"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Centrism is a Pose

If there is a sidewalk on either side of a busy street, you may argue whether to walk down the east side or the west side, but it's not a useful compromise to walk out in traffic.

There is more than one question we need to solve, so there are lots of ways of looking at the world.

We need to collaboratively and collectively come up with something coherent. The average of two or more coherent positions is not necessarily coherent. Thus:

Atrios on Centrism
An impossible project is convincing journalists that contemporary "centrism" is a clubbish ideology which is usually not, as communicated, some happy medium between "left" and "right".
Krugman on Centrism
Atrios is right, though I’d put it a bit differently:

centrism is a pose rather than a philosophy.
(h/t Ian Bicking)

I don't think I would have understood what this means a couple of weeks ago. I don't think it means there are two teams, left and right, and you have to choose sides.

What I think it means is that you aren't being anywhere near as clever as you think if you just try to hold the average of all the positions you see around you. Unfortunately, the US press seems to think of this simpleminded approach as a guiding principle; the road to success and righteousness. Which seems to be why Revkin screwed up, and that sort of thing in turn is why people are losing interest in the press.

Or, for another example of the way the press operates, consider Jon Stewart vs CNBC. As Will Bunch (h/t Jay Rosen) says at philly.com (OK, yes, that is a daily newspaper site):
the story shows how access to the nation's most powerful CEOs -- supposedly the big advantage of a journalistic enterprise like CNBC -- isn't worth a warm bucket of spit when it results in slo-pitch softball questions, for fear of offending the rich and powerful.
The American public is mad as hell right now, so why isn't the mainstream media? Balanced reporting is important, but a balanced, modulated tone of voice? Not now, not when millions are hurting from lost jobs and under-water mortgages, and many millions more are living in fear of the same fate.
and so on. (Go read it, and watch the video. Highly recommended.)

If the conventional press will not serve the purposes of genuine public discourse at a time like this, alternatives will emerge, and fast.

We don't have time for or interest in fishwrap anymore. Make us think, or just go away.

Update: Stewart reprises, including Atmoz's favorite line. (Anyone know how Atmoz is doing? He's been very quiet lately.)

: Somebody's making a @buckyfuller tweetstream. It's great. Here's today's entry, which seems altogether germane:
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.


Anonymous said...

I won't say I agree/disagree — I'm biased, since I've always abhorred "centrism" — always believed everyone should take a rational stance and defend it until it falls apart from the inside.

You say:
"If the conventional press will not serve the purposes of genuine public discourse at a time like this, alternatives will emerge, and fast."

I call that optimistic, unless you have a LOT of energy, and a lot of people working on it. It may have been the case in the 15th-17th centuries, when the printing press was just getting started — basically though, even though that was a massively disruptive technology, the elites soon had it under control — with in a matter of a century or so.

With the internet (which I assume you're talking about), we also have a disruptive technology — but, I would argue, far less so than the printing press. There is room for us to move under the radar of the mass media, and make some impact, but there's no evidence or hypothesis that I know of that would point to the elites not regaining control eventually — and much more quickly than 4 centuries ago...

Anonymous said...

oh, and what does h/t mean?

Anonymous said...

Bravo. Nice POV that I hadn't considered.

Anonymous said...

h/t = "hat tip"

Michael Tobis said...

I don't know about "even better"; as far as I can tell the only people who can make money in this market have far more sophistication than CNBC can convey. Your friend may prefer to watch the ticker on a TV rather than a computer or a phone for some reason, but that's not journalism.

It's true that the CNBC example is a bit off from the difference-splitting, but in any case the symptoms are the same: too much regard for the interests of the corporate sector and the more easily offended among the audience, too little interest in people who actually want to think about how to organize their lives and their society.

The consequences are the same. Vapid journalism and an information vacuum. America as whole remains the richest land on earth, but the quality of the information people receive through print and broadcast media especially, is drastically inferior to many other countries, as a casual perusal of the CBC or BBC news sites will reveal. (The Australians, alas, appear to be a different story.)

The matter of confirmation bias is interesting, but I don't see how the sort of mealy difference splitting we see in the US press avoids it. The Brits and French have blatantly partisan newspapers. I'm not sure they are better informed for it, but I'm sure (having read their papers) that they get a lot more to think about than we do.

n101, it would be better if established news organizations could perform the public service they used to do. Inventing new business and reputation models on the internet will not be easy.

Guess which way the momentum is going these days, though?

Anonymous said...

A poor analogy seems to direct your argument. Imagine instead everyone keeping on their own side of the road but heading in the same direction. That's the way Andy Revkin sees it I believe. It doesn't matter your motivation; making/saving money or saving the planet if the final goal can be made the same. A bit more philosophy and you might one day come to the logical conclusion that there is no such thing as ideological truth. Journalists who are forced to interact with both sides learn this quite quickly.

Anonymous said...

My frustration is that the working press (especially in technical areas such as finance, energy or climate change science) is supposed to have a much better than average grasp of the issues and background in that particular area (that's why they're covering it in the first place, right?). Accordingly, they should be situated to ask really penetrating questions (to all sides) and expose idiotic positions for what they are (regarding all sides). Instead, we're treated to a vapid "he said/she said" reportage which purports to provide "balance" - but sometimes the truth isn't balanced, it actually lies mostly on one side or the other. That was why I was livid over the Revkin article on Will / Gore - he's such a knowledgeable guy, but he didn't bring that knowledge to bear on the subject, and I know from browsing various non-climate blogs that the article left at least some "passers-by" who don't follow the climate issue with the impression that it's all just a bunch of hand-waving on both sides with no empirical underpinnings supporting either side more than the other. I'm still mad.

Dano said...

We get the paper at the house, and it is part of the morning routine, but years ago with the rise of The Internets, I gave up trying to translate the newspaper and instead found better news sources. Papers have their place, but that place is shrinking in both volume and influence.

Faux balance. Feh.



Michael Tobis said...

lgcarey, tell me about it!

If you're new here, read back a bit.

You will see that I have gotten stuck with a widely publicized misrepresentation of my opinion as a direct consequence of how seriously I think Revkin mishandled that article. (Along with a couple of interesting twists of fate.)

JamesG, I certainly agree that one way to get a coherent strategy that has wide support is to find common cause with others of different stripes.

I am not sure about Revkin. I have trouble seeing his careful balance of Gore and Will as anything but cynical. I think he was playing to his employers and not to his responsibilities. Despite how much I have appreciated some of his other work, this is a very serious problem.

I dislike your use of the expression "both sides". I think this very expression is part of the problematic model that our lazy journalism and shabby politics have reduced us to. There are many sides. The temptation to cast everybody into two clumps (in which I am uncomfortably bluish and I guess you are reddish) is not healthy.

Not least among the many reasons is because it puts the decisive power in the hands of the people who do the least thinking, and are purple because they have little interest in policy. This is why close two-party elections invariably devolve into shallow image-mongering.

But it sure is convenient for the centrist pose. You just say "on the one hand this and on the other hand that and the truth perhaps lies in between" and you get a paycheck.

Arthur said...

Michael, the best explanation of all this I've seen is Jay Rosen's discussion of the "Sphere of Legitimate Debate":


actually it comes from a book by somebody else which he points to there. Anyway, the problem with the conventional press is really that they so frequently, and ignorantly, place things in the wrong spheres. Especially when it comes to science.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Michael Tobis:

Sheldon Rampton has tackled the subject of "objectivity" (vs. "objectivity") before.


"there's no evidence or hypothesis that I know of that would point to the elites not regaining control eventually — and much more quickly than 4 centuries ago..."

Indeed. Someone with truckloads of money can probably buy lots of web servers to host lots of 'independent' YouTube-like sites to host 'disruptive' news. (Actually, isn't that sort of happening now, with the proliferation of right-wing 'think-tank' web sites?)

But still I'm optimistic. :) I think the key to freedom from control (wheee!) lies in keeping the costs of entry as low as humanly possible, or even beyond. It's quite a challenge to get a printing press up and running, or to get a show to air on TV. But anyone can whip up a blog within minutes. (Though hosting a blog on one's own site is another matter.)

-- bi

Marion Delgado said...


As a person with a lot of years in journalism, print and radio, I'll just say you're entirely missing the point.

To Michael and the others here:

Interestingly, the Fairness Doctrine accepted that you'd have "balance" if, say, you ran 20 hours a week in favor of some bill the owners of the station wanted and gave 1 opposing viewpoint 1 hour that same week. Far short of the he said/she said standard that's clearly inadequate.

And even that was discarded, even though, unlike newspapers, radio uses public resources exclusively.

Add to that that radio essentially parasites on newspapers, and you can see what I saw firsthand - the public airwaves are dominated by news that is below the shallow "Republicans said day is night, while some Democrats still believe it's day" standard that newspapers and news magazines adhere to.

and that's the news/allegedly public service part of radio!

Michael Tobis said...

It happens that I have most of the technical skills needed to run a significant website, and the ones I don't I have enough skills to do myself I have enough skills to know whom to outsource to.

I am very seriously considering yet another career change.

Arthur said...

but, but, Michael, what about all that gold you were in it for?!!!

Anonymous said...

I don't think I have any color. I just prefer the truth rather than hype and I think it should be the duty of journalists to be non-partisan and try to see both sides of the story. The best journalists are skeptical of everything. Partisan journalism stinks.

It's obvious that very often the minority view is proven correct - as it was with the economic situation or the recent wars and as it has been countless times in science. The "experts" often turn out to know naff all. They get into trouble in the first place by refusing to listen to others and by overselling possibilities as facts.

I've actually spent a good deal of time defending Gore on conservative blogs. It's clear the world would have been a better place if he had been president rather than Bush (I'd even say 9/11 may not even have happened because Gore would have allowed the FBI to do it's job). However, there is no doubt he is fear-mongering. He even admits it for heavens sake! You think that's ok because the message is more important than the facts. Well a lot of people on both sides just want the facts. Revkin is among them.

Michael Tobis said...

Revkin is a good reporter. I still trust his representation of facts.

The Revkin piece to which I objected so strenuously that it turned my life upside down was effectively an opinion piece. It implicitly opined that Gore and Will were similarly trustworthy and exagerrated to a similar extent.

Expert opinion is often wrong, but it's probably more often right than

But then again, the spread in expert opinion is regularly misrepresented in the media. Krugman has an example today.

Marion Delgado said...

making it unpleasant for the messenger is what they do. and the frustration you might feel is similar to what people debating Crichton et al. felt - our strength is our weakness, really. We simply say our best estimate of what the truth is, they approach it like a court case where both side makes the most extreme claim they can and the "truth" or at least the verdict comes down somewhere, often in the middle.