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Chris Bray on the Systemic Failure of Western Journalism to Comprehend and Report on Complex Matters
Chris Bray, who writes Tell Me How This Ends, has a fantastic essay about the years he spent covering a complex international legal dispute. Basically, historians had conducted confidential interviews of former IRA members about their activities during the Troubles. UK police, when they learned of this, attempted to subpoena these tapes, leading to a years-long court battle:
Without wading back into the exceptionally complicated details of that long controversy, I learned two things from the experience that have never left me. …
First … I would have email exchanges with newspaper reporters who wanted me to tell them what happened … Over two years, through events in a trial court and in an appellate court, with multiple parties pursuing complicated and divergent courses, reporters would not read. … They wanted the tl;dr, in a sentence or two. “Yeah, what’s it say?” …
Second, as I wrote about the implications of the subpoenas, I made complicated arguments about complicated events … [A]s I wrote in the Irish press, the American academic press, a group blog for academic historians in the United States, and my own sad little blog, every argument I made was dismissed as pro-IRA idiocy. The police are investigating a murder, you fucking moron! What the hell is wrong with you, IDIOT!?!? Commenters explored the precise cause and scope of my breathtaking idiocy: Is this Chris Bray person just really stupid, or is he, like, working for the terrorists?
Please read and share the whole thing. As Bray himself notes, these lessons apply equally well to the insipid media discourse around Corona and all matters related to the vaccines. Indeed, his experience is basically identical to mine.
We – myself and many others – have now spent two years obsessively tracking national Corona statistics across multiple jurisdictions, we’ve read hundreds and hundreds of scientific papers, and we’ve developed a lot of reasonable if complex arguments about what is happening, what Corona policies have achieved, and what is to be done. Anytime a mainstream journalist or politician is forced to comment on any of our intellectual production, though, we’re dismissed as a bunch of eugenicist anti-science anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists who just want old people to die.
Journalism depends on simple, one-dimensional analyses, and journalists themselves prioritise social interactions and the spoken word over papers and documentary evidence. Their coverage ends up being dominated by a small collection of bad actors and manipulative personalities like Eric Feigl-Ding, who reduce matters of enormous complexity to simple slogans and flat, unidirectional policy demands, like social distancing forever and infinite vaccination.
I would add that this cartoon crayola coverage exercises a perverse influence on the science itself. The legal system has developed, over generations, means of insulating itself from the pressures of journalism; these aren’t perfect, but at least lawyers and judges are on guard. When it comes to science, it’s pretty much the opposite. Researchers eager for attention and grant funding chase the attention of lunatic media personalities and hystericist politicians with motivated reasoning, misleading argumentation, and a bias against any finding that cuts against consensus press narratives.