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ulterior motive

The Triumph of the Ulterior Motive 


We all have an acquaintance – let’s call him Mike – that we know that whenever he says something we immediately ask ourselves “Why is he saying that?”

“The sky is blue,” says Mike and we immediately think “Well, that’s true but why is he bringing it up? What off-putting statement is surely to come next? Is he somehow going to work that around to asking me for something or say something that is odd, passive-aggressive, or just false? Whatever it is, it’s going to be about him and for his benefit.”

Mike is a walking, talking ulterior motive – just like today’s media and that is a problem it may never be able to come back from because – just like the Mike in your life – you can never truly trust them – ever.

Even if – to everyone’s amazement – every mainstream media (I don’t like that term – how about main servile media going forward? It has the added convenience of having the same initials at least) stopped printing blatant lies and stopped “fact-checking” the truth into oblivion and asking even vaguely interesting questions, there would still be that residual question – “Why are they now doing that?”

As Matt Taibbi points out so well here, there was a long-standing media ethic that if something was true and important you printed it even if you knew the person who gave you the info had an ax to grind with the target of the story. In fact, while many of the reasons people leak at all are noble – public service, respect of the truth, correct a lie, make people aware of a problem, etc. – one reason is usually “those people finally went too far and I’m really angry and I’m going to make their lives deservedly miserable.”

While that is not an ulterior motive – it’s actually a very exterior one – it is nonetheless still a motive.

What has happened over the past few years is the purposeful destruction of what was called the “Pentagon Papers Principle,” which made the authenticity of the information the be-all and end-all of deciding whether to run the story.

Now, according to Janine Zacharia and former Obama and Trump Cybersecurity Policy Director Andrew James Grotto, “Authentication alone is not enough to run with something.” Read the report here.

In fact, these two media theorists participated in the ethically unconscionable Aspen Institute “Table top exercise,” which involved numerous media figures, civil society foundation types, and government officials that was done to figure out how the media should cover a “theoretical” (nope – not buying that – the feds knew it was actually going to happen, wanted Biden to beat Trump, and wanted to pre-wash the problem) story about a Hunter Biden Ukraine-related computer “hack and dump” situation.

This event took place a few months before the 2020 election and, um, coincidentally, weeks before the Hunter Biden “laptop from hell” story was broken by the New York Post. Also, um, coincidentally, the media, the government, the “intelligence community” (speaking of the need for a new name…) followed the playbook laid out during the “exercise.” The well-known throttling of the story played a crucial role in Biden’s victory, with even a significant number – enough to change the result of the election – of Biden voters telling pollsters after they voted that they would not have voted for him if they were aware of the allegations involved.

All in the name of fighting “misinformation.” From the above report: “Break the “Pentagon Papers Principle:” Focus on the why in addition to the what. Make the disinformation campaign as much a part of the story as the email or hacked information dump. Change the sense of newsworthiness to accord with the current threat.”

In other words, the new main servile media stance is that they will decide not only what is true but that they will not publish the truth if they can somehow convince themselves that it came from someone they don’t like….or serve.

This concept was dialed up to 11 for the 2020 election (and remains there as an attempt to literally prop up an ailing, failing, flailing Biden) but had its birth years before that.

Much of the press has for generations tended to be a bit liberal, a bit progressive (NOT in the psychotic way it means today, though,) a bit on the side of the outsider, a bit on the side of change. That general tendency – while occasionally infuriating conservatives – did bring certain benefits: a bedrock, go to jail to defend, commitment to the principles of free speech, free thought, a burning desire to make sure the public knew the truth, and an open public square that anyone could say whatever they wanted because in the end good ideas will beat bad ones.

The truth may have been a bit shaded one way or the other but it was public, out there in the societal firmament for debate and discussion.

With the rise of Donald Trump, the main servile media – no longer gritty, one drink away from cirrhosis reporters but now professional “journalists” with all the sensitivities and self-deceptions that membership in the lower-upper middle class brings – saw itself under direct attack from an outside force.

At first, the mood was “Oh, this will be funny, oh, hey it gets good ratings so we can go along with this sideshow until he inevitably explodes on a ball of orange fire and we can get back to normal.” 

A year later the impossible happened and the main servile media felt it had played a role in the rise of this populist monster and was going to make sure it would never happen again so it started “re-thinking,” sorry, utterly gutting, the ethical standards it had abided by for generations.

It even started pre-planning the “news” with government agencies – Aspen Institute, again – and these changes could very conveniently be tied to the boogeyman of an evil foreign power even if that justification was atrociously, purposefully false.

No longer would it speak truth to power, but it would speak lies on behalf of the powerful and psychologically justify that shift by trying to convince themselves they were doing so for the right and proper good of the nation and the world when in fact they were doing so for base and selfish reasons.

Out went even the pretense of objectivity – a relic of the past that cannot be a part of the “New Normal” because some things are just too evil – “Everybody Knows That!”

Out went telling both sides of a story, deeming anyone or anything that did not agree with the congealed cabal that tries to pass itself off as defenders of democracy. That became the sin of “both sidesism” – “We don’t put flat earthers on the front page, do we?”

Out went treating people involved in the public sphere equally and if anyone noticed this they were accused of the intellectually fatuous crime of “what about…ism?” – “Really? Just because we didn’t do a story about Hillary but we did one about Trump you have the nerve to question our integrity?”

In came “fact-checking,” a process by which the main servile media could cherry-pick some of the silliest things the opposition says and call them lies while simultaneously finding “context” and, of all things another government official – to say that no, what that person we serve said, well, it’s actually true.

In came the simplicity of open advocacy, only quoting “experts” they already agree with, only profiling groups they need to be more popular and powerful. Being a “journalist” is a very easy job if you always know what you’re going to write, how you’re going to write, why you’re going to write, and for whom you’re going to write it, not to mention that you can just have the PR flack/personal friend involved write it for you. 

And this is the crux of the ulterior media.

The media has embraced the idea of the ulterior motive to the point that it is gospel, but when the public questions, let alone points out, the media’s own motives they are shouted down by an infuriated press as loudly and as strongly as a cleric shouts down heresy.

And heretics are abominations, can be banned from society, deemed insane, and then crushed with joyous abandon.

And if this ulterior media is allowed to stand – if the heretics do not take over the church, if there is no grand Reformation – then, somehow, Mike wins and the “Why?” no longer needs to be asked because the answer will no longer matter.

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  • Thomas Buckley

    Thomas Buckley is the former mayor of Lake Elsinore, Cal. a Senior Fellow at the California Policy Center, and a former newspaper reporter.  He is currently the operator of a small communications and planning consultancy and can be reached directly at You can read more of his work at his Substack page.

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