The Corner

A Display of Ignorance

New York Magazine recently made some interesting if predictable errors on the subject of gun-control laws in New York and Connecticut. At issue were state bans on so-called assault weapons (an imaginary category of firearms; to the extent that such things exist, the category is cosmetic rather than ballistic), recently upheld, erroneously, by a federal appeals court.

The New York headline read: “Court says it’s still illegal to own a machine gun in New York and Connecticut.”

Machine guns—fully automatic weapons—have been quite heavily regulated since the 1930s; it isn’t impossible to legally acquire one, even in Connecticut, but it is so nearly impossible that machine guns are a non-issue in the gun-control debate. As they should be: A legally owned fully automatic weapon has not been used by a civilian to commit a violent crime in modern history, though there have been a tiny number of episodes (two, I believe) involving military and law-enforcement personnel. The article said that the states had laws “banning semiautomatic weapons,” which also is not quite the case.

After Charles C. W. Cooke pointed out the error and instigated a few hours of online mockery, New York rewrote the copy, though as of this writing the magazine has not acknowledged that it made an error. This is not surprising; New York is the journalistic home of some remarkably intellectually dishonest people, such as Jonathan Chait, and it does not seem likely to me that it got that way by accident.

When I write about media bias, people often assume I mean some sort of conspiracy, usually one to make conservatives look bad and progressives look good. That happens from time to time, to be sure, but the real bias problem isn’t malice but genuine ordinary bias: People have different kinds of experiences, different sets of knowledge, different backgrounds, etc., which causes them to see the world in different ways, and to carry into their journalism different sets of assumptions. The culture of the American mainstream media is dominated by people who have no experience with firearms, whose views are shaped more by popular entertainment than by real-world experience, and who honestly believe that the streets of American cities are filled with blood because you can buy a rat-tat-tat-tat by-God machine gun at Walmart. They write these things because they believe these things, and they believe these things because they do not know any better.

There’s a great deal of talk about elitism in American politics lately, most of which misses the point: The problem isn’t that our media and our policy debates are dominated by elites—of course they are; that’s what elites do—it’s that our elites aren’t very good. Our elites do not effectively perform the social function of elites. On some very important issues, such as crime and the economic struggles of the lower-earning half of American households, the discussion is dominated by elites whose members don’t have much useful knowledge to contribute to the conversation. The disconnect between the rarefied end of the market (academic literature and highbrow journalism) and the truly popular discourse is dramatic—shocking, even.

The readers of New York aren’t getting what they think they are getting. 


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