Thursday, May 05, 2016

journalists and prediction 1

On Prediction 1
Obama, at his last roast, said – on a serious note that was quasi-bogus – that the press should seek for the truth (although of course not too hard – Obama’s Justice department, which has sought more injunctions against the press than any since the Nixon administration, will see to that).
Obama’s statement is in the true grain of American piety. We are always being told that the truth, objectively, is seeking the truth. Although the majority of the population doesn’t believe that at all. As David Bowie sang in Five Years about the newscaster who said the world was ending
“News guy wept when he told us
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
Then I knew he was not lying.”
Of course, this was before we had an inkling that the ice cap in the Antarctic was likely to diminish by half within our lifetimes. News guys have ceased reporting on this news – it is too depressing, so they leave it to NOVA.
In any case, the self-image of the media – that they are truth seekers – is curiously empty when it comes to what the “truth” means and how to find it. This feeds back into the lack of a definition of journalism. What is it exactly? A science? An art? Is it like the courtroom, a forum for competing versions of events? The courtroom, of course, is not constructed to arrive at the truth, but to arrive at a verdict of guilty or not guilty. But the news guys hesitate before embracing that construct. A newspaper that proclaimed that it would sort the guilty out from the innocent would immediately call down a lot of derision upon its head, and make itself liable for losses in court.
And after all, the news doesn’t quite fall into the categories of guilty/not guilty, although a subset of it does.
There aren’t many books that examine this question. Emil Loebl’s Kulture und Presse, written in 1904 and never, to my knowledge, translated into English, is one of the few to venture into the deeper questions of what the media does and how it does it without falling into banality. Myself, I think one way through this sticky labyrinth is to address the place of prediction in the political press. It is of a queerness…
Prediction, like truth, is a manufactured process. In the financial sector, pediction – “expectations” – plays a distinct role not only in reporting, but on the reported on. Every announcement of quarterly earnings is heralded by predictions of quarterly earnings, and when these predictions are exceeded, or ‘disappointed’, the price of the stock changes accordingly. Or sometimes not. In truth, it is a price change that effects only one day of change, although it can inaugurate longer term change – but one has to remember that the flow of prices are effected by a host of opinions, and probably can’t be traced to a single cause – there are times that the exceeded earnings report actually leads to a decrease in stock price as, retrospectively, expectations are adjusted.
Prediction in the political press is also about expectation. But expectation requires a reference groups – after all, whose expectation is it? I have no expectation at all about Air Liquide’s next quarterly earnings report – but there are people who work in banks and stockbroker firms who specialize in just such things. The people whose expectations count in the political press are similarly insiders, narrative creators. The narrative they create determines what is plausible and what is implausible to the journalists. And self-consciously realizing this power, both the journalists and the administrators in the political image industry are continually shifting what is plausible and what isn’t according to standards that are not defined by what is popular among the electorate, or among the broader mix of the electorate and non-electorate. For instance, it is perennially popular, in these insider circles, to insist that we need to cut social security benefits, although outside those circles, this has zero support. So the only plausible stances on social security is the radical one of preserving it as it is or the more popular one of cutting it. Expanding it isn’t even on the plausibilty scale. The notion, of course, is that after the politically accredited have done their work, the political image makers will do theirs, and like Pavlov’s dogs, we will salivate on cue.
Still, even if we grant that plausibility in political circles – circles that include politicians, lobbyists, think tankers, and journalists – takes this shape, it is still not clear why journalists feel the need to predict. Or what constitutes the basis of their predictions.
Prediction has long been coupled to truth in the sciences, although the nexus is metaphysically obscure, since it has to do with that most knotty of issues, induction. Prediction and prophecy have a distinct family tree, and an ancient social function that was not controlled by a  philosophically credible theory of truth. Prediction was, and is, partly magical, just as the future is partly magical. Our subjectivity, I think, will always cause the future to be partly magical, to seem to bend towards our wishes or prejudices. I can’t go on I’ll go on is not a truth many of us can bear – we were not born to be Beckett characters, for good and ill. Magic has a prestige that is lent to prediction. In, say, economics, this becomes a justification for the whole discipline – at least of the mainstream, where Milton Friedman’s flatheaded positivism is still the ghost below the boards. Oddly, economists are notoriously bad at forecasting. It is a standard joke in the business world to compare the forecasts economists make at the beginning of the year with the national data collected at the end of the year.
However, economists at least have models. Journalists rarely do. This is all the more true with the explanationist, the current crop of hip journalists who have spread out over the face of the land, from Slate to Vox to Upshot (on the new york times) to Politico. These places are manned by second order men – and it is a heavily male phenomenon, which perhaps explains the way explanationists often seem to be mansplaining on a more industrial scale – and their explanations are not so much research heavy as tone heavy. Although any journalist at these places should have access to the universe of scholarly journals at JSTOR or EBSCO, one rarely feels that the explanatory pieces are well researched. In fact, the explanationists are the heirs of the previous decades contrarians. The craze for contrarians rose and fell with the reputation of Christopher Hitchens, and his deep support for the Iraq war. Myself, I felt like Hitchens, during the decade of his celebrity, traded in his rather elegant prose style for the kind of programmed barking that conservative American columnists perfected in the sixties – the sound emitted by James Kirkpatrick whenever the name Martin Luther King Jr. was uttered.
Contrarianism lost its luster, but its moves were taken up, with less barking, by the explanationists, who form a sort of core prophecy group in American journalism.

I’m going to continue this reflection tomorrow. 

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