Political Epistemology

Epistemology – as a freshman in college you had to love that word. Dropping it into a conversation made you feel so good – you were deep and serious and saw more than others, and you smiled that condescending smile of intellectual elite. In return you received a resentful glare, or many of those. Normal people don’t use such words. No one likes a pretentious snob. And luckily, almost all college freshmen eventually do learn some social skills, and after seeing a friend’s eyes roll, or hearing another deep sigh from across the room, they save such words for the seminar room, or better yet, for that key term paper. Some words should not be spoken. 


But it is a useful word. Formally, epistemology is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge – what we know and what we can know, and perhaps what we cannot ever know. And didn’t you ever have that feeling you were missing something, that there were things you didn’t know, and could never know? That’s how most people go through life – wondering what they’re missing, and why they’re missing it. It’s the human condition.


So imagine a bunch of philosophers discussing such things – imagine pipes and brandy and a warm fire on a rainy afternoon in Sussex if you wish – discussing the nature of knowledge itself, and how it relates to similar notions – you know – truth, belief and justification. How is knowledge produced? Should we be skeptical of different “knowledge claims?” What do people really know? How did they come to “know” it, whatever it is?


More people think about such things than you would imagine. Think of Donald Rumsfeld’s words at that press conference long ago – “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”


He got it, as in this, on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – “There’s another way to phrase that, and that is that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way. Simply because you do not have evidence that something does exist does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.”


Rumsfeld must have been a real pip in his freshman year at Princeton (1951). But you get the point. What do we know? How can we know anything?


This is another way to approach the Great Divide between conservatives and liberals, where one side knows things for a fact – “they hate us for our freedoms” or “gay marriage will destroy all other marriages” or “drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife areas will solve all our economic woes” or what you will – and the other side says those are not facts at all. And it becomes more than one side saying the other has the facts all wrong – it becomes an epistemological insult. The other side, whichever it is, is incapable of thinking clearly from actual evidence and is, in fact, incapable of knowing. That may have been what Rumsfeld was getting at.


But then, what is the actual evidence? We only know the world from reports – few of us drop by Baghdad or Beijing, in our spare time. No one has spare time, and, if they did, they’d go to the mall. We rely on the media. Journalists tell us what’s up. We sit through the irritating ad to catch the news, we watch CNN or Fox or MSNBC, or all three, listen to the news at the top of the hour on the radio, and some of us even read newspapers and magazines. One way or another we pay people to tell us what’s going on.


And now more and more people read online sources, blogs – they get their news there, using these sites as aggregators, culling what is significant, or what is significantly silly. Of course this drives the traditional journalist a bit crazy, and Glenn Greenwald hits on the problem:


One of the most frequent criticisms which self-proclaimed journalists voice about bloggers is that journalists (but not bloggers) engage in “real reporting” – by which they mean that they speak to government officials and then faithfully write down what they say and then include those quotes in the things they write, and often shape what they write based on those quotes. But that’s exactly the process that transforms journalists into handmaidens for government propaganda, that makes them fear a loss of access, and renders them dependent on maintaining relationships with the very people whom they’re ostensibly scrutinizing.


So, who do you trust – the insider transcribing what he or she is being fed? Of course not – if you know you should take things with a grain of salt, you find some salt.


See Andrew Sullivan:


The best reporters don’t get co-opted, but it is indeed very hard for even the best reporters not to get sucked into some kind of coziness with sources. The truth is: it’s much more fruitful to realize that bloggers and reporters are complementary, not alternatives to one another. Someone needs to do the face-to-face or phone to phone reporting; and good reporting benefits from the kind of outsider scrutiny that Glenn provides. Both are valuable – and hard. But I think we learned from the run-up to the Iraq war that leaving everything to those of us in Washington is a mistake.


There seems to be a new epistemology at work now. And this was emphasized with the recent death of a giant of the previous kind of journalism, Tim Russert, the host of Meet the Press. The coverage of his life and legacy was wall-to-wall in the media, but had “an era is over” feel to it. Maybe he was the last of the old journalists.


See Tim Rutten with his appreciation in the Los Angeles Times:


Journalism is, at best, a fairly ephemeral trade. Tim Russert is one of those rare journalists who actually leaves a legacy because he was the right man at the right time with the right technique.


There is talk of his intensity and his passion for politics, and with his “Jesuit fondness for dialectic” that made him “able to take the opposite point of view from whatever partisan sat across the table from him and to carry through the interview with complete conviction.” And that worked fine:


In other hands, it was a technique that could – and ultimately did become – coarsely confrontational and mindlessly adversarial. Russert never fell into that sort of mannered trap because he was so essentially likable. He had a passion for politics in part because he was by nature an old-fashioned Irish pol, an instinctual listener with a keen sense that everybody has their interests – a man with the right word in the right ear at the right time.


But the man was, unfortunately, an insider:


Thus, in all that gush across four networks in dozens and dozens of voices, hardly a word was spoken concerning Russert’s role in the recent trial of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. That’s odd because Libby’s conviction on perjury and obstruction of justice charges was, in some large part, based on Russert’s testimony. Like former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Russert was one of the high-level Washington journalists who came out of the Libby trial looking worse than shabby.


Libby testified before the grand jury investigating the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity that he first learned she worked for the intelligence agency from Russert during a phone call on another matter. Russert took the stand to contradict Libby only because he’d been subpoenaed – a summons he and NBC had strenuously resisted on grounds of journalistic privilege.


As it emerged under examination, however, Russert already had sung like a choirboy to the FBI concerning his conversation with Libby – and had so voluntarily from the first moment the Feds contacted him. All the litigation was for the sake of image and because the journalistic conventions required it.


So we get this:


If Russert’s legacy stands for anything, it’s that journalists have an obligation to preserve as complete a record as possible – and to hold those responsible for that record accountable. In the outpouring of grief, affection and fellow-feeling that followed his sudden death, that didn’t happen. Perhaps that’s understandable under the circumstances, or perhaps it’s another insight into the limitations of the sort of “insider” journalism of which Russert was an exemplar.


So what does NBC do now? NBC is in trouble. As they say in sports, they have no bench. CNN has a deep bench. You hope they don’t give Meet the Press to strange Chris Matthews, or the over-the-top Olbermann, or, as some have suggested, Joe Scarborough. Brokaw is too old – he won’t do it. David Gregory – Mister Hyperactive – will probably get the gig, if they can get him off all the coffee. Rachel Maddow, from Air America, has been filling in for him, so something is up. She’s rather good – smart as hell, funny, thoughtful, easy on the eyes – and all on the right say she’s a lesbian. This is difficult.


See Michael Calderone at Politico:


Tyndall said that if he were NBC News President Steve Capus, a short list for the position would include White House correspondent David Gregory, chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell – both of whom have guest-hosted “Meet the Press” – as well as political director Chuck Todd and “Hardball” host Chris Matthews. Two dark-horse candidates could be “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough or perhaps former “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw that is, if he had any interest in returning to such a prominent role.


See Matthew Yglesias:


Matthews seems like the most likely choice to me, since for several years now in addition to Hardball he’s been doing a more staid Chris Matthews Show on Sunday mornings that appears to me to have been training wheels for eventually stepping into Russert’s shoes. I’d say the best choice would probably be Chuck Todd, who based on his on-camera work during primary evenings would bring a different approach rather than trying to do what Russert did and not doing it as well.


Yglesias also notes he’s received comments that suggest Gwen Ifill from PBS would be good, if NBC were willing to hire someone from outside the network. But them Don Imus said that woman looked like “the cleaning lady” – so there you have it.


Enter, from the far right, Josh Goldberg:


So why not have the best of both worlds? Russert was many things, but he wasn’t a “moderator.” Moderators balance and direct debates. Russert, to his credit, was a prosecutor. Why not make Chuck Todd the actual moderator of the show and have him moderate a panel of journalists?


Yglesias agrees one hundred percent:


You could have a roster of different panelists, of whom two or three might be on any given episode depending on who the guests are and what’s big in the news at the moment.


But with Chuck Todd, the pleasant pollster and statistician at the helm, the old age would be over. There’d be no insiders. It would be like the web.


But maybe that’s how things should be, given the latest Pew polling:


A record-breaking 46% of Americans have used the internet, email or cell phone text messaging to get news about the campaign, share their views and mobilize others. And Barack Obama’s backers have an edge in the online political environment.


That item is chock full of startling results – the age of “the insider who explains it all” may be dead and gone.


Yglesias comments:


It’s sometimes difficult for someone like me to remember that many people – most of them in fact – don’t get the bulk of their political news from the internet and haven’t ever watched a political video on YouTube or Brightcove. Still, the pace of the growth remains extremely impressive.


For now, though, we’re in an interesting middle ground where for a wide swath of people online media is a hugely important slice of our information diet. For others, though, it’s as if it doesn’t exist at all. Consequently, there’s a lot of opportunity for very segmented messaging. And in an election cycle where we also seem to be looking at a lot of age polarization in political allegiance, this can wind up having huge impacts. Obama can, for example, use the internet to do “base-energizing” stuff knowing that this will reach a huge proportion of his supporters while also remaining invisible to large groups of other voters who he may want to be courting in different ways.


Ah, so we’re somewhere between two knowledge models, two epistemologies if you will. The question of how we know what we think we know is more important than ever. And Yglesias hits on the problem – one bloc of folks doesn’t even know what now exists out there. No wonder no one can agree on anything.


And the old guard is fighting back, as in this New York Times item:


The Associated Press, one of the nation’s largest news organizations, said that it will, for the first time, attempt to define clear standards as to how much of its articles and broadcasts bloggers and Web sites can excerpt without infringing on the AP’s copyright.


The AP’s effort to impose some guidelines on the free-wheeling blogosphere, where extensive quoting and even copying of entire news articles is common, may offer a prominent definition of the important but vague doctrine of “fair use,” which holds that copyright owners cannot ban others from using small bits of their works under some circumstances. For example, a book reviewer is allowed to quote passages from the work without permission from the publisher.


Fair use has become an essential concept to many bloggers, who often quote portions of articles before discussing them. The AP, a cooperative owned by 1,500 daily newspapers, including The New York Times, provides written articles and broadcast material to thousands of news organizations and Web sites that pay to use them.


Last week, The AP took an unusually strict position against quotation of its work, sending a letter to the Drudge Retort asking it to remove seven items that contained quotations from AP articles ranging from 39 to 79 words.


Here are the guidelines and rates – twelve dollars and fifty cents for the first five words. Those in the new world are not taking this well. Via Andrew Sullivan’s round-up see Michael Arrington:


Here’s our new policy on AP stories: they don’t exist. We don’t see them, we don’t quote them, we don’t link to them. They’re banned until they abandon this new strategy, and I encourage others to do the same until they back down from these ridiculous attempts to stop the spread of information around the Internet.


At Outside the Beltway see James Joyner:


While most of my blogging brethren are outraged at this and there is an organized effort to boycott AP content on blogs, I’m actually surprised that this action is so late in coming.


I’ve worried for years that the lengthy excerpts I use on OTB could be ruled to exceed “fair use” but relied on the notion that I was adding enough commentary to create a transformative work.


Practically speaking, however, few bloggers have the deep pockets to fight a massive organization like the AP in court.


Also see The Glittering Eye:


The Associated Press, like most other publishers, fails to understand the essential nature of the Internet. Having your content published on the Internet isn’t like printing a book or a newspaper or even a radio or TV broadcast. It’s like printing the material on a million flyers which are posted in the town square. When you put it on the Internet you expect it to be seen, linked to, and, er, sampled.


And see Marc Ambinder:


The biggest question I have about the Associated Press’s new aggressiveness toward bloggers is: why now? Seems like the train left the station years ago.


We seem to have an epistemological dispute on our hands. How are we to know what we want to know, or think we need to know, if it is kept restricted?


And Jeff Jarvis argues the AP just doesn’t get it:


The AP was calling bloggers unethical even while the bloggers were operating under their own ethic of the link and the quote. The bloggers believe they are doing the right thing in quoting directly and they think they are doing the generous thing – generous to both their readers and to the AP – in providing links to the source material. The bloggers will also say that this is an ethic the AP itself violates when it homogenizes and commodifies news, rewriting it and stripping it of the identity – and now the address – of the original reporting done by its members and other sources.


But the AP will say that it has a right to own that content and others, including bloggers, do not, so it believes it is protecting that license. That is its ethic.


Of course, these two ethics need not be mutually exclusive.


Jane Hamsher agrees:


This is but one of the many conflicts that are going to arise between old and new media, whose rules and customs are dictated by differing economic and technological factors.


The AP will probably be slow to learn the lesson, because it will see no immediate impact if people like me won’t link to them anymore because we don’t want to be sued. I mean in our world, how crazy is that?


Like I’m going to sue Atrios for linking to me? That’s just insane. We live on traffic – our revenues are based on page views. The same can be said for the online outlets that the AP is selling its product to – newspapers across the country. It’s the Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle who will feel it if nobody will link to their AP stories. They are, in effect, buying a product that will not generate traffic they need in order to sell ads to support themselves.


If I were running a major metropolitan daily and I saw my advertising revenues shrinking and my newsroom personnel diminishing as the dead tree business died, and I knew how important it was to generate online traffic to keep the doors open, I’d be thinking … Reuters. McClatchy. Bloomberg. Anything but AP.


Why pay for a newswire that’s going to sue people for linking to you?


So the economic model is flawed. The AP reports – and it doesn’t want anyone citing them, with teaser quotes, driving traffic back to the source material. That’s odd. Fine – no more AP here too.


But how are we to know what we don’t know? After all, there are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know, or something. Rumsfeld himself said so. It seems epistemology does matter a bit.



About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Certainty, Fair Use, Journalism, The Conservative-Liberal Divide, The New Media, Traditional Journalism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Political Epistemology

  1. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    I need to play the contrarian here on a few things concerning journalism mentioned above:

    First, on Tim Russert:

    I thought I was following that Scooter Libby case fairly closely at the time, but this is the first allegation I’ve heard that Russert did anything wrong.

    I suppose the suggestion here is that journalists are never to testify in court cases, nor should they give information to the FBI. This misunderstanding probably comes from the belief that a reporter is not supposed to reveal his sources, which itself is only true if the reporter has promised the source that he wouldn’t. As far as I can tell, Tim Russert never made that promise to Scooter Libby; nor should he have. A promise of anonymity is only given in specific cases, usually in trade for information that might be used in a story.

    Protecting Scooter Libby as a source, in fact, had nothing to do with the leak story. Libby merely told the grand jury he first heard of Valerie Plame’s working for the CIA from Russert “during a phone call on another matter.” Maybe he thought Russert would never rat him out for trying to use him as an alibi, but he was wrong. Russert did the right thing.

    On AP getting tough:

    All these bloggers seem to be claiming that AP doesn’t get it. I hate to say this, but it’s the bloggers that don’t really get it.

    Their misunderstanding seems to spring from their mistaking The Associated Press for just another publisher who, of course, probably wants the publicity. It’s not, and it probably doesn’t.

    The AP is not a publisher and it’s not a newspaper. It’s a cooperative — more precisely, it’s an association — owned by its members, most of them being newspapers. In the sense that it’s a “business” at all, its business relies on supplying all its members with exclusive words and pictures.

    Imagine, if you will, that we were living in the 1970s — the age before easy “copy-and-paste” technology. We might ourselves decide to start up a small Xerox photocopied publication and decide to use the local daily newspaper in town as a source for material — carefully retyping the AP wirestories from the paper, maybe even grabbing an AP Wirephoto or two for good measure. And maybe even, in an ill-conceived attempt to be aboveboard, we actually give AP credit for this stuff, thinking we’ve covered all the bases.

    Wrong! We’d get sued, probably by both AP and the newspaper, for copyright infringement. After all, the wire service charges money for its product, the newspaper pays for the service — and so, by the way, do thousands of other member publications who might not take kindly to your trying to get a free ride.

    Maybe some bloggers believe that AP will be hurt by a boycott? On the contrary, a boycott is pretty much what they want. Yes, but maybe The Washington Post won’t be too happy about folks not linking to them, and will complain to the AP board about this?

    Maybe so, but having worked for The AP, my guess is that there is an issue within the association that has been simmering for some time, and that is that member newspapers have been posting AP material verbatim online for all the world to see (and for all the world’s bloggers to lift) without suitable regard for what damage this does to its fellow members.

    And I’d bet that, even with the Washington Post being an important member, it might be overruled, if it comes to a vote, by its smaller fellow publishers, who might argue that giving away the product for free to online interlopers makes no sense in an age when newspaper ownership is cutting staff and budgets, and the papers themselves are struggling to stay alive.

    That said, what about the “fair use” principle? I’m not sure it applies, at least in most these cases.

    Years ago, I published a newsletter about the TV news industry, and regularly printed photos taken off the screen of some news show or other. But whenever I did this, partly for my own protection, I made surethat the story was not about the content of the photo but about the coverage of the story. In the four years of publication, no copyright holder ever threatened to sue me.

    In other words, if a blog is just using the words lifted from AP to further the facts of a story, that’s not really “fair use”. To fulfill “fair use,” the blogger has to be talking about the way the media is covering this story, and then use a clip from the AP story to illustrate their point.

    If you were to ask if I think charging any amount of money for “the first five words” is ridiculous, my answer would be, Yes.

    But if you were to ask me if AP has a right to be ridiculous, I’d also have to answer yes. After all, it’s the dues from all the AP members who are paying the salaries of the reporters and editors and whatnot who created those words and pictures, and they shouldn’t be compelled, even by a so-called “internet ethic,” to give the stuff away for free.


  2. Captain of Industry says:

    Greetings from the future. It’s 2016 here, and you have no idea what’s coming.

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