The Predictable Memetic Collapse of Contemporary Journalism

Almost in over my head — Lochsa River, spring runoff

One of the saddest (and scariest) things that I’ve avoided writing about forever is the enormous problems in our journalism community, that appeared to have started with the Trump years — but in reality, have roots far beyond our current sad state of affairs. One of my personal heroes, William Greider, wrote about this back in 1993, in one of certainly the books seminal in my own mindset — Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy.

The book is full of crazy deja vu for those that think our current problems are somehow new, or due to Donald Trump’s presidency. The grand bazaar that is the current reality of our modern political system was already well in place then, and Greider chronicled all of it long before “populism” was turned into a dirty word. In fact, one of the chapters was titled “Rancid Populism”, where Greider described things like Astroturf, and White Hat politics for the first time.

One of the most interesting chapters, though, was on journalism, and the intrinsic problems that had arisen with the field since its slow “professionalism” in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s easy to take a comment like that and immediately assume that it is some Right Wing pigeonholing of the field. Journalism schools are, unsurprisingly, housed inside universities, and universities have long been known for ascribed liberal politics, regardless of the actual reality of the charge.

What Greider talks about though was not so much the notion of effete liberalism taking over newspapers and television. What he noticed, even though he came from a modest white collar background (Greider grew up in Cincinnati, about 90 miles from where I grew up) was that newspapers, formerly dominated by blue-collar working class types, had long since given way to people with degrees from universities. He was one himself (he graduated from Princeton), and documented the move away in the journalism community from demanding rights and improved labor conditions for the working class. Just like the Democratic Party, who used to draw on unions for their base power, newspapers had left those readers in the dustbin of history. Now we get fancy cooking sections.

Greider didn’t have the tools of memetics to comment on the changes that he so ably documented. But what was actually happening was profound. By moving journalism inside universities, and creating a professional class, now of high-minded, but naive middle-class youngsters, the axis of change in journalism had shifted away from Evolution, with increased validity, data-driven thinking and real consequences for the people receiving the papers, to increased Sophistication — processing increasingly complicated beliefs, particularly in the lower Authority-driven and Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Memes that reflected the university system minting new graduates.

Here’s a picture that is a quick display of these tendencies in data structures.

How knowledge changes over time

And here’s the bad news. Instead of the data-driven question of authorities and institutions that the media used to be famous for, when you educate journalists with college professors (of which I am one) and establish things like accreditation bodies, you inculcate belief-based authority-seeking. It’s a natural consequence of the type of relational development inherent in these systems, as well as the fundamental knowledge structure. A natural predetermination for authority-seeking in the memetic make-up in the people doing the reporting.

This was a profound sea change from what had gone before. Though one would find it hard to argue that the earlier press had also leaned heavily Democratic, their orientation was fundamentally different. Their v-Memetic axis was about power, or rather, a natural suspicion of power. Contemporary journalism, on either Right or Left wouldn’t say they’re concerned so much with sucking up to powerful people. It’s not a conscious action. It’s what they do. They would call it access, but it’s powerfully corrosive. Fox News is widely condemned for inaccurate and destructive reporting, and at some level, this is fair. But there’s hardly any difference in the Deep OS of Fox News, letting former President Trump prattle on with his three breakfast buddies, than CNN or Rachel Maddow printing everything various powerful liberals say. Both end up divergent from any notion of validity — the grounding process that relates information back to what’s actually happening in reality. And here’s the other thing — irrational relationships lead to irrational thought processing. As we relate, so we think.

And so in the case of information or misinformation, or disinformation, one ends up with a corrupted news source that people just tune out. Or not. Once separated from most people’s common reality, it becomes entertainment. What I’ve seen happen is that while politics has always had a good bit of theater involved in it, reporting on our politics have turned entirely INTO theater. Outrageous events like the Capitol Riots are billed as coup attempts. I’ve written about this before. Real coup attempts are actions involving at least some segment of the military, a la the various machinations of South American governments, that intend to replace the acting government. In the run-up to the Capitol Riots on January 6, all former Secretaries of Defense, and the current head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “leave us out of this.” Of course, what did happen was tragic, and an inquiry is needed. But it was no coup.

The problem that occurs when you mess with the Deep OS of the system, you end up leaving the dominant information flows driving our country outside of grounding reality, as well as driving how we know things to more belief-based mental models. Worse, though, is the decomplexification of knowledge structures that are used. Instead of shades of gray, we end up with a lot of black-and-white, dichotomous thinking. And worse — as things deteriorate further, we see “splitting” in an entire cohort of our population — an inability to reconcile any good with bad on deciding perspective on issues. Here’s the complete psychological definition from Wikipedia. Sound familiar?

Splitting is the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. It is a common defense mechanism.[1] The individual tends to think in extremes (i.e., an individual’s actions and motivations are all good or all bad with no middle ground).

When you uncouple development of any particular societal organ (and journalism is one of our most important) from information evolution, you get energy poured into sophistication — which means you’ll end up with increasingly convincing, belief-based narratives that are still fundamentally ungrounded. Journalism had beat that with its working class flacks walking the streets. But arguing with sophisticated thinkers, regardless of how self-evidently wrong they are (COVID is a mind-bending proof of this) is exhausting.

The other thing that has happened with the corruption of contemporary journalism, or rather, the de-evolution from grounding validity in the press corps, is that no matter what the actual state of affairs, profound memetic filtering happens on the downstream side of any current event. There is almost no cause today that is completely above scrutiny in the complex interplay of modern life. The critically thinking observer certainly knows this. Yet when you put a double stack of memetic filters — first in favor of the Authority-Driven v-Meme (important people get an outsize voice in defining reality) — and then add the inevitable topical filter that naturally exists on both Left and Right sides of the political spectrum, you end up with repetitive garbage. Further, when you add the effects of victims of trauma into the feed, these large signals are the primary ones that make it through that double filter bank.

No better example exists in the COVID crisis than the one deconstructed, with just a little fact-checking by WIRED journalist David Zweig, Are Covid Patients Gasping ‘It Isn’t Real’ As They Die? In the article (review ‘splitting’ above!) Zweig covers a CNN interview of ER nurse Jodi Doering from South Dakota.

“When I read some of your tweets, my jaw dropped,” the host told Jodi Doering, referring to her account of gravely ill patients who “scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath.”

“The reason I tweeted what I did is that it wasn’t one particular patient,” the nurse said. “It’s just a culmination of so many people, and their last, dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening, it’s not real.’ And when they should be spending time FaceTime-ing their families, they’re filled with anger and hatred, and it just made me really sad.”

Zweig tiptoes very gently around calling her a liar — and I think that’s fair. What’s far more likely is that she’s traumatized, and suffering from the effects, which, unfortunately include splitting. But basically Zweig, with a little shoe leather, virtual or otherwise, demolishes her claim. Additionally, other nurses in the same hospital chain call bullshit on the whole trauma angle.

COVID is a sensitive subject now — I get that. But this kind of BS is incredibly corrosive to our national identity. This story was used, along with the notion of the Sturgis, SD motorcycle rally, coupled with a Republican governor, Kristi Noem, a high-profile politician who refused to implement any of the regressive, restrictive COVID policies on her state, as a Red State/Blue State narrative by the journalism community. The reality, not surprisingly, of COVID in North Dakota and South Dakota, two states in the same seasonal situation, with roughly equivalent topological concerns and population demographics, was that COVID affected both roughly the same.

Yet the mainstream journalism community, including the New York Times, used it as an example to double down on negative coverage of the state, regardless of the plausibility that events like the motorcycle rally really did much of anything. They didn’t. And funny that at the same time as Sturgis was being held, another large crowd event — the South Dakota State Fair — was being held, with little, if any scrutiny from journalists. Even East Coast affiliated journalists don’t want to mess with the deeply Tribal v-memetics of Mom, apple pie, and Hereford steers.

What these examples show, unfortunately, is that the mainstream journalism community acts exactly in the memetic band-pass filtering mode that I’ve been discussing. Start with a poorly sourced, but powerfully resonant emotional story, of a benighted nurse, coupled with stupid hicks deep in denial in the American Heartland, who are low-status and deserve whatever they get, so steeped in denial-of-authority of the epidemiology/professor overclass. Add in interpretation and amplification of those authorities — “We knew this would happen.” And then, finally, run it through the topical filter (Right vs. Left) with a little concern trolling along the way. The Sturgis rally coverage was especially pernicious. The gap between any surges in cases and the motorcycle rally was literal months, for a virus that is well-established as highly infectious, in a venue where most of the events were held outside anyway. But that grounding validity generates nary a peep.

The problem with all this is that the memetic filtering also applies to learned scientists, like Martin Kuldorff and Sunipta Gupta that may be far less sanguine about restrictive COVID policies than others. Naturally resonant low empathy policies, such as population masking, even of little children, and school closures, as well as ridiculous policies as COVID-Zero, and restrictive lockdowns, all definitely residing in the low-empathy v-Memes, have their efficacy regularly trumpeted by the mainstream press. V-Meme matches v-Meme. Yet experience and more careful scientific research is showing that all these low- and anti-empathetic interventions really don’t do much of anything. And scientists I’ve covered in the past, with more subtle messages, are attacked as angels of death and whatnot.

The pandemic is indeed a multi-faceted event — but consider this picture from this story on kids in band practice at the school, in Wenatchee, WA. At some level, it’s such an extreme example, I’ve got to ask myself if I’m indulging in a little splitting myself!

But you can’t get at the core of all this as tending to fragmentation and individual isolation better than kids in outhouse tents (that’s what they are — in case you’re wondering.)

Lest one think this is just an American affectation, you’d also be making a mistake. The memetic problems we are experiencing here are also present in other countries. Of particular interest is how the international media has handled Sweden, which favored voluntary restrictions and a focus on preservation of civil liberties. Popping out the other end of the pandemic, Sweden has fared somewhere in the middle of all the mortality figures (I think it’s currently 11th in standing.) Here’s Sweden’s current death curves.

Yet instead of critically examining the Swedish population-based experiment, there has been almost uniform condemnation of their efforts. Letting people make choices and have agency is a Performance/Goal-Based or Communitarian v-Meme function, as well as trusting people to make those good choices. That’s not resonant with the lower v-Meme structures of the journalism community. And as journalists have sought further access to higher authority individuals, with no cultural sidebars to even respect lower status individuals, such strategies are an anathema. So much, in fact, that a recent Swedish public radio investigative report uncovered a closed 200 member Facebook group with the primary reason of discrediting the higher empathy approach adopted in Sweden. It’s no surprise that the article reports major news outlets, such as Science and the Washington Post, printed and amplified the information from the effort. That’s the effect of memetic resonances.

And, not surprisingly, the group is engaged in “splitting” messaging with regards to the foreign press. From the article:

The leader of the Facebook group also describes in posts and on Twitter plans to try to bring those responsible for the corona strategy in Sweden before an international court for crimes against humanity. It is described as absurd by experts in international law with whom we spoke. They emphasize that this criminal classification is about deliberate attacks on the civilian population and which is primarily used in wars and conflicts.

Not surprisingly, inside Sweden, the various restrictions on individual freedoms don’t line up with the memetics at all — and hence, the messaging have gone nowhere inside Swedish national boundaries. The public health authority in Sweden, run by Anders Tegnell, a noted public health epidemiologist, actually has a firewall between it and the government. For all the hue and cry about science running the management of the pandemic, Sweden is arguably one of the few places where it’s actually happened.

It goes on to issues facing the Developing World, which largely has been unaffected by COVID. Why? Mean population age. Consider the average age in the U.S. — 38 years — to India — 26.8 years. Or even Nigeria — 18.4 years! The journalism community reports a lack of vaccines in the latter two countries as more proof of white supremacy, or colonial thinking. And there’s no question — there’s surely a little of that. But there’s also not a problem in those countries, with lower mean ages. COVID below 50 or 60 is a bad cold. Should one spend precious dollars on a nationwide vaccination program in these countries? Surely the trade-offs are worth a little debate. And if you find it, notify me in the comments.

We have the ability to understand the root cause. Journalists, like all of us, are not inured to the effects of social structure on their fundamental neural wiring. Self-awareness has to be the first step.

There are no easy solutions to evolving the memetics of our journalism community. What’s worse is that the pressures on journalism — from more state control, to chronic defunding of the more legacy institutional model, make it difficult to propagate reform. Add on top of that the challenges of a younger, less experienced corps simply because a journalist’s salary can no longer feed a family, and it’s clear we’re definitely up against it. And let’s not mince words here — the Trump years were appalling for evolving a more insightful journalistic corps. Trump would take any criticism and use it to incite violence against the press corps.

But instead of blaming everything on Trump, let’s harken back to the problems that Greider laid out, what is now a long time ago. Evolving more independent relationships with sources can help. A healthy distrust of power and politicians would also be a start. The memetics point the way we have to go.

P.S. — I know that at times, believing that there are these larger structural forces that compel people to think how they think. I go back to my favorite Arthur Conan Doyle quote, from Sherlock Holmes: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

14 thoughts on “The Predictable Memetic Collapse of Contemporary Journalism

  1. I was reading some of your stuff–some of it very interesting–and came across this:

    “COVID below 50 or 60 is a bad cold.”

    I’m not sure how someone in your position–college prof who purports to be engaged in some sort of epistemological study/development–can write a sentence so breathtakingly void of context, but it doesn’t speak well of your project.

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    1. Well, except my stuff really isn’t interesting enough except to remind me of a statement that you took out of context — which was the only thing that prompted you to write. For most countries with very young populations, that’s what COVID is. That’s the point. There are other blogs and writers that can cater to your fears. Not this one.

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  2. Good record. Yet long. Although the corruption & v-meme trends span decades, centuries, the irony is that the orange man bad years has spawned a madness in the blue team… Journalism is simply an amplification of value meme biases vs. An actual ” fair & balanced” reporting of facts. It has indeed become pure theatre, outrage & smug entertainment.

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  3. I was in J school in the mid to late 70’s, but not a graduate. I came back to Free Press journalism in the 90’s, alternative weeklies and monthlies, no pay=so really Free. There have been and still are great college degreed journalists who afflict the powerful, etc…sometimes even published by corporate press, but the field before then was dependent on publishers, and there are far fewer of them today, unless you include the bewildering array of personal posts, and self published e-books.
    I don’t think you have eliminated the financial imperative, because it’s clear that questioning the narrative will cause financial and social ruin for corporate journalists.

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    1. Great comment — I think that it’s important to remember in the context of memetics that money is a handy proxy for energetics, and part of the time/space/energy calc. that determines behavior.

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