Why general audience news will only get more ideologically polarized: propaganda pays the bills

During a casual conversation with a friend about the state of the “news media” and its openness ideological diversity I expressed my rather cynical view that the future of the mass-market journalism is toward one of polarization. The reason for this isn’t really due to the nature of journalism in any specific way, but the reliance of journalistic outfits on very distinct markets. Publications are now focused on gaining subscribers, and to gain subscribers you have to provide product people want.

People read news for various reasons. Titillation and curiosity obviously. But also for self-affirmation and confirmation. This is rather clear for cable news, but the same dynamics apply to print and internet. News is a consumption good. People aren’t going to want to hear it or read it if it doesn’t flatter their own self-image. So when push comes to shove on sensitive issues the media will provide its customers what they want.

To give a concrete example, in 2009 a genetics paper provided strong evidence that Indian populations were stratified in ancestry as a function of caste and region, and that one component of South Asian ancestry is intrusive from the West. To my surprise, Indian publications put forth stories like this: Aryan-Dravidian divide a myth: Study. Basically, the media were transmitting the opposite of the most plausible interpretation of the results.

At the time I mocked the Indian press for being propaganda and the Indian public for wanting to see what they wanted to see. To be entirely honest I wouldn’t do such a thing today because when in glass houses one shouldn’t throw stones. My views of my country and its elite classes of various professions have changed quite a bit in the past 10 years.

The American media is quite willing to provide propaganda if that’s what its paying public wants. To give a concrete and now non-partisan example: the American media allowed itself to launder misinformation in the lead-up to the second Iraq War. A few people were right, and they were ignored or derided.

And like Indian journalists and scientists, American journalists and scientists also have some preferences about what they want to be true, so it’s not as if they are kicked and dragging in the direction of their most congenial results.

The “best” thing about the game that the Indian media played, and the game that the American media plays, is that the people believe that the propaganda is actually fair and balanced! Even the journalists themselves may believe the propaganda because many of them lack specialized knowledge to know when the people they interview are lying to them or misleading them (the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect is really disturbing).

Finally, if you are one of those people who strangely prefer the truth, there is a way you can get it: become wealthy and buy the truth. If you are running a hedge-fund or some such other thing, information is not just a passive consumption good. Information is input into the production of more wealth and power. People in this sort of results-driven financial sector mine informants for truth in a very conscious manner to maximize returns for themselves and their clients. And of course, there exists a market for what is basically “reality-based journalism”. It’s just a market that is invisible to us plebs unless we find ourselves having access to nuggets of truth which no one wants to hear, but which global capital wants to profit from….

The “media” that you see and hear about. The media with the big budgets and large news organizations are actually just a simulacrum of an objective data-gathering and transmission institution. In reality, they are tribal newsletters. On the narrow scale, they often reinforce particular tribal narratives and ignore countervailing ones. But on a broader national scale, they collectively flatter our self-image as a people in a sometimes ludicrous fashion.

The real objective data-gathering and transmission institutions are hidden from view. And they are the ones laundering the “truth” to those with power so that they may have more power.

Welcome to the future!

18 thoughts on “Why general audience news will only get more ideologically polarized: propaganda pays the bills

  1. The only thing I object to in this post is the idea that this is a new development, rather than simply something that has become more blatant and more easy to see in the age of the Internet.

  2. Any other sectors other than finance you can think of that are sufficiently results-driven that they seek truth over feels?

  3. Largely agree with you, except that I think I don’t think that an “inner party” that seeks objective truth for its own benefit exists (except for quite narrow areas like the stock market, and even there it is easier to manipulate reality for profit than to investigate its nature), otherwise elites are no less prone to echo chambers from the rest of us.

  4. If you have 8 minutes of patience to watch and listen carefully, with headphones, (sorry if there’s annoying adverts) you’ll hear some scathing candor emerging from some embedded dudes whose community has been seeking for a toehold in truth for half a millenium now.

    Yes there are lyrics: wait through the buildup. Experience the entirety and you’ll be duly rewarded on a number of levels.

    Believe it or not this very version, played in its entirety, was an actual charted mainstream radio hit for a moment.


  5. In times of madness and too many perspectives, New Journalism can be useful in ferreting out a bit of truth, and people read it because it’s entertaining:

    “New Journalism is a style of news writing and journalism, developed in the 1960s and 1970s, which uses literary techniques deemed unconventional at the time. It is characterized by a subjective perspective, a literary style reminiscent of long-form non-fiction and emphasizing “truth” over “facts,” and intensive reportage in which reporters immersed themselves in the stories as they reported and wrote them. This was in contrast to traditional journalism where the journalist was typically “invisible” and facts are reported as objectively as possible.[1] The phenomenon of New Journalism is generally considered to have ended by the early 1980s.”


    Who can forget “That Party At Lenny’s” by Tom Wolfe.

  6. I do not think the Iraq War is an example of media giving what the viewers want. What you described at the beginning was reactive, as in the media reacting to what the viewers want in order to reap more profit. But the propaganda of the Iraq War was not reactive but active, as the Bush Administration wanted the media to actively shape public perception. It does not appear to me that anyone in the public actually wanted to attack Iraq until the media started actively telling the public they wanted to attack Iraq. This is actually quite important because there seems to be an assumption for many Americans that actively shaping perception for the purpose of the government is only done by countries such as Russia or China.

    An example I like to give is Libya because it amazes me that not more people are talking about it. Anyone who pushes the line that Libya was a disaster because of the fundamental incompetence of the US political class who does not understand the limits of liberal democracy and does not understand history is either knowingly or unknowingly pushing propaganda. The true reason for Libya was because France wanted to destroy Gaddafi’s ability to use gold to establish a pan-African currency. This might sound like a crazy conspiracy theory but we know it isn’t because the State Department itself released (and later deleted but not before they were archived) Hillary emails stating this! https://www.reddit.com/r/politics/comments/45muz5/declassified_now_deleted_clinton_emails_show/

    So it appears USG isn’t that incompetent after all because contrary to the propaganda narrative that the US at the end of the day is fundamentally the “good but dumb” guy who wants to help but messes up and basically sucks at geopolitics, the elites that rule the US are much more Machiavellian and amoral than what the public perception of it is. And this public perception itself is a result of propaganda. For example this NYT article: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/us/politics/hillary-clinton-libya.html It admits that Libya was a failure but because Hillary wanted to be “caught trying” for humanitarian purposes and not because the USG was actively seeking to destroy Libya. No mention of the emails whatsoever.

    As you wrote, it is hard to know whether you’re being lied to if you have no specialised knowledge on a subject. This is even worse for on subjects related to foreign policy because everything the government does in this area is classified, and since it is impossible to actually know the details for any of this it is much easier for the media to push the government’s narratives. But when we do actually get some details regarding why the USG do what it does as detailed in those Hillary emails, it seems the US media is in a huge part actively shaping perceptions than reacting to what the public wants.

  7. Our media ecosphere has become more like the Anglo-American adversarial court system. In other words, while you can’t (fully) trust advocacy from one side or another, you can expect one side to fact-check the other.

    Although perhaps unintentional, there is truth-seeking system-wise in this way. Sort of Popperian, I guess.

    I am not as pessimistic as Mr. Khan on this though. I remember when there was “consensus” in the media, because a handful of outlets controlled the ENTIRE narrative in the society. Those weren’t exactly the days of truth-seeking either. Today’s multiple outlets of various ideologies are preferable than the past in this regard.

  8. It does not appear to me that anyone in the public actually wanted to attack Iraq until the media started actively telling the public they wanted to attack Iraq.

    I can assure you that there were lots of people who wanted to attack Iraq. Most everyone agreed that Saddam Hussein was a little shit to his people. He seemed to be thumbing his nose at America. Lots of people wanted to “finish the job” supposedly left over from the first Gulf War when George H.W. didn’t destroy the Republican Guard and continue on to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam. It was assumed that this would be easy.

  9. Roger Sweeney, but why do people even believe the US should “finish the job”? The only reason for this is partisan political nonsense to do with the Gulf War that is constantly spread on the media 24/7. Most Americans don’t know anything about anything. I don’t mean this as an insult, because the fact of the matter is that most people don’t know about most topics in the world and will not bother researching it. Therefore, their whole understanding of a wide variety of topics is completely created by the media. Of course it is true Hussein is not exactly a great ruler. But how would the average American find out about this? By researching Iraq? By living there? No, it is because the media broadcasts it. Why does it matter that Hussein isn’t a nice person? Because the media says so. How does the public know he has WMDs and is linked with Al Qaeda? Because the media says so. How does the public later know he doesn’t have WMDs? Because the media did a 180. The media isn’t reacting to what the public wants in any of this. The average American probably won’t be able to find Iraq or Libya or Syria on a map. The only reason the average American will care about any of this is because the media broadcasts bad things happening there and talks about how the US military must intervene. This is how the public “forms opinions” on things.

    destroy the Republican Guard and continue on to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam. It was assumed that this would be easy.

    But this is accurate. Destroying Iraq was extremely easy. It was the nation building that is hard, but here I would say as I said about Libya, the failure to nation build is not because US politicians are incompetent though wanted to do well and does not understand you can’t just spread liberal democracy. The goal was to destroy Iraq, and the reason for my opinion is because 1) we know Libya was purposely destroyed for geopolitical purposes and have reasons to assume the same for Iraq and 2) we have UK academics stating that the US military straight up said there was no plans for nation building and the actual plan is to destroy the place and keep it weak! https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/07/legal-and-military-failings-of-the-iraq-war-and-its-aftermath (Dr. Malcolm McIntosh’s letter) This is how ubiquitous propaganda is, where even the narrative that the Iraq War was a mistake is founded on the false premise that the US fundamentally wanted to nation build a liberal democracy in Iraq.

    Mr. Khan, something else about your point that pushing propaganda pays the bills: it is not only the viewers that provides the payment. It is much better to view many academics, journalists, and “experts” of foreign countries as propagandists who are knowingly dishonest. These people do not gain payments from the viewers, they push narratives to the viewers in order to get their payments from powerful elites who want a certain narrative pushed. As I remember you once tweeted, we’re all going to end up some oligarch’s bitch sooner or later.

  10. I completely agree that, “Destroying Iraq was extremely easy. It was the nation building that is hard”. And, of course, it hasn’t succeeded in building a prosperous, stable, democratic Iraq.

    Yet most policy-makers and critics wanted the latter. It was supposedly the lesson of 20th century history: the peace imposed on Germany after World War One kept it weak and led to the Nazis (who renounced it) and World Two. The peace imposed after World War Two, on the other hand, was not punitive. It rebuilt Germany and Japan into prosperous, stable, democratic states. Because strong friends are better than weak, unstable states.

    “Better” can mean better in terms of national security or better morally. Many people believed both.

  11. Yet most policy-makers and critics wanted the latter.

    And these people must be the incompetents who are used to cover up the much more Machiavellian machinations of even more powerful people in government. Again, it is easy to say this is all conspiracy theories, but not if we know Dick Cheney never believed nation building was going to succeed! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EstVJo6URdQ Dick Cheney suddenly turned senile in 2003? I agree that many policy-makers and critics maybe are incompetent enough to believe in nonsense, but they are still at the end of the day knowingly or unknowingly serving whatever agendas of whatever powerful people who decided Iraq must be destroyed. I used to believe Hanlon’s razor but not anymore. I now think many people are much more dishonest than stupid even if they appear otherwise.

  12. Ah, some mysterious “powerful people” who decide what will really happen. The Rosicrucians? The Jews? The Masons? The Illuminati? The International Communist Conspiracy? Perhaps we are not looking deeply enough. Perhaps it is Old Scratch himself: the Devil. Millions of people have believed that for millennia. Can they all be wrong?

  13. Roger Sweeny

    Heh, I see you’re baiting me now but I’ll bite. Who are these mysterious “powerful people” indeed? I don’t know, how about one of the “mysterious” powerful people being Dick Cheney himself? Not very mysterious is it? I don’t recall me mentioning anything about Illuminati, Masons, and the Jews.

    Anyways, I don’t see anything I said being controversial at all. Fact: the State Department itself released Hillary emails stating to the effect that Libya was destroyed to stop Gaddafi using his gold to create a pan-African currency. Are you going to accuse the State Department of falsifying Hillary emails? If the emails are legit, then that would effectively mean anyone who states attacking Libya was for the humanitarian purposes is either knowingly or unknowingly helping to spread propaganda. There is nothing logically unsound about my position. And yes, I consider that Iraq was purposely destroyed as well considering how Cheney used to hold the exact opposite position and if the letter to The Guardian is to be believed, then US generals stated that there was no nation building plans in Iraq. Unless you find fault in my evidence, there is nothing wrong with my reasoning. I have been talking to you in good faith but it appears all you have left to say is moronic nonsense. Do you really think the US is so morally upright that politicians will never destroy a country for Machiavellian purposes despite their own emails explicitly stating so? Could you be wrong? I suggest you concede the point before ranting on about how my the ability to read emails released by the State Department amounts to believing in the Illuminati.

  14. Having read the linked emails, I was rather disappointed to find that they do not actually say that Libya was destroyed in order to prevent Gaddafi from producing a gold-backed currency.

    One says that Gaddafi’s plan for a new dinar influenced Sarkozky, presumably as part of item e) on his list of motivations, Libya trying to supplant French influence in Africa. Another email mentions sweetheart deals for French oil companies, which is item a) in the email about Gaddafi’s gold.

  15. I think the US government can do horrible things. The people in control certainly weren’t very bothered when the Iraqi and Iranian governments were throwing their people against each other in a major slaughter (1980-1988). Henry Kissinger hadn’t had a government position for a while but he spoke for many when he said, “It’s a pity both sides can’t lose.”

    On the emails, I second Megalophias.

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