A nice demo of modern journalism’s decay

Summary: As scores of posts have documented, America’s institutions are falling like a row of dominoes. Here James Bowman describes the deep decay of journalism, another vital institution cut loose from its roots and abandoning its canons.

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By Ivelin Radkov, AdobeStock-102694788.

A nice demo of modern journalism’s decay.

By James Bowman from his website.

Cover of the London Review of Books, 18 June 2020

Apart from the name of the publication, its volume number, date, and price, the only words on the front cover of the June 18 issue of the London Review of Books are these: “Adam Shatz: America Explodes.” You would think that, if true, this would be pretty big news around the world, and yet this little niche publication three thousand miles away from the alleged explosion appears to have got the story exclusively. Nobody else noticed. Nor has anybody else noticed the absurd hype to which this otherwise respectable scholarly publication has descended in telling the story of the demonstrations (“mostly peaceful,” as the media keep reassuring us) that have followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th.

I couldn’t help noticing the parallel with a headline in yesterday’s Independent, another U.K. publication, though no longer a printed one. “Jessie Ware: ‘We are living a dystopian nightmare’” Jessie Ware, in case you were wondering, is a British pop star who, to judge from the sub-head, is most famous for a song called “Say You Love Me” and a podcast called “Table Manners” which “has won her millions of listeners.” You’ll be excited to hear that she also has a new album out which the Indy judges is “a dazzling return to form.” In the article, “she talks to Kate Hutchinson about her mum Lennie, Black Lives Matter, being an ‘underdog’ and believing in herself” – as well, of course, as the “dystopian nightmare” she, along with the unspecified “we” of the headline, claims to be living in.

Nobody at The Independent appears to have noticed that, if it takes a celebrity puff-piece to inform us that we are living in a dystopian nightmare, we can hardly be living in a dystopian nightmare – any more than it would have required Adam Schatz to bring us the news that “America Explodes” in a small-circulation British fortnightly if America had really exploded. But the readers of both publications must be used to making allowances for the fact that they and their favorite pundits and pop stars are living in a fantasy world of their own – a world of monstrous evils and grinding oppression – which has nothing to do with the workaday world of pedestrian joys and sorrows that most of us live in.

This is where you end up when you become accustomed to “news” which is dominated by its reporters’ feelings rather than the real-life events to which such feelings are at best incidental. That’s how the hopefully revolutionary activity in our streets may be considered an explosion when the media want it to be one and barely noticed when they don’t. Last night, for example, demonstrators in Washington attempted (unsuccessfully) to pull down the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. This morning’s print edition of the home town paper, The Washington Post, didn’t even notice the incident. If it doesn’t fit their “mostly peaceful” narrative of the moment, apparently, it didn’t happen.

More and more, those who still read the papers find they can stop reading at the masthead, which tells you everything you need to know about what’s in them. “America Explodes”? Oh, right. It’s The London Review of Books. Therefore, “America Explodes” must mean something like this: “{We prefer at this writing to believe that} America Explodes {when we read about a number of more or less violent demonstrations in several large American cities in the American media which, like us, devoutly wishes for America to explode}.” That’s the news. We’ve now grown so used to the substitution of feeling or opinion for news that we don’t even notice it anymore. Opinion, also known as “Fake News,” is almost the only news there is, and we treat all the many appearances of “could” and “may” and “critics say” and “experts predict” as tantamount to fact.

Even these barely-noticed qualifiers are dropping out now. Here is a series of headlines as they appear on the aggregator website RealClearPolitics this morning.

That last one refers, as I probably don’t need to tell you, to the considerably less sensational claim in the article itself that, “absent dramatic policy action, a pandemic depression is possible.” But who would read it if that were the headline?

And then there’s the New York Times, where we find the alarming intelligence that the most liberal country in Europe has turned into North Korea overnight: “Sweden Tries Out a New Status: Pariah State.” I remember Marge Simpson’s reassurance to little Lisa: “There’s no shame in being a pariah, honey.” Except that in describing the Swedes as pariahs the headline risks falling into terminological inexactitude. There should be no need to read the article itself to find that it refers to a temporary ban by four or five European countries on traveling Swedes because the incidence of coronavirus in their country is higher than that of its neighbors. This, in turn, is because Sweden, almost alone among European countries, did not go into full lockdown when everybody else did – a choice which, whatever its consequences for the Swedes, puts in grave danger the New York Times narrative that no lockdown equals a massive die-off and national disaster. I have my own theory about why the paper is clinging to this narrative even as more and more states and countries are emerging from lockdown with as yet undisastrous results, but this is only my opinion.


James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and his essay “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

See his collected articles at his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

For More Information

Ideas! See my recommended books and films at Amazon. For something different, see “The Swallow – a story of the WWII Night Witches.”

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Info & disinformation; about journalism, about political debate, about ways to reform America, and especially these …

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Honor: A History
Available at Amazon.

About Bowman’s great book

Honor: A History.

By James Bowman (2006).

I strongly recommend reading this book about a lost but vital element from our culture. A sense of honor was a strength of the West from its earliest days. Now we have lost it. From the publisher…

“The importance of honor is present in the earliest records of civilization. Today, while it may still be an essential concept in Islamic cultures, in the West, honor has been disparaged and dismissed as obsolete.

“In this lively and authoritative book, James Bowman traces the curious and fascinating history of this ideal, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and to the killing fields of World War I and the despair of Vietnam. Bowman reminds us that the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply interrelated.”


13 thoughts on “A nice demo of modern journalism’s decay”

  1. You really do have to wonder just how far they can push the limits of credibility. Which will come first; the peoples sensibilities turn to complete marshmallow or the publications collapse under the weight of their own bullshit.

  2. Nobody at The Independent appears to have noticed that, if it takes a celebrity puff-piece to inform us that we are living in a dystopian nightmare, we can hardly be living in a dystopian nightmare

    This question largely depends on who you ask. The author has no criminal record (assumption) and is unlikely to get one due to his age. Can you say the same for the people on the bottom? Remember that we decided some time ago to charge children as young as 12 as adults. We of course also has the largest prison population per capita for any civilized country. Combine this with the fact that potential employers can look at your criminal record; once you are in the system your life is over.

    A good analogy for this is the experience of Norah Vincent when writing her book, Self-Made Man. She lived as a dude for 18 months, and discovered that in many ways guys are treated like crap.

    I urge the author and anyone else reading this to repeat this experiment, except disguising themselves as minorities. (While technically blackface, we can make an exception FOR SCIENCE!) Let us know how that turns out.

    1. Randolarian,

      What is the standard of comparison you use to determine when a society is a “dystopian nightmare”? If you believe men are treated like crap and minorities even worse, so America is awful – pretty much everyone in history lived in nightmare, as do most of humanity today.

      Also, do you find it odd that the American dystopian nightmare has so many people – including Hispanics, Blacks from Africa and the Caribbean – eager to come here?

      To pick one group, immigrants from Nigeria have a median household income not just above the American average, but also above the average of many white and Asian groups.

      Perhaps some of these people see a different America, or use different standards, than you do. After all, every nation on Earth is awful if you compare it with a Heaven.

      1. I should be more clear with my Norah Vincent analogy. My point was that it is easy for feminists to say men have it so easy when they haven’t lived as one.

        I agree 100% on the experience of Nigerian and other African immigrants; the horrendous attitude of American blacks vis à vis education is responsible for a large part of our predicament.

        Of course life in America is better than any 3rd world country. However I don’t believe that is the rubric we should use; instead we should compare ourselves to other developed nations. AFAIK Japan is the only other nation in this group that has forced prison labor (better known as slavery).

        I would suggest asking this same question to British passport holders and mainlanders in Hong Kong. It depends on who you ask.

      2. Randolarian,

        “Of course life in America is better than any 3rd world country. However I don’t believe that is the rubric we should use; instead we should compare ourselves to other developed nations. “

        What is the net rate of migration between the US and other developed nations? I don’t know, but suspect it is positive into the US.

        Today that the US is a “dystopian nightmare” is a bizarre exaggeration without factual foundation. Yes, some minorities are not treated as well as they should be – but that is true almost everywhere. And the gap has narrowed.

        But your comment is a nice demo of how the media narrative has taken hold in American minds. As I have described I so many posts, and as Bowman says here.

        We believe what we are told. It makes us easy to rule, and will facilitate the transition to our post-Republic regime.

      3. Larry, have you read Peter Turchin? I am reading The Age of Discord and finding it very thought provoking.

        My other recent read was The Coddling of the American Mind, which is also very thought provoking and in some ways related to Turchin. Some of the parental behavior described in it may be a response to overpopulation of the elite, as described by Turchin.

        A very tangled set of strands.

      4. I am finding the basic argument clear enough. The chapter on methodology was hard going. I think the basic thesis is worth a post or two. I can try to write a guest one for you, if you like, but it will take me another month or more really to get to the bottom of it all.

        The very interesting argument is that political crises of the sort we seem to be living through, with a decline in perceived legitimacy of the institutions, has, as one principal cause, the over population of the elite.

        The argument is a complicated one and the mechanism how that happens also quite complicated. But that specific argument I found very interesting. The argument is that once we have overpopulation of an elite (which occurs in a variety of ways) it tends to fragment. Those already in power seek to close ranks, limit admission, and preserve privilege. The reaction of the excluded is to undermine.

        What is so interesting about this is that it does seem to correspond to at least some episodes of history, both contemporary and past. And it also has the promise to give a general account of the underlying causes of what we see around us today. So, for instance, we may point to disengagement from institutions of democracy. Part of why this is happening is increased rigidity. Part may be because opinion formers regularly trash everything about them. Well, here is the germ of an attempt at explaining why that happens, and why it is happening here and now. It has some similarities with the form of some discredited Marxist accounts, but the explantory variables are different and the predictions quite different.

        I am still only a third of the way through but expect to read everything I can find by him. I’d go no further at the moment than finding it very thought provoking. But it surely is that.

  3. I agree with the thrust of the piece, however, regards coming out of lockdown there has been a rise in cases, Florida is a good example. Other countries seem to have managed better.

    ‘I have my own theory about why the paper is clinging to this narrative even as more and more states and countries are emerging from lockdown with as yet undisastrous results, but this is only my opinion.’

    1. Gerard,

      “I agree with the thrust of the piece, however, regards coming out of lockdown there has been a rise in cases,”

      You appear to consider that a rebuttal to something in this post. To what?

  4. His statement that coming out of lockdown has not caused any disasters, we are witnessing an alarming rise in a number of states, Florida is a case in point.
    I’m not sure when he published his essay, maybe it’s last week’s news he is operating off.

    1. Gerard,

      Florida has had 39 thousand new cases in the past 7 days vs. its population of 22 million.

      In May the CDC estimated the fatality rate for those showing symptoms at 0.2%-1%, with a “best estimate” of 0.4%. It estimated the rate for asymptomatic cases (detectable by tests) at 20% – 50%, with a “best estimate” of 35%. That gives an estimated fatality rate for those infected with the virus of 0.26%.

      That gives a weekly fatality rate from those cases of roughly 100 per week from these new cases. But the current fatality rate is running lower – perhaps far lower – than the February – April data used by the CDC for that estimate.

      Perhaps you consider this a “disaster” – and that it warrants shutting down Florida – with the resulting bankruptcies, lost years of education, increased poverty, and ruined lives. Affecting hundreds of thousands or millions of Florida lives. But others disagree.

      1. NO I dont think a new lockdown is warranted, I dont think it will work, they need a different solution, and should have come up with one by now with the time bought by the first lockdown. We will see how this plays out over the next year.

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