MONDAY, MARCH 8, 2004
GULP! FICTION: Increasingly your news isgulp!fiction. Simply put, our major news orgs let their scribes make it up. Important scribes pick a tale they find pleasing. If the story isnt true, they just go ahead and make the tale up.
Consider the problem facing David Brooks as he neared the end of last week. He wanted to write a piece that trashed Kerrya piece that would please his pseudo-con base. But he needed a hook to make his tale work. And then he had it! Brooks typed a fake fact:
BROOKS (pgh 1): Were so full of it. We pretend to be a middle-class, democratic nation, but in reality we love our blue bloods. We love our Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Kennedys, Bushes, Deans and GoresWere so full of it, Brooks began, giving fair notice of what was to come. And by the end of paragraph 3, we had proofBrooks announced that Democrats just wont select a White House nominee unless his family had an upper-deck berth on the Mayflower. This gave him his hook for some long, goony clowning about all the money John Kerry possesses. We heard that Kerry grew up with a fake, plummy accent. Kerrys haircuts? Too expensive, Brooks said.
Just the sort of clown-like clowning half-wits like Brooks love to hand you. But no, the story wouldnt have flown unless Brooks had accomplished that lead-in. He really couldnt have started his piece by saying: Now Im going to tell you that Kerrys too rich. So instead, he began by inventing a factby pretending the Dems always pick these rich dudes. In fact, by the time Brooks piece was done, he had invented some more, typing this:
BROOKS: The Democrats even have a campaign consultant, Bob Shrum, who has made a large fortune taking multizillionaires like Al Gore, John Kerry and others and making sure that they run for office as born-again proletarians.Gore and Kerry are big phony fakes. Theyre multizillionairesand dont want you to know it.
But so it goes when fakers like Brooks decide to invent pleasing stories. And so it goes when the New York Times lets its columnists lie in your face. Oh, how Gothams Times fretted and stewed when that awful boy, Blair, made up all those stories! Luckily, David Brooks is clean and presentable. He can lie in your face all he likes.
Because readers, is it even vaguely true? Is it even vaguely true that Dems wont nominate a guy unless his family had an upper-deck berth on the Mayflower? Here are Dem nominees for the past forty years. Which family sailed on the big boat?
1960: John KennedyAt least John Kennedy came from cash, but no, the blood wasnt really that blue. In Boston, he and his siblings still grew up with signs that were saying: No Irish need apply. In fact, in our own Boston Irish family, our grandmother loved the looked-down-upon Kennedys, because they were the ones who fought back.
And by the way, was the rest of Brooks tale true? Was Gore, the previous Dem nominee, really a blue blood multizillionairea multizillionaire who faked those proletarian values so you wouldnt know it? No, Brooks had made that part up too. As every journalist surely knowsincluding Brooks inexcusable editorsboth Gores parents grew up poor. During Campaign 2000, the Times even mentioned this fact once or twice, although they spent the great bulk of their time inventing fake and phony tales to convince you that Gore was a liar. And was Gore a multizillionaire by the time he won the Dem nomination? Sorry. In May 1999, the Washington Posts Susan Glasser limned the net worth of the two Dem hopefuls. Bill Bradley? His net worth now stands at a minimum of $5.1 million, Glasser wrote. Gore? The last of those Dem multizillionaires was worth a good deal less:
GLASSER (5/18/99): Gore, who has been on the government payroll since 1977, reported income of just more than $300,000 [in 1998], including his $175,400 salary Gore listed assets totaling a minimum of $1.4 million and liabilities of $600,000, leaving the vice president with a minimum $800,000 net worth. Gores assets are dominated by an Arlington house valued at $482,800.For the record, that was the very same, mid-level Arlington house in which Tipper Gore had grown up.
No, Democrats havent picked blue bloods from the Mayflower, or multizillionaires. But David wanted to tell you a tale. He wanted to lie in your face once again. It set up good fun at John Kerrys expense. And his editorsinexcusablelet him do it.
TOMORROW: Spinning Kerry, part 2! David Halbfinger spins Kerrys flip-flops.
MOST LIKELY, BROOKS WAS JUST JOKING: Does it matter if Brooks makes up these facts? Only if the truth really mattersand clearly, at the Times, it does not. Indeed, Brooks statements werent just falsethey were laughably falseand surely, every journalist knows it. Why then is Brooks allowed to lie? Increasingly, your national news isgulp!fiction. Writers like Brooks invent tales they like. And plummy-accented editors pretend its good sport. The last time Brooks made up a huge whopperthat neocon thingthey later told us he was just joking! And so they make a joke of your interests, and turn your news intogulpfiction.
HOW INANE IS DAVID BROOKS: How inane is David Brooks? Here we go again, dear readers! He was itchin to type some vacuous facts. For example, did you know about John Kerrys haircuts?
BROOKS: Most Democrats have trouble affording one home, so when they search for a leader who shares their values, of course they nominate a guy who is running for his sixth. Of course they nominate a guy whose 42-foot powerboat, the Scaramouche, sells for upward of $700,000. Of course they choose a guy famous for his Christophe haircuts and his Turnbull & Asser shirts. Of course they choose a couple who paid to have an unsightly fire hydrant moved from the front of their Boston house, and who sought to divert huge amounts of river water to supply their sprawling Idaho lawn.Pathetic, isnt it? When thigh-rubbing boys like David Brooks let you gaze on the soul of your press corps? Of course, he says, again and again. Dems always pick a rich guy like this, he says, getting Kerrys wealth into play. Of course they nominate [such] a guy, Brooks saysknowing that Dems almost never do so. Here at THE HOWLER, for example, we voted for Kerry just last weekand like you, we never had heard of the Scaramouche! But David Brooks had some bullroar to spread, so he pretended we always do that.
ANOTHER RICH MESS? Weve received several e-mails about Frank Richs column, much like the e-mail we got this morning. Our reader mentioned a brief TV clip from The Passion. Then she said this:
E-MAIL: This shot leaped to mind when I read Frank Richs column in the 3/6 New York Times entitled Mel Gibson Forgives Us For His Sins. Im sure youre aware that the back and forth between columnist and director over this movie has been going on for months now. Rich writes colorfully always, and his emotions are, unsurprisingly, engaged, yet I believe its not an unbalanced column overall and I recommend it to you.She then quoted a passage from Rich. In it, Rich said that Christopher Hitchens nailed [the films] artistic vision more precisely than any other critic.
We wrote this e-mailer back with a question, much as weve done with others. Has it been your experience, we asked our friend, that Hitch and Rich have been hugely straight and reliable about various issues in the past? On balance, that hasnt been our experience, and we carry a general air of skepticism when we read the work of our great Pundit Corps. Thats why we went to see The Passion for ourselves, two times, instead of just taking Richs word for it.
Is Richs column balanced overall? Its hard to know how to judge that. But his column was one of several which caught our eye this weekend. Many writers, Rich included, have continued to allege that The Passion is anti-Semitic. But as we read their arguments, we often saw the scripted hyperbole that almost defines the modern press. Many readers sent us e-mails swearing that Rich and Hitch surely have the film right. But you havent seen the film yourselves, you say. Readers! Whatever the truth about this film may be, why on earth are you still so eager to accept your pundit corps good intentions?
We have long described the MO of your current press. Once they agree on a judgment, we have noted, they spin, distort, invent and hyperbolize to convince you to share their assessment. (In December 1997, for example, Rich and Maureen Dowd invented the Love Story canard. It led to Bushs election.) Whatever the truth about Gibsons film, we couldnt help thinking of that standard MO when we read this passage from Richs columna passage in which the pundit makes a new-classic Standard Assertion:
RICH: As if that werent enough, the Jewish high priests are also depicted as grim sadists with bad noses and teethShylocks and Fagins from 19th-century stock. (The only Jew with a pretty nose in this Judea is Jesus.) Yet in those early screenings that Mr. Gibson famously threw for conservative politicos in Washington last summer and fall, not a person in attendance, from Robert Novak to Peggy Noonan, seems to have recognized these obvious stereotypes, let alone spoken up about them in their profuse encomiums to the film.This claimthat the Jewish priests all have stereotypically bad noseshas been widely repeated. In her review for Salon, for example, Stephanie Zacharek said that, when we see the Pharisees agitating for Jesus blood, its not hard to notice that all of them have conveniently Semitic hooked or bulbous noses straight out of central casting. Readers have sent us such remarks all weekend, asking why were too stupid to see this is true. But part of the reason for our demurral is obviousunlike our readers, we went to the movie, two times, and didnt find the alleged noses there! As we noted last week, we thought one of the Jewish prieststhe apparent second-in-commandlooked like the winner of a Shylock Look-Alike Contest, and we said wed like to see Gibson asked why this actor was cast for the film. But do all the priests look like that? Hooked noses are apparently in the eye of the beholder, but we went to the film again this Saturday, in part to re-assess this very point, and again, we simply dont agree with this new Standard Assessment. Indeed, how easily can the physical stereotyping in this film be overstated? Just before her remark about the hooked, bulbous noses from central casting, Zacharek offered this synopsis of the films early action:
ZACHAREK: Jesus (played with grim, beleaguered resignation by Jim Caviezel) has been praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, where a hissing, effeminate Satan, pinched and cloaked and looking like a refugee from a Pilobolus-knockoff troupe, has tried unsuccessfully to tempt him over to the dark side. Jesus resists Satan, only to be arrested by a bunch of Roman-soldier thugs.But alas! Those arent Roman soldiers who arrest Jesus; according to the Gospels and according to the films obvious logic (and according to descriptions by other reviewers), they are Jewish agents, sent by the very same Pharisees who are said to be so stereotypical in appearance. (David Anson, in Newsweek: Jesus is arrested by the Jewish high priest Caiaphass men. David Denby, in The New Yorker: Jewish temple guards show up bearing torches.) Were happy to be corrected on this if logicand such reviewersare wrong.
But how strong can the films physical stereotyping really be? If logic and these reviewers are right, the first time the films bad-guy Jews appeared, Zacharek mistakenly thought they were Romans! For ourselves, we wouldnt swear, after two viewings, whether these agents were Romans or Jews. But then, that uncertainty exists because the stereotyping isnt what your brilliant celebrity pundits have told you. And has anyone overstated this point more than Rich? The only Jew with a pretty nose is Jesus? There they go again, dear readers! Since many of you havent attended, let us report what Rich knows, but you dont: Mary, Mary Magdalene and Veronica are all played by gorgeous movie actors! In fact, Monica Bellucci (Mary Magdalene) is a gorgeous international star. Their noses could hardly be much more pretty. Meanwhile, James, who is on the screen for much of the film, is a handsome young actor himself. Is the stereotyping restricted, then, to the priests? Although pretty noses are a matter of judgment, press corps spinners seem to have spun you on this matter too, as they have done so many times in the past. Major film criticswho operate outside the world of insider pundit spin-shopshave offered few comments about this phenomenon. Indeed, at the Boston Globe, Ty Burr lodged the same complaint we did. The Passion is not in itself anti-Semitic, he judged, although I personally might have cast someone other than the sneering nasty who plays Caiaphass second banana. Caiaphas himself? We looked and looked, but we just couldnt see that he fits our notion of Jewish stereotyping. Indeed, Chris Matthews has several times referred to the the Lee J. Cobb guy, the look-alike of Lee J. Cobb who plays Caiaphas. But was Lee J. Cobb stereotypically Jewish? Jewish at all? We dont know, but this look-alike didnt look stereotypically Jewish to us. More specifically, he didnt seem to have a hooked or bulbous nose. As noted, even critics who hated the film failed to mention this alleged point. At the Los Angeles Times, for example, The Passion left Kenneth Turan in the grip of a profound despair. He only gave the film one star. But even Turan only complains that Caiaphas is richly dressed, obviously well-fed. The ubiquitous bad noses which insider pundits describe are largely absent from the reviews. For ourselves, we have gone to the film two times, and no, we cant exactly spot them. Meanwhile, Jews from the Pharisees march on the screen, and one critic thinks they are Romans!
[A. O. Scott, in the New York Times: Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? I thought youd never ask. To my eyes it did not seem to traffic explicitly or egregiously in the toxic iconography of historical Jew hatred, but more sensitive viewers may disagree. Others will be so sensitive to the iconography that theyll see it without attending the film!]
So yes: We were troubled by that second banana, but remain puzzled by the now-routine claims that all of the Jewish priests had those bad noses. But what to make of Richs statementthat only Jesus had a pretty noseand what to make of his attack on two pundits for failing to note this stereotyping, stereotyping that most major critics didnt seem to note either? Heres one thing we think about that: We think weve seen it many times in the past. As weve seen for the past six years, pundit culture is built on scripted overstatementbut now, HOWLER readers insist that we affirm such statements! No, they havent seen the film, they say, but they assure us that Rich must be right! Meanwhile, they wonder, with mounting fury, why we wont go along with the pundits great judgments.
For the record, we were struck by other critiques this weekendby Charles Krauthammers complaint in the Post, for example. On Friday, Krauthammer said that Gibsons film us[es] every possible technique of cinematic exaggeration and gives its story the most invidious, pre-Vatican II treatment possible. Speaking of exaggeration, here is Chucks idea of the films most revolting deviation from the Gospels:
KRAUTHAMMER: The most subtle, and most revolting, of these [deviations from the Gospels] has to my knowledge not been commented upon. In Gibsons movie, Satan appears four times. Not one of these appearances occurs in the four Gospels. They are pure invention. Twice, this sinister, hooded, androgynous embodiment of evil is foundwhere? Moving among the crowd of Jews. Gibsons camera follows close up, documentary style, as Satan glides among them, his face popping up among theirsmerging with, indeed, defining the murderous Jewish crowd. After all, a perfect match: Satans own people.Krauthammer lodges a stunning charge; Gibson has used the Satan figure to define the Jews as Satans own people. But readers who are mathematically gifted will note a small hole in the scribes brief. If Satan appears two times among Jewish crowds (out of four), he apparently appears somewhere else as well. Indeed, Satans longest appearance comes early on, in a one-on-one encounter with Jesus. And in his second longest appearance on screen, he stands in solidarity behind the Roman commander as he leeringly oversees the scourging of Jesus. Does this identify the Romans as Satans own people? Readers of the Post wont have to wonder. Of course, youve seen Krauthammer reason this way a thousand times in the past, on all sorts of matters, large and small. Here, you see his foolish method again, applied to a very serious topic.
No, Jesus doesnt have the only good nose, and Satan doesnt just hang with the Jews. And yes, some of those Gibson quotes in Richs past pieces have been rather skillfully edited. But why on earth should this be surprising? Youve seen this a thousand times in the past, from Rich and the pundit corps other spinners. But this time, some readers just wanted to believe. They knewjust knewthey were holier than Mel, and Rich (and others) helped them believe it. We havent seen the film, they said. And then they told us that we were fools for refusing to parrot back what scribes said. (We agree that others spin more than Rich. But then, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/25/02 for a tangy take on what can occur when the scribe gets a bee in his bonnet.)
Last week, we commented on some critiques we found odd. We thought it was odd to say that this film offended the sensitivities of ordinary people when such people were packing theaters to see it. We thought it was odd to say that the film couldnt affect a viewers understanding of the Jesus story when a decent person like Roger Ebert was quoted saying it did so for him. But many readers got very upset, and ran to affirm the spin-points they liked. No, they wouldnt see the film themselves; why should they, when pundits could tell them what they should think? Why dont we agree, they endlessly said. Answer: We had gone to the movie.
GROUP GROPE: Lets send to all what weve sent to some. What was our general view of the film? On first viewing, we just didnt think it was heavily based in Group Identity. (Many reviewers, but few pundits, have voiced that general judgment.) We went back a second time to re-assess that point. Our basic reaction the second time? If you view this film in terms of Group Identity, the Romansleering sadists throughoutmake the Jews look like pipsqueaks. Others, of course, will see something else. But no, we wouldnt spout off real loud without having seen it ourselves.
VISIT THEIR INDEFENSIBLE ARCHIVES: You dont have to see the film to opine at the Post! For some thought experiments from Gertrude Himmelfarb, you know what to do: Just click here.