13 June 2021

Perhaps Necessary, But Not Sufficient

Fifty years ago today, The New York Times did what it was supposed to do: It published material that the high and mighty wished kept out of the public's view. But I had to link to an article not at the NYT, because its business model of today invades the privacy not of the high and mighty, but of the general public. It's the real cause of the decrepitude of "local news": Magical redefinition.

Bluntly, if you can't do it with the ads in your print edition, you don't get to do it while I'm ensconced in my living room (or bedroom) on Sunday morning, either — especially not by calling it "ads." "Advertising" does not include "targeted determination of individual reader behavior to facilitate future economic exploitation." It does not include determining my location to within ten meters while I'm imbibing my coffee (or anything else). It does not include determining that I've got sixteen other open tabs in my browser, several of which point to both domestic and foreign (and foreign-language!) competitors of yours. It absolutely, positively, does not include learning what I'm going to look at next. <SARCASM> Even — and perhaps especially — if it's easily misinterpretable as porn. Because that will just increase the ads for "male enhancement substances" that end up in my spam folder. On the server that I'm paying for, using bandwidth and connections that I'm paying for.</SARCASM>

The irony that publication of the Pentagon Papers was the first step toward the NYT's loss of status compared to the WaPo seems to have escaped everyone. NYT management, bluntly, became a little bit gunshy in the aftermath, wanting to avoid more controversy over its "methods"… and left a minor break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee to the "local" paper. You know, that one. ("Follow the money" indeed!)

And, sadly, the Pentagon Papers themselves point to a further problem: They presume that slapping a label on something will suffice to hide its inimical, indeed self-destructive, purpose. The vast majority of the Pentagon Papers were improperly classified at any level, let alone Top Secret. Conceptually, one wonders how a 47-volume document that was not devoted to either the nuclear battle plan or current intelligence activities could justify treating the entire monstrosity as "classified." Perhaps slightly more embarassing than that painting linked above, but not damaging to national security unless one defines either "damage" or "national security" to mean something related to the personal interests of those presently in power. And specifically, the vast majority of the information and analysis (where there was actual analysis; one aspect of the Pentagon Papers that has gotten little attention over the years is their overwhelming "dump the file drawer without comment" nature… and what that says about the use and practice of history in government) was either already in the public domain or mere confirmation-in-a-single-soundbitish-place documentation that the government knew what everyone else already did. Slapping a label that means "potentially injurious to national security if disclosed" on them didn't make them so; neither does slapping a label that means "fishmonger hawking today's catch to passersby" on "invasion of privacy for the invader's financial advantage through identifying the passersby to anyone who will pay for that information" justify the latter. That "grey lady" across the way (viewed through the tasteful curtains on the parlor window) might beg to differ (especially since the main translation of that play into English remains under copyright Over Here until just in time to lament over the midterms, and is thus only available in paid form).

In the end, this is part of the price of the ideology of the purported "free market" and the purported "rational economic actor." That "rational economic actors" are not always the most capable, responsible, and worthy in our system can be inferred by comparing the compensation of Supreme Court Justices with fresh-out-of-law-school drones not expected to display independent judgment, even after rubbing elbows with those Justices for a year. In journalism, at least as much as in law; the entire point of the "Third Estate" is to act as a check on the economically and socially powerful… not to be them. Because one guarantee that I can make is that the revenue being accreted by major ownership groups in what currently passes for journalism is not trickling down to the salaries of enthusiastic reporters on the trail of corruption in local government.

Sometimes what one does matters as much as, or more than, one's speech. Context always matters.