The Second Draft of History
What stories can one tell these days that will impart any practical wisdom or virtue? What news is worth one’s attention and effort? How can one tell whether a currently developing topic is worth one’s attention span, let alone collect sufficient information about it in the midst of its development to produce insightful analysis? Why bother writing the first draft of history?
As an amateur/hobbyist blogger, I like to think of my writing as having some pragmatic end. Perhaps I can help shepherd my audience to some conclusion in less time than it would have taken them to assemble and analyze the raw data themselves. Hopefully, I establish that my audience can place confidence or faith in my ability to choose worthwhile issues to highlight and discuss, thus making their precious time well-spent in reading whatever I choose to write about. Even more hopefully, I will actually be able to carry out these tasks in a manner consistent with my own beliefs of what is worth covering, analyzing and highlighting. In this paradigmatic sense, I accept the same role as any other news media that has come before me in attempting to write an early manuscript of how we will (or ought to, anyway) look back on the present.
Having pondered and dallied over what to write about for the last several weeks (sorry about the delay), I don’t envy the work with which we’ve tasked the news media in this day and age. It seems almost too simple and cliché to put into words, but the objects of news coverage have grown increasingly larger and more complex, to the point where we may have past an inflection point in the media’s ability to comprehensively and comprehensibly cover all of the pertinent and important issues of the day. The mainstream media is assigned the role of figuring out what implications to ascribe to a failure to reach a resolution to the debt ceiling crisis (i.e., whether the United States would even default by failing to pay its securities/obligations or whether we’d stop paying Social Security recipients first), how to intelligibly cover the Murdoch phone-/government-hacking scandal (as even a cursory understanding requires a moderate awareness of the tangle between the News Corp. web and British politics), and how to effectively communicate that information to an audience that would really rather just hear about some scandalous infant-killing mother. And because the media is owned by entertainment industries, it is forced to compete for attention and eyeballs, rather than for excellence in journalism and truth-discovery, leaving philanthropic or truth-loving people like George Clooney to deploy satellites that uncover mass graves in Sudan.
It’s hard to blame the media for having difficulty covering complex topics. Very intelligent friends of mine would have to go out of their way to keep abreast of each status update of debt-ceiling negotiations, or understand the implications of a U.S. default. As do I myself, frankly. But that latent difficulty is compounded for the media by the fact that most journalists are not experts in the field they cover; rather, they are experts in journalism. That’s why so much of the mainstream media’s political coverage has a focus on the politician’s approach to the media (as opposed to his or her approach to policy). And of course, this navel-gazing reflected self-awareness and self-centeredness has paved the walls of the media’s “echo chamber” in our era of post-modern political coverage.
Not that a polity’s lack of expertise or wisdom is anything new; part of the purpose of representative government is to allow our representatives to become specialists in the objects of legislation and governance, thereby allowing the rest of the polity to devote its energies to other, more objectively productive modes of existence. Given that your average voter might deliberately misunderstand or countermand policy issues if there’s a sufficient personal interest to convince them otherwise (e.g., farm subsidies, global warming, free trade, etc.), it seems fitting that we would entrust the act of legislation to those who have the time to gain some familiarity and expertise in an issue’s various nuances. However, when the issues themselves become so convoluted and tricky that the individual legislators must defer to others who themselves have vested interests in the outcome, the problem of bias is much worse than any the media could create.
So, where does this leave us? I’ve observed before that I think our polity has veered strongly away from a democratic republic and toward an oligarchy, with government captured by sufficiently powerful pools of capital and influence. That suggests that we can no longer continue the tradition of delegating power to our representatives with the faith that they will eventually act in the best interests of the polity writ large. Instead, we will have to be stewards of our own wisdom. The media will have to take a broader, longer view on the lessons of history. I’ll try to keep up the mantle of writing with some perspective, but perspective requires some distance and careful consideration. We’ll just have to see if I can do it on a regular basis.