"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“And here I sit so patiently,
waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
going through all these things twice.”
– Bob Dylan, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”
Last Friday, the National Journal published a classic example of centrist handwringing, which, as often happens, skewed decidedly to the right. The piece, by James Oliphant, “Progressive Bloggers Are Doing the White House’s Job,” drew the swift, incisive, factually informed mockery it so richly deserved, so there’s not really any need to take additional shots at it. But there is some value in thinking a bit more about what it signifies, about the state of our politics — particularly since there’s at least an outside chance that the GOP might try to impeach another Democratic president… just for being a Democratic president.
This same sort of knuckleheaded “balance”-worshiping journalism can prove absolutely lethal in such a scenario — just ask anyone old enough to remember politics in the 1990s. But the record of the mainstream media has been just as disastrous on other major fronts as well — from the Iraq War to global warming and the Great Recession.
In short, we all could benefit by taking a much broader look at the kind of danger that Oliphant’s sort of thinking represents. As Simon Maloy wrote at the end of his Salon story last Friday, “When it comes to Benghazi spin, the problem isn’t ‘progressive bloggers,’ it’s legacy media types who eagerly swallow Republican nonsense and can’t be bothered to get their facts straight.” But, truth is, you might just as well replace “Benghazi” with #whatever — it’s equally true for just about anything you might think of. We need to get a better handle on just why that is.
In my previous story, “Fox News’ psycho-social #Benghazi world,” I wrote about how the fact-free (even fact-averse) conservative #Benghazi obsession could be understood in terms of three intersecting cognitive frameworks, each of which independently tends toward “epistemic closure” as described by libertarian conservative Julian Sanchez in 2010:
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure…
While Sanchez was describing a socio-political process, I pointed to three cognitive factors which affect an individual’s cognition in a social context. The main one was a reliance on mythos (meaning-making) to the exclusion of logos (how the outside world works), a second was identity-protective cognition shoring up the GOP’s white male base, and the third was conspiracist ideation, which renders impossible any refutation of the core conspiracist belief system, whatever that may be. But Oliphant’s column reminds us quite forcefully that the right has no monopoly on such things.
Centrists like Oliphant have a long history of ridiculing conspiracy theories — so much so that they often knee-jerk reject (think Iran/Contra), if not blithely overlook (Watergate), genuine conspiracies that fall into their laps. (They also use false charges of conspiracism to dismiss empirically well-grounded investigations of elite power, such as Ferdinand Lundberg’s classic, ”The Rich and the Super-Rich.”) But when it comes to the other two cognitive frameworks, centrist ideologues are as firmly locked into their preconceived worldview as the Tea Partiers are on the right, which is why it matters so little to them when pieces like Oliphant’s are littered with factual inaccuracies both explicit and implied. What matters in terms of mythos is that Oliphant’s narrative hold together and make sense internally — that it sell itself to its own true believers — not that it actually be true in any of its particulars. And, of course, it serves to protect the group identity of traditional media elites and the larger political interests they serve.
The identity-protection function becomes laughably explicit when Oliphant writes, “The Obama administration had the good fortune to come to power just when the forces undermining the traditional media became truly disruptive, creating a web-based royalty.” But “identity-protective cognition” as Kahan defines it is a more rigorous concept than I can adequately deal with here. It’s enough for present purposes to simply note how convenient it is when all manner of high-minded arguments just happen to line up in favor of the Jim Oliphants of the world — at least as long as the terrible pajama-wearing web-based royalty can be shut out of the conversation.
Hidden at the heart of Oliphant’s piece is their most cherished notion, that they alone are “objective” while everyone else is “biased,” but this is nothing more than a classic example of a mythos-based belief. No amount of logos-based evidence to the contrary has the slightest effect on this belief. In the present instance, the massive documentation behind The Benghazi Hoax is simply ignored, along with mountains of supplemental evidence of Republican deceit, distortion and outright lies, all in the name of remaining “open-minded” and “non-partisan”. But this is simply par for the course. Remember the Iraq War? Remember “A history of the Iraq war, told entirely in lies”? With the notable exception of Knight-Ridder (which had no Washington-based bureau), and a few scattered individuals, America’s so-called “objective” reporters embarrassed themselves beyond all measure by becoming a cheerleading team for America’s greatest foreign policy disaster in living memory.
Oh well, the Downing Street Memos gave them a chance to set the record straight, right? And what, exactly, did all the objective reporters do with them, to make up for their earlier wildly biased reporting? Virtually nothing, of course. What’s truly shocking — unless you’re hip to the workings of mythos — is that even when “objective” reporters happen to get a story right, they seem to take no special pride in it, if it goes against the tribe. And that’s exactly what happened with the Downing Street Memos.
On September 11, 2002, USA Today published a blockbuster story, “Iraq course set from tight White House circle,” which began:
President Bush’s determination to oust Iraq’s Saddam Hussein by military force if necessary was set last fall [within 7 weeks of 9/11] without a formal decision-making meeting or the intelligence assessment that customarily precedes such a momentous decision.
Regarding the lack of a formal decision-making process, USA Today reported:
The decision to target Saddam “kind of evolved, but it’s not clear and neat,” a senior administration official says, calling it “policymaking by osmosis.”
“There wasn’t a flash moment. There’s no decision meeting,” national security adviser Condoleezza Rice says. “But Iraq had been on the radar screen — that it was a danger and that it was something you were going to have to deal with eventually … before Sept. 11, because we knew that this was a problem.”
You’ll note that this is a perfect description of how mythos-based policy works. The entire process is pre-logical, osmotic. Even after the fact, there’s no clear logical explanation. “He looked at me funny” is as good as it gets. And yet, the USA Today story, bombshell that it was, disappeared with only a minimal impact. The story’s reporting that there had been no National Intelligence Estimate prepared on Iraq ultimately forced one to be produced — and the deceptive, patchwork process involved in that has since been savagely dissected. But the larger point — that the decision had already been made almost a year before Congress voted, and that everything the Administration had said to the contrary was a lie — all that was simply flushed down the memory hole.
Yet, because of this reporting, which had never been challenged, the Downing Street Memos were really just extremely detailed confirmation of what was already known. When they came out, and I wrote a story about them for Random Lengths News, I called several of the five reporters who collaborated on the story. The only one I talked to at any length was Susan Page, and I was very interested in knowing if she and USA Today were going to follow up on this dramatic confirmation of their early, accurate, but widely neglected reporting. She told me that they were not. It was a British story, not an American one, she explained to me. And besides, it was no longer news. It was fodder for the historians now.
I was flabbergasted at the time. I had no idea what to make of her responses. But in hindsight, it’s clear that she was simply reaffirming the mythos-based framework of social meanings that structured her professional world. What “objective” criteria determines what’s a story and what isn’t? Answer: None. It’s the mythos and the mythos alone that says what’s a story and what isn’t.
It can be hard to see this in the day-to-day bustle of the newsroom, but with sufficient distant—or the right example—it becomes blindingly clear. Consider: Does anyone doubt that a similar story about Barack Obama would be front-page news in every paper in the land?
More on Obama in a bit, but first, let’s be clear, the Iraq War was no anomaly. The mainstream media did no better with the 2008 financial crises. Of course it can be said that the economics profession missed it, too. But that’s not exactly true. What’s more, one of those who saw it coming, Dean Baker, was also the very first econoblogger ever, as he began regular dissecting of mainstream economic reporting in his “Beat the Press” blog back in the 1990s. Baker’s earliest warning that we were in a housing bubble came in August 2002 — the month before USA Today’s Iraq War revelations, which were similarly ignored. More to the point, however, is how the media basically never revised its view of this era. Neither Baker nor any of the others who saw it coming have become go-to experts after the fact, when everyone with a functioning brain can see that they’ve been proved right.
Still, most economists missed it, and the lion’s share of blame can plausibly be assigned to them, rather than the media. But what about global warming, then? Climate scientists have warning about this at least since the 1980s (1981 here, 1988 here). The scientific consensus is overwhelming, yet for decades the predominant media framing was to provide “balance,” that is, to create the false impression that there were equally valid arguments and evidence on both sides. And why not? This is precisely what their mythos demanded, even though it obviously buried the truth about an issue that potentially threatened our very existence as a civilization. At the same time, the climate change blogosphere (top 10 list here) has overflowed with far more accurate, and more detailed (if not “balanced”) coverage. Once again, the equation of the mainstream media and its “balance” with objectivity and truth crumbles to dust in the light of actual evidence.
Steeled by these brief forays into the coverage of economics and climate science, we’re now prepared to face up to the subject, not just of #Benghazi, but of potential Republican attempts to impeach Obama. We already have a crystal-clear model for it: the prolonged 1990s hounding and ultimate impeachment of Bill Clinton. Although it obviously got its start on the right, the so-called “liberal media” (especially the New York Times and Washington Post) played a crucial role in turning their fever dream into a reality, as Gene Lyons meticulously showed in ”Fools for Scandal: How The Media Invented Whitewater.”
The American people never went along with the elite media’s attempt to depose Clinton, and Moveon.org was born out of their outrage at the attempt. But Oliphant’s beloved traditional mainstream media arguably had the last laugh, punishing Al Gore mercilessly for his failure to turn against his boss, promoting the false narrative that he lied about everything, from Love Canal to inventing the Internet, and basically costing him the 2000 election — a long, drawn-out process that was mercilessly critiqued in real time in the first general media criticism blog, the Daily Howler (1999 archives, 2000 archives). Then came their invaluable assist in rationalizing the theft of the election.
This, in brief, is the history of the last Democratic presidency, and how the “objective” mainstream media waged a relentless all-out war against it. We all know what happened as a consequence of that: 9/11, the Iraq War, Katrina, the Great Recession, all of it.
Please forgive us if we’re not as silenced as we used to be — and we’re not about to let it happen again.
Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.More Paul Rosenberg.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)