevant time period is 2002-2003, which in interwebs time is somewhere back in the 19th century. My trackable presence, such as it was, was mostly Usenet. We all know how well those archives are maintained. This was also around the time we had the precambrian explosion of blogs, most of them from that time now defunct. So George is asking for something that he admits is pretty hard to track down, iow, he's making the 'show me the missing link' argument so beloved of anti-evolution cranks. Notice that this is a strictly one-way proposition - I don't see anyone questioning what he says was his opinion was then, or asking for confirming cites ;-)

Second, as to specifics, whatever may or may not have been in those reports, the case for war was being made in public to the public and it's up to the administration to present the relevant evidence when making it's argument. Not on the man in the street to expend time they don't have tracking down obscure reports to make an informed opinion that will have exactly zero impact on policy. And what I and a lot of other people wanted to see was the physical evidence. You know, like Kennedy had during the Cuban missile crisis, when he meant demands for proof by whipping out those U-2 photographs showing sites for mid-range nuclear ballistic missiles? Instead, what we got for 'evidence' was mostly just more reports from supposedly 'reliable' agencies whose assessments - again without any backing physical evidence - we were supposed to take on trust. As to stuff like photographs, bagged samples, items like that?

The physical evidence - what little there was of it presented to the public - was quickly and effectively debunked in a matter of days at most. Remember the centrifuge tubes that weren't? Those ridiculous yellowcake forgeries? It didn't take a great deal of intelligence, acumen, or even street savvy to realize that if this was the best this gang had to offer, there was no there, there. Certainly not enough to justify all the blood and treasure that would be expended, even by optimistic estimates of the gang that couldn't shoot straight.

As I said, by interwebs time, this is like going over to lead-up to the Prussian war. But George, at lot of us were actually there. It strikes me that you know we were right in our predictions and you were wrong, and that you're deliberately trying to negate that by saying you won't be 'convinced' until people produce the documentation you know damn well is hard to find. This 'who coulda known' strategy is quite shopworn by this point and should be retired along side it's complement 'you were right, but it was only by accident'.

That being said, let's go over this one more time, since this is the outrageous bit that so provoked me:

I have yet to find anyone who ACTUALLY was paying detailed attention willing to make those statements. It's a lot easier to assert than to have been doing homework

One. More. Time. I don't have to do any homework to justify not going to war. It's on people who want to start a war to do their homework and then present it to the public in an intelligible and honest fashion. That this even needs to be said out loud is . . . outrageous. And not in the way Aquaman says it.

2:

Responding to ScentofViolets whose post has not been crossposted here from storm shelter.

Good point on your part, the person making the claim has to provide the evidence, it's not upon the listener to debunk him. You tell me you have a Bigfoot corpse, show me. It's not my job to prove you don't have it in your freezer.

I have a distinct memory of walking across my college campus talking with a friend, this was during the lead up to the war. This was the day it struck me that this wasn't just posturing, this wasn't just saber-rattling, we really were for damned sure going to war and it just hadn't started yet. My friend and I were both practically yelling at each other because we were so frustrated at what was happening. I think back to the assumptions I had about what was about to take place:

1) We'd probably win the war and accomplish our Machiavellian objectives.
2) It would be declared a success.
3) They'd probably find some evidence that looked like WMD's or plant some so hey, we were right, had to do it.
4) The Left talking about another Vietnam would be proven wrong and this easy victory whets our appetitate for more conquest.

Things that surprised me:
1) That the Bush cabal was so bloody incompetent
2) That the Dems were such spineless cowards and could provide no effective opposition
3) That the wars have gone on for so long
4) The cost, the cost!!!! Estimates vary, the one I link below from last year has it at up to $4 trillion.
5) That the failure of these wars was not hung like a dead albatross around the collective neck of the Republican party, disgracing them to the point that a splinter conservative party would form and everyone would flee there like a corporate rebranding after a mass casualty event.

http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2011/06/warcosts

3:

Ok, so it crossposted while I was in the middle of typing. Moving at the speed of thought! :)

4:
Rather, it's about delivering captive eyeballs to advertisers who in turn pay the news media the money they need in order to keep on doing what it is that they do, which is to say, making a profit.

Something I've been wondering about for a while now is just how effective advertising really is. My unscientific opinion is that if you have a large, coordinated apparatus relentlessly pushing the same message in all the traditional media outlets you can eventually get the public to come around. We call this, as you say, state or corporate propaganda, and yes it works.

But what about the more traditional kind, your typical newspaper advert, for example? Again, imh and unscientific opinion, those really don't work very well - if in fact they work at all. Belief in the efficacy of advertising strikes me as something akin to superstition, though of course the ad men push the line of the necessity for their existence.

Now, I'm not an especially informed or smart guy, so suppose further that what I believe is in fact common knowledge amongst the big advertisers who know damn well know better and fully aware that their overt hokum doesn't really translate into people buying what they're selling. The implications aren't good.

For one thing, while advertisers could punish the traditional media by withholding their advertising dollars, there was also some power exercised in the other direction by the fact that the media could also withhold ad space. Parity of a sorts exists. But in this scenario, the countervailing power vanishes since the media really has nothing to sell and they subsist on donations from their putative clients.

But in that case, the media are even more at the mercy of their big advertisers than is commonly supposed, and these guys aren't supporting the fourth estate out of the goodness of their hearts or a sense of civic duty. I suppose instead that they are demanding a say in the other, non-ad-oriented content of the paper or TV station or what have you, and exercise a considerable influence on what stories are reported and their slant, the editorial content, and so on and so forth.

Under these circumstances, the unseemly ad blitzes we USians are exposed to make perfect sense - this is the one time where advertising does work (or at least, where the suppliers can't afford to suppose otherwise), and this is the one time the media can demand their pound of flesh.

Iow, that unceasing and infuriating he said/she said style of reportage is the mean not out of fears of reprisal by one side or the other, or because one side holds the purse strings. The traditional media would be doing the same thing even if those factors weren't present. Gotta maximize shareholder value don't ya know, and damn the duty to inform the public :-(

5:
"I know half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. Now, if I only knew which half"
--John Wanamaker.

What evidence we have seen suggests advertisers don't demand a say in content - they merely withhold their ads from appearing with content they disapprove of. Perfectly legal, no collusion... but it scares the shit out of the American TV networks, at the very least.

6:

I share your doubts.

I think that good salesmen are real, we can verify this. Someone can sell an icemaker to an Eskimo, we see it happen. But in that very example, we know the customer's been flimflammed.

So I think ad-men are very effective at selling the idea of advertising. But the nature of the beast is that it's very hard to get accurate metrics. I would venture to say that it's only marginally more scientific than sacrificing to gain the favor of the gods. Things went your way? The sacrifice worked. Things went against you? They weren't happy with your sacrifice or you did something else wrong. At no time must anyone ask whether or not there are really gods to appease. C'mon, we've got an entire priesthood to feed here!

The counter-argument is that people wouldn't spend so much money on it if it didn't work. And I'll point right back to the religious example and say there's no proof that works, either, but we spend plenty of money on it.

My suspicion is that there are parts of them mass psychology that works and parts that don't but it's very difficult to tell one from the other, hence the Wanamaker quote. I think Fox News is devastatingly effective. I sincerely doubt the utility of billboard advertising.

7:
What evidence we have seen suggests advertisers don't demand a say in content - they merely withhold their ads from appearing with content they disapprove of. Perfectly legal, no collusion...

Is it illegal for advertisers to demand a say in content? Not that I'm aware of. The other part here is that your hapless newspaper editor has to actually receive some feedback on the offending content, right? All the advertisers have to do then is to say, for example, they won't make any donations if the paper gives any column inches to any story or editorial that even mentions the possibility of raising taxes.

Basically then, these vampires are feeding off any lingering reputation or authority the old dinosaurs had vested in them by virtue of their ostensible mission statement. Is it any wonder that they're little more than husks of their former selves, or that anyone with any sense at all no longer trusts them to reliably report newsworthy stories?

8:

ScentOfViolets wrote...
(much more, then)
One. More. Time. I don't have to do any homework to justify not going to war. It's on people who want to start a war to do their homework and then present it to the public in an intelligible and honest fashion. That this even needs to be said out loud is . . . outrageous. And not in the way Aquaman says it.
---

You're setting up an inaccurate strawman for what you think I'm criticizing.

I'm fine with people who (at any point, then or now) believe / believed that the evidence was not good enough to convince them. We know as a post-facto fact that the evidence was wrong; I believe it's important for the discussion and for personal integrity to note that I was among the many people wrong on this, and I say so, but bear with me.

I am not fine with people asserting that there was no evidence, or that it was totally fraudulent and made up, that there was no good cause. THAT, I find unacceptable.

There were almost a decade's worth of UN reports before the US evidence was even presented in public. We know unambiguously from both the full final Iraqi disclosure document before the war and from post-war truth-on-the-ground confirmation (by the US, UN, Russian inspectors, French and UK, etc) that there was a 1991-1996/early 97 secret ongoing program, that didn't make anything new of note but concealed and protected equipment, materials, design information, scientists, and the capability to reconstitute a program that manufactured chemical weapons, nuclear materials and weapons, and ballistic missiles. That was unambiguously real.

Intelligence services and UNSCOM picked up that presence, had hard times confirming it, brought it to the UN, who brought it to the Iraqis, who denied everything and obstructed the investigations. However, we know they were right.

We also know - again, unambiguously from both the full final Iraqi disclosure document and the post-war truth-on-the-ground confirmations that the program was dismantled and destroyed in 1997 and there was nothing left (99.9% or more gone, with the tiny remnant the stuff their records couldn't account for at the time) between then and 2003. We know that the Iraqis provided incomplete records of the disposal in 1997, which UNSCOM could not confirm without further inspections and records, and which UNSCOM and western intelligence suspected were not complete disposal.

Intelligence services and UNSCOM and UNMOVIC didn't believe it had been a complete dismantling, and brought it to the UN and the agencies, who took that to Iraq and attempted to get more data and inspections, which the Iraqis refused mostly to cooperate with and obstructed the investigations. However, we now know that they (the western suspicions that the dismantling was a cover or only partial) were wrong.

There was lots of evidence that Iraq was cheating 1991-1997 - and this was correct - and lots of evidence that Iraq continued to cheat 1997-2003 - and this was incorrect. The details of this are laid out in considerable depth in hundreds of UN reports and documents.

People who say "You were wrong" are making an accurate statement of fact. I and the UN and the US government, the UK government, the French and German governments, intelligence agencies worldwide, and a whole lot of independent analysts and other people, were all wrong.

People who say "...and there was never any evidence..." are making falsifiable claim of fact, which is disproven in the 200+ UN documents and the Iraqi full final disclosure pre-war.

People who say "...and there was never any program." are making a falsifiable clam of fact, which is disproven in the 200+ UN documents and the Iraqi full final disclosure pre-war, and the on-the-ground inspections afterwards.

People who say "...and the evidence was never any good." are making a statement of opinion, which I disagree with and for evidence I submit the 200+ UN documents and the Iraqi full final disclosure pre-war.

I don't expect people to read the 200+ docs now. I do believe that it's reasonable to rebut claims of no evidence, no program, or that the evidence was no good by pointing to 200+ UN docs and the Iraqi disclosure doc and the post-war inspection results, without citing each and every doc line by line.

At this point, it's merely a point of frustration if you formed an opinion in 2003 purely from the US government's public statements of the time and the popular press rebuttals, and didn't go back and read the 200+ UN docs or the Iraqi full final disclosure.

If it's your opinion that the combination of US government public presentations in 2003 and the popular press coverage did not adequately describe or summarize the 200+ UN documents or explain the significance or contents of the Iraqi full final disclosure, to the extent that you (without reading all those primary sources) didn't understand their contents accurately, then that's a reasonable opinion.

I had already read all the sources as they were generated, in realtime, from the earliest UNSCOM reports. I was not terribly impressed by the quality of press coverage or ease of access of information in the US government reports. They were largely written for UN member state audiences more than for the press or public. That was, in retrospect, a clear failure. The press didn't do a good job of reporting the UN reports history, which was another clear failure in retrospect. Those aspects were harder for me to grasp at the time as I already knew the material, but I get it better now.

9:

What you wrote is true, but I don't think you go far enough and look at the process from an even higher altitude. Here is how I describe what is going on.

Remember that regardless of who the electorate votes for, the real winners are our rulers. The nature of the game is to control where the poles lie (the poles in the US being the positions of the Rs and Ds—the bounds of "acceptable" opinion). The electorate’s choice one of the poles is minimally relevant, as the fix is already in when the poles are placed; either pole is acceptable to our rulers, and while they might prefer one to the other, the important thing is that people don’t revolt because they’ve been given the appearance of choice, even though their choice was highly constrained by the placement of the poles. This is why our rulers spend so much on organizations such as AEI, ALEC, CEI, CSIS, Cato, Commonwealth, Federalist, Heartland, Heritage, Hoover, Hudson, Mackinac, Manhattan, Marshall, Mercatus, PNAC, Reason, Tocqueville, and so on. They have succeeded by getting the Democrats to adopt the Republican positions of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s about one decade after the Republicans introduced them. That is solid success, for them (terrible for us). Control the poles and you you win regardless of how the election goes. We are lambs heading out to graze each day, arguing over which corner of the fenced pasture is best, but not noticing that the fence is shifting ever closer to the slaughterhouse.

10:

sometimes I'm surprised at how much attention is paid to our (mine, yep I'm a Usaien) politics. Unfortunately most of us don't think about the world when we go to the ballot box. In-fact, like Evolution, some don't believe the world outside planet USA even exists. However, as most people watched our political shit storm from outside. We, unfortunately, were in the epicenter. From our prospective the difference between the two candidates looked more divisive. For instance, 17 of Mitt Romney's 25 international advisers came from George Bushs' old team of Neo-cons the same group that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan. Romney's energy policy was based on the belief that climate change is not man made. These major policy decisions do in the long run affect our planet, Earth not the USA. However, sometimes we do get things right. not often and definitely not recently. but we do. We just hope the leader we elected will stand up for his promises and make this planet a better place.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on October 20, 2012 11:23 AM.

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