17 May 2010

Big Blog and Breitbart

I have mostly tried to ignore Andrew Breitbart. It used to be difficult; for a time he was the go-to for all videos and many news stories linked from Drudge Report. I had no alternatives to the single-minded ferocious news aggregation of Drudge and Breitbart.

But as the online news world caught up and I was able to abandon Drudge (happily!) I no longer had to increase his hit-count while decreasing my brain cells if I wanted to stay abreast breaking news. Both sites were and are relentlessly biased (Drudge towards libertarianism and Breitbart towards conservatism). And while I don't object to a good bit of bias, it can't get in the way - which is why I no longer read The Huffington Post, either.

Now it seems as though Breitbart is intruding into my world again, by emerging from the cocoon of paranoia and slander in which he had entombed himself for so long. He is a regular contributor on Fox News, and a New Yorker profile has detailed how he manages what they call an "empire of bluster."
Breitbart considers himself an accidental cultural warrior. “I am not as partisan as people think I am,” he told me, calling himself eighty-five per cent conservative and fifteen per cent libertarian. His conservatism fails him on issues such as the legalization of prostitution, and he sometimes tilts toward favoring gay marriage. “But, when the entire media is structured to attack conservatives and Republicans, there is a huge business model to come in and counterbalance that,” he said.

He does not pretend to be an expert in policy, or to be particularly interested in it. “Just because I am paying attention to politics and culture doesn’t mean that I should be talking about the health-care bill, talking about the minutiae,” he told me. Instead, Breitbart is obsessed with wresting control of the political narrative from the established media organizations. If the wire services that Breitbart aggregates, and the bloggers he recruits, serve as his content providers, then Breitbart might be called a malcontent provider—giving seething, sneering voice to what he characterizes as a silenced majority.
This fits right in with the New Yorker's profiles of conservative demagogues Sarah Palin (book review and selection profile), Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck - all of which have been wildly popular with readers. I guess the New Yorker figured out the pattern some time ago: discuss the attitudes and activities of conservative firebrands in the driest possible terms, frost with a couple of anecdotes, and serve with justified contempt.

But the article, as routine as it is, drew my attention to Breitbart's growing collection of sites. I'm familiar with Big Government, of course, but I was unaware he also has a Big Hollywood, and Big Journalism - and apparently some more on the way. There's an obvious pattern (aside from the name): each site is a perpetuation of a conservative persecution complex that has become steadily more formulaic in the past two decades.

I guess it's always been around, this idea that "They only report what They want us to know" or "They never present the other side of the story! What about !?" It's understandable: when newspapers are printed for thousands or millions, they shoot for the mean of their audience. And like every average, their projection is going to be inaccurate about a large number of its members. The most conservative/liberal/wealthy/poor/whatever are going to feel like their side gets shortchanged.

For reasons I don't fully understand, the media leaders of the conservative movement of the late 90s proved particularly apt at harnessing this perception. Relentless repetition about the unfair bias of major media outlets helped reinforce the persecution complex, as did the highly targeted nature of emerging media. Limbaugh's radio show took a medium that was dying (AM Radio) and used its cheap price and ubiquitous nature to tell a narrow story to a narrow audience.

Now, of course, we've seen that this narrow audience is just as ubiquitous as radio, and that with modern technology you don't have to try to target an audience of 30,000 in the city of Boulder, where that would be a full 10% of a diverse population - it's far easier (trivially easy) to find 30,000 people who will agree with you about things if you look worldwide, instead. The number of people who listen to Glenn Beck on the radio remains fairly trivial in any given city (a few thousands, perhaps), but when you total that up nationwide or worldwide, you have an audience of hundreds of thousands. Internet news aggregators like Breitbart do the same thing, but even more effectively.

Jonathan Chait at The New Republic won't shut up about conservative "epistemic closure" - the phenomenon where an enclosed group shuns outside ideas and avoids criticizing each other. But it is real, and maybe he's justified in talking about it so much since few people are willing to tackle that monster.

Let's make it plain: the modern conservative movement has allowed itself to become lulled into intellectual complacency. It is run by unaccountable and unelected media personalities, and a vicious culture of epistemic closure permits little dissent and little diversity. This is a bad thing for the conservatives, and bad for America. It is not good when half of the political conversation is dominated by people with an general disregard for policy and the truth.

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