Bruni delivers the mail: How dangerous are these dangerous times? In this morning's New York Times, Frank Bruni delivers the mail.
We agree with your complaints! In 1999 and 2000, as the New York Times' Bush reporter, Bruni played an obvious role in getting us to this place. He tilted toward fawning coverage of Candidate Bush even as his counterpart, Katharine Seelye, was way over the line in her savaging of Candidate Gore.
Some editor or editors let this absurd imbalance stand. In our view, Bruni stayed within the bonds of reasonable coverage, though only barely. Seelye was a hundred miles over the line, in the opposite direction.
That absurdly unbalanced coverage helped get us where we are. That said, Bruni warns us about our present danger in his current column. His hard-copy headline says this:
The Internet Will Be the Death of UsIn truth, it isn't just the Net. But that isn't a bad place to start.
In many ways, Bruni's column traces familiar steps which many others have traced. That said, last week's horrific behaviors, by one crazed bomber and two crazed gunmen, give his column new life.
He warns about the way the Internet lets disordered people feed and fuel their disorders. It lets disordered people connect with their relatively small but deeply disordered and deeply dangerous tribes.
In this way, Bruni says the Internet has the "power to cast rogue grievances as legitimate obsessions." He says the Internet has the power to "give prejudices the shimmer of ideals."
Through this process, some people who are deeply disordered may end up deciding to act. In this passage, Bruni describes the ways of our own Frankenstein's monster:
BRUNI (10/31/18): Technology has always been a coin with two sides: potential and peril. That’s what Mary Shelley explored in “Frankenstein,” which is celebrating its 200th birthday this year, and it has been the main theme of science fiction ever since.Later, Bruni quotes a statement by Apple's Tim Cook—a statement Cook made before last week's disasters. How has the Internet's downside worked? Coining a useful term, Cook lamented the abuse of "user trust:"
The internet is the technology paradox writ more monstrous than ever. It’s a nonpareil tool for learning, roving and constructive community-building. But it’s unrivaled, too, in the spread of lies, narrowing of interests and erosion of common cause. It’s a glorious buffet, but it pushes individual users toward only the red meat or just the kale. We’re ridiculously overfed and ruinously undernourished.
It creates terrorists. But well shy of that, it sows enmity by jumbling together information and misinformation to a point where there’s no discerning the real from the Russian.
"Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false.” So said Apple's Cook.
"User trust" is widely abused within our modern discourse. That said, this process was underway long before the Internet. Other technologies, and other processes, have long been involved.
The Internet is only one of the three newer "technologies" which have helped divide us into tribes, including small tribes of the highly disordered. As this process has unfolded, we have increasingly lost "our shared sense of what is true and what is false.”
Often, of course, our past "shared sense of what is true" may have involved substantial distortions. This process continues today as mainstream news orgs seem to pick and choose what we're told about major policy areas, in the process Chomsky describes as "manufactured consent."
Still and all, the current sifting of information involves a level of craziness which is probably new to the system. But this doesn't occur on the Net alone. The process also occurs through two relatively modern technologies—talk radio and "cable news."
Gruesome abuse of "user trust" predated the rise of the Internet. Consider the role of "user abuse" in the medium of talk radio.
We're so old that, through happenstance, we were listening to Rush Limbaugh on the day, in March 1994, when he helped invent the crackpot belief that Hillary Clinton played a role in the death of Vince Foster.
We were driving to Huntington, West Virginia; we had the radio going. Between Baltimore and Huntington back in those days, nothing but Rush was on.
Rush's behavior was heinous that day; "user trust" was badly abused. In the aftermath of his gruesome behavior, the public trust was further abused as the big mainstream press organs cleared their throats and looked away as Rush, and his swarm of imitators, pushed such ugly, ludicrous claims all around.
By the summer of 1999, an overt hustler named Gennifer Flowers had become an active proponent of tall tales concerning the many murders of Bill and Hillary Clinton. She had already scored at least $500,000 through her grossly implausible claim that she'd enjoyed a torrid, 12-year love affair with the man she called "my Bill."
Now, Flowers was selling the Clintons' many murders on a monetized website. But so what? By now, the boys and girls within Bruni's guild were actively engaged in a war against Bill Clinton, who had received ten acts of oral sex without asking their permission.
As their war dragged on, they reinvented Flowers as a proven truth-teller. And uh-oh! As this foolishness unfolded, the boys and girl of Bruni's guild were transferring their enmity from Bill Clinton to his chosen successor, Candidate Gore.
Flowers was paraded around on "cable news" and treated as a major truth-teller. User trust was badly abused as mainstream pundits gamboled, dissembled, cavorted and played in this ridiculous manner.
These ugly, deeply stupid behaviors led to the razor-thin election of George W. Bush in November 2000. Many children died in Iraq after the plain-spoken Texan started his ill-conceived war there. But so what? When Gore had delivered a major speech warning against a war in Iraq, media stars like Frank Rich told us we should ignore him.
User abuse was running wild as screwballs like Rich played this game.
These ugly, deeply stupid behaviors gave us President Bush and his war in Iraq. And good God! In October 2016, as the Trump-Clinton race neared its end, the New York Times sold us Gennifer Flowers again, in this 2800-word front-page news report which may have elected Candidate Trump all by its pitiful self.
Bruni's fawning coverage of Candidate Bush was one part of this history. (On the Bush campaign plane, his official nickname was "Pancho.")
Today, Bruni correctly describes the way disordered people can be led to violence through Internet user abuse. That said, please understand this:
In 2016, the New York Times helped send a disordered man to the White House. Today, that man is the leading source of crazy claims on the modern Net.
It's true that "user abuse" is found all over the Net. It's also true that, sacred Aristotle notwithstanding, we "rational animals" are highly susceptible to such forms of abuse.
"The American people are pretty sharp?" On balance, this has never been true to any impressive extent.
A faithful servant would endlessly warn us about our tendency to get conned by the public figures we unwisely trust. (Gullibility of this type isn't a moral flaw.) Instead, the pundit corps kept flattering us, even as they were abusing our trust. Recitation of that pleasing claim—We the people are pretty sharp!—has been a longstanding form of mainstream "user abuse."
As he closes his column today, Bruni describes the depth of the problem among disordered Internet users. In this passage, he refers to a recent New York Times news report:
BRUNI: That same Times article noted that a search for the word “Jews” on the photo-sharing site Instagram on Monday led to 11,696 posts with the hashtag “#jewsdid911,” insanely blaming them for the attacks that brought down the World Trade Center, along with similarly grotesque images and videos that demonized Jews. Anti-Semitism may be ancient, but this delivery system for it is entirely modern.Our democracy is at stake, Bruni says. So are human lives.
And utterly terrifying. I don’t know exactly how we square free speech and free expression—which are paramount—with a better policing of the internet, but I’m certain that we need to approach that challenge with more urgency than we have mustered so far. Democracy is at stake. So are lives.
These claims are certainly true. But the same situation obtained when Limbaugh and Jerry Falwell were permitted to go their merry way pimping the Clintons' many murders; when the deeply non-credible Flowers was turned into a mainstream hero by the likes of Frank Rich and Chris Matthews; when Bruni played the soft-on-Bush role in the New York Times' war against Candidate Gore; and when the Times vouched for Flowers again, four weeks before the fateful election which sent Trump to the White House.
Warning! Our lizards don't want us to know this. And our lizards are running the world.
Democracy is at stake today. Are we sharp enough to keep it? Bruni uses the word "insane" to describe the beliefs which are getting pimped on the modern Internet. But mental health is =n obvious question in the case of the person who squeezed past Candidate Hillary Clinton, and the Times editorial board told us, early this year, that we shouldn't discuss that.
"User abuse" was Limbaugh's tool long before the Net took shape. It has also been a favorite food of the mainstream guild within which Bruni works.
We liberals have been abused by that guild for many years, including by the "liberal pundits" who played along with the endless gong shows involving Gore and Hillary Clinton. That includes Lawrence and Brian and Chris, each of whom is now sold to us on corporate cable each night.
The Times kept vouching for Gennifer Flowers, right through October 2016. As they did, they trashed Hillary Clinton. Conduct like that sent Candidate Trump to the White House.
Today, Bruni complains about user abuse! Everything he says is true. But how much his column leaves out!
Tomorrow: User trust and that fourth accuser