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Daily Howler: Your culture turns on certain rules. But will your culture survive?
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WHEN BANAL TURNS BAD! Your culture turns on certain rules. But will your culture survive? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 30, 2008

COCCO IMPROVES MANY PARTIES: Marie Cocco was nice enough to e-mail back. No, she wasn't invited to take part in last Sunday's Meet the Press, she said.

Truly, we'd call that amazing. Russert was planning to discuss Clinton's claims of misogyny/sexism. Cocco had written two columns on the subject for the Washington Post; at one point, Russert briefly quoted her work. Instead of including her in the program, Russert assembled a panel of six reliables. They rolled their eyes at Clinton's "very heavy dose of self-pity." There was no dissent.

Increasingly, that's how NBC/MSNBC works. You hear the views they want you to hear. Cocco has always stood apart from the nonsense. Who wants such kill-joys around?

YELLIN AND WALSH GET IT RIGHT: This has been a real “Week That Was” for a press corps watcher. Given the glut of other events, we’ve (so far) skipped these topics:

  • Howard Kurtz’s intriguing portrait of MSNBC in the Washington Post.
  • Hedrik Hertzberg’s unfortunate portrait of Chris Matthews at the web site of the New Yorker.
  • This grisly follow-up piece by TNR’s Noam Scheiber.
  • The sad performances by Charles Gibson and Brian “Price Club” Williams on Wednesday morning’s Today show.
  • The latest impenetrable study of campaign coverage from the Project for Excellence.

We’ve also skipped the premiere of HBO’s Recount, which raises various press corps issues. We’ll get to some of these topics next week. But two journalists performed so well this week that they deserve quick commendation.

The first such journalist is CNN’s Jessica Yellin. Wednesday night, Yellin did something that mainstream scribes never do. She described the actual workings of her profession, in an unflattering manner; in particular, she described the editorial conduct of her “senior producers” at MSNBC during the run-up to the war in Iraq. At Salon, Glenn Greenwald discussed her statement in detail. But then, we suggest you read all of Glenn’s work for this week. This includes his piece about Gibson and Williams, the well-known Target shopper.

The second scribe-who-served is Salon’s Joan Walsh. On Tuesday’s Hardball, Walsh did everything you wish major pundits would do—the things they typically avoid like typhus. Yesterday, we cited her challenge to the gruesome Joe Madison, who was aggressively playing the fool, as his cohort so typically does. But we also want to mention Walsh’s reaction to some typical bad faith from Matthews.

As Hardball watchers know, Matthews has spent the past several weeks engaged in a familiar charade. Repeatedly, he has feigned incomprehension at Hillary Clinton’s claim that some pundits have tried to get her to quit the White House race. At one point, Matthews even had his “boy toy,” David Shuster, prepare a report on Clinton’s puzzling claim; Shuster feigned incomprehension brilliantly, as he has apparently learned at the feet of the master. And of course, waves of pundits have lounged about, refusing to note the cosmic nonsense involved in this silly presentation.

On Tuesday, Walsh wasn’t playin’. In the following exchange, she refers to an earlier part of that evening’s program. In that segment, a collection of hacks and stooges had pretended they didn’t know why Bill Clinton would make such a claim:

MATTHEWS (5/27/08): I don’t know who they [the Clintons] are arguing with. I don’t know anybody saying, “Quit this week.” We’ve got the super delegates apparently ready to stampede after next Tuesday. What is the argument, by the way—what is the argument the former president is making right now? What is he arguing for?

WALSH: Chris, I was watching the earlier part of the show. I always watch your whole hour, whether I’m on or not. You’re a passionate person. I love that about you. I feel like you’re forgetting recent history. Our friend Jonathan Alter, in February, suggested she should get out of the race. That awful conversation between Keith Olbermann and Howard Fineman, that Keith had to apologize for, was Howard and Keith saying, we need a super-delegate to take her into a room and only one of them comes out.

People have been trying to push her out of the race literally since February. I know what the president`s talking about.

Duh! Matthews also knew, of course. He was just playing it dumb. (On Friday night, Olbermann had opened his program by grossly misrepresenting what Clinton had said about Robert Kennedy—then asking if her career had to end!)

For the record, Walsh had already performed another service; she had described the role of Obama’s campaign in spreading Friday’s claims about Clinton’s now-famous remark. As we’ve noted, the New York Post’s account of what Clinton had said was so indefensible that even the Murdoch gang finally chose to retract it. The Murdoch rag’s interpretation was nasty—and it was utterly bogus (more below). But for whatever reason, Obama’s campaign seized their account, and they rushed it to the cartel still quaintly described as a “press corps.” That’s how the frenzy about Clinton’s statement got started—driven by an account so absurd that, by Tuesday morning, Matthews himself, on the Today show, said no one could really believe it.

For whatever reason, Obama’s campaign had peddled some ludicrous swill which came to them straight from the Murdochs. But so what? As Walsh’s segment began, Shuster finished one of his typical reports, feigning incomprehension at the Clinton campaign’s weird statements about this matter. “Finally, Chris,” the reliable boy toy intoned, “the Clinton campaign said again today—blamed the media and Obama again today, for the fact that people are still focusing on Hillary Clinton’s comments about Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Again, the Clinton campaign maintains, it is not Hillary Clinton’s fault that this has been misconstrued, but, rather, they say, it’s the fault of the media and the Obama campaign. Chris?”

David just couldn’t figure it out! So Walsh provided the obvious background in this, her first statement:

WALSH: You know, Chris, [Hillary Clinton] chose her words poorly. I wish she had referred to Bobby Kennedy “still campaigning” in June, because that was her point. I mean, even you, leading into this segment, have suggested that she`s keeping her campaign alive because Bobby—Bobby Kennedy, you know, was assassinated in June. She did not say that, Chris. She was making the point that campaigns have run into June before.


WALSH: It was an unfortunate choice of words. But she is being bloodied for this. And I have no doubt that it came originally, somewhat, from the Obama campaign. I got the e-mail on Friday from Bill Burton, making sure that thousands of reporters saw the remarks and that they construed it in the way he wanted them to. I got the e-mail from the Obama campaign, saying that Keith Olbermann—with Keith Olbermann’s “special comment” on it.

Huh! Of course, Shuster had gotten those e-mails too. He just wasn’t planning to tell you.

But then, the endless bad faith on Tuesday’s Hardball was really a thing to observe. Madison was especially gruesome, but a stream of hacks and hangers-on played along with the program’s perspectives. As we noted yesterday, Ringmaster Matthews kept his balls in the air—even though he’d said on that morning’s Today that Clinton had been vastly misconstrued; even though he knew full well that Obama’s campaign had driven this error. Presumably, his string-of-hacks all knew these things too. (Chrystia Freeland, Roger Simon, Madison, Michael Shear, Michelle Bernard, Jonathan Allen.) They just kept their pretty traps shut.

To her vast credit, Walsh seemed to take offense. She seemed to find the clowning offensive. She seemed tired of having her intelligence insulted. In this cartel, pundits don’t do that.

Special report: The evil of banality!

PART 4—WHEN BANAL TURNS BAD: We’ll start Part 4 as we started Part 1—with a bizarre piece of “interpretation” by a major American journalist. On Tuesday morning, we gaped at Joe Klein (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/27/08). This morning, we gape at Robert Novak, in yesterday’s Washington Post:

NOVAK (5/29/08): Poor taste by the Clintons is matched by poor history. Kennedy's campaign against Hubert Humphrey 40 years ago is not comparable to the Clinton-Obama marathon. When he was killed, Kennedy had been a candidate for only 2 1/2 months and Humphrey for two months. Contrary to the impression given by Clinton, Kennedy was not the presumptive nominee removed by an assassin. Humphrey enjoyed a decisive lead in delegates that Kennedy surely would have been unable to erase. As for 1992, Bill Clinton clinched the nomination in April—not June, as his wife claims.

For the record, “Clinton Secures Party Nomination” was the front-page headline in the Washington Post on June 3, 1992—the morning after the California primary. The day before, on the New York Times’ front page, Johnny Apple wrote that a bad showing by Clinton “may stir some fresh speculation within his party about an alternative candidate.” (Front-page headline: “CLINTON IS FACING A DIFFICULT HURDLE IN CALIFORNIA VOTE.”)

More detail on that some other time. Today, let’s start with a minor point. Let’s start with the bizarre bit of “interpretation” we’ve highlighted from Novak’s column.

In this passage, Novak refers to Hillary Clinton’s statement last Friday—the now-famous statement in which she mentioned Robert Kennedy’s assassination. And this is where the oddness begins: According to Novak, Clinton “implied” in her statement that Robert Kennedy “was the presumptive nominee” of his party at the time he was murdered. We have no idea why Novak said that, any more than we know why Klein offered the puzzling “interpretation” with which we began this week’s series. For the record, here is Clinton’s actual statement. See if you can begin to imagine where Novak got his idea:

CLINTON (5/23/08): Between my opponent and his camp and some in the media, there has been this urgency to end it. And you know, historically, that makes no sense, so I find it a bit of a mystery.

SIOUX FALLS ARGUS LEADER: You don't buy the party unity argument?

CLINTON: I don't, because, again, I've been around long enough—you know, my husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June, in California. You know, I don't understand it.

The matter at hand is completely trivial. But can you find a single word which “gives the impression” that Kennedy was “the presumptive nominee” of his party? Somehow, Novak got that idea in his head—just as Klein had gotten a strange thought in his. But nothing in that statement supports Novak’s claim. By some unknown semi-cognitive process, Novak just dreamed that sh*t up.

Yes, the matter is completely irrelevant. Unless you’ve been wondering, as we have been wondering, if our culture can possibly endure.

You see, we live in a post-Enlightenment culture—in a culture which believes in rational process. According to our culture’s basic precepts, you don’t get to simply make sh*t up; certain elementary facts do exist, and so do elementary standards of logic. We don’t all get to write our own novels—unless we announce that we’re novelists. There are certain basic “interpretive standards” that we bring to our public affairs.

(One common expression of this general notion: “You’re entitled to your own opinion. You’re not entitled to your own facts.” You’re also not entitled to your own logic, but that part tends to get dropped.)

No, there is no method of observation and logic which produces perfect agreement on complex matters. But you don’t get to just make sh*t up! According to our culture’s basic conceptions, some “interpretations” of fact—some “interpretations” of peoples’ statements—are just flat-out wrong. You can’t really claim that we have 90 states, unless you want to do some explaining. And you can’t really claim that Hillary Clinton was “really” discussing the Red Sox.
That account of what she said would be foolish. Put another way: It would be wrong.

Our culture is built on the basic idea that you can’t just make sh*t up. But that standard has been eroding for years in the cartel we still call a press corps. Al Gore said he invented the Internet! No: Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! (Soon, the words “invented” and “discovered”—words Gore never said—began showing up, by themselves, inside quotes!) And based on the e-mails we’ve gotten this week, this basic standard barely exists in the public.

The public loves making sh*t up.

Did Hillary Clinton say, in that statement, that Robert Kennedy was his party’s “presumptive nominee?” Actually no—she didn’t. Novak can print this notion in 300 newspapers; but if interpretive standards exist at all, his impression just isn’t accurate. If people can’t agree on something as simple as that, then people can’t agree on anything. After that, it’s nothing but novels, all the way down. Everyone gets to invent their own facts. Everyone gets to mind-read—to decide what a pol “really” said. We all get to tell ourselves (and our friends) what a pol “really” was thinking.

These are very dangerous impulses—unless you don’t care if your culture proceeds. And yet, this is clearly the way the press corps now works—and these impulses tend to run wild among the American people.

Because there’s something else Clinton didn’t say last Friday. As Matthews noted on Tuesday’s Today show, she didn’t say that she’s staying in the race in case Barack Obama gets killed. You can imagine she said that if you want to, of course; but that is what you are doing. You’re imagining—playing with dolls. Of course, this type of script-driven imagination has driven much of our political discourse over the course of the past dozen years; in 1999 and 2000, the press corps imagined many statements by Gore, and Bush ended up in the White House. Their interpretive conduct was utterly banal—and it had evil ends.

The dead of Iraq stare up from the ground at many “imagined” Gore statements.

Are there any interpretive standards at all within our political culture? We’ve come very close to having none. For example, consider last Friday’s remarkable post by Michael Crowley, a very pleasant player of Hardball and a banal Yale graduate:

CROWLEY (5/23/08): Hillary and RFK’s Death

Count me as one who very strongly doubts she was raising the specter of a possible Obama assassination. Not intentionally, at least. (It clearly would have been better to leave the thought unsaid.)

Good God—that statement is stunning. Crowley “very strongly doubts” that Clinton was “raising the specter of a possible Obama assassination” (whatever that is supposed to mean). “Not intentionally, at least,” he dumbly says, bringing the mind-readers in.

Why was Crowley’s post so stunning? Because it didn’t sem to enter his mind to state what Clinton had actually said. Why would someone even think that she was “raising the specter” (whatever that was supposed to mean); quite literally, she didn’t even mention Obama! By any normal interpretive standard, the meaning of her statement was perfectly clear: Nomination fights have often gone into June. You can always imagine what you want to imagine about a person’s statement, of course. But in a world which runs on basic decency, what would make someone actually think that Clinton was “raising a specter” here? Oh yeah! The (imagined) ability to read her mind! To contemplate her “unconscious!” Indeed, just 44 minutes later, Crowley posted this disgraceful e-mail from a deeply self-indulgent reader—from a person whose banality was sliding away in a very unlovely direction:

E-MAIL POSTED BY CROWLEY (5/23/08): Get underneath a reporter’s empirical scrim for a minute. This is Freud by the numbers, Hillary’s id unbidden, her return of the repressed. Yes, obviously, she wouldn’t say this intentionally—who in God’s name would? She’s not that stupid, nor that malign. But she does very much want to be president—and her inappropriate desires got the best of her, and she blurted out her forbidden wish: that she gets the nomination somehow, someway, no matter how horrible the predicate.

That’s what this was about. Does she consciously wish for Obama’s murder? Of course not. But if he were to be assassinated, wouldn’t somebody have to be nominated anyway? And isn’t the most logical person, in that tragic instance, her? That’s what she was saying: Stick around, anything can happen. Even a horrible thing can happen—and that horrible thing would result in my nomination.

It’s really not that hard to figure out. Yes, it’s not conscious—but the depth of her ambitions, and her desires, are pathological and deeply creepy.

That is an astonishing e-mail. The only thing that is more astounding is the fact that Crowley, a scrub-cheeked, compliant boy from Yale, was willing to put it in print.

What do we note about Crowley’s reader? First, his endless banality. Truly, it would be hard to be dumber. The reader believes he can read Clinton’s mind (after “getting underneath a reporter’s empirical scrim,” of course). “This is Freud by the numbers,he says—as he offers barely coherent accounts of what he thinks his Freudian insights have told him. Clinton had “blurted out her forbidden wish,” he said—without quite explaining what this wish was. In her actual statement, Clinton hadn’t even mentioned Obama—but her actual statement wasn’t needed. “That’s what this was about,” the mailer announced. “It’s really not that hard to figure out.”

Acting like a airborne banal, Crowley put that ugly nonsense in print. As he did, he offered this thought: “Clearly there's no knowing for sure.”

Go ahead, readers! Take the test! Some of you will see why this is so banal—so vile. Some of you simply never will.

We’ll offer the following thoughts, then a final note about Crowley:
Your culture—your post-Enlightenment culture—turns on a few basic notions. One such notion would be this: You aren’t allowed to make sh*t up. There are basic interpretive rules you must apply if you’re searching for truth—for the facts. And if you are a decent person, you won’t rush to imagine the most evil things about candidates you may not prefer.

Increasingly, those basic interpretive rules are honored in the breach. We’ll suggest you try to obey them:

No, you can’t read people’s minds (not reliably). If you intend to be even modestly decent, you can’t make up any “paraphrase” you like. You need to be especially careful when you tell us what someone “really” said. You ought to be especially careful about saying what somebody “meant” or “thinks.” (Or about reporting the “impression” they somehow “gave” you.)

And no, you shouldn’t stroke your thigh as you make vicious claims about public figures. You might want to look at the text of their statement before you promote such vicious thoughts about the contents of their mind. Crowley didn’t quote Clinton’s words in either post. He just started in with this bullsh*t.

Pathetically, here’s the headline he put on that second post: “What Hillary Was Thinking.”

In large part, our Democratic race has badly degenerated because people have played by the rules of young children. We play with our candidates as kids play with dolls. We make up things and pretend that they “said” them. “It’s really not that hard to figure out,” we proclaim. In our perfectly banal minds, we turn our candidates into monsters. (To see Joan Walsh discuss that, click here). We surrender to shirts-and-skins logic.

Our culture will disintegrate under this regimen. When a culture can’t honor its most basic precepts, then, as written: Things fall apart. In this century, the Chinese will have values and emphases which differ from ours. But as a rising power, they won’t clown as they pursue their values, as we now clown around about ours.

Of course, things fell apart a long time ago under the by-line of Crowley. Along with the gruesome Walter Robinson, he toyed with your interests eight years ago. At the Boston Globe, the worthies wrote a stunning (and influential) page-one report about what a Big Liar Gore really was. An amazing amount of bad faith was involved. But Crowley’s most disgraceful point was as simple as 2 plus 5 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/00).

Why had Gore said, on several occasions, that he’d spent seven years as a journalist? Duh! Because he’d spent two years as an army journalist—then five more years at the Nashville Tennessean. Robinson and Crowley knew those things, of course—and they knew that 2 plus 5 equals 7. But the Globe’s readers never found out.

You see, the boys agreed to play dumb that day, as if they were in training for Hardball; they chalked this up as another Gore howler. They and their cohort kept this up for two years. George Bush ended up in the White House.

On an intellectual basis, their work was banal, like Crowley’s foolish posts last Friday. But the banality led to an evil end. The dead of Iraq stare up from the ground—and they look in the face of Crowley. He’s playing Hardball; he’s dropping “empirical scrims.” He’s posting the world’s dumbest e-mails.

He’s telling you what Clinton was “thinking” without writing down what she said.

Some of you see why this is wrong. Simply put, some never will.

POSTSCRIPT—SOMEONE SHOWED JUDGMENT: Officially, Novak writes for the Chicago Sun-Times. For whatever reason, that puzzling phrase about the “impression” Clinton gave didn’t appear in his column when the Sun-Times ran it.

We’ll take a guess—some editor struck it out. He knew that Clinton didn’t say or imply it. Following discarded rules of our tribe, he knew he had to take the dream-song out. The dumb-ass Post left it in.