“Took a tour to see the stars, but they weren't out tonight. So, I wished hard on a Chinese satellite.”
Why are the balloons so much fun to cover? Why do people care so much?
This week’s soundtrack: Phoebe Bridgers - “Chinese Satellite”
I am not an expert on international affairs nor on spycraft nor on most things involving the United States military. Like anyone in my job, I have a working knowledge of our defense posture and I certainly have thoughts on the U.S. role in the world system (spoiler: It’s not always positive!), but I’m not going to break down the ins and outs of what has happened over the last week or so regarding balloons, U.S. airspace and such. I am, however, a longtime journalist with (too much) education about the modern media environment, so I can tell you why the balloons are all over your TVs, your social media feeds and your news.
Let’s first dispense with the academy’s and journalists’ pie-in-the-sky notions of news or journalistic principles. Yes, the job is to inform the public, to tell stories, to bring forth the truth and to expose abuses of power/trust/etc., and those are deeply important in the more in-depth, analytical and second-day stories that come. These are all imperative, but I’m not here to talk about those things.
I have a few guiding principles in practicing journalism. The first is the balance of what the audience wants to know and what it needs to know. The former is pretty easy and dangerous, the latter is harder to parse and harder to sell. The former is dangerous because the audience usually wants to be entertained more than it wants to be informed, so conflict and easy villains reign over actual information (as I wrote last month, this is why TV news is so dangerous. It’s an entertainment medium used for news, which is incongruent).
(Related: People mostly don’t have time for news that’s hard to digest for a variety of reasons, one of which is that life is hard and complicated. People have jobs, they have families, they have worries, they have concerns, they have nuance and empathy to bring forward in their everyday. They don’t need to worry about being informed on everything in the world; they mostly want to know the information they need to live their lives. It’s why Weather.com is one of the most popular sites in the world, it’s why the highest ad rates in print newspapers was on page 2 – the page with the five-day weather forecast and the local calendar – and it’s why “What Time Does the Super Bowl Start?” is such a winner for pageviews. In my work-life, that’s why our shows about the TSP or retirement or telework get more listeners than the ones about Native American health statistics. “News you can use” and such.)
The latter is the proverbial longread problem. Longer stories are often more well-rounded and nuanced and such, but people simply don’t want to read them as much. To use the Jan. 6 example, the timeline of domestic extremism, election denialism and distrust can’t be summed up in even the 800-page report that the committee released; it’s much easier to fall back into old tropes. It’s why so many idiots on social media compare political figures (Elizabeth Warren to Daenerys Targaryen, Dick Cheney to Darth Vader, etc). It’s really easy to use shorthand because semiotics is the language of this era; we need to bring forward shorthand for anyone to even begin to understand it.
Which brings us to the balloons. In the most basic notion of news, the winning combination is novelty (“dog bites man”) and newness (“this is the first I’m hearing of this”). The balloons fit both because they are deeply weird – who uses a balloon in 2023? – and because we haven’t seen this kind of spying situation before.
(The Havana Syndrome “story” is a version of this, albeit one harder to pin down and harder to understand. It definitely provides a million conspiracy theories and my own feeling is that it’s not proven to be anything, but the speculation is fun because the idea of a space-age energy weapon that fucks with diplomats’ brains? That is interesting as hell, if it can even remotely be proven… Which, of course, remains to be seen.)
Novelty is one of the things that fulfills people’s natural curiosity about the world around them, thus being part of the “want to know” side of things. A spy balloon sounds like something out of Wacky Races more than it sounds like something from the era of cybersecurity and satellite surveillance; China may (or may not) have hacked OPM, why the hell is it messing around with some shit out of an I Spy book?
The easy enemy similarly fulfills the “want to know” aspect, as well. China has been the stand-in for the oppositional power against the U.S. within the world system recently, a second superpower within the world system. It’s not a country that endears itself much to the U.S., as l'affaire de l'air chaud has shown; China’s not denied that the first balloon was theirs and made some half-ass threats when the U.S. shot the thing down near Myrtle Beach. Similarly, China’s actions in Xinjiang are well-documented, as is its longstanding history of oppressing political speech. China is, in essence, a human rights nightmare.
(The usual “America is bad, too” caveats apply here, but I trust that you – an erudite person who makes great choices in what you read – already know that America’s human rights record is quite bad, too. Guantánamo, solitary confinement, police malfeasance, structural racism, etc. You know how to use Google.)
This manifests in many ways. China’s manufacturing dominance is a part of what drives noxious economic populism in the U.S., while its posturing within the Russia-Ukraine conflict brings it directly in contrast to U.S. interests. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins tracing perhaps to China has only elevated the anti-Chinese xenophobia in the U.S. (to the point of xenophobic paranoid violence). This manifests also even in my world, as TSP investments in China remain a major point of contention and an easy way to score political points. Bullshit as this all is, China made for an easy villain before the balloons came over the horizon.
(I trust that you already know this, but I want to write it anyway: the Communist Party of China, the government and the ruling class in China are not synonymous with Chinese people, either in China or in the worldwide diaspora, just as I’m not synonymous with Israel’s or the U.S. government. I’m solely talking about China as a political state and a world system actor.)
As facile as this is, it’s an easy narrative. China, itself vying to be a superpower on par with the U.S., is not using high-tech, James Bond spy methods. Rather, it’s putting some Jules Verne mess into the air (at least the first one. We don’t know what the other objects were, so they could be aliens, which is a whole different thing) with a high def camera and taking photos.
I don’t know how pressing it is (the “need to know” side of it), but boy, does it really fulfill the “want to know” side of things. I hardly know what the balloon story means for the world political system, but I do know what the ubiquity of the coverage means.
For the State of the Union address last week, we went live after the speech on LinkedIn and Facebook, a first for our show. We don’t normally do video (even the very simple video that came with just streaming on social media) so I was pretty nervous and I’m very happy with how it turned out. My main regret is that I went on a “I am tired and these speeches go on too long” thing at the end, which is definitely not the point of any of this. But, otherwise, it was a good show.
Elsewhere at the ranch, we went deep into the weeds on apportionments/the revolving door with Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, looked at the digital skills shortage with Jeff Campbell, examined chatbots with James Isaacs and we covered the still-rocky TSP transition with Abraham Grungold.
I bake homemade treats for Lulu pretty regularly, both because I like to bake and because I like to spoil my dog. This week being Valentine’s Day, it’s pretty easy to use the ol’ cookie cutter shapes to make her holiday-appropriate treats.
A coworker told me today that she loves Lulu’s coloring and I have to agree.
A Recommendation: Rihanna’s Catalog
A lot of the anti-Super Bowl stuff – it’s increasingly rare, as I think the world has accepted that the NFL is evil, but it is here to stay – relies on the brutality of football and the people who just simply don’t care about sports at all. The Internet has made the “I only watch it for the ads” people into a species on the brink of extinction. The halftime show, however, remains a major point of contention.
Enter Rihanna. She’s mostly been out of the music world for the last few years – her last full album was 2016’s ANTI – but was announced as the halftime act and people, at least in my world, were pretty excited. Because Rihanna has a terrific oeuvre. A few people noted that Rihanna has released or guested on a huge number of songs that make people say “oh, huh. That’s Rihanna? I know that song! I didn’t know she sang it!,” a huge compliment. During the halftime show, she ran through bits of a dozen songs (with no guests!) and barely scratched the surface of her catalog. Rihanna has hits.