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, weve (so far) skipped these topics:
Weve also skipped the premiere of HBOs Recount, which raises various press corps issues. Well 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 CNNs 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 Glenns work for this week. This includes his piece about Gibson and Williams, the well-known Target shopper.
The second scribe-who-served is Salons Joan Walsh. On Tuesdays Hardball, Walsh did everything you wish major pundits would dothe 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 Walshs 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 Clintons 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 Clintons 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 wasnt playin. In the following exchange, she refers to an earlier part of that evenings program. In that segment, a collection of hacks and stooges had pretended they didnt know why Bill Clinton would make such a claim:
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 Kennedythen asking if her career had to end!)
For the record, Walsh had already performed another service; she had described the role of Obamas campaign in spreading Fridays claims about Clintons now-famous remark. As weve noted, the New York Posts account of what Clinton had said was so indefensible that even the Murdoch gang finally chose to retract it. The Murdoch rags interpretation was nastyand it was utterly bogus (more below). But for whatever reason, Obamas campaign seized their account, and they rushed it to the cartel still quaintly described as a press corps. Thats how the frenzy about Clintons statement got starteddriven 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, Obamas campaign had peddled some ludicrous swill which came to them straight from the Murdochs. But so what? As Walshs segment began, Shuster finished one of his typical reports, feigning incomprehension at the Clinton campaigns weird statements about this matter. Finally, Chris, the reliable boy toy intoned, the Clinton campaign said again todayblamed the media and Obama again today, for the fact that people are still focusing on Hillary Clintons comments about Robert Kennedys assassination. Again, the Clinton campaign maintains, it is not Hillary Clintons fault that this has been misconstrued, but, rather, they say, its the fault of the media and the Obama campaign. Chris?
David just couldnt 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 BobbyBobby 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.
Huh! Of course, Shuster had gotten those e-mails too. He just wasnt planning to tell you.
But then, the endless bad faith on Tuesdays Hardball was really a thing to observe. Madison was especially gruesome, but a stream of hacks and hangers-on played along with the programs perspectives. As we noted yesterday, Ringmaster Matthews kept his balls in the aireven though hed said on that mornings Today that Clinton had been vastly misconstrued; even though he knew full well that Obamas 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 dont do that.
For the record, Clinton Secures Party Nomination was the front-page headline in the Washington Post on June 3, 1992the 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, lets start with a minor point. Lets start with the bizarre bit of interpretation weve highlighted from Novaks column.
In this passage, Novak refers to Hillary Clintons statement last Fridaythe now-famous statement in which she mentioned Robert Kennedys 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 weeks series. For the record, here is Clintons actual statement. See if you can begin to imagine where Novak got his idea:
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 headjust as Klein had gotten a strange thought in his. But nothing in that statement supports Novaks claim. By some unknown semi-cognitive process, Novak just dreamed that sh*t up.
Yes, the matter is completely irrelevant. Unless youve been wondering, as we have been wondering, if our culture can possibly endure.
You see, we live in a post-Enlightenment culturein a culture which believes in rational process. According to our cultures basic precepts, you dont get to simply make sh*t up; certain elementary facts do exist, and so do elementary standards of logic. We dont all get to write our own novelsunless we announce that were novelists. There are certain basic interpretive standards that we bring to our public affairs.
(One common expression of this general notion: Youre entitled to your own opinion. Youre not entitled to your own facts. Youre 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 dont get to just make sh*t up! According to our cultures basic conceptions, some interpretations of factsome interpretations of peoples statementsare just flat-out wrong. You cant really claim that we have 90 states, unless you want to do some explaining. And you cant really claim that Hillary Clinton was really discussing the Red Sox.
Our culture is built on the basic idea that you cant 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 discoveredwords Gore never saidbegan showing up, by themselves, inside quotes!) And based on the e-mails weve 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 partys presumptive nominee? Actually noshe didnt. Novak can print this notion in 300 newspapers; but if interpretive standards exist at all, his impression just isnt accurate. If people cant agree on something as simple as that, then people cant agree on anything. After that, its nothing but novels, all the way down. Everyone gets to invent their own facts. Everyone gets to mind-readto 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 impulsesunless you dont care if your culture proceeds. And yet, this is clearly the way the press corps now worksand these impulses tend to run wild among the American people.
Because theres something else Clinton didnt say last Friday. As Matthews noted on Tuesdays Today show, she didnt say that shes 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. Youre imaginingplaying 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 banaland 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? Weve come very close to having none. For example, consider last Fridays remarkable post by Michael Crowley, a very pleasant player of Hardball and a banal Yale graduate:
Good Godthat 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 Crowleys post so stunning? Because it didnt 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 didnt 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 persons 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 readerfrom a person whose banality was sliding away in a very unlovely direction:
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 Crowleys reader? First, his endless banality. Truly, it would be hard to be dumber. The reader believes he can read Clintons mind (after getting underneath a reporters empirical scrim, of course). This is Freud by the numbers, he saysas he offers barely coherent accounts of what he thinks his Freudian insights have told him. Clinton had blurted out her forbidden wish, he saidwithout quite explaining what this wish was. In her actual statement, Clinton hadnt even mentioned Obamabut her actual statement wasnt needed. Thats what this was about, the mailer announced. Its 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 banalso vile. Some of you simply never will.
Well offer the following thoughts, then a final note about Crowley:
Increasingly, those basic interpretive rules are honored in the breach. Well suggest you try to obey them:
No, you cant read peoples minds (not reliably). If you intend to be even modestly decent, you cant 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 shouldnt 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 didnt quote Clintons words in either post. He just started in with this bullsh*t.
Pathetically, heres 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. Its 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 cant 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 wont 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 Crowleys 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 hed spent seven years as a journalist? Duh! Because hed spent two years as an army journalistthen five more years at the Nashville Tennessean. Robinson and Crowley knew those things, of courseand they knew that 2 plus 5 equals 7. But the Globes 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 Crowleys foolish posts last Friday. But the banality led to an evil end. The dead of Iraq stare up from the groundand they look in the face of Crowley. Hes playing Hardball; hes dropping empirical scrims. Hes posting the worlds dumbest e-mails.
Hes 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.
POSTSCRIPTSOMEONE SHOWED JUDGMENT: Officially, Novak writes for the Chicago Sun-Times. For whatever reason, that puzzling phrase about the impression Clinton gave didnt appear in his column when the Sun-Times ran it.
Well take a guesssome editor struck it out. He knew that Clinton didnt 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.