Of some highly convenient truths

From The New Criterion

One day last June, my eye fell upon the headline to a New York Times column by Paul Krugman — as sometimes happens in spite of my best efforts, for the sake of my blood pressure, to prevent it. “The Week Inflation Panic Died,” it read. Might it, said I to myself, be just a trifle premature for Mr Krugman to be proclaiming victory over “inflation panic” less than six months from the inauguration of President Biden and, with it, the beginning of the potentially inflationary spending program that his administration had at that time only just embarked upon? True, in the article itself the famously Nobel prize-winning economist was a bit more circumspect, but only a bit. Did it not occur to him that these dismissive words about inflation might come back to haunt him — perhaps even before Mr Biden had completed his first year in office?

And then it struck me that that must be the point. Professor Krugman needed to claim vindication for his airy dismissal of “inflation panic” while he still could with some degree of plausibility. He knew his own words would never be quoted against him, at least not by anybody whose opinion he needed to care about, or even to notice, six months down the road when they might have been — as in fact they now are — proven to be patently false. As a member in good standing of the media confraternity, he knew that his brother and sister scribes would prevent him from suffering any embarrassment from being (not for the first time) so egregiously wrong, and that nobody in his world, or whom he respects, reads those organs of the right-wing press which just might think the error worth pointing out to their readers — readers whose opinion has never mattered or needed to matter to the likes of Paul Krugman either. The circle of the honor group within which he, like much of the rest of the media, now operates is drawn so tightly along ideological lines that he never need fear dishonor — or even honest error — alleged against him by anyone outside it.

Also, of course, he enjoys the protection of the media narrative about inflation which, like other media narratives in the post-Rutenbergian era of journalistic advocacy, is no longer subject to serious or substantive correction, no matter how threadbare their fabric may have become. Thus when Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, said at the end of November that it was time to stop using the word “transitory” to describe inflation, it was not intended, nor was it received, as an admission of error by the media. Instead we learned that the operative assumptions of the Fed in calling inflation “transitory” in the first place were based on what Philip Pilkington of UnHerd calls the “pandemic inflation naturalistic fallacy” — or the belief that inflation is caused by the coronavirus pandemic (plus, presumably the measures taken to defeat it) and will disappear when it does. As it now appears that even universal vaccination will not make the virus go away any time soon, inflation may also be expected to linger. The underlying narrative about inflation stands uncorrected.

This narrative is a bit like that of global-warming, but in reverse. In both cases predictions are made only to be blithely abandoned when they don’t come true, but with climate change, the predictions are of the blackest pessimism while with inflation they are resolutely optimistic. People are meant to be terrified by the climate apocalypse awaiting us only a few years down the road — in many cases a fewer number of years than those which have elapsed, without world-shaking disaster, since such predictions were first made in the 1980s and 1990s — while in the case of inflation the narrative calls for constant reassurance that the dreaded event is nothing much to fear. In both cases predictions, whether of doom or of blessed good fortune, are meant only to produce an emotional effect in the present on the true believers of one sort or another who are the only media consumers left. They are not to be taken seriously, or to be remembered, as predictions.

This should have been evident in any case from the hyperbolical terms in which both the bad and the good are limned. What thinking person, unblessed with an ideological warrant for believing it, could ever suppose that a warming world unchecked by bureaucratic diktats about what kind of cars we shall be allowed to drive or how we must heat our homes, must spell the end of human life on earth? We’ve adapted to many warmer and colder climates in the past with much less in the way of technological palliatives at our disposal than we have today. As for inflation, the media Pollyannas have lately been vacillating between asking what’s so bad about it and wondering, along with White House spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki, whether or not it might actually be a good thing — even if it proves to be, as chairman Powell acknowledged, something other than “transitory.”

“There’s a right way and a wrong way to think about inflation. Here’s a right way,” wrote Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times. Just look, he says, at the way FDR scorned the Hooverian and Republican attachment to “sound money” in the form of the gold standard and subsequently brought us out of the Depression. Likewise, Jeffrey Frankel of Project Syndicate writes that current inflation is nothing like that of the 1970s because unemployment is falling and growth, at least in forecasts, is looking up. Nothing very much to worry about then, it seems. To Robert Kuttner of Prospect, “Larry Summers, as usual, is profoundly wrong when he argues that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, enacted last March, overstimulated the economy” — and yet, somehow, today’s “weird” inflation is a bit like that of the 1970s in “the combination of supply pressures with too weak a recovery.” But all shall be well, thinks Mr Kuttner, if the President keeps on doing what he’s doing and the Fed doesn’t lose its head and start raising interest rates as it did the last time inflation had to be squeezed out of the system.

Paul Krugman himself, a little less than five months after proclaiming the end of “inflation panic” and at a time when inflation had already risen to levels not seen since the 1990s, was still reassuring those who presumably read him for such reassurances that “History Says Don’t Panic About Inflation.” Current inflation is more like that of the immediate post-war period, 1946-48, he claims, than it is like the 1970s, though this contention appears to be based on a version of the pandemic inflation naturalistic fallacy, mentioned above, since the alleged parallels with today’s inflation are drawn from the immediate post-war periods of the 1920s, 1940s and 1950s. I guess it depends on what history you choose for comparison — just as whether or not to worry (let alone “panic”) about inflation depends on what newspaper (or newspaper columnist) you choose to read. Yet hardly anybody appears to see anything odd about this.

As I have often had occasion to mention before (see, for example, “Constituting truth” in The New Criterion of September, 2018), with the advent of the Trump administration, “truth” officially became for the media what it had long been in the more rarefied of academic circles, which is to say it became proprietorial — “my truth” or “your truth,” Republican-truth or Democrat-truth, rather than the truth. Any truth worthy of the name, as the academics I cited in that article put it, must have gathered to itself a “constituency” prepared politically to will it into being. And once truth becomes partisan and proprietorial, it is no longer susceptible to correction or falsification by the truth belonging to some other constituency, still less by “truth” tout court, which has effectively ceased to exist. That’s why, no matter how high the inflation rate may climb, we must not expect either Mr Krugman or Mr Powell ever to acknowledge error for calling it “transitory.” After all, everything is transitory when looked at in the context of the sweep of human history.

The public discourse about inflation, like that about climate change, is just one more indication that the American media, outside of a few right-wing redoubts, have become the public relations arm of the Democratic party. Dissenting views on both subjects, when not easily refutable, are simply presumed not to exist. In November, Ms Psaki said, in answer to a question about whether or not an additional $1.75 trillion of government spending might have an inflationary effect on the economy, that “no economist out there is projecting that this will have a negative impact on inflation.” The reporters present on this occasion would not have had far to look, as Philip Wegmann of RealClearPolitics did, to find abundant evidence to the contrary, but because their relationship with Ms Psaki is one of the mutual confirmation of each other’s prejudices, none of them appears to have bothered.

It’s a lesson in how the media routinely gets away with having said the Thing which was not without any (to use one of their own favorite words) “accountability” — especially for those of us who might otherwise have been tempted to wonder where were the media mea culpas over the discrediting by John Durham of the media’s “Russiagate” narrative, with which they were utterly obsessed for three years between early 2017 and late 2019 and even now continue to cling to. You might as well ask why expired predictions of climate apocalypse don’t seem to affect the ever-renewed predictions of climate apocalypse by dates still to come. The simple fact is that there is never any penalty for being wrong in today’s media — perhaps because admitting to even slight errors, let alone colossal ones like Russiagate, would compromise the media’s ability to perform their number one function, as they now see it, which is to point out everyone else’s errors. Or “lies” if you prefer.

In the case of Russiagate, however, there are plenty of reasons for believing that the media were not led into error by ideology, as we may charitably suppose them to have been in the case of climate change or inflation, but were actively conspiring with Democratic partisans and elements of the FBI and others in the permanent government to fabricate a false “collusion” narrative in order to confound and possibly remove a democratically-elected president of whom they disapproved. Why otherwise were they now unwilling to expose the anonymous sources by whom, if they had acted in good faith, they must have been badly burned?

Instead, their relations with such sources continues to be cordial and protective. Even Christopher Steele, one of the few we know about, submitted to an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News only to reaffirm his belief in the credibility of his long-since discredited “dossier,” of its sources and of their allegations against President Trump. “I stand by the work we did,” he said, “the sources that we had, and the professionalism which we applied to it,” And ABC News, in reporting on the interview, continues to insist that, in spite of any problems or inaccuracies, “in many ways, the dossier proved prescient” about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Even CNN now acknowledges, albeit by considerable understatment, that “the credibility of the dossier has significantly diminished — though it repeats the “prescient” trope, to which Holman Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal replies:

Hillary Clinton allies were already pushing this line when Mr. Steele began inventing facts to support it. That’s why they hired him. Moreover, it was expected by any half- competent observer, let alone an intelligence professional, that the army of trolls kept ready by the Kremlin would jump on the Trump bandwagon for click revenue and to portray U.S. democracy as a clown show.

Charlie Savage of The New York Times tries a different tack by acknowledging that the dossier is rubbish but trying all the same to keep the “collusion” narrative alive by purporting to show “Why the Discredited Dossier Does Not Undercut the Russia Investigation.” He might, once again, have applied to RealClearPolitics, in its RealClearInvestigations incarnation for the indispensable Aaron Maté’s list of the many now well-established facts which do undercut the Russia investigation — and especially the Times’s own highly fallible reporting on it, for which the paper, along with The Washington Post, received a Pulitzer Prize. The Post has made changes in the details of some of its reporting during the “Collusion” craze, omitting some of it from the revised versions, but it has not retracted or apologized for anything. The Times has not even done this much. Mr Maté writes that,

although neither newspaper has given any indication that it is returning the Pulitzer, the public record has long made clear that many of those stories – most of which had nothing to do with Steele – include falsehoods and distortions requiring significant corrections. Far from showing “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage,” [in the words of the Pulitzer citation] the Post’s and the Times’ reporting has the same problem as the Steele document that these same outlets are now distancing themselves from: a reliance on anonymous, deceptive, and almost certainly partisan sources for claims that proved to be false.

In sum, let us finally turn to that other indispensable chronicler of what ought to have been and ought still to be the media’s greatest shame, Lee Smith of Tablet:

Now the media is scrambling to distance itself from the dossier, with the New York Times “explaining” that just because the prestige press poisoned the public sphere with Clinton- funded smears doesn’t mean that the larger Russiagate story they peddled is also fake. That is, the press has taken another page from the Watergate playbook. As that scandal started to unfold, Nixon’s White House aides discussed strategies to deal with the looming disaster. They talked about a standard spy service ploy called a “limited hangout.” When it’s no longer possible to sustain a phony cover story, dangle some partial truths in public and acknowledge some small, albeit honest, miscues in order to keep the most damning parts of the truth under wraps. Just as this strategy failed to protect Richard Nixon and his men, chances are it won’t help culpable reporters and news organizations avoid responsibility for their active role in the country’s biggest political crime of the past half- century. But it does show quite plainly what the American press has become.

Credit Christopher Steele with this much: he knows how the American media culture now works and the absolution it is prepared to give to those who, however otherwise false they may be, are true to its narratives. One can imagine him, like Alger Hiss, living into extreme old age and continuing to deny what virtually everybody else in the world with knowledge of the case now acknowledges. For he, along with Peter Strozk and Lisa Page, Andrew McCabe and James Comey, along with Paul Krugman and Jerome Powell, along with The New York Times and The Washington Post and the Pulitzer committee which bedecks them with its laurels, all have a right to the truth of which they are the chief and, increasingly, the only constituents — no matter how much at variance with reality it may be.

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