Yes, I wrote one column for Tech Central Station. Ironically it was a rather cheeky critique of media critic and latter day Baruch Spinoza Douglas Rushkoff, originator of the term 'media virus' (so far as I know). Now that it turns out there is good chance my critique itself composed part of a protein sheath around a modestly successful media virus - what to feel except embarrassment? Damn straight. But we'll get back to the content of my column.
My two-cents. There has been a good deal of confusion and misdirection (mostly innocent and honest) on all sides. Starting with the Nick Confessore article that started it all: he really ought to have leaned over the top of his cubical wall, caught Matthew Yglesias fooling around on Friendster and asked whether he had any contact with this Glassman guy. Matt says no. Confessore emails other blogger-contributors and confirms: no one deals with anyone but Schulz, who gets no mention in the article, who basically likes philosophy majors; that's his angle. Unanimous chorus: we got to write whatever we wanted. Also, they don't mind lefties, although they aren't. Hence the Yglesias columns. Hence the invitation to Chris Bertram. Hence the invitation to me, which was made more than half a year ago when my blog had all of about 20 regular readers, I think. Nick Schulz contacted me out of the blue, presumably on the strength of a rather strenuous assault I made against John Derbyshire and Jonah Goldberg, which was linked approvingly by Andrew Sullivan. I figured: anyone who will hire a lefty libertarian no-name blogger to write whatever he damn well pleases about philosophy on the strength of whacking NRO - is a bit of all right. Not conservative in the wrong way, in my book. (One of my profoundest beliefs about American politics is that if the Republicans party would just turn more libertarian, so many things would go less badly. I'm a Democrat, by the way. Don't vote for Republicans.) I'd read a few TCS pieces by Reynolds and Volokh. I figured anything associated with Volokh in particularly was definitely not to be disdained. And: whatever I wrote was what I wrote. I wasn't lending an illegitimate imprimatur to anything dodgy. Reason: who the hell has heard of John Holbo? No imprimatur to lend, no problem. What I write stands or falls on its merits. And, quite frankly, I've often thought that I should have been a journalist. So being asked to be one sort of turned my head.
I exchanged emails with Schulz, who seems a nice person. My piece was published. I sort of paid a little more attention to TCS's general profile, decided it was not me, and moved on without much thought. (I was supposed to get a small check, which has not arrived - but then again my piece wasn't any great shakes; we'll call it even.)
And now this. And the next thing to be said is that the proper charge is not that TCS writers are corporate shills. Brad deLong:
Nick Confessore writes that every Tech Central Station article should carry a little note at the bottom saying, "paid lobbyist advertisement."
This is wrong because all the evidence points to TCS being run mostly like a lightly edited group-blog organized around the principle: mostly conservative-libertarian; occasionally anything that libertarians wouldn't regard as totally wrong-headed. Suggesting every piece was somehow a secret advertisement for corporate interests invites endless irrelevant counter-arguments and indigant complaints: that an ad hominem argument! no one told me what to write, so forth. That's really neither here nor there.
Confessore does not get this right in the article, which is too bad because then the point has to be reconstructed - but it isn't that hard, is it? The problem is that there is good reason to suspect the whole kit and kaboodle is an engineered media virus with the honest convictions of all blogger-contributors composing a sort of protein sheath. I won't draw a diagram; go read the article again and think. The evidence is circumstantial but substantial. Corporate sponsors are getting, for their bucks, not hundreds of blogger-written columns but a few - perhaps very few, but valued - corporate advertisements not clearly identified as such. Being able to point to apparently independent journalistic sources presenting arguments congenial to corporate interests is presumably worth enough money that TCS can afford to spread pin money about to pay for the cosmetics.
Now even if this is true - and it is by no means completely beyond doubt - it is not exactly satanic deceit. But there ought to be more transparency. And for damn sure it is not seemly that ownership by astroturf lobbyists (DCI) was assiduously concealed until Confessore nosed around. This is strong evidence that the intent was deceptive. I am not happy to discover that I have probably in some teensy-tiny way inadvertently aided in the premeditated production of a misleading impression that a paid corporate ad was not a paid corporate ad. It doesn't pass journalistic ethics muster with flying colors, does it?
Again, evidence is circumstantial but strong. Glassman might simply be expressing his libertarian convictions, which certain deep-pocketed parties are happy to sponsor. (His convictions appear to be somewhat inconsistent, but that isn't all that uncommon among humans.) Drezner points out that he has written something that appears to go against the corporate interests of sponsors. That is relevant but quite consistent with the intentional media virus thesis. So far as I can tell Nick Schulz is a pleasant fellow who recruits interesting people to write more or less what they want. A state of affairs quite consistent with the intentional media virus thesis. Well, make up your own minds.
Which brings me back to Rushkoff. This whole business, ironically, is just the sort of thing about which he frets inordinately, so it seems to me most days. I made fun of this passage from his book, Coercion:
If we stop to think about this invisible hand working on our perceptions and behavior, we can easily become paranoid. Although we cannot always point to the evidence, when we become aware that our actions are being influenced by forces beyond our control - we shop in malls that have been designed by psychologists, and experience the effects of their architecture and color schemes on our purchasing behaviors - we can't help by feel a little edgy. No matter how discreetly camouflaged the coercion, we sense that it's leading us to move and act ever so slightly against our wills. We may not want to admit consciously to ourselves that the floor plan of the shopping center has made us lose our bearings, but we are disoriented all the same. We don't know exactly how to get back to the car, and we will have to walk past twenty more stores before we find an exit.
My schtick: The floorplan made you do it? This amounts to cultivation of a sort of morbid narcissism of hidden persuasion, seems to me. Don't worry about corporations trying to coerce you 24-7. Not that big a deal. Yet I would say Rushkoff has definitely gotten the last laugh in light of developments.
I'm sorry I didn't say more nice things about Rushkoff in my original column, which was really born to be a semi-sympathetic 5,000 word essay but ended up a blunt 900 word attack piece. (That was me, not TCS. Schulz let me write it the way I wanted. He made only small changes. All me. Ah, well. Live and learn the errors of your ways.)