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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Neither science nor art

What is journalism, anyway? Is it an art? A science? A mixture?

LI has had an overwhelmed feeling – the heart thrashing around in the socks feeling – for the last week about the fucking awful coverage of the Bush administration charges against Iran. That the charges were made by anonymous sources so that they could be echoed by the President is obvious to any sentient being. This is how the White House operates – like a peckerwood junta planning a small town lynching. However, LI is naïve enough to be truly grieved that the Washington Post and the New York Times would cooperate in this business, again.

The form of the newspaper developed in the eighteenth century, which was the high water mark of Baconian science. Jevons, the nineteenth century economist, did not think highly of Bacon, and made an attack on Baconian science in The Principles of Science that damaged Bacon’s reputation for a generation. It is striking that the case against Bacon, as Jevons puts it, is so similar to the case against journalism. In Jevon’s view, Baconian science a., mischaracterizes experiments (‘I take the extreme view of holding that Francis Bacon, although he correctly insisted upon constant reference to experience, had no correct notions as to the logical method by which from particular facts we educe laws of nature), and b., had no sense of pattern – that is, he advocated the indiscriminate accumulation of facts, out of which he supposed we could induce a pattern (“Bacon’s method, as far as we can gather the meaning of the main portions of his writings, would correspond to the process of empirically collecting facts and exhaustively classifying them, to which I alluded. The value of this method may be estimated historically by the fact that it has not been followed by any of the great masters of science.”) Now, LI is not as much of a positivist about the inductive method as Jevons, but we do think that Jevons has hit on the image and practice of science in the eighteenth century in the main. Its sole continuation is in the newspaper. Jevon’s notion of Bacon’s method is, almost literally, what you will read in newspapermen who deal with the meta issue – people like Howard Kurz. The notion of “bias” – of a journalist being liberal or conservative – corresponds to the deeper, Baconian fear of hypothesis. The facts, in news parlance, are supposed to speak for themselves.

Given this fear of bias, journalists by and large are easily driven into being the sewer pipe for whatever nonsense the ruling class dreams up. The trick, the childish but apparently neverfailing trick, is the pretence that the ruling class wetdream is actually the height and depth of centrism. Centrism is the vague substitute for hypothesis for the journalist. And centrism is a felt quality – you feel it when you are: white; male; and make above 100,000 dollars per year. You don’t have to possess any of those three qualities, but if you don’t possess them, you have to mime them.

So: looking at the truly awful reporting about Iran in the last seven days, one is struck by how easy it is, given the Baconian presuppositions of the journalist, to go forward into pure fiction. Take the example of the supposed arms acquired, somehow, by the militias from Iran, and then acquired, somehow, by anonymous army officers. To understand this fact within a pattern, one should ask, firstly, more general questions about the acquisition of arms on all sides. This simple question, however, isn’t asked at all. It is one thing that (granting the truth of the dubious evidence for a moment), Iran is sending weapons into Iraq, and it is another thing if Iran as well as Saudi Arabia and other Sunni gulf states is sending weapons into Iraq. If our own little democratic, freedom lovin’ ally, Saudi Arabia is doing it (the same Saudi Arabia whose sandy hindquarters were recently licked, so copiously and deliciously, by Tony Blair, the poodle Tartuffe), we have a different sense of arms flow into Iraq. We have a larger pattern. Similarly, there is the problem that the Iraqi government, which is, or at least which we pretend to think is, sovereign in Iraq is allied to the Iranian government. Now, even from a Baconian point of view, these two parameters should be included in the reporting about Iran’s arms. They aren’t. They are, in fact, rigidly excluded. Thus, not only do we have newspapers operating with an antiquated scientific methodology, but even by the terms of that methodology, they are failing.

There are many reasons that newspapers are struggling nowadays, but one of them, surely, is the unconscious perception that newspapers simply don’t have a methodology to do what they do. They don’t have a sense of pattern, they don’t have a sense of hypothesis, they don’t have a sense of experiment, they don’t see the connection between questions, they don’t construct coherent and cohesive scenes of inquiry, and they serve as the most abject and servile means of power in its grossest and most malignant incarnation, all the while claiming an innocence at some distance from the swollen recompense accorded its most unscrupulous representatives.

This isn’t good.

3 comments:

Scruggs said...

While it may not be "good", in the sense that it's actually really, really bad, it does help bolster my theory of cretin capitalism. They make money by frantic bootlicking and deliberate stupidity. It helps to start with the right connections, but a bit of extra bootlicking can get an aspirant hitched to the right coattails.

roger said...

Mistah Scruggs,
It struck me that one of the many, many sad and bogus claims shuffled along by Michael Gorden re Iranian arms is the obvious question: if the Iranians are arming shi'a militia, and those militia are attacking sunni insurgents, and sunni insurgents are attacking american soldiers - how many american lives have been saved by iran? And are we grateful or what?
Those Eye Ranians - always looking out for us!

Scruggs said...

I doubt all that much of the "content" is anything more than the routine attempt to provide talking point fodder for people who have already decided how this is to play out. The cretinous newsies like to be quoted in the congressional record and see their talking points carried on television. When Senator Fuchwitz and General Schittstripe piously intone the spin they oversaw from birth, when their Decider called them into the office for a special session, it adds to the newsies bottom line, somehow, or at least gives them talking points of their own when they try to sell ad space.

The appearance of performing work-related program activities is all that counts for most of the corporate environment. You could say I'm a fine one to talk, writing pseudonymous columns for The Economist, filled with the most dreadful, bootlicking hackery. I'd agree, but with the stipulation that I, like many hacks, have feelings too. Criticism like yours hurts, Roger :-(