The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Enough SaidThe title is a phrase I encountered while reading Mark Thompson’s excellent book on political rhetoric, Enough Said: What’s Wrong With the Language of Politics? Thompson’s book is both about the current and historic use of political rhetoric (from Aristotle forward), but also about the role of journalists in covering it. Thompson — a former new editor and executive in the BBC and now with the New York Times — maintains we are in  “a crisis of political language” that comes from a combination of modern media, social media use, and also in the changing way politicians speak (“characterised by lies, spin and demagoguery.”)

The phrase itself was coined by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur, in his book on the writings of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Thompson uses it to describe the mindset of suspicion and disbelief in modern journalists towards politicians, and the reverse shared distrust, as well as the public’s suspicion of the media in presenting its content.*

Personally, I believe a strong sense of skepticism and disbelief is necessary for a journalist to see through the spin and the bullshit to the hidden truths and the corruption below the surface. It’s necessary to have a skeptical perspective so as not to be conned by the blandishments and empty assurances of the corporate elite, too. Without skepticism, journalists are vulnerable to piffle in an age where there is so much disinformation and claptrap around.

In a speech given in 2008, Thompson said, 

…proportionate, rational scepticism is healthy and a civic good – as well as being a prime building block of good journalism… the evidence points rather the other way: the less you trust politicians and public institutions, the more likely you are to believe in outré conspiracy theories, not to mention witches and warlocks and so on.
What the evidence points to, I think, is of a large group of the population who feel outside a charmed circle of knowledge and power. Modern public policy is fiendishly complex and debates about it are conducted in a mysterious, technocratic language which – despite the best efforts of the BBC and some of the rest of the media – many people find hard to understand. This by the way may be why, as Onora O’Neill pointed out, the modern mechanisms of accountability, which are riddled with this impenetrable language, have not only failed to arrest the decline in trust but may have accelerated it.

And also in that same speech, he noted,

One of the tasks of a free press is to uncover public malfeasance. The media is right to be alert to it and to pursue and investigate any evidence that it is taking place. But no good – and almost certainly some ill – is served by exaggeration or endlessly crying wolf… However, this does not seem to be one of the main drivers of broader public disillusion…The biggest reason people give is because, in their view, politicians don’t tell the truth. People also think politicians “say what they want people to hear” and they don’t give straight answers – all issues related to the theme of truth telling.

Trust has to be earned by both sides, and is not a right or a given by either. It starts by being honest. Non-critical acceptance of political or corporate blarney by the media leads to the sort of banal, bland coverage (it doesn’t deserve to be called reporting) we get in the ideological media (like PostMedia and Fox “News”) where everything conservative is treated as wonderful and illuminating, and anything done, suggested, or spoken by a liberal or Democrat is vilified regardless of content or context. This reduces their content to a sort of Tarzan-Jane language of simplisticisms: “Them bad. Us good.” This, of course, appeals increasingly to a polarized audience that views complexity and intellectualism with suspicion and hostility.

Little wonder public disillusion with politicians has extended to the media**. We used to expect of our media to be the watchdogs of the greater good; trusted guardians of the public weal to give us truth and fairness. We also expected them to look deeper into issues on our behalf. Now we expect far too many of them to merely regurgitate the party line, shills for the shallow, self-serving ideology of their corporate owners.

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Lessons from History

It is common practice to look back and conflate the events of the past with those of the present, seeking parallels, resonance, and answers from previous events that help explain today’s. We learn from others, from their experiences, and we like to find commonalities in our shared experiences, even from our or other’s historic past. We see ourselves reflected in our past and we sometimes mistake that reflection for the reality.

Machiavelli did it in both The Prince and The Discourses, didactically using examples from classical Greek and Roman texts to explore the events, politics, and governance in his contemporary Italian states, and drawing conclusions on his modern events from parallels in the past. That was one of his great achievements: to explore how people behave similarly in similar situations across the ages, and thus extrapolate how we will behave under similar conditions in the future. This is why his books remain relevant today. In The Discourses, he warned in what could be seen as prescient to the current US administration:

Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it.
Discourses on Livy Book I, Ch. 3

It’s a losing battle to argue that the US administration isn’t filled with evil, vicious, self-serving people, because all the evidence points otherwise. But I digress.

Legend, mythology, poetry, and literature in every culture has always provided examples from which to learn. From the earliest stories of Gilgamesh and the Bible to modern novels, we learn that human behaviour has not changed in any dramatic manner, and we can always discover our modern selves in reading about our past. And we may find new ways of seeing events and issues from another perspective. An article in The Atlantic noted,

…beyond providing an introduction to troubling issues, historical fiction can offer the chance, if taught conscientiously, to engage students with multiple perspectives, which are essential to understanding history; to help students comprehend historical patterns and political analogies; and to introduce students to historiography—how history is written and studied…
Humanizing history not only means it’s easier for students to connect the historical dots, research shows that it also encourages empathy. Being told a story via historical fiction helps students identify with the characters’ points of view, and that ability to recognize different outlooks… is an essential historical skill…

If anything, history and literature have show us that humans today remain as greedy, parsimonious, warlike, loving, compassionate, lustful, treacherous, loyal, curious, wise, affectionate, and pigheaded as we were at the dawn of recorded history. This also is why classical philosophy and — some non-supernatural parts of — religion still have relevance today, too: human behaviour has not changed in the millennia since we started writing about it.

Machiavelli wrote,

To exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have conducted themselves in war, and discover the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former.
The Prince, Ch. 14

Of course, all such comparisons are at least partially epigonic, because despite parallels, changes in cultures and technologies over time have created situations and events that cannot be duplicated nor simply overlaid on the past by mere ideological association. Looking back can offer many lessons, but one must be wary of aligning the past too closely with the present, and confusing allegory and metaphor with current reality. It’s far too easy to make false equivalences or grand generalizations from a cursory knowledge of the past.

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Decades, centuries and millennia

Blame it on DennisJanuary 1 is NOT the start of a new decade. To the CBC and the other arithmetically-challenged media who insist otherwise: it isn’t. You just don’t understand how to count to 10. No matter how you spin it, 9 years is not 10.

And even if it was, starting or ending a decade or any other period of time has no magical significance. Neither history nor culture, neither politics nor science work along calendrical timelines and our own calendar is an arbitrary construct for convenience only. But back to the numbers. It all comes down to simple numbers.

I get that counting from one to 10 is tricky for some folk (like CBC editors). It’s easy to get lost and forget that there are ten digits in there. “One, two, three, uh… seven… nine… four… is that it?” But here’s how it works:

1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7… 8… 9… 10

Feel free to print this sequence out for future reference. Try it using your fingers. See? Ten numbers when you count from one to ten. Pretty amazing, eh? Well, that’s how our calendar works, too.

So if the above arithmetic hasn’t boggled your mind too much already, let’s do some basic counting. We’ll start with a decade. The word itself comes from the ancient Greek through Latin: dekas is in ten in Greek, decas is Latin. A decade can mean a set of ten things, such as books, chapters, or even prayers, but for this article we’re interested in one use: counting years. A decade is ten years. Not nine, not eleven.

Sure, you can pick any arbitrary group of ten years and call them a decade, but that dilutes the significance considerably. 1964-1973 is a decade, technically, but unless it’s associated with a significant historical event or issue, so what? Who celebrated the start of a new decade in 1974?  Same with 2010-2019 – technically correct only as a decade in marketing or in slipshod media reckoning. (I’m sure you are aware that, in the example decade above, it marked the ten years of direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.)

The first decade in the western calendar starts with year 1, just like your fingers do,  and ends with… have you figured it out yet? That’s right! Year 10. Years 1 through 10 are the first decade. Now with a little effort, you can calculate the first century – 100 years. Spoiler alert: that’s years 1 through 100. And the first millennium? Right: years 1 through 1000. See the pattern? You start counting with 1, not 0. Decades, centuries and millennia all start with a year ending in 1. And they close with a year ending in zero. Just like counting from one to 10 on your fingers. You don’t count from 0 to 9, do you? Then why do it with years?

So what is 2020 in those terms? Start with 2001, the first year of this millennium and count 10… 2001 to 2010, then another 10; 2011 to 2020. So 2020 is the LAST year of the current decade, not the start of a new one. Got that? Apparently the CBC doesn’t, but like local media, their credibility is long past its best-before date. I digress.

Calendars are not like the odometer on your car. Odometers start at zero, so when you see 1, you’ve travelled 1 km (or miles if you prefer the archaic imperial system). When the numbers on an odometer roll over to 2,020 it means you’ve travelled a full 2,020 kilometers and number 2,021 is just starting. Calendars, on the other hand start at 1, and the appearance of year 2020 indicates we’ve done 2,019 years and the 2,020th is about to begin, not ending.

You can also count years like you count the pages in a book. You start with one. You don’t begin reading the second set of 10 until you read to the very end of page 10. Or like money – count from one. If I owed you $10 and gave you $9 because I started counting from zero – would you accept it? Think of years as pennies. How many pennies are in $20? Is $19.99 the same amount as $20? Would a bank give you a $20 bill if you gave it $19.99 in pennies? We count house numbers, cookies, bottles of beer – everything else from one. So why are some people trying to make us count years from a non-existent year zero? Zero isn’t a number – it’s a place marker. Doesn’t anyone take math in schools these days? Or maybe they think there’s a ‘decade’ with only nine years lurking in the calendar.

I blame Dennis.
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Goodbye, Information Age

Fake news“Say goodbye to the information age: it’s all about reputation now,” is the headline of an article by Italian philosopher and professor Gloria Origgi, published recently on Aeon Magazine’s website.

She writes:

…the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

I no longer need to open a computer, go online and type my questions into Google if I want to know something: I can simply ask it. “Hey Google, what’s the population of China?” or “Hey Google, who’s the mayor of Midland, Ontario?” or “Hey Google, how many lines are in Hamlet?” Google will answer with all the data. If I ask, “Hey Google, what are the headlines this morning?” it will play a recent CBC newscast.

Google Home can, however, only give me a summary, a snippet, a teaser. Should I want to delve deeper or into than one question, I still need to go online and search. And that leads me into the information swamp that is the internet. How do i sort it all out?

The way we access information has changed as radically as the amount available to us. Just look at the Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2018: “Nomophobia” which means “a fear or worry at the idea of being without your mobile phone or unable to use it”.

Describing a typical day in his life, Dan Nixon writes of how we isolate ourselves with out phones, imagining they are instead connecting us:

…the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention. When I get to the bus stop now, I automatically reach for my phone, rather than stare into space; my fellow commuters (when I do raise my head) seem to be doing the same thing.

What could there be that is so engaging on the phone that the writer cannot use the time to, say, think? Read? Observe? Communicate with his fellow travellers? Eleven studies found that “…participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” The phone serves as a personal barrier to interaction instead of facilitating it. It’s a feedback loop: making it seem we are “doing something” by giving us a sensory response, while making it seem that simply thinking is “doing nothing.”

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Seneca, Letter II to Lucilius, trans. Robin Campbell, Penguin Classics: Letters from a Stoic, 2004.

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The slow death of media credibility

A story in the recent issue of New Republic opens:

“A decade of turmoil has left a weakened press vulnerable to political attacks, forced into ethical compromises, and increasingly outstripped by new forms of digital media.”

Collapsing media credibilityThis points to the continuing erosion of public confidence in traditional media. While this piece refers to national (American) and international media, it applies equally to local media – all types.

Traditional media has been disappearing under the waves of digital media for the past two decades. In its fight to stay afloat and retain audience, a lot of media outlets have tried to pander to the lowest common denominator: the public’s obsession with conspiracy, scandal, gossip, the glitterati and rude allegation. Nipple slips and leaked sex tapes in the headlines.

This grasping attempt at salvation sinks media’s credibility: going down that road it’s not long before every medium looks like the National Enquirer or the Daily Mail, with little to no relationship between what is printed and actual events. It’s not a long voyage from scandals and unfounded allegations to UFO abductions and chemtrail conspiracies. 

But decaying standards and disappearing journalism are not the only cause for its collapse. Cutting the staff necessary to do the job expected of them has helped guide it down the path.

Local radio stations lack news directors or reporters. There is no regular TV coverage of local events and issues (Council coverage on the Rogers-only community network being the exception; however it is tediously flat coverage without annotation, explanation or analysis). A single print reporter here is expected to cover all issues, events, sports and politics. But the local print media barely covers local news* and avoids anything controversial or that requires significant investigation. Plus with such little space dedicated to actual news in print, a vast array of issues and governance gets ignored.

Personal relations with politicians have tainted some local media and further reduced its credibility (avoiding controversy or criticism to prevent friends from embarrassment results in blandly supportive reporting that readers should distrust). Ads and computer-generated playlists get more vastly time and space than news in local media – which speaks to the audience about the media’s priorities.

How does the public become engaged without a reliable, credible news source? How does the public get to understand and decide on issues without investigative reporting to explain all the facts? How does the public even learn of events and issues when no media provides the space or time they require? How does the public choose its politicians at election time when the media has failed to provide unbiased coverage of local governance?

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What’s wrong with local media?

What are the papers saying?“It’s about trust. Our relationship with our readers is built on transparency, honesty and integrity.” So opens the front-page piece in this weekend’s Connection, titled in all-caps, “Local News Needs Support ‘Now More Than Ever'”. It echoes the theme of”now more than ever” written for National Newspaper Week, Oct. 1-7. And some of it is eerily similar to what Bob Cox wrote about journalism on Oct. 2. Imitation is the sincerest form, I suppose.

Apparently the Connection only climbed on board six weeks later. But I suppose it’s better late than… well, no it’s not. At least during National Newspaper Week they could have justified publishing some of this gooey dreck.

The self-aggrandizing theme – begging for local support, whingeing that ad revenue is declining while boasting how great the paper and its staff are – is present on five pages in a publication that has limited editorial content even at its best. Trust us, we’re journalists, the copy screams. We’re pros. And in case you missed it once, they say it again and again and again.

The claim about declining advertising might be hard for readers to swallow, what with the paper fat with (by my count) fifteen thick store flyers in the latest issue. And it’s not like the paper lacks display ads – see my analysis below.

Let me start by saying that I worked as both reporter and editor for the local papers. I was appalled that such self-serving content (and so much of it!) was not just on the front page, but embedded throughout the paper. Is it in the best community interest to show a photograph of the reporters on the front page instead of a community event or group? That speaks volumes to me about the paper’s focus: itself before the community. This sort of content should have come as a special section, or displayed after the news.

The Connection was an independent paper back in 1990 when I first moved here, but was bought by Metroland – owned by TorStar – in 1992 or 93 (I worked there briefly as the editor/reporter/layout person before being hired by the Enterprise Bulletin). It has always been a one-person operation – the single reporter covering politics, police, events, sports and everything else – overseen by a regional editor, with contributed content and columns.

Nowadays they have to handle social media and online filing, too. Overworked, I admit, albeit a union job better paid than I ever was in newspapers. But inadequate staffing and poor resource use is a management failure.

Metroland has always been about advertising. It’s the free wrapper around the flyers (of Metroland’s 106 papers with 5.27 million circulation, only 15,300 are paid). That’s called a “community” paper although how much real community content is available depends on the publication.

Let’s take a closer look at this week’s paper and analyze the contents so we can see just how committed to local news and coverage the paper is. (I apologize in advance for any mistakes – there are some bits like the front page logo and some classified columns that may be estimates).

The paper has 44 pages, divided into six 11.5-inch columns (excuse me for being so imperial in my measurements). That’s 69 column-inches per page for a total of 3,036 column inches from front to back.

Of that space, 599 column inches are dedicated to editorial content of every sort, including photos, sports, community, events, news, columns and contributed material. That’s a ratio of about 19.7% editorial to advertising. Note there is an 11.5-inch masthead, too, making the total of non-ad space somewhat higher at 610.5 column inches. Even with that masthead included, the ratio is just 20% editorial to 80% advertising.

But let’s take a closer look at what’s in those 599 inches (all figures include photos, pull-quotes and headlines) in order of volume:

  • Community news (personalities, church, lawyers, babies, pets, Santa Claus parade): 196.5 inches (p.3, 14, 25, 28, 29, 31, 33 and 34)
  • Self-serving, self-promoting articles and opinion pieces about how great the Connection and Metroland are: 182 column inches (p. 1, 4, 6, 8 and 24).
  • Events: one full page, 69 inches (p. 30).
  • News: 61.5 inches (p.10, 16, 21 and 26). Note that the first item of actual news – and arguably the most important piece in the entire paper (the town being sued at the Ontario Supreme Court over a flaw in its clandestine airport deal although the reporter never asked who in town hall was responsible for the disputed lease… ) doesn’t even appear until page 10. Stories on p. 16 and 26 are about Clearview Township, not Collingwood. Total Collingwood news: a mere 22 inches. And the 5.5 inch piece on p. 21 is from a police report. 
  • Opinion (not including the self-serving two-column editorial: that’s counted above): 34.5 inches (16.5 for the cartoon, 18 for mostly irrelevant comments copied from social media – no letters or op-ed pieces).
  • Contributed columns: 33 inches (p. 23 and 27)
  • Other contributed content: 22.5 inches (p. 21 and 22)

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