An Unfinished and Imagined Conversation

Yesterday I had the good fortune of meeting a very wise and distinguished scholar and sitting with her for a spell. The following is how one conversation ended and how it might have continued.

Me: There is a young writer I had been following whose career has recently taken off, but it seems to me to have been for the worse. She was an excellent and careful writer within her area of expertise, but now all she does is churn out hit piece after hit piece, and it is clear from the content of those pieces that she has not bothered to read much of anything by the people she attacks.

Her: Her employer has taken a drastic turn for the worse. I don’t see how it can survive.

Me: It will be worse if it does survive. A writer like her needs mentors. Experienced people with principles who will not let her print a word without doing her due diligence. Instead they’re bringing out the worst in her, nurturing a mediocre partisan crowd-pleaser.

Her: You’re right that a good environment is needed. I only ever had one article published by her employer, years ago, and the editing was fantastic. They made me work for it, let me tell you. The fact-checker, who was excellent, went on to get a PhD.

Me: She definitely does not have that. As far as I can tell most of the other people there aren’t much older than she is, and what they want is exactly what she delivers: pieces that partisans love, and opponents love to hate.

Her: That is a shame.

Me: And the Internet, which can be such a wonder, and is how I even know of her in the first place, has made things much, much worse for her. These pieces she writes, they invite the worst from the groups she targets. And so, as is all too common, the very worst, scum-sucking juveniles from those groups go after her and say the vilest stuff, not just insults, but death and rape threats, that sort of thing. Truly disgusting. And in doing so, they make her feel that she has been righteous from the beginning. It’s a mutually reinforcing cycle and I think it’s very unlikely she’ll get out of it any time soon.

Her: It used to be that a young writer started at a paper and they were kept under the watchful eye of an old, experienced editor. This editor held them to a high standard, even if they had the most boring beat—which the new ones always did. But they learned!

Me: On the other hand I think there’s a tension here, and it gets to the heart of the story of the Great Enrichment. There’s two ways to look at that old news room. From one perspective, it is a place where apprentices are introduced to a craft by experienced practitioners. From another perspective, it is a place where the old are gatekeepers to the young and impose their way on them, as well as on the industry.

Her: Like the old craft and merchant guilds in Europe.

Me: Exactly.

Her: We’re definitely being too indulgent in golden age thinking. Yellow journalism has a history as long as journalism itself; from a certain point of view, longer.

Me: That’s always been my belief. I’ve never thought that journalism or news or what have you was in decline, because I honestly never thought the old system had much to recommend it.

Her: I think that’s a little too harsh to the old system. It produced a lot of writers and thinkers of quality.

Me: But it also seems hard to believe that we’re worse off now because of lowered barriers to entry.

Her: Well, think like an economist for a moment. Lowered barriers to entry make it possible for cheap, low quality competition to come in.

Me: It also makes high quality competition able to enter the market that might have been excluded because of the higher barriers. When Sam Hammond and I had a similar conversation, he pointed out that William F. Buckley was only 30 years old when he started National Review. Though Josiah Neeley quickly pointed out that Buckley also hired a lot of seasoned veterans, unlike the case with the young journalist we discussed.

Her: There’s something to Sam’s example though. The media industry has never stood still; it was changing in Buckley’s time. It doesn’t seem as dramatic now, compared to the Internet. But it was a big part of what was going on.

Me: All this aside, I still wonder about the narrative of apprenticeship as opposed to the narrative of liberation. Doesn’t the young journalist I mentioned show how the latter erodes the quality achieved by the former?

Her: The name of the game is experimentation. And the old quality rarely goes away. The last crowd at her employer were thrown out, but I’m sure they’ll turn up and some young writers will benefit from their experience somewhere. Meanwhile, maybe that institution has been gutted, but a thousand experiments crop up every day. The blog you and your friends created is a part of that.

Me: A very small and very obscure part.

Her: The old knowledge and skills are largely preserved, while new knowledge and new skills—and entirely new practices—are generated all the time. This is the strength of the liberated, dignified system of market-tested betterment.

Me: You know I agree with you. It’s just a shame to see someone so promising fall through the cracks.

Her: Of course. But you can only expect so much. We’re fallen creatures, and even the most virtuous of us are liable to stumble along the path.

Me: I’ll hold out hope that this is just a stumble, then.

At this point—long before it in fact—I had been monopolizing her time for too long, and we stood up to mingle with the group.

11 thoughts on “An Unfinished and Imagined Conversation

    1. Yup. Though really I was interested in the tension between the ideas that:
      1) apprenticeship is important for passing down skills and standards, and
      2) We’ve been made better off primarily because we were liberated from old rigid apprenticeship models.

  1. I don’t see apprenticeship and barriers to entry as going together in this case. You could have high barriers to entry with little or no apprenticeship and low barriers to entry with substantial apprenticeship. Nor does apprenticeship equate to high quality–one can have an apprenticeship in generating schlock. The Big Three triopoly in network TV from 1950-1986 that was protected by FCC regulations and other “barriers to entry” did not lead to exceptionally high-quality output–on the contrary, the old hands taught the young ones how to consistently turn out mediocre fare that would appeal to an average taste without excessively boring or upsetting too many people.

    “Barriers to entry” is also a highly problematic term from industrial organization theory whose meaning is hotly contested even among economists who agree 100% on how to use and solve formal models of oligopoly. They agree on what the model says but disagree on which part of the model ought to be termed a “barrier to entry.” This dispute is not idle solely because BTE is also a legal term of art embedded in the Justice Department’s merger guidelines and in judicial antitrust doctrine. Absent this legal career, economists would stop arguing about the exact definition, since the term adds little understanding over and above the formal models.

    1. That’s fair, I freely concede the point. What I’m thinking of is more like—the cost of experimentation. The difference between the up-front costs involved in getting a big 20th century style industrial printing press, compared to the negligible costs of starting a blog.

      But there are other costs too—social shaming for deviating from a certain set of professional standards, say. But that kind of cost is hard to maintain without the other kind—if just anyone can start a blog, then people who don’t share those professional standards can form their own communities with their own standards, and compete for some or all of the entrenched professionals’ audience.

      More thoughts below in response to Virginia’s comment, with regard to what sort of quality you end up with as a result.

  2. I don’t think it’s really a matter of apprenticeship but, rather, what’s considered good work. In the hypercompetitive world of linkbait, what she’s doing isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Having older mentors wouldn’t necessarily change anything unless they had made an explicit decision not to go for big numbers.

    I spent the weekend as a discussion leader at a Liberty Fund-style conference of, coincidentally, young journalists. The final reading was Albert Jay Nock’s essay on writing for “the Remnant” rather than the mass public. It was published in 1936. The competition for attention may have increased exponentially, but the dilemma of deciding on your ideal audience hasn’t changed.

    1. Yes, I think that’s exactly right. The apprenticeship thing is a red herring. The reason it occurred to me was purely because a smaller market means fewer audiences to choose from, and usually fewer standards of good work.

      One of the oldest critiques of capitalism is that it the older order was driven by standards of excellence. One form of this says that capitalism supplants this with the pursuit of money by means of manipulation—and so Clay Johnson, Rolf Dobelli, and others talk about how news feeds your biases in terms that make it seem like a genuine addiction.

      Another form is sophisticated enough to admit that consumer sovereignty is king, but basically says that consumers aren’t fit to judge. It goes back to standards again; some people think that there are objectively good standards, and consumers don’t know enough to have a voice in setting them.

      I like Tyler Cowen’s argument in In Praise of Commercial Culture, where he points out not only that:

      1. Wealth allows a greater diversity of tastes to be catered to, including the more niche stuff enjoyed by self-styled sophisticates.

      2. Most of what people think of as great now was once considered “popular”; from Shakespeare to Beethoven.

      Nevertheless, I do think the kind of stuff TNR peddles is crap, and I don’t think of myself as being particularly snobbish. Mostly I just think it’s shameful; normally I would not care (shills will be shills) but in this case I’ve watched some otherwise thoughtful people have their very worst instincts nurtured as writers there.

      1. It is indeed crap and should be publicly shamed as much as possible. That’s why all those people quite TNR, in fact. It wasn’t just loyalties to individuals. It was loyalty to certain standards of discourse.

      2. Right, the Cowen critique is basically correct. There is no evidence I am aware of to support the idea that the pre-Internet media world was more conducive to quality at the minimum, the median, the mean, or the maximum of the quality distribution. (Of course there’s always a question of how you weight items of content in the statistics–by number of viewers, by engagement, by influence, etc.–all the things that advertisers and publishers are now arguing about for commercial reasons in the age of Big Data.)

        It is an interesting theoretical question as to how, even given perfect agreement about data and about quality assessments, one should comparatively assess two different distributions of media quality. Sturgeon’s Law devotees and Arnoldian optimists would look at the upper tails and ignore the 90% of output that is crap. Deweyan progressives might be more concerned by the average. Conservative declinists would focus on the bottom tail. All of these approaches assume that more quality is better.

        But then there’s the question of market relevance. If many people want prejudice-confirming linkbait and aren’t interested in nuanced, fair, and thorough analyses, then waving a magic wand of moral suasion that could influence all to provide only the latter while suppressing the former won’t make the world a better place. It will simply make media irrelevant to those people. Moral suasion would be better directed at the consumers than the producers of media, in that view.

      3. I’m a Sturgeon’s Law devotee and optimist, personally.

        I think persuasion plays a role here, too. There’s consumers who try to persuade other consumers to share their standards (having more nuance, say). And then there are entrepreneurs who are trying to persuade people that a certain set of standards are worth buying into.

        It makes me think of casual gaming as opposed to something like Dungeons and Dragons, which requires a big up front effort to get over the learning curve and finding other people to play with; beforehand people have to be persuaded that the delayed gratification will be worth it.

  3. I wonder to what extent consumers of linkbait stuff compartmentalize it in their minds as an indulgence, like watching a crappy movie on SciFi or Lifetime. What’s worrying about the kind of thing you posted about is the possibility that it might represent the actual substantive views of its consumers rather than something they half-like but know is over the top. Those People in their echo chamber liking some piece of politicized linkbait and egging each other in the comments get to vote! Egads! But maybe it’s mostly just posturing for entertainment purposes.

    I don’t read Ann Coulter on more than a very occasional basis, but if I enjoy one of her rants it isn’t something I take as gospel truth (although she occasionally hits some interesting nerves). It might be too fearful and patronizing to suppose that all our apparently zealous, closed-minded fellow media consumers actually think that way when they vote.

    1. I’ve always thought there was a good analogy with sports here. A lot of people behave the exact same way about politics as they or others do about their baseball or football team. The stakes may be different in theory, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they behave.

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