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Knowledge Takes the Sword Away

Summary:
Not yet the wise of heart would cease    To hold his hope thro’ shame and guilt,    But with his hand against the hilt,Would pace the troubled land, like Peace;Not less, tho’ dogs of Faction bay,    Would serve his kind in deed and word,    Certain, if knowledge bring the sword,That knowledge takes the sword away—‘Love thou thy land, with love far-brought’, by Alfred, Lord TennysonFrom time to time, these pages refer back to the piece that Ben wrote for Epsilon Theory before the election in 2016. In it, we argued that Clinton’s candidacy was in trouble. That piece included a phrase that to this day confounds and frustrates a lot of readers. Ben wrote that Trump would break us. Trump, on the other hand … I think he breaks us. Maybe he already has. He breaks us because he transforms every

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Knowledge Takes the Sword Away

Not yet the wise of heart would cease
    To hold his hope thro’ shame and guilt,
    But with his hand against the hilt,
Would pace the troubled land, like Peace;

Not less, tho’ dogs of Faction bay,
    Would serve his kind in deed and word,
    Certain, if knowledge bring the sword,
That knowledge takes the sword away—

‘Love thou thy land, with love far-brought’, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

From time to time, these pages refer back to the piece that Ben wrote for Epsilon Theory before the election in 2016. In it, we argued that Clinton’s candidacy was in trouble. That piece included a phrase that to this day confounds and frustrates a lot of readers. Ben wrote that Trump would break us.

Trump, on the other hand … I think he breaks us. Maybe he already has. He breaks us because he transforms every game we play as a country — from our domestic social games to our international security games — from a Coordination Game to a Competition Game.

Virtue SIgnaling, or…Why Clinton is in Trouble (September 29, 2016)

Of course, Ben was right about everything in this piece. He was right about Clinton being in trouble. Right about us being broken. Still, a lot of people still struggle over the particulars of the language. They don’t like what sounds like the scale of our very public social breakdown being laid at the feet of an individual.

Get over it. It doesn’t matter.

Maybe you do think it was Trump himself – the person – who broke us. Maybe you think it was our predictable interactions under the gaze of a figure as polarizing as Trump – the hero worshippers and TDS sufferers alike – that broke us. Maybe you think we were already broken before and Trump simply pulled the bandage off the deep wounds in our coordination game. I’ll say it again: It. doesn’t. matter.

Sure, maybe it matters to how you and I will vote in a few weeks. And we should, even though we will do so under the weight of entrenched interests telling us that our vote is our sole venue to access political and social change. But our vote can’t change this. For the country we will hand off to our children, for the reality of our world for the next 20, 30 or 40 years, our brokenness isn’t on the ballot.

We can’t vote our broken politics out of office.


Earlier this week, the New York Post published a news story about Hunter and Joe Biden. You probably heard about it. Twitter blocked all mentions of the Post story, Facebook blocked a bunch of other things and then for good measure YouTube blocked QAnon conspiracy videos. Quite a week. Having quit Twitter, I suppose I don’t have to worry about being black-listed, so here it is.

It is…a lot to unpack. But may I confess to you that I am not particularly interested? It doesn’t really constitute information in any sense to me, by which I mean that it didn’t really change my mind about anything. I think that if you were at all surprised by the “revelation” that a life-long senator and former vice president of the United States was maybe involved in some measure of political corruption and light nepotism, you need to stop reading this note and commit a few days to deep personal reflection. I’m not saying that it isn’t newsworthy, and I’m not saying that it isn’t bad, if some of its implications end up being true. I AM saying that if any of that surprised you, you have been walking around with your eyes closed for the last 50 years.

If you’re feeling agitated right now, there’s a more important note you could be reading.

As fuel for narratives with the capacity to change common knowledge, of course, the New York Post article and the responses it got from other outlets ARE absolutely fascinating. But even its importance in narrative-world isn’t what I found most informative. What was most informative was what the venues for this information told us about themselves.

So let’s start with this: if real, the email from Parskyi to Hunter is absolutely newsworthy.

Its provenance is worthy of serious questioning. Its contentions are worthy of discussion. The motivations behind its disclosure at this juncture are also newsworthy. Maybe more so. But the email itself is absolutely an item of public interest of some scale. Personally, I happen to think that scale is circumstantial and relatively small. You may disagree. Doesn’t matter.

What happened next does matter.

First, the only “news” departments to deem it newsworthy were those in media outlets whose “opinion” pages would favor the outcome of an explosive public response to its revelations. Here are the top publishers of articles referencing “Burisma” from October 14th or October 15th, 2020.


Knowledge Takes the Sword Away
Source: Second Foundation Partners, LexisNexis

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at the output of some other key newsrooms.

CNN: We cannot locate a single article published by CNN during this period satisfying this query.

MSNBC: We located two articles. One is a roundup / digest-style piece that refers to the claims as nonsense and links to a Jonathan Chait piece. The other is an opinion piece which is a discussion of Giuliani’s seemingly obsessive attachment to the Ukraine issue (which is ALSO a newsworthy topic, if a distinct one). Nothing else we can find.

New York Times: The Times published three articles. Rather than summarize, I’ll let you decide for yourself. We cannot locate an active link to the third article mentioned below, but at risk of letting a headline do too much of the work, its bent seems more or less self-explanatory. The other two are classic Fiat News examples of reframing: “This is how you should think about these emails,” packaged into news.

Dubious Ukraine Report Rejected by Biden Campaign and Social Media Sites [New York Times]

Trump Said to Be Warned That Giuliani Was Conveying Russian Disinformation [New York Times]

Biden Did Not Meet With Ukrainian Energy Executive, Campaign Says [New York Times]

Washington Post: The Washington Post took a more active role in contesting the core allegations, publishing a fact check-style piece alongside a range of other takes. In all, one opinion piece and five news pieces, all positioning themselves in opposition to the Post’s original news piece. Fiat News all around.

As one of Trump’s conspiracy theories bites the dust, he moves on to new pseudo-scandals [Washington Post (Opinion)]

Power Up: Early voting is way up in key states as Democrats flock to the polls [Washington Post]

White House was warned Giuliani was target of Russian intelligence operation to feed misinformation to Trump [Washington Post]

Three weeks before Election Day, Trump allies go after Hunter – and Joe – Biden [Washington Post]

On Bidens and Ukraine, Wild Claims With Little Basis [Washington Post]

The Daily 202: First Amendment plays an unexpected starring role in Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearing [Washington Post]

I have zero interest in engaging on any discussion about whether Fox News and Breitbart’s 50-article barrage was an exaggeration of a nothing-burger, or whether the New York Times and CNN pretending it was only worthy of explaining away was “worse” or more indicative of bias. We have seen and written about widespread differences in the perception of actual news events before.

Still, the magnitude of the difference with which organizations purporting to tell us the facts of the world perceived the newsworthiness of a fact of the world in this case exceeds just about anything we have seen in the last four years. ALL of our media outlets have uniformly empowered their news rooms to reflect the editorial and political predispositions of their publishers. It is a gross betrayal.

I’m sure you have perspectives and preferences about all of the above. If so, I have a question for you.

Do you think this goes away between November 3rd and November 4th?


If there is a story that presented a close second place in terms of the divergent evaluations of its newsworthiness, however, it was certainly the publishing of Donald Trump’s tax returns by the other paper in New York on September 27th. It was followed by a firestorm of follow-up news coverage and opinion pieces from across the spectrum.

It is…also a lot to unpack. May I confess to you once again that I am not particularly interested? It doesn’t really constitute information in any sense to me, by which I mean that it didn’t really change my mind about anything. I think that if you were at all surprised by the “revelation” that a brand-pushing real estate investor with a penchant for bankruptcies has mastered the art of finding dubious losses to reduce taxable income, you need to stop reading this note and commit a few days to deep personal reflection. I’m not saying that it isn’t newsworthy, and I’m not saying that it isn’t bad. I AM saying that if any of that surprised you, you have been walking around with your eyes closed for the last 50 years.

If you’re feeling agitated right now, there’s a more important note you could be reading.

As narratives with the capacity to change common knowledge, of course, the New York Times article and the responses it got from other outlets ARE absolutely fascinating and potentially far-reaching. This is, after all, a man who built his narrative on wins, not losses. But even its importance in narrative-world isn’t what I found most informative. What was most informative was what the venues for this information told us about themselves.

So let’s start with this: Donald Trump’s tax returns and the details within them are absolutely newsworthy.

Their provenance is worthy of questioning. Their implications are worthy of discussion. The motivations behind their disclosure at this juncture are also newsworthy. But the returns themselves are absolutely an item of public interest of some scale. I happen to think that scale is pretty meaningful, not so much because I care about anyone minimizing their taxes (on the contrary, I consider it every American’s solemn duty), but because the reality seems to conflict with prior statements and appears to include some dubiously aggressive interpretations of tax law, potentially concerning debt, and potential improprieties in consulting payments, etc. You may disagree. Doesn’t matter.

What happened next does matter.

First, most of the “news” departments to deem it newsworthy were those in media outlets whose “opinion” pages would favor the outcome of an explosive public response to its revelations. To keep the periods in question consistent, here are the top publishers of articles referencing “Trump” and “Tax Returns” from September 27th or September 28th.


Knowledge Takes the Sword Away
Source: Second Foundation Partners, LexisNexis

It isn’t quite the monoculture of those who deemed the Biden email an earth-shattering scoop, but peeking underneath the hood, it’s close. How about the “other side” of the aisle from an editorial perspective?

Fox News

While it did get some discussion on the air, a query of news published on the Fox News website turned up zero news articles relating to the New York Times findings on Donald Trump’s tax returns over those two days. They did muster, however, an outraged opinion piece.

Gutfeld on the phony outrage over Trump’s tax returns [Fox News]

Daily Wire

The Daily Wire (Ben Shapiro’s outfit) filed two articles as “news” reports. Both would fall squarely under our definition of Fiat News. The first simply aims to adjust readers’ interpretations to a “not illegal” framing. The second frames the issue as being more about Joe Biden’s mockery-worthy response to the report.

NYT “Bombshell” Report On Trump Taxes Missing One Key Word: “Illegal” [Daily Wire]

Biden Campaign Now Selling “I Paid More Income Taxes Than Donald Trump” Stickers [Daily Wire]

Daily Caller

The Daily Caller (until this summer Tucker Carlson’s home away from Fox) posted two articles as well. Both can be easily characterized as Fiat News. The first is designed to build a foundation for a framing that “Trump has always been honest about avoiding taxes.” The second frames the issue as really being about CNN’s bias.

FLASHBACK: Trump Brags About Avoiding Taxes, Says Paying Them Guarantees They’ll Be ‘Squandered’ [Daily Caller]

CNN Anchor Shocked After Rick Santorum Suggests NYT Story On Trump’s Taxes Is False [Daily Caller]

Breitbart

Breitbart manages to be the fourth most prolific publisher of articles. That looks like a broken pattern…until you begin to review the articles themselves. The vast majority select and summarize video clips to provide a megaphone to obvious defenses of the President against the implications of the Times’s work, mostly through some (and this is putting it kindly) creative framing.

New York Times Debunks Several Conspiracy Theories with Trump’s Tax Returns [Breitbart]

Donald Trump Jr. Slams NY Times — ‘People Don’t Understand What Goes into a Business’ [Breitbart]

Carney: The New York Times’ Attack on Trump’s ‘Financial Acumen’ Is Nonsense [Breitbart]

Carville on NYT Trump Tax Report: ‘This Is One of the Best Days That Any Presidential Campaign Could Possibly Have‘ [Breitbart]

McEnany on NYT Trump Tax Report: ‘Same Playbook That the American People Rejected’ in 2016 [Breitbart]

Joe Biden Exploited S-Corporation Loophole to Avoid Payroll Tax [Breitbart]

To their credit, Breitbart also included a couple simple synopses and video clips of legitimately critical news consistent with the New York Times report.

Bernstein Calls on Congress to Investigate Trump — ‘He Is Compromised to Foreign Entities’ [Breitbart]

Pelosi: NYT Tax Story Shows Trump’s ‘Disdain for America’s Working Families’ [Breitbart]

Maybe you think a 20-story barrage from the WaPos of the world is the “exaggerated” version of this story, or maybe you think that the non-coverage is the more indicative of a news room infected by an organization’s editorial and opinion posture. Either way, we may still observe that the gap in how simple facts are presented and reported, not on opinion pages but in black and white news, is vast.

I’m sure you have perspectives and preferences about all of this. If so, I have a question for you.

Do you think this goes away between November 3rd and November 4th?


That’s not all, of course.

On October 14th, after the New York Post published its piece, Twitter chose to implement a “long-standing” policy restricting the spread of materials which may have been acquired without the permission of the individuals referenced, hacked or stolen. In other words, Twitter blocked access to the New York Post article and suspended accounts of some of those who linked to it, despite lacking any evidence that it was ill-gotten. And they did so despite having happily permitted the New York Times article from two weeks prior to spread like wildfire, despite the Times having acquired the tax returns in undisclosed ways, and despite Trump himself claiming that they were acquired illegally.

As Ben wrote, it was a monumental metagame fail on Twitter’s part.

More than that, to any Trump-supporting conservative it was a confirmation in narrative world of the reason most have used to justify their sometimes-grudging support: that only a Trump could counter the unlevel playing field created by news outlets and social media platforms in which progressive politics seep from opinion pages to news pages. It is the most powerful justification we humans have for signing on to corruption – that it serves a greater truth. And whether you believe in it or not, the “greater truth” of a news media and social media industry hopelessly derisive toward political conservatives is absolutely one of the reasons the election of Trump was able to break us.

I expect that some readers will comfort themselves with the idea that one of the stories above really was a nothing-burger, that the other one really was a big-effing-deal that people aren’t talking enough about, that the differences in coverage just reflect that reality has a left/right-leaning bias, and that this is really just evidence that our side is populated by all the unbiased clear thinkers.

Let’s say those readers are right. I mean, they aren’t, but let’s say that they are.

In a political world in which those responsible for telling us the truth provide us with two distinct sets of facts, even if we are 100% convinced that our facts are always the correct ones and our truth-tellers the honest ones, dismantling the competition game that results in politically polarized truth-tellers should STILL be a huge objective.

Knowledge brings the sword’

If we believe we are right, we should seek truth and fight for what we believe it is.

Knowledge takes the sword away

Even when we are absolutely convinced we are right, we will still benefit from actively seeking to create opportunities for cooperative game play. Or, you know, clear eyes and full hearts. Anything which structurally supports the infection of news pages with the sentiments of a publication’s opinion pages is always and in all ways anathema to that objective.

How do we do that in our media consumption? Some intangible thoughts and some tangible ones follow:

  1. Act Boldly, Hold Loosely: It’s OK to believe we’re right, and we should act boldly on those beliefs. We must! But seeking out cooperative gameplay in the widening gyre – a world of two sets of facts – means not immediately dismissing people who hold to a set of facts that will seem absolutely ludicrous to us. Sometimes that instinct will be right. This doesn’t mean letting those content to wallow in obstinate ignorance waste our time. More often, I think it means being intentional about providing a few instances of uncomfortable patience, grace and humility before we dust off our shoes and move on.
  2. Transition to Regional Newspaper Consumption: There is a crowd-watching-the-crowd effect that manifests in news outlets designed for national consumption and social media consumption. Once an outlet decides that it is part of the “national dialogue”, it will be inexorably pulled into the widening gyre. There are a wide range of city papers in the US in which the editorial page is very appropriately partisan without excessively poisoning its news pages. Anecdotally from our Fiat News work, we have found the Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, Miami Herald and San Francisco Chronicle to be among them.
  3. BITFD: There is a projection racket which defends polarized national media from criticism of their commercially oriented, rage-opinion-funded-and-infected news pages. It’s time to work together to restore the fourth estate and empower the fifth estate, and dismantling those projection rackets is an important part of doing so. More on this to come.
Rusty Guinn
Executive Vice President of Asset Management, Salient. Rusty Guinn is the executive vice president of asset management at Salient. He oversees Salient’s retail and institutional asset management business, including investment teams, products, and strategy. Rusty shares his perspective and experience as an investor on the Epsilon Theory website.

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