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Feb. 1, 2017, 11:48 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Bill Kristol: Remember, demagogues thrived long before the Internet disintermediated the news, too

“Joe McCarthy, you know, was very successful before the Internet, before social media. George Wallace won five states in 1968…So I think it’s too simple to assume that all of our problems are due to this.”

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, some very smart and accomplished people from the world of media gathered in a packed Sanders Theater to discuss the role of journalism in what some, at least, label a “post-truth” era. Today we’re publishing transcripts of their talks and conversations.

Here, Bill Kristol, the conservative political analyst and founder of The Weekly Standard, discusses the “three Ds” of this moment in media: disintermediation, demagoguery, and debility. You can find transcripts of all the speakers and our other coverage of the event here.

I don’t have a professional journalist background, but obviously, having edited The Weekly Standard for 20-plus years, and also having dealt with journalists a lot when I was in government and politics and in other ways, I have a couple of thoughts. I’ll make three points, and I’ll try to keep them very simple, since I don’t have much time, and let other people if they wish say what they think of them.

To make it easy, they each begin with D. The first: disintermediation.

The “media” is between something. Harvey Mansfield, my teacher, wrote an excellent piece which I recommend to you — I just reread it last night — in 1979: “The Media World and Democratic Representation.” Very deep and interesting — much deeper, I’d say, than the normal sort of discussion of the media and democracy. And the piece begins, in a somewhat Mansfieldian way: “The media are in the middle of something — that is for certain — but of what?” The media is a mediating institution. That’s literally the case, and I think importantly the case in democratic politics. Obviously for reasons mostly technological, some of them maybe sociological and others, it’s less that today because of the Internet, social media. Social media is called social media, but when you think about it, it should be called social non-media, because this precisely removes the mediating function and it’s direct. Again, which is in many ways a good thing — but a problematic thing, I think, for politics.

That’s not going to change. That’s mostly technology. The disintermediation is here to stay. It has huge financial consequences for newspapers and magazines and TV networks; it has huge political, sociological, cultural circumstances. I don’t think we’ve seen most of them yet.

I’m less pessimistic about that, in general, than a lot of my friends and colleagues, especially ones my age who have a certain tendency towards nostalgia, as many people do as we get older. I think that’s a mistake, honestly.

I think if one looks back, one would be a little horrified to go back and actually read newspapers and look at TV news shows from 30, 40, 50 years ago. It wasn’t so great then, and in some ways the diversity of opinion, the depth you can get online, the immediacy of it is a very good thing for citizens and for political discourse. It also is a very problematic thing. But I’m not a friend of those who say that, in the good old days you couldn’t have had Trump, you couldn’t have had other things that most of you probably would agree with me are a misfortune for our democracy. Joe McCarthy, you know, was very successful before the Internet, before social media. George Wallace won five states in 1968. All kinds of conspiracy theories flourished in America throughout American history, in the 19th century and the 20th century, before the modern disintermediation. So I think it’s too simple to assume that all of our problems are due to this. But it is a big change, just as an analytical matter. The fall of the old media is, I think, a big deal.

My second point, after disintermediation — they all begin with D to make it easy — demagoguery. I mean, Trump is a demagogue, I think. It’s a Greek term, and in a way we’ve gotten out of the habit of using terms like that, but it’s analytically a pretty precise term, and it’s worth going back and reading some of the sources on it. He’s a pretty clever demagogue — I don’t think he’s world historical class. Let’s hope not. Otherwise, he really could be successful and we’d be in a lot of trouble. I don’t think that’s actually that likely.

But in thinking about Trump, we do need to rethink a little bit, I think, our somewhat complacent view of democracy — you know, the more democracy the better, the more education the better, the more participation the better, and everything is moving in the right direction — the arc of history is going in a good way and we don’t have to worry about some of those things that the founding fathers worried about. And it’s amazing to go back and look at the Federalists — look at how many of the papers, especially the papers on the executive but also on the legislative power, are about precisely the threat of demagogues.

And incidentally, if we make it in pretty good shape through Trump — and I won’t be partisan here, so I’d say also through not-so-great administrations on the left — a lot of it is due to our constitutional structure, to what we inherited from the founding fathers, to what a lot of historians, political scientists, and others have thought we should sort of look down on as old-fashioned and out of place. “Separation of powers, that’s kind of cumbersome” — I think an awful lot of people are very grateful to have it now. An independent judiciary, traditions in the bureaucracy — that old-fashioned place where they believe in due process and the rule of law and they’re not really into, you know, kind of fun-loving participation there. Nonetheless, it turns out those things are kind of useful to check some of the dangers of a democracy. So having a more problematic attitude towards democracy — demagoguery as one aspect, potential aspect of democracy — I think is a useful thing.

Final point — I had to find a word that began with D, so it’s not quite maybe the accurate word, but: debility. The weakness, though, the debility of the media is a point I just want to put on the table. If you get a bunch of journalists and media types and editors, we all can be proud, we can be lamenting, we can beat our breasts. But the presumption always is that the media is powerful. That’s the wish, I think — that the media is powerful. It’s an empirical question. I’m not sure it’s the case.

When I speak to conservatives, I always remind them: when were the great conservative victories? Reagan in 1980, 1984, Bush 1988. Huge, lopsided victories, three of them in a row. Rush Limbaugh was not yet on talk radio. Fox News didn’t yet exist. The Internet didn’t yet exist. All these things — the conservative media didn’t exist. It really was The New York Times, The Washington Post, and three networks, which were mostly moderate-liberal at least. Nonetheless, that was the heyday of conservative policies. And incidentally, ever since Fox News took over and became such a big deal, Republicans have lost the presidential popular vote in every election but one, 2004. And it’s not been such halcyon days for conservative policies, I wouldn’t say. Younger people growing up in an environment where conservative media was more prominent seem to have managed not to become, unfortunately, as conservative as they might have been.

So I’m a little dubious about the claims of the power of the media. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, honestly, depending on how much you like the media, how much effect you’d like it to have. But I think the idea that there’s a straight-line relationship between either the political views of the media and political events, or to get back to my first point, the character of the media — social media versus traditional media — and political events is probably not the case.

I’m on the whole still optimistic. I actually am optimistic about the same thing that is most worrisome, which is the sort of social media disintermediation. It just gives so much more opportunity for people to learn more. I do think the truth does sort of have a greater opportunity to correct falsehood, even if falsehood can take off awfully fast online. In the old days, falsehood could still take off awfully fast — the famous quotes about, you know, lies ride a horse and truth can never catch up. Those come from before social media. The successful demagogues lasted an awful long time in the ’30s and in the ’50s and ’60s before social media. And the degree to which people can really see debate and diversity of opinion online, when not all of our major institutions have as much diversity as they should have, I think is is a very hopeful thing.

When I speak to students, they can’t believe that when I was in college, you didn’t have access to 25 different columnists and 100 different bloggers each morning to get a take on what — say the Supreme Court nominee tonight, that you depended on what was reported in maybe one or two or three local papers, maybe the one national paper you could get at Out of Town News — even then, maybe that came a day late — and the three networks and that was it. That was it. No cable TV of different flavors, no radio, obviously no Internet. I think on the whole, this is a healthy development, but it’s not an unproblematic one.

I ran into John McCain this morning, actually, at National Airport — he was coming in from somewhere, I was flying out. I asked him how things were going, and he responded with one of his favorite quotations. I think it’s a fake quotation, actually — he really said it to me, but I think his description of it is fake. He said, “As Chairman Mao always liked to say, ‘It’s always darkest before it turns pitch black.'”

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2017, 11:48 a.m.
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