The restoration of public truth
"The press, like the church, is inherently part of the government."
Of all the political nostrums of the last two centuries, experience has disproved none more thoroughly than the one Americans most uniformly prize: freedom of the press. Actually, there is no such thing as a free press.
When the press can be in practice held accountable by a higher power, as in Singapore—where journalists are routinely kept in check by state-sponsored lawsuits—it is not, of course, free.
But where the press is in practice accountable to no higher power, as in the United States, it is not free either. It is merely supreme. It can destroy anything or anyone. Nothing can even imagine destroying it; almost nothing can even survive its enmity.
“Free” is a euphemism for this condition. Wasn’t Louis XIV the freest man in France?And there is no way to square the circle. There are only two ways a regime can work. Our choices are: the press-run state, or the state-run press. Sorry about that!
The press-run state
An understanding of this dilemma is older than the First Amendment itself: Burke coined the term “Fourth Estate” in 1787. In case your French Revolution is a little fuzzy, the first three were the power centers of the kingdom. On the Continent they just say “cuarto poder.” But obviously, it has been a long time since the Gray Lady played fourth fiddle to anyone.
On a historical timescale, the practical effect of the sovereignty of the press is just to play yet another whack-a-mole game of quis custodiet ipsos custodes. Who watches the watchdog? In the end, this chain must logically terminate in a dog you just… trust. Sovereignty is conserved.
Since power corrupts, the temptation to switch to a fresh, uncorrupted watchdog is always there. But the job of supreme watchdog will turn any dog into a pig. The only bar between the open society of reason that we know and love, and the pure horror of an Orwellian republic of public lies, is our theory of the infallibility of the press.
Most intelligent people who believe this theory base it on the polycentric, competitive nature of the industry and the profession. This polycentric organizational structure once exhibited a polycentric intellectual structure, making the theory more credible. More sophisticated analysts see the primacy of the New York Times—and attribute it to a tried organizational structure: the fifth-generation hereditary absolute monarchy. But no one has a case that the press is accountable. Here lies sovereignty.
We can only conclude that the maintenance of public truth is a state responsibility. The press, like the church, is inherently part of the government. Any attempt to place the press outside the government simply places it above the government, creating what we know and love as the press-run state.
The state-run press
The alternative, of course, is the state-run press. The 20th century is not innocent of regimes that realized this reality—nor is the present world. Today’s Chinese press, for instantly, is unabashedly a state press.
Used to the press-run state, we tend to frown on these state-run presses. We see them as essentially mendacious and at worst murderous. The press of Goebbels, the Soviet TASS agency, the People’s Daily: this cannot be the utopia we are looking for. Heavy-handed as the Times may be, the People’s Daily speaks to us with a far grimmer, more robotic, more inhuman affect than anything the Times can produce. Its tone horrifies us from a purely literary perspective. How can this be the right thing? It isn’t.
Of course, its writers are writing under command; if they have any creativity or wit, they must suppress it for the sake of their careers. Louis XIV or the Times, being in charge, can have all the creativity and wit they want. Whereas, as Goebbels told his own diary of the writers under his command, “any man who still has a residue of honor will be very careful not to become a journalist.”
This is what, in the West, we used to call “Oriental despotism.” When this form of state is seen in the Western world, even in the classical world, it is always atrocious. Possibly it is suited to China.
But as engineers of the next regime, this unpromising form is the only alternative we have to work with. The mission is not an Oriental despotism. The mission is a regime in which the official story is always true, and the unofficial story need not even be suppressed—because it has so little traction that suppressing it would be a reward.
Can the state-run press be done right? If something sucks—and the People’s Daily definitely sucks—there are two solutions. Make it not suck, or do something else.
We are currently doing the something else and have been for some time. It sucks. It does not seem to be working out, it does not seem to be getting better, and there does not seem to be any way to fix it. Ergo: try the other thing. But make it not suck.
The problem of people believing unofficial stories is a serious one in society today. These stories are not systematically filtered by any center at all. Many of them are quire untrue—even dangerously untrue.
Yet it is striking how hard today’s experts in “misinformation” find it to trace this real problem back to its obvious cause: the confident unreliability of the official press. Its Olympian self-assurance is so strong that as soon as anyone sees any systematic error with their own eyes, the whole edifice of infallibility crumbles—and drinking bleach might as well cure covid.
Of course, there is an enormous amount of high-quality truth value in the New York Times. But one rotten apple “discredits” the whole barrel. Publishers and journalists know this in theory, of course. A century ago, they also knew it in practice—which is how they got where they are now. Would who they are now get them back?
The cause of “misinformation” is the weakness of the regime, in two senses. First, the regime is no longer capable of expressing its narrative in only true stories. Goebbels himself repeatedly warned of the importance of truth in propaganda. This inability is a symptom of weakness.
Second, this symptom is itself a vulnerability. Every lie is an infallible coordination point for the enemies of the regime. If you cannot tell your story without lying, every lie is blood in the water for your rebellious subjects. Bummer.
The power to inform is the power to govern. The faction of truth, in power, has as its central mission the goal to inform the public with the truth. This demands a state-run press of a quality the world has never seen. By never being wrong, it never gives its enemies—the dethroned, disgruntled old regime—a foothold of truth to recover.
The opportunity of the next regime
It makes sense that when the faction of truth takes power, one major focus of the new regime will be the production and distribution of truth. This was also the focus of the old regime, and every new regime must beat the old regime soundly at its own game.
The production of current history, and the awareness of past history, is an essential aspect of sovereignty. For 1500 years, as soon as a new Chinese dynasty emerged, its first task was been to write the history of the previous dynasty. (Mao had a variation: like the Qin Emperor, instead of writing history, he burned it. Let’s not do this.)
Regime change means the dissolution of the old regime and its replacement with the new regime. The narrative of the new regime is also completely different—especially its narrative of the old regime, which will be as critical as its narrative of itself was flattering. Once this narrative is thoroughly embedded in society as the official truth, no one will want to go back to the old regime.
Because the old regime governed by guiding public information, the same mission must be an early strength of the new regime—just as if, had the old regime been a military government, military strength would have to be a core competence of the new regime as well. In power, the faction of truth will bring the people a richer, truer, more palpably true truth, about both present and past, than they have ever seen.
And because the new regime need not surround its truth with a bodyguard of lies, and because the new truth now has power on its side as well, any remnants of the old regime will be fighting uphill in any attempt to restore their institutions or dogmas.
Stale already, these dogmas will be bereft of the addictive aroma of power. The only demand for the intricate casuistries of the old regime comes from power; subtract this flavor, and nothing could be more stale.
Archiving the elite press
As usual, the old regime must be systematically suppressed. This involves seizing and dissolving all the old institutions of information distribution.
All outlets of the prestige, legitimate or mainstream press—an informal category of legal privilege, requiring a straightforward but informal classification—are merged into the new Department of Information.
Employees of these outlets can become employees of the DoI, if they wish, which will continue their paychecks. They will have no immediate responsibilities, but may be called on to help with the consolidation and dismantling of the old regime. If their distaste for the new regime is so great that they cannot work with it in any way, this is great too—it’s on them. Walmart is always looking for idealistic, friendly greeters.
The entire old media is flipped into archival mode. The whole historical archive of the American press, from the 19th to the 21st century, will be online. The internal records of these institutions are also preserved and made public—including the names of sources. No one ever thought they were doing anything wrong by secretly funneling information to the Times, even if that was technically illegal—so they need feel no shame at being identified. In particular, the newsroom Slack will become an invaluable historical resource.
Nor will these archives be allowed to merely molder. Quite the contrary: since these were the most important institutions of the old regime, and since writing the story of the old regime is the central intellectual task of the new regime, the new regime must understand the New York Times far better than it ever understood itself. Similarly, the current regime understands the Third Reich far better than it ever understood itself—since an army of post-Nazi historians have access to all the Nazi files, and have parsed them in ruthless, meticulous detail. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander—Imagine how well we’d understand World War II if we had Hitler’s Slack.
Of course, cooperating DoI employees who are Times veterans will be super helpful. A good rule of thumb is: everywhere you look, there are a few good eggs. But words are a dime a dozen and so are writers. It is not necessary to create a career path from the old press-run state to the new state-run press; such a path is obviously dangerous.
Consolidating social media
It does not take a lot of hard thinking to realize that centralized social media—if such a thing should even exist—is a state function. When state functions in the old regime are outside the old government, the new regime consolidates them.
However, the tech companies that run centralized social media (notably the microblog site named for a bird, the social site named for a college directory, and the search site named for a big number) are not operationally inefficient. Consolidating them into a single state social media site, with a single account, will not be hard and can be done with existing personnel. The resulting chimera will be a bit clunky and duplicative. As a literal agency of the new regime, its policies will obviously be under regime control.
But this is a medium-term operation. The new regime, to initially stabilize itself, needs to erase (or better, invert) the structural inertia of the old regime. This requires little more than the installation of regime commissars in the social companies. All it takes to make a commissar system effective is the unconditional power to fire anyone. With this power, the commissars can implement the following changes: