Clay Shirky is brilliant and American – hence often delusionally flattering

America’s broken Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop (aka OODA loop; see Wikipedia for details) affects us all, distorting our ability to see even simple things.  It’s most clearly seen in experts writing about their own fields.  Today’s example is Clay Shirky, one of America’s top writers about the evolution of the news media.  See his Wikipedia entry and bio about his background (that’s an important part of this story).

Much of Shirky’s writing is brilliant.  In this post we see him writing about what he knows best, something that concerns him most — and the result is almost delusional.  But not randomly so.  Profitably so, flattering so — esp to his media-centric audience.  (This is a tiny part of his speech, which is worthwhile reading)

Excerpt from Shirky’s speech at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, 22 September 2009 (transcript by Joshua Benton, Director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, posted at their website) — Red emphasis added. 

There is an unbroken line from the Globe’s publication of that article to the worldwide pressure of the Catholic Church is now under, to both account for its past and alter its behavior in the future. Which, by way of introduction, makes it clear what’s at stake with what Professor Jones calls accountability journalism. This is a classic example of, again quoting from Losing the News, of the iron core of journalism and in particular the investigative journalism category, where 3 reporters are dispatched for a long period on a story that may or may not pan out.

… None of those 3 things -– overpaying, underserving, and the incoherence of the print bundle in a web of content — will be altered by reversing the revenue trend.

… Now this doesn’t mean that all newspapers go away. It does mean that a lot of them go away. … So the restructuring that environment, even for those newspapers that survive, will mean that newspapers play a less significant role in accountability journalism in the future then they have the past

Which leaves us with a giant hole, and a very threatening one. And the nightmare scenario that I’ve been spinning at for the last couple years has been:  Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption — that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing. Not of epic, catastrophic sorts, but the sort that just takes 5% off the top. Newspapers have been our principal bulwark for that, and as they’re shrinking, that I think is where the threat is.

This is nuts on several levels, and probably results from a someone writing about the news media who never worked the city desk at a local paper — or anything remotely like this.  It’s fantasy.  The commonplace delusions which prevent us from understanding our situation, and result in America majestically drifting onto the rocks.

(1)  “sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption … 5% off the top”

The level of institutionalized corruption in a modern American city is IMO at least 5%, and has always been that or more.  It’s usually a more complex process than Tammany Hall adding 10% onto every sewer contract, but equally effective.

Developers, contractors, and government employee unions run most American cities — and they don’t do so as a public service. 

(2)  “Newspapers have been our principal bulwark” against that

While Shirky can cite the rare article about municipal corruption, what fraction of the news media’s output does that represent?   Tiny.  Very tiny.  And the impact of these articles on governmental corruption are like bailing out the Titanic with a hankie.

(3)  Another and better perspective

The role of the news media — now in its death throes — is an important subject.  For a more reliable witness, I recommend reading chapter 14 of  Lewis Lapham’s book Lights, Camera, Democracy! (2001).  Here are a few observations about our local newspapers.

At least one a year for the last 20 years I have attended some sort of solemn conference at which various well-placed figures within the hierarchies of the American news media attempt to calibrate the precise degree of their own importance. … saying that they must be careful to use their vast and godlike powers only in the defense of liberty or for the benefit of mankind. … every now and then one of the ranking magnificos makes a high-flown speech describing journalists as men against the system

… the image is comical. The organizations represented at the banquet tables belong to the small number of media syndicates that deliver 90% of the nation’s news … and anybody who rises to prominence in their ranks … learns to think along the accommodating lines of an expectant courtier in any other large corporation.

… If the sketch seems somewhat at odds with the official portrait, it is because the media, together with their owners and political overlords, find it convenient to pretend that the free and courageous voice of conscience defends the American people against the darkness of tyranny and injustice. The media does nothing of the kind, but the disguise is flattering as it is profitable, and it conceals the function of the media as the first and foremost of the nation’s courtiers. The big media identify themselves with wealth and privilege and the wisdom in office.

… Like history and Lear’s fool, journalism is better able to diagnose than to cure, and when it is faithful to its purpose, it presents society with a rude measure of the distance between the fanciful images of an approved reality and the awkward facts of the matter.

… I went to work for the {San Francisco} Examiner in the late autumn of 1957, and within a matter of 8 or 9 months I understood that nothing was to be gained by thinking for oneself. What was true was what somebody important said was true, preferably somebody who could certify the afternoon’s revealed wisdom with a seal or stamp of authority — the police, the coroner’s office, … the chairman of an insurance company.

Only on rare occasions did the newspaper question the substance of an official proclamation. If the statement could be attributed to an individual or institution with appropriate credentials, the paper was content to publish nonsense. Itself a bureaucracy, the press retains a devout faith in bureaucratic paper, and much of the news therefore takes the form of official statements…

Nor was there any profit in independent inquiry or investigation. The work took time and money, and when it was done, where were the honor and applause. The result undoubtedly would embarrass or infuriate the institutional sponsors of the news; the journalists in question would dull the smiles at city hall, and their readers seldom could tell the difference between the official and unofficial version of events.

The rest of the article provides much more evidence of the chronic passivity of the American news media.  Note that the target of the example Shirky’s provides of advocacy journalism:  the Roman Catholic Church.  Not a major advertiser, and an institution of minimal and waning power.

Solutions — what replaces the old news media?

For sketches of the new news media:

  1. A new news media emerges for our new world, unseen and unexpected.
  2. The End of Reporters’ Attention Monopoly“, Rimothy B. Lee, at his blog, 24 November 2009 — The last few paragraphs.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Some posts about the mainstream media:

  1. A time-saving tip when reading the daily news, 2 January 2008
  2. The media discover info ops, with outrage!, 22 April 2008
  3. Only our amnesia makes reading the newspapers bearable, 30 April 2008
  4. The myth of media pessimism about the economy, 13 June 2008
  5. “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
  6. “The Death of Deep Throat and the Crisis of Journalism”, 23 December 2008
  7. The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation, 18 February 2009
  8. The media rolls over and plays dead for Obama, as it does for all new Presidents, 19 February 2009
  9. The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
  10. The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
  11. We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009 
  12. Are we blind, or just incurious about important news?, 6 July 2009
  13. We know nothing because we read newspapers, 12 October 2009
  14. Must the old media die for the new media to flourish?, 29 October 2009


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

7 thoughts on “Clay Shirky is brilliant and American – hence often delusionally flattering”

  1. Shirky is fantastic, but also delusional as you mention: “Note that the target of the example Shirky’s provides of advocacy journalism: the Roman Catholic Church. Not a major advertiser, and an institution of minimal and waning power.”

    In general, ‘democracy’ supports and encourages corruption, both when old (the USA & UK), and new (the entire EU Commission had to resign a few years ago), and the newly developing (Iraq, Slovakia, Russia).

    One example he could have mentioned from the 70s, Watergate, was also overblown — a story of a top bureaucrat (Deep Throat) who got passed over getting revenge against the politicians who didn’t promote him.

    In fact, the lack of interest by ‘Democrat Media’ in the Acorn scandals, or in prior investigations, shows that the media’s accountability journalism is highly selective. Requiring ever greater transparancy in gov’t contracts, and payments, and decisions, at the national and local levels, seems a more likely way to get more accountability.
    FM note: for more on the actual story of ‘Deep Throat, see “The Death of Deep Throat and the Crisis of Journalism”.

  2. “At least one a year for the last 20 years ” I saw a film with the brave American journalist exposing corruption and saving the nation, produced by the same companies that own all the “media syndicates that deliver 90% of the nation’s news”.

  3. Another perspective on the end of local newspapers

    The End of Reporters’ Attention Monopoly“, Rimothy B. Lee, at his blog, 24 November 2009 — Excerpt:

    But we’ve seen a proliferation of locally-focused blogs and news sites that help to disseminate news to civically-minded people in a metropolitan area. To choose a few DC-area blogs at random, you’ve got DCist, Greater Greater Washington, Beyond DC and Prince of Petworth. Obviously, none of these blogs individually are comparable to the Washington Post, and even in the aggregate they may not match the Post’s readership yet. But as the Post declines, it’s not hard to imagine these sites, and others like them, picking up the slack.

    Things look even better if we look at the hyper-local level. Virtually every neighborhood has a neighborhood mailing list for exchanging local community information. Here the reporter-middleman is cut out of the loop entirely: people who care about local politics communicate directly with one another. A neighborhood mailing list is going to have vastly more information than would be available in a local newspaper a generation ago. Not everyone will have the patience for that, but the ones who matter most will. And the rest will take their cues from their politically-engaged friends and neighbors.

    Reporters no longer have a technologically-imposed monopoly on their readers’ attention. Readers are no longer stuck with whichever local newspaper happens to be in their home town, and so reporters have to work harder to keep the audiences that used to be theirs by default. Not surprisingly, established journalists don’t like this trend. They liked the privileged position they enjoyed in the pre-Internet age, and they built an elaborate self-justifying ideology that portrayed their privileged position as a benefit to readers. It’s a letdown for journalists to suddenly find themselves on a level playing field with hordes of amateurs. But frankly, that’s just the world works: if a bunch of amateurs can do your job as well as you can, then you should probably find a new job.

  4. More evidence of newspapers’ decline — and why

    Much of the news media values their role as political guides over their business of providing news. This puts them on the fast-track to oblivion.

    Tree-Ring Circus“, Mark Steyn, National Review Online, 24 November 2009

    Jonah, further to earlier discussions about the degree of scandalousness re Warmergate and the CRU, I think “Hide the decline” is a pretty hard phrase to “interpret” in any benign way, and a pretty easy way for anyone to get up to speed with what what’s going on. It’s already a song, and a T-shirt.

    On the other hand, the dullards at the dying US monodailies seem to be working overtime to hide the decline. In Fleet Street and on Australian TV, the statist warm-mongers are at least acknowledging that they have a problem. Over here the brain-dead twits doing their best to turn the Boston Globe circulation figures into Michael Mann’s phony hockey stick upside down are going with “Boston Faces Deep Risk From Sea-Level Rise”. Why not build protective dikes with unsold bundles of the Globe – or the delivery trucks?

    In the comments section of both the Globe and The Houston Chronicle, readers seem to have a better nose for news than the J-school bores. Some declines can’t be hidden.

  5. I just would like to say I live in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times lists homes being sold in Marina Del Ray. Which is impossible, since half a dozen developers own it. Rather people who own homes that live nearby are selling their places, saying it’s in Marina Del Ray for 10% more money.

    The local council office communicates with local homeowners groups about what laws to enforce. The police can’t listen to the council office, and yet they do. The ethics commission doesn’t enforce ethics, they enforce an obscure election law.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: