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You Keep Forgetting

Conservatives accept the media narrative at their own peril.

The late author Michael Crichton coined an interesting term in one of his lectures, which he used to explain a curious phenomenon he observed when it comes to consuming news. For those who followed Crichton’s career and writings closely, you’ll know that he wasn’t the biggest fan of the mainstream media; quite the opposite, he thought they often ran the gamut between ignorance and mendacity, particularly when it came to complex technical subjects—a limitation that never stopped them from pontificating as though they occupied the highest position of authority. Here’s how he described it:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect…

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward–reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story–and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

I bring this up, because when it comes to this sort of malpractice, there is probably no better case study than how the media covers Donald Trump. To be sure, Trump is a colorful enough character with a colorful enough history to keep reporters honestly occupied for years on end—and yet they choose to undermine their own credibility and that of the entire news industry by engaging in journalism that would have gotten me booted out of Professor Starr’s introductory reporting class back at Texas A&M in the 1980s.

The latest example? Yet another “scandal,” this time cooked up by an advice columnist who claims that Trump sexually assaulted her in a department store some twenty-odd years ago. Now, depending on how dim your view of the President happens to be, you might be inclined to believe that such a thing falls within the parameters of his character—but if you simply take the word of his accuser, who seems to be a genuine nutcase and just happens to be seeking publicity for her memoir, you’re exactly the kind of fool the media is hoping you are.

And boy, are they ever playing you for that fool—hoping that you’ll forget all about the other unexploded bombshells the media tried to drop (Russian collusion, anyone?). Of course, I expect this from the fever swamps of the Left, who are eager to buy into anything that confirms their worst suspicions about Trump, no matter how far fetched. When members of the NeverTrump Right express a similar credulity, however, it makes me shake my head in disappointment—because they really should know better.

I’m not going to name any names or call out any tweets, because I still think that many of them have their hearts—and their principles—in the right place, even if I find their actions misguided. But I will point out to these same people that it wasn’t so long ago they got burned into piling on the Covington Kids for being racist MAGA punks, for no other reason than because that’s what the media said they were. That episode should have convinced even the staunchest NeverTrumpers to maybe take a minute before assuming the role of court jester to the liberal press.

If Trump is really as bad as you say he is, you don’t need unverifiable innuendo to make your point—especially when it collapses under its own weight and undermines your entire argument. That’s not something Trump supporters will get amnesia about anytime soon.

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