Today at noon at the Palmetto Club, I spoke to the Midlands Chapter of the United States Naval Academy Alumni Association.
It’s a good group, consisting of a bunch of former naval officers (including one admiral), and they let me speak about whatever I wanted, although I understand that what most groups want me to talk about is politics and/or the media.
I like to keep my remarks short because I prefer to devote as much time as possible to questions — not because I’m generous about answering questions, because I simply feel more comfortable doing that. When I’m answering questions, I know I’m talking about something that interests my audience, and I can do it all day it you let me. So I relax.
But I have to prepare some remarks, and this time I went a bit overboard, leaving time for only about four questions (each of which I answered at length, of course). I really need to time myself on these things going forward, to increase Q&A time.
Here’s what I had written down, and — after some off-the-cuff remarks about today’s news about The State‘s new publisher — I read most of it, with a few tangents. So, since I don’t like to spend time writing anything without publishing it, here are my notes:
US Naval Academy Alumni Assoc of the Midlands
Thursday 19 April at noon
We are living in a strange time.
It’s a time when everyone is more closely connected than ever, at least on a superficial level, but we are being blown apart by the very factors that allow us to connect.
Distrust of institutions, distrust of the ideas that have animated our country and given it meaning from the beginning. Distrust of expertise. Distrust of facts, distrust of reality.
There’s a quote attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the most thoughtful people to grace our politics in the second half of the 20th century. He said:
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
At the time when he said it, it was just an assertion of common sense. People repeated the quote because it so succinctly stated a basic truth. We congratulated ourselves on understanding this. We knew what a fact was, and we knew what an opinion was, and we had a general agreement on where the dividing line was between the two.
Growing up when I did, in the postwar world, I was fortunate to live in a time when we all had a shared daily source of facts – the newspaper.
Newspapers in America started life as disreputable things, at least by the standards in place by the time I came along. They existed to push partisan points of view. In the first years of our republic, the papers run by Hamilton’s Federalists existed to tear down Jefferson and Madison’s Democratic-Republicans, and vice-versa. And there were no boundaries.
Journalism continued to be wild and wooly throughout the 19th century, and in many places, well into the 20th. But then they started to get “respectable.” They started trying to treat Democrats and Republicans fairly and impartially and at arm’s length on the news pages, and keep opinion strictly confined to the editorial page. And increasingly, to be nonpartisan on the editorial page as well.
I’d like to say that this happened out of nobility, but there was also a selfish factor at work: Publishers figured out they could make more money if everybody – Democrats, Republicans and independents – read their papers. So objectivity became the order of the day.
And it had a good effect, to the extent that people’s understanding of public life was formed by newspapers, and to a great extent it was: Everyone, regardless of their political views, had a shared set of facts to work from. Everyone was entitled to his opinion as to what to DO in light of the facts, but the facts belonged to everybody, and were no respecters of persons.
We all tacitly accepted what my favorite Founding Father, John Adams, had said: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
However fiercely we might have held and expressed our opinions, they rested on a shared belief in the same facts, the same reality. And however wrong we believed them to be, we were able to respect other people’s rights to THEIR opinions.
And while our debates, and our elections, were lively, they were civil.
Facts were things presented to us by experts, by people trained to understand what was important, to investigate it, and to present it in an easily understood format. (talk about what editors went through in deciding how to present the news [this turned into a lengthy digression, talking about stuff like this]). Their ability to make these decisions and follow through on them in a hurry was honed in a hard school, daily, over years of pressure.
And they tended to come up with the same facts, and presented them very similarly. (My experience comparing on a daily basis in the 80s.)
Now, nobody needs an editor. Let me correct that. Actually, one of the old truisms of journalism is that everybody needs an editor, all the time. But we have technology today that fools people into thinking they don’t need an editor. Now, everyone is his own editor, and publisher.
This is very democratic – small d. It’s also the way madness lies, because nowadays, everyone is persuaded that he is indeed entitled to his own facts, and everyone else’s facts are “fake news.”
The “news,” as many people experience it, is no longer curated by people who have an understanding of what is important. Worse, there is no skeptical editor telling the reporter, “You don’t have that story nailed down, so I’m not running it.” Not on many of the “news” platforms of today. Not on Facebook. Not on Twitter. (And I can say that even though I love Twitter, which I can elaborate on later if you care.) And not on the plethora of websites out there that exist to cater to your preferred version of reality.
This has driven our national politics, the level most susceptible to these forces, mad. From the left to the right, although the rightward version currently holds power. And the madness is seeping down to the state level.
I could give a lot of examples of this, but I’ll give one: sanctuary cities. The number-one legislative priority of the governor of our state these days is to pass a law against “sanctuary cities” in South Carolina. Never mind that there ARE no sanctuary cities in South Carolina; the governor wants to force cities to actively PROVE that they are not sanctuary cities – in other words, he would accomplish nothing but increase the amount of stupid, pointless, bureaucratic red tape in government.
Reality doesn’t matter. Facts don’t matter, in a new world in which people choose their own facts.
Before I open up to questions, I want to point out that our problem with personal-preference facts isn’t entirely a creation of the Internet. There are a lot of other unfortunate trends of recent decades that have brought us to this divided state.
To pick on another medium, before the Web there was 24-7 cable TV “news,” and now there’s more of it than ever.
This had two very bad effects on the country.
First, it elevated local news into national news. Once, news directors only needed to fill half an hour. Now, they have to fill 24 hours, and they’ll use any “news” they can get their hands on. So it is that stories of weird, disturbing crimes and small-time public corruption – things that would never have been reported beyond a local news market — became national news stories. Accordingly, people think the world is much more menacing and corrupt than they used to think, because they’re exposed to much more of it.
This makes people distrustful of everyone and everything – the streets aren’t safe! they’re all crooks! – and they no longer perceive the most important thing that should be understood about news: News is the unusual, the weird, the departure from the norm. Increasingly, people think what they see on sensationalized TV news IS the norm. Because it’s on ALL THE TIME!
Secondly, no matter how hard they try, these stations can’t come up with 24 hours of NEWS news. So they fill the rest with opinion. It might be an interview with an “expert,” or a panel of highly opinionated talking heads yelling at each other. In any case, increasingly the viewer ceases to distinguish between this yacking and NEWS. Worse, increasingly, people who watch this stuff begin to tar real journalists with the same brush. They think everybody’s pushing an angle, even when they’re reporting the news straight.
I could keep on, but I won’t. I’d like to hear your questions, so we can talk about what interests YOU….
My initial inspiration for my topic was this column from earlier in the week by David Brooks, about how in this age of hyperconnectivity, loneliness is at an all-time high in our society. But as you can see, I digressed from that almost immediately. To correct that, I threw in an elaboration on his theme. Brooks’ column is better, of course, because it’s a column, rather than rambling notes…