Podcast podcast
Aug 24 2022

Martin Gurri joins Brian Anderson to discuss the loosening elite grip on power, the fractured media landscape, and information flows in a world of democratic contestation.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Martin Gurri. Martin's a visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center and is the author of a terrific book called The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. He spent much of his career as a CIA analyst, researching foreign media, and today he applies that skillset to examining the relationship between politics and information in the contemporary U.S. He writes for City Journal regularly, and he maintains an excellent blog also called The Fifth Wave. So Martin, thanks very much for coming on.

Martin Gurri: Hey, happy to be here.

Brian Anderson: So let's start with your article from our summer issue, which is called “The Elite Panic of 2022.” It's gotten a lot of attention. You identify in the essay several big disruptions to what had been steadily prevailing, progressive authority. So from, you describe a U.S. district judge's nullification of the federal mask mandate in travel to Elon Musk's bid to buy Twitter, to the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade. Each of these developments, you observe, seem to force media and bureaucratic elites and progressives generally to confront the possibility that their grip on power was loosening. So what did the response to these incidents indicate to you about the elite conception of the relationship between power and information?

Martin Gurri: Right. Now the first thing I would say is that, except for the last incident you mentioned, obviously the Dobbs ruling, these were not earth-shaking developments. These were pretty much pseudo events, I would call them, in which things did not go in the way that the elites wanted them to. The judge, Kathryn Mizelle, basically allowed masks to be taken off in mass transit and airports and airplanes. Barack Obama gave a speech about “disinformation.” And Elon Musk made what seems to have been a thwarted—kind of unclear where all that stands—but an attempt to buy Twitter. Not one of those three things is a major development.

What was remarkable was just the existential screams from the elite class that each one of those events evoked. And what became clear as you look at what was being lost, they felt, is that this class is absolutely bent on control. They feel like if they relax for half a second, the populist wolf is going to crash through the door. There's going to be a second coming of Donald Trump. There's going to be Holocausts of progressives. I mean, there's this fevered feeling that, unless every aspect of our politics and our culture, as I mentioned in the article is under their control, everything is lost.

Brian Anderson: You mentioned Obama's Stanford University speech, which was back in April, condemning “disinformation,” as he called it. He argued that this was undermining the shared culture of the United States, the shared set of facts that we all apparently once shared, agreed upon and that promoted political stability, but really how accurate is that view of a supposedly bygone age of political harmony? You know, you can read our history quite differently.

Martin Gurri: It's kind of an astonishing position for a supposed progressive to take, right? I mean, he basically was arguing—he explicitly said that even though in the 20th century, women and people of color were sort of excluded, it was such a great time. It was such a wonderful era of shared information and we all kind of gathered in the great American family room and got our news from Walter Cronkite and laughed over “I Dream of Jeannie” and “The Jeffersons.” Very, very old fashioned. Very, very backwards-looking. His idea of what needs to be done, of course, to prevent “disinformation” is regulation. His examples are the meat inspector. I mean, I guess looking at how you make algorithmic sausage. I'm not even sure how that applies, right?

Brian Anderson: Yeah. How would that apply to the information sphere?

Martin Gurri: It doesn't. It's a very old fashioned way of looking back and sort of having in your mind a much simpler informational world of what actually is existing right now. And he also wants to put forward a fairness doctrine, which used to be a thing in television, where if you said something in favor of the Democrats, you had to include something in favor of the Republicans. Well, I mean, our information sphere is just about infinite for practical purposes. If you have to add a second infinity of fairness, I mean, that's an impossibility. So again, “disinformation,” like Covid, is simply a tool of control. It's a way of saying there are certain opinions that are toxic. They all have to do with Trumpism. And there are certain opinions that undermine democracy and democracy is defined, of course, by what I call the rule of the righteous, and that coincides exactly with Barack Obama's partisan preferences. So it's very, un-self-aware. While posing as kind of a philosophical attitude, it’s really all about number one, control, and number two, a panic that is being lost.

Brian Anderson: You know, it's indisputable—you've written about this extensively in your book and elsewhere, including for City Journal—that technological advances and seismic shifts in the media industry have reconfigured the information universe, the landscape. Your book notes that the many ways in which the digital age has, as you put it, “battered that peaceable kingdom to bits,” and the media theorist, Andrey Mir, who's also been writing regularly for City Journal, notes that the shifting political economy of the media has contributed to the emergence of what he calls post-journalism. It doesn't seem like we're ever going to go back to a world where Walter Cronkite and other trust authorities served as the kind of gatekeepers of information, but isn't there at least something worth lamenting about the stability that that world might have once offered, or is that a bit of a myth as you've sort of suggested?

Martin Gurri: I mean, I guess it depends on where you stand in society and where you stand in life. I don't think we've lost that much. It was an economy of scarcity when you have something that is scarce, you own value. So, Walter Cronkite had information. At that time, let me tell you, I was working at the CIA and I could, I had a view of the entire open information of the world—that was in the least sexy part of the CIA. We were looking at media, and it was a trickle. It was just a trickle. So if you had some, you had authority. We were all parched. We were dying for information, and Walter came up every evening and told us for like maybe 20 minutes of mostly visual stories, this is what's going on today. That's the way it is. And we accepted it. I don't think that's a model for anything. I don't think that's anything to aspire to go back to. Not to say that the moment we're in right now is not in its own way, even more painful and confusing, but going back to that makes no sense to me.

Brian Anderson: You make a key distinction in your story in the recent City Journal between political power and cultural power. Conservatives, you say, are politically strong, but culturally weak. American politics are ideologically plural or pluralistic, but our culture is mostly Liberal or Progressive. You know, whether the right can successfully wield its political power against its cultural foe seems to be the crucial question for the future of the country. What it's going to look like. So on the one hand, Republican politicians do seem increasingly willing to challenge big media corporations and organs of cultural production, that they see as taking stances that are hostile or not good for the country is as with Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, targeting Disney's tax arrangement with the state. On the other hand, it's often said the politics is downstream of culture, in which case, conservative political strength should be seen as a kind of fragile thing. The product of a strangely designed political system rather than the reflection of political or popular will. So, what's your view on that tension?

Martin Gurri: Well, I would start, when you talk about culture, honestly, I'm used to having facts and figures backing up what I say. And when we talk about culture, it’s mostly speculative. But my take is that this monolithic culture that we have right now, in which the progressives have taken over every major institution with a possible exception of the judiciary in the United States of America, all the way from Hollywood to the corporate boardrooms to, of course the news media, that this is kind of an abnormal and probably unsustainable thing. For one thing, there's a lot of money to be made by pitching to the other side and a lot of money to be lost by insulting the other side, as Disney's finding out. I do believe that politics is way downstream of culture.

I think politics can penalize certain posturings like Disney's and can change certain cultural instances like schooling in the state of Florida, but they have to be very careful about that too, because if DeSantis is mandating what he calls anti-woke school policies in Florida, what is to prevent a progressive governor that succeeds him from doing the same thing in the opposite direction. So, I mean, it's not politics. Politics can penalize culture. It's going to have to be something more from the depths than that to change the culture, I think. But on the other hand, I do believe that there's something very artificial about this monopoly, this monolith that we have right now.

Brian Anderson: Well, maybe say a little bit more about the cultural imbalance. It's the case that we're seeing, and some people have started writing about this, the emergence of what you might call a conservative counterculture. So, the kind of overwhelming strength in the culture of modern Progressivism, as you note, is giving way in certain quarters to subcultures that view Conservatism as kind of transgressive. So do you think that's a possible development that could grow the idea of a kind of right-wing counterculture?

Martin Gurri: I mean, honestly, I think there's a lot of culture that is not necessarily politicized. In fact, American culture, because it had a very strong commercial aspect to it, has tended to avoid politicization. It was just to seem edgy, or different, or whatever. And I don't know that we could ever go back to that, but I think there's money to be made there. So some aspect of the culture is going to pitch to people who don't want to, every moment of their lives, pretend that politics is the most important activity that the human race has ever invented. It's not. There are many things that are much, much more important. There are many human stories, human relations that are far more profound than politics. And these kind of get either washed away or politicized themselves. And I think, kind of a natural gravity might induce that to happen.

I note in my article in CJ, just several trends. One of them is the fact that the conservatives are politically strong. The other one is that the minority groups are kind of bailing on the progressives, and that becomes very hard for them to act as the impersonators of racial groups, if the racial groups are not represented by them. And we are primarily—I think this is a big issue—we are a culture on the move right now. There are gigantic population shifts that are derived from remote work that began with the pandemic. Migration is a great culture shifter, and I can imagine that with those people who are arriving somewhere new, there are whole new stories that have to be told about that can't be pegged to progressive and liberal templates.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. We're certainly seeing the effects of remote work in post-pandemic New York, where the city workers, office workers really haven't returned en masse. People are still working remotely. That's going to necessitate big shifts in the way the city's property is allocated, zoning changes. There's not enough apartments right now. A lot of people still want to move to the city, but the office workers haven't come back and that seems to be a long-term shift, as you say.

Martin Gurri: Yeah. And along with that, of course, all the restaurants and the stores, I mean, last time I was in Manhattan, every fourth or fifth store was empty.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. It's certainly the case in Midtown. Downtown areas are looking a little more pre-pandemic, very lively in the streets, but no question that there will be big, big shifts in the way the city's going to have to operate moving forward. I wonder if you want to say a little bit more about this idea, which you've embraced as well, of post-journalism and whether a public appetite for more traditional journalism, which at least tried to present facts without spinning them too dramatically, whether that's got a future.

Martin Gurri: Yeah. I don't know that I would agree with your definition of traditional journalism. I've always been a skeptic of that, but it's gone. It's gone, has gone for good. And my friend, Andrey Mir, came up with this brilliant book, Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers, in which he explains how newspapers, which are the Ark of the Covenant for journalism. If you're a journalist, you kind of sneer at TV journalism, forget about the web. The old newspaper journalists, which were the real journalists, suddenly they have realized that there's money to be made, not by pretending objectivity and appealing to a mass audience of consumers, which was what the old style was. Newspapers had never made money by selling newspapers. They made money by selling eyeballs, audience to advertisers. If you wanted to do that, you couldn't alienate anybody, so you segregated opinion from your factual reporting.

These are all fairly bogus categories, but it was a very ritualistic thing. Now, if you look at the New York Times, which is the leader in this, it's more like a creed, you're preaching a creed. People believe, for example, during the Trump years, it felt like the world was ending and how can I get out of this? How's the country going to be safe? What words do I use? And the New York Times said, "come inside my little paywalled garden and I will explain everything to you. I will explain to you how evil Trump is, how he's about to fall. And here are the words that you can use to persuade your friends that you're on the right side."

It worked amazingly for the New York Times. It worked somewhat for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal probably does it least. I don't think anybody else can do it, because part of the issue is nobody wants to have a paywalled garden where it's just one town. In the age of the web, it has to be a name with national and global resonance. So you have to be the New York Times or the Washington Post. They're basically, they're selling polarization. They were commoditizing Trump, and they were amazingly successful at it.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much, Martin Gurri. Don't forget to check out Martin's work on the City Journal website. That's www.city-journal.org. We’ll link to his author page in the description and you can find this recent essay in the summer issue, but also his earlier work for us. And you can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. And as usual, if you like what you've heard on the podcast today, please give us a nice ratings on iTunes. Martin Gurri. Thanks very much for coming on.

Martin Gurri: Thank you, Brian.

Photo: The7Dew/iStock

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