Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sources

A great part about being a journalist, which most prominent bloggers have spent the last ten years discovering, is that the honorable profession rests upon making up sources, because your honor demands that you protect those sources from what people might do if people found out they actually existed and weren't just The Atlantic's sock puppet. We assume you were telling your physician something really steamy about your sex habits, which is why he is legally protected from sharing anything you discussed, making it seem really salacious that you've been feeling a bit down lately, have a strange lump on your left side, or had a weird dump last week that was a little reddish and how red does it have to be before we're concerned? Not very much, really; if you make a peep about it, your supposedly self-confident GP will ream you with a colonoscopy just so someone doesn't later accuse him of missing an "obvious warning sign" when you're dead. Hell, at this point, he's so terrified by the imaginary threat of malpractice--which is never going to happen unless he deliberately sneezes onto a sponge, on camera, and then assaults the nurse who tries to get him to take it out before he sews you shut--that he's instructed all his assistants to proactively question high school athletes about the redness of their feces during routine pre-football physicals. No one really cares about your confidential conditions, except the few people you've already told anyway--isn't it ironic, don't you think? The real point is, the imaginary source, however protected he or she is, is vital to our feeling that someone was willing to say something about something, which many people aren't without anonymity.

Ergo when we discuss the developing situation in China (which is a situation, and a developing one, only when we mention it, and which is neither developing nor a situation when we haven't written about it that week), we're sure to say, "[A]ccording to a prominent businessman in Beijing this Tuesday," even though there was no such prominent businessman. It merely illustrates a point, the point we're trying to make, which is the right point, even though it wasn't actually said by such a businessman. We all know it, everyone does it, because no one can express an opinion like that in a published article without making themselves look foolish three years later when the renminbi has not in fact gone down. People who make predictions like that with their names attached are paid to make fools of themselves, which is why Paul Krugman looks like such an idiot--it isn't that he's any more of an idiot than the rest of us; it's just that he's paid to be willing to be proven an idiot by attaching his beard to a reasonably well-maintained recording device that, years later, can prove him to have been an idiot based upon the verifiable incongruity of his opinions and history, while establishing for the rest of us plausible deniability. Each year, he's paid handsomely to embarrass himself by reporting on how the previous year's version of himself was, at best, a hypocrite whose development of language centers was an accident, and at worst, cabana boy at the Bohemian Grove, his AR-15 drenched in jizz, champagne, and Ishtar's blood. The "prominent businessman in Beijing" suffers no such indignity, protected by legal standards of nonexistence, and believed in only by the guy who stocks the magazines, never by the one who reads them.

It's completely fair to make up the "source close to the White House," because even if he doesn't exist, he does exist. How many people are there in China, after all? Hell, how many people are getting paid to scamper around the White House, checking the outgoing laundry hampers for the latest intern escape attempt? It's only fair to let journalists make up sources; it's their privilege for entertaining us, to let them insert their own arguments and suggestions into the national narrative by pretending someone important, someone "on the inside," said them. Without that, what would they have to talk about? So just shut up, already, and join them in believing that a close friend of the Baldwin family spends his days whispering juicy tidbits to some twenty-four-year-old journalism extern at a local coffee bar. Presumably, the extern paid for the coffee, or maybe slept with the informal source, making it all either more or less reliable, whichever you prefer. In their elder years, the journalists will read their old work and actually believe they did talk to those people, if they didn't already believe it, and a hundred years from now, those fantasies will be the primary sources justifying the long buildup to war with Saturn.

But I digress--why do we care if there's a source? There are a lot of people in China, and a lot of businessmen, so clearly, whatever a journalist thinks, there's at least one businessman in China who actually does feel that way. Probably a whole lot of them, if it's some rather-vague prediction about the economy. Those same businessmen probably also think other things, too; possibly even the complete opposites of the first things they purportedly thought, so what they say to the Times changes depending on what time of day you interviewed them, and which segments you highlighted. Even in China, economists are wont to change their opinions within the same conversation, so you can start them off predicting the fall of the renminbi, talk about microfinance and whether or not Keynes was faking the gay for about fifteen minutes, and suddenly, they'll claim the renminbi is poised to go up, despite the fact that it may go down. In that way, therefore, there is nothing wrong with making things up for them to have said, since they're making them up, too, so it means you're a kind person if you do the job for them. There are at least a few people in any place thinking the same things that you would've, if you'd lived what you imagined was their life up to that point, based upon other journalists' articles you've read about, say, growing up in Beijing. (Or even better, some of the biographies you've read about Actual Beijingers growing up in Actual Beijing, which you can pretend to have been created without any fabrication whatsoever on the part of the author, so that when their make-believe childhood friend says something that helps illustrate the political point that the author realized, later in life, s/he wanted to make, we can let down our guard and be convinced that the friend did, in fact, exist. It's at least as real as the George W. Bush Presidential Library, or that high security building in Colorado housing the cloud where John Ashcroft's clone is amassing daily pictures of everyone's genitals.)

Did someone really say that the renminbi is poised to dominate the dollar? The point is, it doesn't matter. You have to make up a source to make up a story, and for the past hundred years, we've all come to an agreement that it's too damn hard to do otherwise, and you can't trust journalists without tenure anymore than you can trust teachers without tenure, or citizens without tenure. And yet, you have to ascribe your opinions to a source, whom we all know you made up anyway, because we so desperately want to believe that there are sources; that there is this secret class of insiders delivering real opinions.

Why do we care about insiders, anyway? Do you think Barack tells Michelle what he's really thinking? Do you think, if an insider were hiding under the desk while Biden and Obama shot the shit about Russia, that either of them would break down and say, "This all really makes me feel like a tyrannical asshole; I think I need to tell people this whole thing isn't working out"? No, they wouldn't. You could be a little robotic butterfly with a webcam, hovering around Obama all day long, and a full review of the logs wouldn't tell you anymore about his real opinions on child-droning than if you spent the time using a Ouija board instead. The fetish of a "source" is overblown. If They want you to have a real source, they find someone who knows the score, dissociate his mind from reality with a minimum 16 years of education, and teach him how to verbosely say nothing, guaranteeing that people will prefer fake sources who say something to real ones who don't. For those who just won't shut up, because they're already in prison, calmatives and controlled access take care of the problem. Who believes some loser patsy, anyway?

It would, of course, be damn exciting if there were functional sources, dangling out there somewhere. See, what matters with the source is not what the source says. Anyone will say anything. The spicy nature of the source-quote--the whole point of the fetish, if you will--is not that information was conveyed, but rather, that a real person was willing to be put on the record as conveying that information. That's why Assange, Manning, or McVeigh, were so stirring: not because they had anything to say that we didn't already know, but that we could prove they said it. Because the newspaper said so. They didn't even have to actually say anything; showing up at the front door of the Daily Bugle with pictures of Spiderman speaks volumes more than having some damn opinion. Actions speak louder than words, and the only people who actually do anything anymore are either building walls or bombing them. Everyone else is just logging into their credit card account to redeem frequent flier miles for gift cards to the Olive Garden, so it's no surprise we'd like to believe there are people somewhere who know what's happening, because that would mean that there actually is something happening, rather than the whole thing just being on autopilot. Again I digress, because there is actually something happening, but at the next level of our repressed fantasies, we pursue meaning because we secretly hope there isn't meaning, since it would be so terrible if someone actually were planning all this.

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