Just the Facts?

by Jonah Goldberg
The real problem with the American media is that we live in an era of groupthink, populist fervor, and cultural and political panic.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear reader (particularly the 76 percent of you who outvoted my wife!),

A long time ago, monster snakes fought tyrannosaurs in an epic contest for survival.

More recently, but still a long time ago in Jonah-years, my dad and I had a disagreement over color photography in newspapers.

But since you brought up giant snakes and dinosaurs, I’d like to invoke my right of personal privilege and complain about the forthcoming King Kong movie. Well, not the forthcoming one, because I haven’t seen it yet, but about all the previous ones.

If you know where I am going with this, feel free to skip ahead. (I don’t mean “read ahead” or “scroll down,” I mean get up out of your bathroom stall or the veal pen you call an office cubicle and go skipping for a few minutes. Get some exercise people.)

So where was I? Oh right. You brought up giant snakes and dinosaurs and said you were excited about the new King Kong movie. Then you asked me to share my longstanding complaint about King Kong movies. And since you insisted, here it goes. Why doesn’t anyone care about the dinosaurs and giant snakes in King Kong moves?

In the original King Kong (1933), as well as the 1976 and 2005 remakes, the greedy humans go to an island for their own selfish capitalistic reasons. When they get there, they encounter giant snakes, dinosaurs, etc.

Oh, and they also discover a big gorilla. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a really big gorilla. But imagine you’re sending a telegram or e-mail back to the home office:

We found a living Tyrannosaurus Rex, a brontosaurus, a whole bunch of pterodactyls, this crazy huge snake, and a large number of other dinosaurs. We also found one extraordinarily large monkey. We’re going to kill all the dinosaurs we encounter, but don’t worry, we’re definitely going to bring back the giant monkey at enormous financial and human cost. We think it’ll be good for marketing. MMMmmkay?

Or even worse, what if the intrepid explorers went to Skull Island, came back, and simply said: “We went to this crazy island and we came back with a really big gorilla” — never even mentioning all of the dinosaurs?

Which brings me to that conversation with my dad.

Just the Facts?

I remember when newspapers started running color photos on the front page. My dad, whose birthday was this week, was a man of conservative temperament, philosophy, demeanor, fashion (I never saw him wear a pair of jeans), hair (what there was of it), and pretty much everything else except perhaps humor (though his delivery wasn’t merely conservative, it was so dry Frank Herbert could set a bestselling sci-fi series in the middle of it). So, I assumed he wouldn’t like this garish change to a practice that had a long tradition of existence.

“I don’t like it,” I said, starting the conversation (obviously, I am quoting from memory; it’s a cruel fact of life that no one transcribes our conversations with our fathers).

“I’m in favor of it. They had to do it,” he replied, while putting his keys and his wallet in their assigned space on the dresser in his bedroom, the way he did every single day (again: conservative dude).

“Really? I think it looks cheap.”

“What is the point of running pictures in a newspaper?” (My dad had a gift for lecturing with questions.)

“To show something that happened,” I answered.

“What color is blood?” he asked.

“Red,” I replied, now fully sensing the trap.

“Is a color picture more realistic than a black-and-white picture?”

And there you have it. Now, I could have gone on and made some high-fallutin’ point about how some people think that black-and-white photography distills the essence of a scene better than color photography does. But I didn’t because a) I didn’t think of it, b) he would have rolled his eyes at that, and c) because I am pretty sure the commercial break for the 4:30 movie was coming to an end, and I wanted to catch the stunning conclusion to Gamera: The Giant Monster.

Anyway, my dad’s point was pretty simple. Newspapers are supposed to give customers news, and “news” is just a fancy word for “facts.” Color photographs convey more information than black-and-white ones do, so when it became technologically feasible, they had an obligation to make the switch. Now, he might have thrown some other stuff in there about how television news (in color, of course) was eating into newspapers and so they wanted to seem less antiquated. But again, Gamera.

I keep thinking of late about that conversation in light of the media’s ongoing bowel-stewing freakout over Donald Trump.

I keep thinking of late about that conversation in light of the media’s ongoing bowel-stewing freakout over Donald Trump.

Consider the latest brouhaha over Jeff Sessions. (I won’t rehash all the facts, since you, dear readers, are the most informed and savvy people in the Known Universe, except for a few of you named Todd, who are the worst.)

The crux of the controversy is Sessions’s flawed reply to Senator Al Franken (D., Still Not Funny). The Washington Post launched this frenzy by reporting that Sessions’s answer to Franken’s supposedly probing question was not entirely accurate.

But here’s the thing. In this nearly 2,000-word article, the Post apparently couldn’t find the room to include the actual question Franken asked. Instead, the authors wrote:

At his Jan. 10 Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign.

I am not saying that this is an indefensible paraphrase of Franken’s question. Certainly, a lot of Democrats think this gets to the heart of it. But a lot of other people think it doesn’t capture it at all.

Here’s what Franken’s asked Sessions in its entirety:

CNN has just published a story and I’m telling you this about a story that has just been published, I’m not expecting you to know whether it’s true or not, but CNN just published a story, alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote “Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” These documents also allegedly say quote “there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.” Again, I’m telling you this is just coming out so, you know . . . but, if it’s true it’s obviously extremely serious. And if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russians in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

A reasonable person — a category that I think includes Jeff Sessions — can read this and believe that the crux of the question Franken is asking can be found in that last sentence: “And if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russians in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”

And it just so happens that’s the question Sessions answered.

I know this is a wild-eyed bit of speculation on my part, worthy of a French existentialist, but I’m going to stick to my guns on this assertion.

Now, as Bill Clinton said to the Shoney’s hostess who asked him to sign her boobs, stay with me. If you think this is a reasonable interpretation of what actually transpired, or even if you don’t, but you can muster the kind of open-mindedness that our heroic champions of the Fourth Estate constantly boast of possessing in greater portions than the plebes who read their newspapers, you might think that the people reporting the news would include this news (a.k.a. fact) in their news report.

Of course, you would be wrong.

By paraphrasing the question, the reporters took what was a debatable interpretation of events and made it an objective account of events — or at least that’s what they were endeavoring to do.

Personally, I think leaving out the question is akin to reporting back from Skull Island that you found a giant gorilla, but forgetting to mention the dinosaurs.

Web Traffic Is Thy God and Thou Shalt Have No Others Before Me

On Thursday, I recorded a podcast with the Federalist’s Ben Domenech. Before we got to the important stuff (e.g., sex with robots, hurling rocks from the moon, etc.), we talked for a while about the media in the age of Trump. He told me that at the Washington Post’s sparkling new headquarters they keep conservatives chained up in go-go-dancer cages suspended from the ceiling. No, wait, that was a dream. He told me that the Post has a giant screen on the wall of the newsroom that displays in real-time their web traffic. Ben noted that nearly all of the most-read stories were anti-Trump. He asked whether we can rely on the press to be objective when all the market incentives are for Trump-bashing all the time.

You’ll have to listen to the podcast to hear my full answer. But let me take a different stab at my point here. One of the great (or terrible) things about the Internet is that it allows the suits to put numbers behind everything a journalistic outfit puts out. This makes it easier for editors to substitute data for their own judgment. The same dynamic was at work with the advent of sophisticated TV ratings.

The Peoria, Ill., store sells nine sets of Wolverine superhero underoos every week while the Gary, Ind., franchise only sells three.

In the world of business, this kind of thing is a huge boon. Walmart’s revolutionary impact on retail stems in no small part from its ability to micro-slice data so they can manage their inventory in incredibly efficient ways. The Peoria, Ill., store sells nine sets of Wolverine superhero underoos every week while the Gary, Ind., franchise only sells three but it also moves a huge amount of air fresheners (because Gary smells so bad), etc.

But journalism is supposed to be different. Editors are supposed to use their judgment about what information readers should get. Sometimes, this involves a lot of eat-your-spinach reporting that isn’t exactly sensational or sexy — but is important nonetheless.

I say journalism is supposed to be different, because there has always been a gravitational pull toward pandering to the desires of the public. But the ideal was still there. And, while this runs counter to the populist spirit ensorcelling both the Left and the Right these days, let me say this is a good ideal. Don’t get me wrong, I think the media gatekeepers have frequently abused their power over the years. But to say that humans have fallen short of ideals is not an argument against ideals. A good Catholic can concede that some priests and popes have fallen short of their principles without having to condemn their principles in the process.

Ben’s question is a good one. But I don’t think the problem is the market incentives represented by the page-view and unique-visitor numbers. Those incentives have always existed. And while obsession with web-traffic statistics is a real problem (back when I ran NRO, I’d hit refresh on the traffic software like a monkey hitting the pellet dispenser in a cocaine study every few seconds), the real problem is that we are in an era of groupthink, populist fervor, and cultural and political panic.

Ideals for Thee, but Not for Me

I know I keep saying this, but behind every double standard is an unconfessed single standard. With Barack Obama, the elite media didn’t pander to page clicks by running sensational stories about the president. It served as his praetorian guard. The L.A. Times — where I am happily a columnist — still hasn’t released the Rashid Khalidi video. The New York Times refused to quote Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric even as it reported on the controversies about it. And when it did so, the Times invoked the ideals of responsible journalism. I could do this all day. The point — like with the Post leaving out Franken’s actual question — isn’t to say the editors didn’t have defensible arguments for their decisions, it’s simply to say that the media have a tendency to look for excuses to invoke their ideals when that will yield the kind of news that supports their ideological or partisan leanings.

Liberals have either not noticed this or dismissed this tendency for the most part, because it comports with their own ideological and partisan worldview. But conservatives have noticed. That’s why Donald Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric has such wide currency on the right.

From Normless to Gormless

This is the point I was trying to get at in my column the other week about the center not holding. To the extent that Donald Trump has damaged democratic norms (and he has), his success is attributable to the fact that elites — in journalism, but also in academia and elsewhere — have corrupted those norms to the point where a lot of people see them as convenient tools for only one side in the political and cultural wars of our age.

I got this flattering e-mail this morning about Friday’s column:

Mr. Goldberg,

I have long been a fan of yours. I appreciate the clarity of thought, and I appreciate your point of view . . . usually.

[Your] March 3rd column about Trump and his address to Congress has prompted me to write.

Factually, and from a conservative’s point of view, the article was correct.

And I know, from your columns and appearances on Fox News, that you have never been happily on the Trump train.

My issue is that there is no Democrat I’ve read who would hold anyone on their side of the aisle to the same standards we, as conservatives, hold ours. I find nothing wrong with what you wrote — but it disheartens me that what conservative analysts and pundits write or speak usually ends up as ammunition for the looney Left.

Hence my dilemma — I’m proud that we are able to be honest with ourselves, but at what cost to the Republican/conservative brand?

[Name withheld]

This gets to the heart of the dilemma.

There’s a reason why so many conservatives have become perverse acolytes of Saul Alinsky. They think the Left broke all the rules and therefore the only recourse for the Right is to play by the same tactics. The problem with this approach is that when you adopt amoral (or immoral) means, those means tend to create new ends: Winning. It’s telling how the chief defense of Trump’s behavior during the campaign was, “At least he fights!” Conservatism isn’t supposed to be just about fighting, it’s supposed to be about fighting for something. Populism is about winning for its own sake. As Huey Long said, “What’s the use of being right only to be defeated?”

At the same time, I get the Right’s frustration.

I have no great answer here. Trump is attempting to do a lot of very good things for conservatism. He’s also attempting to do some things that aren’t very conservative, and, in the process, transform the definition of conservatism. Pat Buchanan has a point in his column about Trump’s address to Congress:

Watching Republicans rise again and again to hail Trump called to mind the Frankish King Clovis who, believing his wife’s Christian God had interceded to give him victory over the Alemanni, saw his army converted by the battalions and baptized by the platoons.

One had thought the free-trade beliefs of Republicans were more deeply rooted than this.

When I saw Paul Ryan stand and applaud a massive new entitlement to state-subsidized childcare, I had to wonder what was going through his mind.

Conservatism isn’t supposed to be just about fighting, it’s supposed to be about fighting for something.

I understand that the question of how to support or criticize Trump is an extremely thorny prudential one for Republican politicians. It’s also a thorny problem for conservative writers, such as yours truly. But it’s not the same problem.

Personally, I would be much happier if the only intramural arguments we had were over trade or childcare. These are tolerable debates within conservatism. What makes things so much more difficult, and what is so much more dangerous, is that the broader culture is accelerating its animosity for objective and independent norms — the clear rules that apply to everyone. (Just look at the insane development in the rise of anti-Semitism unfolding as I type.) Bakers must bake cakes for our team! But don’t you dare force them to bake cakes for yours! Donald Trump didn’t create the deterioration, but the way he practices politics is having a centrifugal effect on the process, pulling things apart even more.

It’s sort of like what football would look like if you removed all the rules save for the requirement to get touchdowns (and, I suppose, the requirement to relinquish the ball after scoring), with the fans cheering whatever brings victory to their team. A player killed a guy? At least he fights!

Various & Sundry

Just a heads up, there will be no G-File next week as I will be away on business for AEI’s annual meeting of the Pentaveret, known colloquially as the World Forum.

Canine Update: As I may have mentioned, the dogs have me well-trained, waking me up around 5:00 a.m. rain or shine, weekend or weekday. (If I’m out of town, they don’t wake up the Fair Jessica.) Well, the missus was out of town this morning (she’s got a new job, which will require a lot of travel, more on that later). The dogs came in at 4:45, and, as per protocol, Zoë allowed me to hit the snooze button for 15 minutes (by “snooze button,” I mean her belly, which I must rub, so there’s really not a lot of snoozing involved). Zoë flipped over on her back and inched up next to me. But then, she sneezed right onto my mouth (which, fortunately, wasn’t open). Given my germaphobia, I freaked out a bit and leapt out of bed spitting, and spitting mad. Zoë meanwhile thought it was hilarious and assumed that my leaping to my feet meant that I wanted to wrestle.

I have exciting news. A while back, John Podhoretz, editor of the indispensable journal Commentary, had the brilliant idea of discarding the usual fundraiser model for egghead institutions. Instead of a normal annual dinner with a speech, he launched the annual Commentary Roasts. He convinces some fool to be the object of scorn and ridicule of his peers and betters. Past roastees have included Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Dick Cheney et al.

Well, this year John has opted to swing big. He’s asked me to be the object of baseless and outrageous smears. I have no idea how tickets and that stuff will work (Note: As it’s a fundraiser, it will no doubt be pricey). But I am sure it will be fun, at least when I get to clear the record at the end of the evening. Mark it on your calendars: November 7, a day that will live in infamy.

So, Thursday, while watching the collective freakout over the Sessions story on Morning Joe, I dashed off this silly item for the Corner: a vignette revealing Jeff Sessions’s deep-cover Russian-mole status. I got a surprising amount of positive feedback. But some of the negative responses were kind of bizarre. A lot of liberals were furious with me for making light of this deadly serious issue. I’m used to that sort of thing. But others were just annoyed by it in a “how dare you not write like a pundit” sort of way. I used to get this kind of thing a lot more — like when Cosmo the Wonderdog interviewed foreign leaders — and I can’t quite figure out where the anger comes from. I think it might have to do with the fact that some people just don’t like to have their categories messed up.

In other self-promotional news:

I recorded a new Ricochet GLoP Culture podcast (mostly) about the Oscars.

I wasted 20 minutes of my life ranting about the gender identity of digital assistants.

I posited a theory to explain our times by dipping my toes into the world of physics.

I discussed the Jeff Sessions’s nothingburger on The Federalist Radio Hour podcast.

I wrote about Trump’s good but not spectacular speech, and what its reception means for conservatism.

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Costa Rica has a giant dog sanctuary

Why is the speed of light the speed of light?

An underground Everest?

Could the blood of komodo dragons stave off the post-biotic cataclysm?

Mars needs lawyers

The Best Picture nominees measured by their areas of greatest popularity

Animals that look like they’re about to drop the hottest album ever

Our ancestors were drinking alcohol before they were human

There’s an ancient Roman road beneath an Italian McDonald’s

Sea lions are very good at volleyball

Does your name shape your face?

The monk who saves manuscripts from ISIS

Why water from different places tastes different

Scottish schoolkids give their dead goldfish a Viking funeral

Austrian man attempts to enter building with a jar of cockroaches

How your food can kill you

What too much plastic surgery can do to you

Why we (probably) can’t have flying cars (for now)

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg