Breaking the News
It was gratifying to see Greg Jackson revive the ideas of Neil Postman in his meditation on the media [“Vicious Cycles,” Essay, January], for Postman highlighted the degree to which broadcast journalism is driven more by profit than by civic responsibility. Because of decades of market incentives, news is beholden to the strictures of entertainment. This is not a value judgment but a description of the industry’s business model. Absent systemic change, it cannot be otherwise.
Still, we may be dealing here with something even more powerful and resistant to change than markets. As Jackson suggests, when we seek news sources that reinforce our own worldviews, we are looking for validation of who we are and why we are here. “When we turn away from the news, we will confront a startling loneliness,” he writes. “It is the loneliness of life. The loneliness of thinking, of having no one to think for us, and of uncertainty.”
Aware of our own inevitable death and irrelevance, we hunger for a story that might give us meaning and anchor us in an unknowable universe. Ideology can provide that story. We cling to our narratives with white-knuckled determination because our psychic survival depends on it.
Jackson’s essay helps account for the strangeness I feel while watching the news with my parents, who watch two or three cable newscasts per night. Not a regular viewer myself, I’m left wondering who exactly decided what these shows should cover, and what they were thinking. In a country of almost 330 million people, why is it that this specific high-speed chase or political gaffe merited airtime?
“The formal message of the news,” Jackson writes, “is simultaneously the vital importance and utter triviality of everything that is happening.” The format encourages a conflation of arbitrary content with objective reality. As a consequence, we abandon the idea that the news might have some real pedagogical function. We are left instead with, as Jackson puts it, “the illusion that we had a place in history.”
Politics as Usual
Kevin Baker believes that Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign “tells us where her heart lies, what her core values and principles are” [“On Courage,” Easy Chair, January]. Having read the senator’s three books on public policy, I can’t say that I agree.
In 2003’s The Two-Income Trap, for instance, Warren inveighs against the notion of government subsidies, arguing that they result in higher costs, unintended consequences, and an increase in cronyism. But in her subsequent books, written after she had become a politician, she advocates for a range of substantial subsidies, without explaining why her former reasoning has become invalid.
In the first book, Warren tells a compelling story about urging Hillary Clinton to persuade her husband to veto a bankruptcy bill. Warren is understandably embittered when, months later, as a newly elected senator from New York, Clinton votes for an equivalent bill. Warren criticizes this about-face in her book, attributing it to campaign contributions and politics as usual. But in her own policy reversals, Warren herself could be said to exhibit the same sort of hypocrisy.
I share Baker’s frustration with the current crop of Democratic candidates, who—with few exceptions—have seemingly little to offer beyond a return to suboptimal normalcy. Baker’s policy preferences are undoubtedly different from mine. But even by the reasonable standards Baker articulates, Warren is not the candidate he seeks.
D. Eric Schansberg
David Gordon’s article about the Wooster Group [“The Forty-Year Rehearsal,” Letter from SoHo, January] brought back a surreal memory from my time in New York. In the 1980s, I lived in the same SoHo loft building as Elizabeth LeCompte, Willem Dafoe, and Spalding Gray. I didn’t know any of them well, but because it was a small building, I would see them come and go, and we’d exchange the occasional greeting. They weren’t particularly well known when I moved in; by the time I moved out, all of them were famous.
One Yom Kippur morning I headed out for a walk and said hello to Dafoe, who was picking up his mail. Dafoe’s most recent movie role had been as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Leaving the building and walking up West Broadway, I nearly collided with Harvey Keitel, who had played Judas in the same film. For whatever reason, I felt compelled to tell him, “Hey, I just saw Jesus getting his mail.” As one might assume, Keitel had no response to this but discomfort. Nervously, he turned and practically jogged off in the other direction.
“Click Here to Kill” [Report, January] incorrectly stated that members of Amy Allwine’s family have criticized the FBI’s handling of the online assassination order against her. The family has not commented on the investigation, and Harper’s Magazine did not speak with them before publication.
The December 2019 Index incorrectly stated that 49 percent of women and 62 percent of men over thirty receive financial assistance from their parents. These figures are accurate for men and women between the ages of thirty and thirty-four. Additionally, the Index stated that 29 percent of adults over fifty-five did freelance work in 2019. This is true only for those adults over fifty-five who had worked for pay in the past year.
We regret the errors.