Why the Media Elite, Subject to Mass Illusions, Should Read and Learn from Kipling

Here’s a note about the media elite from Barnard Law Collier, known as Barney, who describes himself: “Cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, publisher, and brewer of the world’s best cooking sauce, Gaucho Green Chimmi-Churri.” In 1975, Barney wrote a book, Hope and Fear in Washington, about the personalities of the elite in the Washington press corps and the Washingtonian published some of it. His note:
Dear Jack,

I ask myself, as someone who knows the inside of the media bubble fairly well, why I found myself far outside the “Trump-is-a-joke” bubble and quite literally being told by the bubble-folk of American journalism and publishing that Trump was “nutty” and “no way” he can win.

Last summer I proposed a book about the life and times of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to a most reputable and acclaimed literary agent, who told me:

“Come November, nobody will even know his name. It’ll be a hard sell to anyone in publishing.”

I heard notable reporters and commentators and pollsters cock-surely telling listeners that Hillary was a righteous certainty and Trump “a disrespectful, narcissistic, low-IQ, small handed, Putin-loving, crypto-neo-semi-fascist” who would be lucky to poll 30 percent.

Except for Michael Moore (a fellow Michigander), I encountered nary a single Trump forecaster among the vaunted reporters and editors.

How did they all, from coast to coast, not notice the small towns with acres of TRUMP yard signs, with maybe one HILLARY sign among them, like the lonely petunia in an onion patch?

How did they miss the fact that Trump is a master psychologist and utterly confident mass manipulator and Mrs. Clinton was decidedly not?

Trump’s use of the 21st century Tweet ought to have been the smoke alarm, but its perspicacity and potency was pooh-poohed by the elite and swallowed whole by those Trump chummed and netted.

How did the reporters and editors focus away from the statistical importance of the so-called swing states and discount the immense power of the Electoral College and ignore how much easier it is to hack a few states instead of many?

My impression is that the mass illusion among the media (even the Fox-like media) was masterfully played by Trump, the reality show wizard, and his helpers, who include a cohort of largely un-reported upon professional gamblers, statisticians, and Vegas-brand high rollers, fermented with a treasury of personal and private advice about individual and mass psychology from Trump’s mentor, the late hyper-realist lawyer, Roy Cohn.

How did so many of the national press of all stripes and colors get swept up by what wasn’t, but was only supposed to be? Many excuses blame the polls, but who’s to blame for letting the polls drive the direction of reporting and editing?

If you believe in the power of mass hypnosis (as the Russians do), then most reporters and editors, their ritzy alma maters and Ivy I.Q.s notwithstanding, will fall under the thrall. (Fake stories are part of the science and practice of mass hypnosis. Constant “tweets” of instructions are also. Polls are perfect post-hypnotic suggestions.)

In the case of Donald John Trump, the media thrall was almost complete, and I suspect that to call this inter-continental event a “bubble” is to wildly underestimate its true size and psychometric pertinence.

The question that’s asked is, “What kind of reporters and editors can a publication hire in order to shake off the mass illusions and get the media down to brass tacks?”

Your notion of hiring toughened military veterans to replace the effete Ivy Leaguers in the reporting ranks (editors are rarely mentioned in that context) is certainly not a bad one. One of the best reporters in the world, C.J. Chivers, is a retired Marine.

I believe that it would hugely benefit every new journalism hire, whether reporter or editor, to be required to read the story in Rudyard Kipling’s book Kim about how Kim is tested by Mahbub Ali, a master British spy, with a broken pot to see how far under a spell Kim can be brought. Kim fights off suggestions that the pot shards have merged back together, and he sees the broken pot as it is, broken.

All reporters and editors ought to know how Kim did it.

P.S. from Jack:

Annals of headline writers who use what seems a stronger word even if it’s not the most accurate word: The head I first put on this post was “Why the Media Elite, Subject to Mass Delusions, Should Read Kipling.”  I was playing off a question in Barney’s post: “What kind of reporters and editors can a publication hire in order to shake off the mass illusions and get the media down to brass tacks?”

I knew illusions and delusions weren’t exact opposites but used delusions anyway. Barney then emailed to say:

I believe that “illusion” and “delusion” are different, and a delusion implies, I think, more of a mental distortion or defect.

This definition sums it up:

“An illusion is something that deceives the mind or senses by creating a false impression of reality. . . .In the context of mental health, a delusion can be defined as a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact, as in “paranoid delusion.”


  1. barney collier says


    My son Alexander emailed:

    “I like the delineation of illusion vs delusion. I’d like to talk more about that. As in, was Charles McCays book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds'” appropriately titled?”

    Turns out the book, which I hadn’t read, is a fascinating 1845 book that calls a bunch of phenomena “delusions” including the whole idea of a financial bubble.

    But what is more utterly fascinating is physicist Freeman Dyson’s terrific (though lengthy) discussion of “Illusions” and how to dispel in the New York Review of Books.


    You’ll never look at illusions the same way again.


  2. Roy Cohn’s semi autobiography with Sidney Zion and Nicholas Von Hoffman’s biography of Cohn are two must-reads.

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