Press Oracles Hope to Resurrect the Cronkite Age, When They Controlled the News

Delphi, courtesy Wikipedia

One of the recurring themes in Andy McCarthy’s book Ball of Collusion, describing the events surrounding Robert Mueller’s fruitless effort to determine if Russia helped Donald Trump win the 2016 election, is the distinction between two kinds of knowledge that comprise narratives: what we can believe and what we can prove. As an experienced former prosecutor, McCarthy carefully distinguishes between estimation (the province of intelligence analysis) and proof, which is (or should be) the currency of the justice system. Jointly they make up conventional wisdom.


As Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public noted, conventional wisdom has become increasingly harder to sell ever since Dan Rather’s 2004 expose on George W. Bush’s military service was debunked as an anachronistic forgery in Times New Roman by the anonymous “Buckhead.” That the public should refute the press was a reversal of the traditional order. As Arnold Kling noted, the press was once able to mint the facts:

Four decades ago, Walter Cronkite concluded his broadcasts with … the words “and that’s the way it was”.  Few of his viewers found it extraordinary that the clash and turmoil of billions of human lives … could be captured in 3 or 4 mostly visual reports lasting a total of less than 30 minutes. .. Public discussion was limited to a very few topics of interest to the articulate elites.

The Dan Rather fiasco was possible because the information monopoly of the Cronkite era had broken down to where ordinary people could challenge formerly unassailable authorities with credible arguments. The information revolution had started bursting these old channels and equalizing capabilities. The information generated in 2001 was double that of all, going back to the invention of writing. The year 2002 doubled it again and so on for each year to the present day. The many eyes/many facts effect weakened authority.


Kling remarked that “Martin Gurri saw what was coming. He saw that the elites would be increasingly despised, as more of their mistakes and imperfections were exposed … would respond to the public with defensiveness and contempt, but that this would make the public more hostile and defiant toward authority.”

From this perspective, McCarthy’s Ball of Collusion can also serve as the story of an attempt to restore the oracular nature of journalistic information to a level comparable to the Cronkite era. By creating a story dependent on leaked intelligence reports, hearings inside secure rooms, or sealed documents, the press appeared to have found a formula that could once again let them say “and that’s the way it was.” They would once again have an information monopoly and the world would revert back from the information firehose to the proper classified straw. And their inside knowledge, which they were confident would be borne out by the Mueller report, would show that Russia conspired with Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton.

The pattern of secret informants, exclusive press briefings, wild expectations, and cruel disappointment would repeat itself in, of all places, the more recent Epstein affair. In a New York Times story titled “Jeffrey Epstein, Blackmail and a Lucrative ‘Hot List,” the authors describe how a pair of high-powered lawyers, egged on by a man called Kessler, claiming to have a trove of kompromat, briefed the press for a bombshell that fizzled when the dossier turned out to be a fake.


[Kessler] told the lawyers he had something incendiary: a vast archive of Mr. Epstein’s data, stored on encrypted servers overseas. He said he had years of the financier’s communications and financial records — as well as thousands of hours of footage from hidden cameras in the bedrooms of Mr. Epstein’s properties. The videos, Kessler said, captured some of the world’s richest, most powerful men in compromising sexual situations — even in the act of rape.

For a brief moment the tantalizing power of oracular knowledge seemed again within reach. “Kessler’s tale was enough to hook the two lawyers, the famed litigator David Boies and his friend John Stanley Pottinger. If Kessler was authentic, his videos would arm them with immense leverage over some very important people.” What power it was! The ability to create “stories” The ability to hide them.

Mr. Boies and Mr. Pottinger discussed a plan. They could use the supposed footage in litigation or to try to reach deals with men who appeared in it, with money flowing into a charitable foundation. In encrypted chats with Kessler, Mr. Pottinger referred to a roster of potential targets as the “hot list.” He described hypothetical plans in which the lawyers would pocket up to 40 percent of the settlements and could extract money from wealthy men by flipping from representing victims to representing their alleged abusers. …

In mid-September, Mr. Boies and Mr. Pottinger invited reporters from The Times to the Boies Schiller offices to meet Kessler. The threat of a major news organization writing about the videos — and confirming the existence of an extensive surveillance apparatus — could greatly enhance the lawyers’ leverage over the wealthy men. …

In the end, there would be no damning videos, no funds pouring into a new foundation. Mr. Boies and Mr. Pottinger would go from toasting Kessler as their “whistle-blower” and “informant” to torching him as a “fraudster” and a “spy.”


What saved Washington from itself, argues McCarthy, were the rules of evidence. The provable facts — or lack thereof — ultimately served as a check on ardent partisan desire or, in the case of Boies and Pottinger, their desire for lucrative business. “This is a story about hubris,” writes McCarthy. “Sure, there’s plenty of collusion. But hubris is a more fitting word.  This is a story about what happens when those we trust to be the guardians of our system anoint themselves the masters of the system.”

Then sometimes the masters of the system fall victim to self-deception. At a time when much of the news narrative is driven by unnamed sources, leaks, and authority it may be profitable to remember the dangers of relying on the oracle, especially when that oracle is ourselves.

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The Triumph Of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life, by I. Bernard Cohen. From the pyramids to mortality tables, Galileo to Florence Nightingale, this book explores how numbers have come to assume a leading role in science, government, business and in many other aspects of life. a vibrant history of numbers and the birth of statistics. Cohen shines a new light on familiar figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Dickens, and reveals Florence Nightingale to be a passionate statistician. This is a vibrant history of numbers and the birth of statistics.


Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War, by Charles Bracelen Flood. The first book about the victorious partnership between William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War and the deep friendship that made it possible.

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, by Martin Gurri. This book tells the story of how insurgencies, enabled by digital devices and a vast information sphere, have mobilized millions of ordinary people around the world. It also ponders whether the current elite class can bring about a reformation of the democratic process, and whether new organizing principles, adapted to a digital world, can emerge from the present political turbulence.

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Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.

The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

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