The NRA and Breitbart: Unprecedented Epistemic Closure in Action
by David Atkins
When honest pundits try to piece together what happened to the American Right, one of the phrases that tends to get bandied about is "epistemic closure", which is a really fancy way of saying that everyone on the Right gets their information from everyone else on the Right, with none of them leaving their information cocoon to see or care whether their information plays well with the broader public or is even accurate.
To make a complicated and long story short, the Right's epistemic closure was a product of believing that every mainstream news and entertainment source leaned significantly to the left. That mid-20th century belief progressed steadily into the notion that mainstream news and information sources were not only biased, but in fact overt propaganda tools of the left. These beliefs thus required a "fair and balanced" propaganda arm of the Right, filled with newspapers, cable news channels and other media outlets of their own. And since CNN and the New York Times seemed to be good enough information sources to be credible for most of America, why then shouldn't conservative versions like the Washington Times and Fox News be equally credible? Let the two propaganda circles compete for adherents, it was thought.
Tactically it worked well, at least for a while. But it was based on two tragically flawed assumptions: 1) that most mainstream news sources were abject propaganda tools of the Left (or even leaned left at all in most cases), and 2) that objective truth no longer mattered in a postmodern media environment. Both of these assumptions far overstated the case.
It turns out that while many Americans are indeed blinkered by pure propaganda, there is gracefully still a measure of objective truth that does seep through from time to time. And since the mainstream press isn't in fact a pure propaganda arm of the left, it actually does manage to take and respond to the pulse of the mainstream public at least every so often.
All of this means that the American Right is subject to some very embarrassing moments of sheer disconnect from both the public and from the truth. Nowhere has this become more obvious than in the fiasco of the NRA's latest ad. The ad blasts the President for opposing armed guards in every school even though his daughters (and David Gregory's children) supposedly attend a school with armed guards.
The only problem? There are no armed guards at the school. In fact, it's a Quaker school with a dedication to nonviolence. The President's daughters have a secret service detail as required by law, but there are no general armed guards at the school.
How did the NRA get wrong this basic fact on which they based such an expensive and foolish debacle? Amazingly, from a fraudulent piece posted by a "reporter" at notoriously extremist and inaccurate rightwing blog Breitbart.com.
A.W.R. Hawkins of Breitbart reported (entirely inaccurately) that:
Obama sends his kids to a school where armed guards are used as a matter of fact.Now, it's one thing to get information from sources that confirm your ideological beliefs. It happens to the most circumspect of us, and sometimes we bloggers relay false information that "seems" right and then are forced to retract. If we do it more than very occasionally, we begin to lose credibility. So even unpaid bloggers, if they're any good, will do a little research to confirm what they've read lest they lose their audience. If they're shown to be wrong, they'll post an update with an apology and/or retraction. And they'll do this level of research even if they're churning out several posts a day at whirlwind speed.
The school, Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, has 11 security officers and is seeking to hire a new police officer as we speak.
If you dismiss this by saying, "Of course they have armed guards — they get Secret Service protection," then you've missed the larger point.
The larger point is that this is standard operating procedure for the school, period. And this is the reason people like NBC's David Gregory send their kids to Sidwell, they know their kids will be protected from the carnage that befell kids at a school where armed guards weren't used (and weren't even allowed).
But for a national organization like the NRA to have invested this much organizational time, money and energy into an ad campaign based on false information from a widely discredited source, without doing even the first steps to confirm the information that is the entire basis for the attack? That is inexcusable solipsism and epistemic closure of the first order. It's an example of the phenomenon that eclipses any other that I'm aware of. Sure, a lawmaker here or there has stood up and made a dumb statement based on misinformation. When they do, the press has a good laugh and there's a way of shutting that whole thing down.
But I believe this is the most significant example of an entire organization making such an egregious and expensive error on their primary talking point with plenty of time to do their research. That no one individual at the NRA ever stopped to check on their primary source is simply stunning.
It shows just how far the Right has sunk, and how difficult it will be for them to make the climb back into the open air of reality.