GUILD CARD EARNED! Big journos rarely examine press bias. Robinson helps us see why: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2008
GUILD CARD EARNED: Big mainstream journalists rarely address the vexing question of media bias. The Posts Gene Robinson goes there today. The result is predictably gruesome.
Are the news media being beastly to Hillary Clinton? he asks as he starts. Are political reporter and commentators...basically in the tank for Barack Obama? Robinson tilts the discussion a bit through his use of the language of ridicule (beastly). But these are very good questions to ask, and Robinson asks them from the front lines. He is, after all, a Hardball regular, and hes a regular panelist during MSNBCs long-winded primary coverage. He has therefore been on the front lines in one of the battlegrounds of this alleged beastly media conduct. Just how silly has it gotten on the programs where Robinson works? On this mornings Post op-ed page, Charles Krauthammer, citing Paul Krugman, gives the short answer:
As everyone knows, Matthews was forced to apologize, just last month, for his endless gender-trashing of Clinton. Another MSNBC regular, David Shuster was forced to apologize, just last week, for engaging in more of the same.
Robinson has been on the front lines as this networks strange Clinton-trashing has unfolded. For that reason, few people are better positioned than he to evaluate the questions he has asked.
But theres one problem. Gene Robinson is part of the mainstream press corps, and as we have told you for many years, there is no group on the face of the earth thats quite so disingenuous. You see, the press corps controls what is said in the press; given that unique power, they are almost never forthcoming about their own conduct and motives. And so it is with Robinsons column, in which he refuses to discuss the specific media conduct which has produced the questions raised in his column. For openers, Matthews is MIA from this piece, as is Shuster; indeed, the entire dispute about MSNBC makes no appearance here. But then, none of the press corps unfortunate conduct has found its way to Robinsons column. We first told you this in 1999, and its baldly true today: These people simply refuse to be honest when judging their own cohorts work.
How slick—how Clintonesque—is Robinsons column? Lets begin with paragraph 5, where he finally stops softening up Bill Clinton and summarizes the pair of charges his piece will pretend to address:
Give him credit—Robby is slick. His headline says this: The Clintons Beef With the Media (our emphasis). By narrowing his field in that way, he gets to discuss what the Clintons have said—and he gets to ignore what has been said elsewhere, by people who may be less constrained in what they can say on this subject. Result? He offers a (paraphrased) pair of allegations, while ignoring the much more pungent claims made just this week by Brother Krugman, in our most famous American newspaper. (Krugman is a famous fellow; surely, if Krauthammer read what he wrote, Robinson must have noticed it too.) If Robinson wanted to get on his hind legs and behave like a man, he could have spoken to Krugmans highly-quotable critique. In what follows, ignore Krugmans brief reference to Obama supporters. Focus instead on what he says about the mainstream press:
Krugman tells a sixteen-year story about those Clinton rules. According to Krugman, the mainstream press has applied these rules all the way back to the early 1990s. They applied the Clinton rules in ginning up the Whitewater pseudo-scandal. They applied these rules for two solid years in savaging Candidate Gore. According to Krugman, the same Clinton rules are now being applied when Hillary Clinton is widely trashed for entirely reasonable statements. And uh-oh! The Clinton rules are being applied as part of a broader pattern at MSNBC—the network where Robinson kills time while making himself so famous.
In that passage, Krugman summarizes a decade-long body of work which has widely appeared on the liberal web (and, occasionally, elsewhere); for example, the claim about those Clinton rules predates, by many years, any current dispute about the coverage of Clinton/Obama. (For the record, were talking here about the press corps—not about Obama.) If Robinson really planned to address the actual charges against his cohort, he could have cited Krugmans quotable claims—charges which appeared just this week, in our most famous newspaper.
But true to the ways of his coven and clan, Robinson chose not to do that. Instead, he pimped up his own (paraphrased) pair of claims. Then, he pretended to address them.
How bogus is Robinsons attempt to address the (paraphrased) pair of complaints he permits? Sadly, heres how he tackles the first of his points—the allegation that journalists look at Obama uncritically while subjecting Hillary Clinton to microscopic scrutiny. We apologize to Robinson for reproducing such embarrassing work. But readers, please cover the eyes of the children. Dont let them see such things yet:
As an attempt to judge the claim that the press has used a double standard (microscopic scrutiny versus uncritical review), those three paragraphs are so clownish that they cause a thrill to go up the leg and straight back down the other. Skillfully, Robinson fails to cite any claim of specific press misconduct; instead, he uses these paragraphs to repeat the view which is under complaint: Obamas just better than Clinton! Since Robinson cant seem to recall any incident which might fit the complaint which is under review, let us help him out a bit. To do so, lets review todays column by E. J. Dionne.
In our brief part of his column, Dionne summarizes the things which harmed Clintons campaign starting on October 30, when she was still riding high in Dem Party polls. As hes done at least once before, Dionne cites a slightly peculiar example:
Dionne is certainly right on one point; Clintons decline tracks back to that October 30 debate, largely to that single answer. But something is odd about this account, as we noted the first time Dionne chose to pimp it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/07). Its weird! If Clinton had perform[ed] almost flawlessly in the 2007 debates, why would a single lapse have proved so costly that it deserves a paragraph all its own in Dionnes three-graf account of Clintons decline? The answer is obvious, and Dionne knows it well—although, true to the coven and clan, he just keeps refusing to state it. Why was Clintons lapse so costly? Duh! Because the press corps began to jump up and down when she offered her (perfectly sensible) answer. In the days which followed, they subjected her remark to microscopic scrutiny—and to unvarnished ridicule. Indeed, that gruesome, unprecedented gang bang debate was the start of the press corps move in this campaign; the corps reaction to Clintons brief answer would be Exhibit 2 in any discussion of same. (Exhibit 1 would be the behavior that night of moderators Russert and Williams, who happen to work for the same news org which Robinson forgets to discuss.)
Meanwhile, how about the allegation that Obama doesnt receive such scrutiny? This, of course, is the perfect example. Two weeks later, in the next Dem debate, Obama was asked about drivers licenses, as Clinton had been—and he gave an answer so similar to Clintons previous answer that the audience laughed out loud at one point! In fact, Obamas remarks were perfectly sensible (if somewhat clumsy), just as Clintons had been two weeks earlier. But the laughter came for an obvious reason; after seeing Clinton ridiculed for her remark, Obama oddly gave an answer that was remarkably similar. But uh-oh! Where Clinton was subjected to microscopic scrutiny (and high ridicule) for her answer, Obamas answer drew little comment. Or, to quote a famous Post pundit: Faced with two strikingly similar statements, journalists look[ed] at Obama uncritically while subjecting Hillary Clinton to microscopic scrutiny. Again, this is what critics have meant through the year when theyve cited the press corps Clinton rules.
Dionne is certainly right in one way. That single lapse began the deluge; starting that night, there have been many examples of the microscopic scrutiny versus high ridicule cited in Robinsons (paraphrased) complaint. But Robinson is very careful not to cite any particular incident. And of course, when he hit his second complaint, our analysts laughed right out loud:
Thats the end of Robinsons column. And readers, lets go ahead and admit it. You cant get dumber than that.
First, note again the type of move Robinson makes at the end of his piece. In a column which is supposed to examine the media, he ends up critiquing the Clinton campaign—not the press.
Note too the (quite typical) sleight-of-hand near the start of this passage. Pretending to examine the press corps sexism, Robinson instantly turns instead to a remark by John Edwards. (Tappeds Sam Boyd did the same thing this week, substituting John McCain for poor Shuster. But then, journalists constantly do this.)
In the passage about Edwards, note the perfect gong-show logic when Robinson discusses the treatment of wardrobe and appearance. It must be OK to do this, he reasons, because we have been doing this.
In Robinsons penultimate paragraph, note the way he simply asks three questions about sexist press coverage—then makes no attempt to answer them.
Note, again, the masterful way Robinson disappears Matthews and Shuster (and of course, Tucker Carlson). A big, real controversy is actually raging about the questions he claims to be raising—a controversy about his own TV network. But trust us: Most of his readers dont know that. And Robinson, pretending to stage a discussion, is careful to keep it that way.
But the most ridiculous thing Robby says in that passage lies in its very first paragraph. According to Robinson, theres a pretty solid consensus on what's racist and what isn't. But that statement is almost surely false—and this problem lies at the heart of what has happened to Clinton. As Dionne notes today, her downfall began on October 30, but it was the later claim of race-baiting by her campaign that truly drove her decline. ([T]he numbers tell the story, Dionne writes. Before South Carolina, national polls gave her leads as high at 15 to 20 percentage points; by Super Tuesday, her advantage was almost gone.) In large part, those numbers changed because the press corps kept accusing the Clinton campaign of racially inappropriate conduct. But, as Krugmans column suggests, there plainly isnt a pretty solid consensus on what's racist and what isn't. Once again, heres Krugmans view about one of Clintons comments:
To Krugman, the remark was entirely reasonable. Yet many in the press corps did present it as some kind of outrageous denigration. What does Robinson think about this? We dont have the slightest idea. As usual, he just doesnt say.
Mainstream journos are almost never honest when they discuss the ways of their guild. Today, Robinson plays it very dumb. Robinson proves hes a part of the guild—part of the NBC boys club.
THE CLINTON RULES IN ACTION: Robinson knows all about those Clinton Rules; during Campaign 2000, he helped enact them in much the way Krugman described in his column. Al Gore? He was the vanilla pudding of the species. He had a reputation as Wooden Man Walking. He and his wife were (headline) In Love For Their Country. (Just like the Clintons?) He was best known for his statue imitation—what with his steel-trap brain and steel rear end. He even giggled like a girl; but then, Tipper Gore was his blonde co-host. Indeed, maybe the nicest thing you can say about the Vice President is that hes remarkably lifelike. These comments, and a host of others, appeared in a stunning trio of profiles published in the Posts Style section in June 1999, as Gore prepared to formally launch his White House campaign (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/23/01). Three profiles like this in the course of two weeks! We doubt that any big newspaper has ever subjected so major a figure to such a major campaign of ridicule. And these mocking profiles were all published by Styles brilliant editor—Robinson.
So youll better know who these idiots are, heres part of Kevin Meridas profile, the first of the three to appear:
Today, Gore holds the Nobel Peace Prize for the geeklike enthusiasm with which he embraces subjects such as...ozone depletion. Back then, morons like Robinson were working hard to ridicule Gore for this conduct. The United States is in Iraq because of the service they rendered.
Back then, Robinson understood the Clinton Rules—and he worked to put George Bush where he is. As such, he earned his way into the club, and seems to have no plan to leave it.
ABOUT THAT ACCESSIBLE STYLE: By the time Robert Nozick died in 2002, the critics had largely agreed on a story; among the gentlemans claims to fame, he was said to have had an accessible style, one aimed at the general reader. That would have surprised us miserable freshman back in the fall of 1965; we had huddled together in a dimly-lit hall, finding his work obscure and god-awful. (He was only 26 years old at the time; for the record, he was thoroughly pleasant to us. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/1/08 for our account of this brush with greatness.) But when Nozick died, at age 63, he was widely praised as a man of the people. Writing in a chatty style of his own, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt put it this way in the New York Times:
Granted, Lehmann-Haupt only said that Nozick was chatty and accessible in Anarchy, State and Utopia, his first and most famous book. But writing in the Washington Post, Richard Pearson expanded the brief. His first book and those that followed were simply and elegantly written, with charm and wit, all of which made them accessible to the general reader, Pearson said (our emphasis). In the Times that graces the City of Angels, Elaine Woo said accessible too:
Granted, Woo was back on Nozicks first book. Across the pond, the Times of London said the same thing about it: In a discipline known for impenetrable prose, the book was admired by critics from all ideological backgrounds for its accessible writing style (there were many diverting parentheses) and its inventive examples. Indeed, even the Harvard University Gazette agreed to go along with the accessible story. Whether they agreed or disagreed with the political implication of the book, critics were nearly unanimous in their appreciation for Nozick's lively, accessible writing style, the official broadsheet said. In a discipline known for arduous writing, Nozick's approach was hailed as a breath of fresh air.
As noted, most of these writers focused on Anarchy, State and Utopia, the book which made Nozick a star. But praise for Nozicks accessible style had also been bruited when his second book, Philosophical Explanations, appeared in 1981. Publishers always like to pretend that their authors are aimed at the masses, of course; but the blurbs on the back of the paperback edition suggest that this theory of Nozicks style had been present in reviews of his second book. Philosophical Explanations will attract intelligent people of all backgrounds, the New Republic had allegedly said. (The review is not available on line.) Another blurb, sourced to Fortune, agreed with this assessment: His prose style is insouciant, his manner is whimsical, and he gives every indication of having lots of fun. As well see, that quote had been clipped out of context a bit. But when the New York Times reviewed Nozicks book, Alasdair MacIntyre went on at some length about his inspiring everydayness. Here are his opening paragraphs:
When the paperback publisher blurbed this review, this (misrendered) fragment appeared: It is important for you, whoever you are, to read...this book. In fact, that isnt quite what MacIntyre said, as you can see at the end of this post. But weve faithfully rendered Big Macs first two grafs. They help us see how the world came to know about—and affirm—that accessible style. Pearson would say it again, more than two decades later: His first book and those that followed were simply and elegantly written, with charm and wit, all of which made them accessible to the general reader.
By then, everyone had agreed to say it. But uh-oh! As we freshmen could have guessed back in 1965, this assessment was basically bunk.
How accessible was Nozicks style? Please note: A book of philosophy doesnt have to be accessible to the general reader to have major professional merit. But good grief! Robert Nozicks various books were hardly a day on the swan boats. For starters, just consider chapter 2 of Philosophical Explanations—a book which reviewed a wide range of topics from the philosophical canon. [T]he common reader will be the poorer if he or she does not pay uncommon attention, MacIntyre claimed.
Indeed, there were promising moments. Chapter 2 of Nozicks book bore the following title: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there something rather than nothing! Its the kind of philosophical question which stirs so much late-night dorm room debate. Beyond that, Nozick says this in his opening paragraph: So daunting is the question that even a recent urger of it, Heidegger, who terms it the fundamental question of metaphysics, proposes no answer and does nothing toward showing how it might be answered. This brings up one of our most commonly-asked questions: Is it true, were constantly asked, that you took Terry Malicks cult classic Heidegger seminar at MIT in 1968 and 1969? (Second semester: Kierkegaard.) Took it? We practically financed the venture! Plus, we and our girl friend and our good friend JM dined with the professor every week at a Mass Ave diner before trudging across the street and settling in for the three-hour session. But thats a later brush with greatness, one well postpone to another time. Lets just say we had no recollection of Heideggers view of this daunting question, or his view of anything else for that matter, which hardly distinguishes Malicks seminar from other classes we took in those street-fighting years. We did derive one winsome joke from those salad days: If you think Malicks movies are a bit slow, you should have sat through his Kierkegaard lectures! In fact, Malicks films have been exceptionally good, as you already have heard.
At any rate: Why is there something rather than nothing? Nozicks general readers lean forward, piqued by so engaging a question. Until they reach paragraph four of this chapter, that is, where Nozicks chatty, accessible style seems to give way just a tad:
Because we hold a philosophy degree from a major university, we cant speak for the general reader. Our erudition is far too vast to let us accept such an honor. But this is Nozicks fourth paragraph on this engaging old topic, and it doesnt strike us as especially chatty; nor does this seem like the sort of prose a general reader might regard as accessible. Simply expressed, this isnt beach reading, no matter how much Nozicks chroniclers might want to persuade us. And a similar problem quickly presents when one looks at his work in chapter 1, which is titled The identity of the self. Indeed, this topic starts out sounding even more like the sort of thing you explored in your dorm room. What am I? What kind of entity? Nozick asks as the chapter begins. The dictum from Greece, Know thyself, courses through western philosophy, he soon adds; it echoes in calls from gnosticism, Vedanta, and Samkhya yoga to uncover our own true nature. And yet, by the time we hit this chapters third paragraph, we feel the buzz-kill approaching again. This time, the problem isnt excessively technical writing. The problem is the presentation of unfamiliar types of concerns—concerns which wont grab general readers:
Once again, this is just the professors third paragraph, but he has already wandered to questions and claims which may drive the general reader away. Even things as basic as how to count persons can be baffling, he tells us. In fact, few general readers have ever been baffled by something as basic as how to count persons, and Nozick has to go far afield—he has to imagine a futuristic technology—before he can even imagine a case where such bafflement might ensue. And by the way: In his example about those exact replicas, Nozick raises a question which seems suggestive of silly semantics. (Though its not entirely clear what hes asking.) If we lived in some sort of world where exact physical replicas could be made, we would first have to decide if we thought they were persons at all; if we were able to make that assessment, we would inevitably devise new language suitable for describing this new situation. Theres nothing deep or philosophically challenging about this first question—and well guess it would leave general readers cold (perhaps to their credit). But in fact, people arent baffled by how to count persons—unless those people are professional philosophers—and few others will be drawn in by this question. Nor will the general reader be happy when he reaches just the eighth paragraph in this once-promising chapter:
Why not just buy and pretend to read Finnegans Wake and say that youve gone all the way?
Please note: None of this speaks to the technical merit of Nozicks work in these chapters. Were only wondering why so many critics were willing to accept an odd Group Story, a story which is quite hard to sustain. Nozick had an accessible style? At the time of his death in 2002, an array of writers all agreed to say the same thing, using that identical two-word phrase, as elite writers now agree to do so in such a wide array of settings. But even when Philosophical Explanations first appeared, MacIntyre, in the New York Times, praised the volumes crisp, elegant prose, saying further: There is good reason then to take notice when a first-rate philosopher writes an important book on these problems addressed simultaneously to his professional colleagues and to the common reader.
For the record, Anarchy, State and Utopia was perhaps a bit less off-putting. But when we review its famous Wilt Chamberlain argument in our next post, well notice another type of problem, another problem which might leave general readers cold. And just two pages after this famous passage, Nozick pens a section sub-headlined SENS ARGUMENT. Soon, the general reader is pondering this:
Theres more there, but you get the point. Again, this may be excellent technical work. But the phrase accessible style does not come quickly to mind.
Remember the point of our curiosity. Nozick, along with his colleague John Rawls, was routinely said to be one the greatest political philosophers of the last century. At the time of his death, one major publication said he was the greatest American philosopher since William James. Our question: With such intellectual giants roaming the earth, how did our political discourse fall to the level it now maintains? Why is our discourse so plainly driven by fools, when giants like these must still be working in our numerous departments of philosophy?
Why is our discourse driven by fools when such thinkers still walk the earth? Well offer you this one small hint: The people who said that Nozick and Rawls were great thinkers—well, theyre the same people who agreed to praise Nozicks accessible style.
In memory, we freshmen sit huddled—we grouse and complain. Well ask you again: Who was right?
COMING NEXT: Taxing Wilt Chamberlain
INVENTIVE BLURBING: Nozicks publisher cheated a tad in taking that blurb from the New York Times. Heres what appeared in the paperback blurb, versus what appeared in the Times:
Say what? This often difficult book? Its clear what that didnt make the blurb—a blurb which has been mis-transcribed.