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Daily Howler:The latest scamming-of-Oprah event helps display broken press culture
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TELL ME A STORY! The latest scamming-of-Oprah event helps display broken press culture: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JANUARY 6, 2009

Texas escapes/experts don’t: Why do you ever go anywhere else? Weeks ago, we warned you against the growing tale concerning the greatness of the Big 12, noting there was no real evidence to support this growing conventional wisdom. Last night, Texas escaped in the end. But have you seen any sign of that alleged Big-12 dominance in the past week’s bowl games?

Holiday Bowl: Oregon 42, Oklahoma State 31
Cotton Bowl: Mississippi 47, Texas Tech 34
Fiesta Bowl: Texas 24, Ohio State 21

Don’t be misled by that Cotton Bowl score. Mississippi embarrassed Texas Tech; last night, Ohio State was able to compete on this level for the first time in years. (In September, Southern Cal beat them, 35-3.) And yet, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State were three of the four overpowering teams said to prove the Big-12's current dominance. Oklahoma may win Thursday night. But where has the dominance gone?

As we told you: There were never any real facts on the ground supporting that recent conventional wisdom. But within our jangled modern culture, “experts” show little inclination to withhold or temper Group Judgment on the basis of objective facts. We’ll be discussing this problem all week (see below). But yes, it extends to football.

Is nothing sacred in this life? Is there nothing our “experts” respect?

Note: You’ll get one more dose of football facts this week. But you’ll have to wait until Friday.

Special report: Tell me a story!

PART 1—TOO PLEASING TO DOUBT: We humans love to tell pleasing tales—and some of us love to believe them. If you doubt that, consider the latest scamming-of-Oprah, which was described on December 29 in this front-page New York Times news report.

(The New Republic had broken this story a few days before. For its first full report, just click here.)

Mommy and Daddy, tell me a story! We think this was the most interesting news report we read over the recent vacation. It reveals the way the human mind is inclined to work—and the way our contemporary public discourse persistently flounders.

Long story somewhat shorter: This latest scam involves a now-cancelled book about an alleged Holocaust experience. On December 31, Motoko Rich and Brian Stelter pondered the incident in the Times. (Headline: “As Another Memoir Is Faked, Trust Suffers.”) This is the way they began:

RICH AND STELTER (12/31/08): In media circles, there is a joke about facts that are too good to check. This week, Oprah Winfrey and the New York publishing industry stumbled on yet another unverified account in the form of a Holocaust survivor who said his future wife had helped him stay alive while he was imprisoned as a child in a Nazi concentration camp by throwing apples over the fence to him.

The story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat, who said they reunited years later on a blind date in New York, turned out to be fabricated, and over the weekend the publisher of his memoir, ''Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived,'' canceled the February release of the book.

“This isn't the first time either a publisher or Ms. Winfrey has been gullible in the face of an exaggerated tale,” the writers noted as they continued—having cited their cohort’s joke about “facts that are too good to check.”

For the record, the Rosenblats had been telling their story in public since 1995, when they entered the pleasing tale in a “greatest love story” contest—a contest they inspiringly won. Oprah hauled them onto her program in 1996, calling their inspiring tale “the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we've ever told on the air.” In fairness, it was always possible that their uplifting story was true, and it wouldn’t have been all that easy for someone like Winfrey to fact-check it. On the other hand, in some later versions of the story, the sheer implausibility of the tale had been heightened. Rich and Stelter discussed the way the gullibles at Berkley Books got tooken in by the tale:

RICH AND STELTER: Certainly, industry observers wondered how editors at Berkley and producers for Ms. Winfrey did not at least question the veracity of Mr. Rosenblat's story, given some improbable details. In the [now-cancelled] book, he wrote not only that he reunited with his wife in New York years after she threw apples to him over the fence, but also that he had actually gone on a blind date with her in Israel a few years earlier but did not recognize her when he met her again.

''You'd think somebody would say, 'Hmm, that's amazing, let's just spend an hour or a day seeing how plausible that is,' '' said Kurt Andersen, the novelist and host of the public radio program ''Studio 360.”

Andersen wouldn’t be our first choice to comment on this matter, given his own silly love affairs with recent, dumb political tales. But within the culture of modern journalistic elites, certain facts are “too good to check”—and some stories are too pleasing to doubt. People love to believe pleasing, high-minded tales. And uh-oh! As we’ve shown you for many years, this brainless love of pleasing tales has driven a great deal of political “journalism” in the past many years.

We thought of several things when we encountered this story. Here are a few:

Education journalism: For the past forty years, journalists have rushed to promote feel-good stories about educational miracles in low-income schools—stories which seemed to be too pleasing to doubt. (Or to fact-check.) This practice continues to this very day—and it thoroughly tilts our education debates. When “journalists” engage in this type of conduct, they spit on the prospects of low-income kids. They turn these kids’ lives into feel-good novels, using low-income kids to give middle-class readers pleasure. More about this gruesome practice on Friday; it remains a major big deal.

Political journalism: For at least three decades, political journalists have fashioned simple-minded tales about major pols—tales which were used to promote press corps theories about these pols’ character. During the mainstream press wars against Clinton and Gore, an endless array of absurd stories were invented about both the Clintons and about Gore; these stories were then recited by one and all—in some cases, by a wide array of journalists who plainly knew they weren’t accurate. But this practice predates those punishing wars. Did Edmund Muskie really cry in the snows of Manchester during the 1972 primary? David Broder (and others) said that he did—and the story helped re-elect Richard Nixon. Years later, Broder acknowledged that his story may have been wrong—and he said the story had been driven in part by his cohort’s pre-existing judgment about Muskie (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/28/07). Muskie was too emotional, these “journalists” thought. (Based on his conduct at poker games!) Soon, they were telling a pleasing Group Story about the guy—a tale whose central fact may, alas, have been bogus.

People love to believe a good story. In theory, journalists are trained to doubt—and fact-check—such tales. But within this addled, inept, inane cohort, some facts are said to be too good to check—and some stories seem to be too good to doubt. This broken “journalistic” culture sent Bush to the White House. And uh-oh! We saw strains of this broken culture all over the press corps last week.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Tom Brokaw, tell us a story!