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Nov 21, 2018

In the Pursuit of Self Government, Does Quality News Matter?

This Thanksgiving, blow your relatives’ minds by exploding the myth of self government.

The following is a transcription of a recent episode of the Cato Daily Podcast with host Caleb Brown and guest Anthony Comegna.

Brown: This is the Cato Daily Podcast for Wednesday, November 21, 2018. I’m Caleb Brown. As you sit down with your family this holiday, turning off the 24/7 flow of low-grade pablum on cable news may be the first step toward an enjoyable day, but even if you can’t get that small concession, take this cold comfort from Anthony Comegna: He argues that the value of quality news-gathering and reporting—whatever comfort it might give us—is a lot less important to the cause of self-government than we might hope.

As we record this, Jim Acosta, a newsman from CNN who I guess is their chief White House correspondent, was recently prohibited from White House press briefings—a place that is well known to produce very little of value for the news-consuming public, and so now this fight is over that. Before the fight with respect to White House press was about Sarah Sanders publishing a video from a guy who works very closely with conspiracy monger, Alex Jones, and why that’s outrageous and terrible, and it got me to thinking, “Well, there are a lot of different ways that people are going to interpret this, I think, largely meaningless event (like, if you care about quality news coverage, one guy no longer being in the room is not that important, and news gathering that is consequential probably doesn’t come out of White House press briefings). But the way people actually consume their news is so separate now—you can choose your team and then get your news coverage, and at least with respect to television (and I guess it’s true of newspapers to some extent as well, and websites), so my question to you is: What parallels do we have going back a hundred and fifty years to say “Well, this separation—the fact that people are able to broadly not consume the same set of facts—what does that give us and was there a time in history we can point to and say this kind of information dissemination maybe posed a problem, or maybe it was a very good thing?”

Comegna: Well, yeah, don’t you remember the great days of White House press briefings when the Bush Administration could come out and lie to the entire country and everybody would dutifully go “Oh, okay, great, okay. That’s what the White House says, moving on!” and nothing exciting ever happened at a press briefing. That was great. Great things happened from that kind of world. Yeah.

No, I’m not—I never get singularly depressed by things like this, that we’re in this kind of a culture, because really there are plenty of parallels to draw on from the past. In some sense, that should be discomforting, because the past turned out so badly, too, you know?—It doesn’t spell great things for the present, but hey, maybe people find some sort of comfort in the idea that we have had to deal with things like this before and the world wasn’t great for it, but it also didn’t fall apart. And people did sort of learn how to deal with it.

Brown: But on this specific point about how people get their news—I mean, I spoke with historian Michael Douma recently about history and how it’s sort of a prism from which we’re trying to draw out the most relevant things to tell a story (a substantial and real story) about the past. And how people get news and how they are informed, and the actions that they take based upon what they’ve learned are pretty important today. And with the way people consume social media, how they’re strongly encouraged to look at and engage with things that they probably already agree with, and how we choose our friends and that sort of thing. When we go back in time, it seems much clunkier in terms of our ability to sequester ourselves into these kinds of echo chambers, these reality tunnels if you will.

Comegna: Yeah, so my field of specialty is the Jacksonian period, which is incredible. I just find it the most deeply fascinating period of American history because absolutely everything about life changed from one end of the period to the other. In about thirty years, give or take, practically everything about normal life changed, and it was in ways that people could not possibly have predicted at the beginning of the period. So, at the end of the War of 1812, it could take you weeks to get from New York to New Orleans. It could take you more than a month to get from Pittsburgh to New Orleans by way of the Mississippi River, and then you would have to travel on land by foot over old Indian trails to get back north. And by the end of this thirty year period, people had the ability to transmit their thoughts electronically, instantaneously, across thousands of miles of space, and the entirety of human existence is transformed by that fact and everything seemed possible to these people now. The whole world of dazzling imagination that had existed in fiction beforehand suddenly became a very real possibility. People were using electricity to reanimate corpses and they thought electricity and telegraphy could be a way to communicate with the dead because they existed somewhere still in the world of energy and electromagnetism. The new Victorian science opened up all sorts of incredible, imaginative pathways for people and the sort of future they thought they could make for themselves.

Now besides telegraphy, some of the other amazing inventions for revolutionizing communications were more humble things like steam driven presses to print newspapers, that could now make newspapers that cost pennies. So there were penny papers that were the first very widely available newspapers that printed tens of thousands of copies and had very wide circulations. They started popping up in the 1830s and spread everywhere in the 1840s, and more people than literally ever before were reading and consuming news, like had never existed in any country. Add to that railroads and canals, and people are moving everywhere much faster, and the nation sort of shrinks dramatically. You see very clearly in the record over this twenty or thirty year period, people become intensely more interested in the affairs of their neighbors—not their immediate neighbors, mind you, but anybody they might consider a neighbor. So everybody in the country is a potential neighbor when you can now travel to them within a day or a couple days time, and you can talk to them instantaneously by telegraph, or you can get the news from their newspaper wired to yours, so you can find out everything that’s going on in the country that might possibly be of interest to you—and you can get involved in it. And that really is the big transformative thing that I see from mass communications in the period: this new sense that now, very distant people who otherwise would not have much to do with my life, well now I can have an awful lot to do with theirs, and vice versa.

Brown: It reminds—there’s a moment on the show Deadwood when Earl Brown, who plays Dan Dority, he’s sitting there and he’s going through a newspaper and he just sort of slams it down and says “I wish they had more news of the baseball.” You know, there are any number of things that people would be relatively, more or less concerned with given their station in life, given their area of work and things like that, but in terms of penny papers and what counts as influence at the time, is there some clear shake-out of things that were temporary and less than credible, and so they died? That’s what I’m hoping for—that there’s a story in there about how, well nobody trusted this paper, they routinely lied, and so it went away. Please tell me this story existed somehow.

Comegna: That story happened constantly. So much, in fact, that it was the normal process. Every paper was a party paper, unless it was just simply a commercial paper, some sort of commercial advertiser or price bulletin. Every paper was a party paper that ran its candidates on the masthead and they got party patronage to do it. Journalists were not, properly speaking, reporters. That’s a very modern invention, basically by people who want to lie to you about how objective they’re being in the media—that’s ridiculous. People in the Jacksonian period had no pretensions to objectivity. What was the point?—They’re in a democracy here. This is a battle for power in the country to protect freedom from Whiggish slavery, or whatever it might be, to protect liberty and republicanism from the Slave Power, you know? They made no pretensions to objectivity; they were citizens involved in a battle for their liberties against powers who would corrupt it and take it from them. Everybody took that very seriously as a charge. This was not some historical mythology they told themselves about who they are and then they go look at cat videos on YouTube. They lived that, and it really meant something to them. They didn’t tell themselves fables about that. So, there were all sorts of upstart, short-lived campaign papers whose only purpose was to make derogatory songs about Henry Clay and then they shut down after eight weeks. There were small town papers who wanted to be the opposition paper and it turns out there wasn’t enough opposition there. There were papers who wanted to agitate specific issues and do it in a specific way because of the campaign season, and sometimes they made it through that and they found a base and an audience big enough to keep going, but most of the time they folded because their limited mission was accomplished. Especially bad examples of newspapers or journalism and dishonest really did not necessarily stick around for long because they were also built into the process. They had a place within the overall media and because people were not making pretensions to objectivity and labelling other people as mere partisan hacks or liars or whatever, everybody was in the same boat of either declaring your allegiances outright or you’d be suspected of hiding them.

Brown: Yeah, so one of the things that I guess is a bright spot in what I think it otherwise a vast wasteland known as cable news is the fact that there is a declining level of pretense. I mean, you have Fox News that allows one of their more popular evening TV hosts to step onstage with the President of the United States to promote Republicans for political office. It seems like if it’s not already dead completely, we’re fast approaching a time in which that is no longer the case—that there is not this pretense to objectivity.

Comegna: Yeah, so far as it goes I suppose that’s a good thing. Now, I’ll often hear from my libertarian-leaning friends that this is one thing they appreciate about Trump’s influence: that he’s busted trough the media in so many ways, PC culture and things, that he’s really shaken things up, that people are being more refreshingly honest now. I mean, okay.

Brown: So let’s say someone listening is now sitting down with their uncle and it’s Thanksgiving, and their uncle has drank from the firehose of MSNBC or CNN or Fox News to the exclusion of the others. What should that listener tell them if they want to get into a spirited, lively discussion about the quality of information that he’s being dealt?

Comegna: You know, I think that’s a little bit of a tricky question for me to answer, because I don’t see the problem as one of quality of information. There’s plenty of quality information out there. I mean, most people, I guess, don’t find themselves to it, or they don’t bother accumulating a variety of different sources of information, they don’t really spend much time challenging their own preconceived notions or their established views. I’m kind of used to that, and I doubt that’ll much change, partly because you only have time for so much and if you find a good place that you trust to get your news, I don’t see people being convinced by a Thanksgiving conversation, certainly, to go out and change the way they do things. But to me the more significant problem is this whole underlying notion that we’re engaged in self government here. That by becoming an informed citizen, by going out and voting, by engaging in debates about ongoing political affairs, or whatever else, that’s part of your duty as a citizen in a democratic republic, that’s part of self-government. That is not true, and I think we all need to face up to the idea that we’re not trying to govern ourselves, we’re trying to govern everybody else. So that’s really the ultimate pretense that sticks around no matter what news outlet people go to. They all are wrapped up in this idea that they’re an essential part of democracy and republicanism, and as long as people are informed by consuming good media, they will be able to make good decisions to govern themselves. That is still a lie. We’re not trying to govern ourselves, we’re trying to govern everybody else. We’re not setting rules for our own personal behavior because we think they’re good general rules to follow. Generally speaking, none of us want to follow the rules that are set supposedly by ourselves. We only get really concerned when we think somebody’s going to be interfering with our interests or we want to stop somebody from doing X, Y, or Z. It’s not actually about setting up rules that I know I’m going to follow because I’m a responsible citizen and I just think that these are good ideas for everybody else to follow. The vast majority of people, it seems to me, go out and vote because they’re angry at their fellow human beings, they want to control their behavior, there’s some sort of tribalistic elements going on, and it really doesn’t matter what media you consume. My God!—there are much deeper myths and problems here that involve overturning hundreds of years of established history and preconceived wisdom about what we’re up to.

I recently did an interview for Liberty Chronicles with an author who writes about a man named Stephen Hopkins. Hopkins was on the Third Supply going to Virginia in the early Jamestown years. I think 1609 was when he got onboard the ship called the Sea Venture which was leading the Third Supply. Hopkins was just a sort of middling class person, not very wealthy, not very educated, but he could read and write. He worked for the church to some small degree as a clerk, and he goes on the Third Supply as a minister’s clerk, and the Sea Venture is the flagship of this resupply mission to Jamestown. It gets smashed apart by a hurricane and miraculously everybody survives. They make it to Bermuda. The rest of the convoy goes on the Virginia thinking that the Sea Venture is just lost at sea forever. Virginia is a disaster, of course, and nobody in the working class wants to be there because it’s basically a prison camp. Hopkins decides to lead a rebellion on Bermuda to set up a colony of maroons and castaways there. They said the charter for Virginia that bound us to the company is null and void since we crashed on Bermuda. It’s time for us to build our own society here, fresh, by the consent of the governed, because here we are, all together on the beach, agreeing to govern ourselves. Well, the governor quash all of those rebellions pretty handily and they use terrorism to get ships rebuilt and they go back to Virginia. Stephen Hopkins, about twenty years later, is probably the author of the Mayflower Compact, and one of the prime signatories to it. His idea from the time of Bermuda—thirty years before Hobbes, forty years or so before John Locke—was real consent in government, real government built from the bottom up where we actually do govern ourselves. I mean, he wasn’t reading any kind of penny presses, party presses, he didn’t have telegraphy. He just had the right idea: that people actually can govern themselves if the powerful leave them to it.