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The gods used Mark Kirk to send us a clue about the New York Times
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SAME AS IT EVER WAS! The gods used Mark Kirk to send us a clue about the New York Times: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JUNE 1, 2010

The dumbness whose name must be spoken: What kind of Justice will Elena Kagan be? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea. Sadly, though, Kagan has already been forced to run one gauntlet on her way to a seat on the Court.

On Sunday, May 23, the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan published one of her typical “fashion analyses” of the nominee. (Click here, if you must.) Given Givhan’s unrelenting bad judgment, the complaints began rolling in at the Post. On Saturday, the Post published four letters about Givhan’s latest effort.

Though the writers all made excellent points, we were struck by the complaint that didn’t bark.

What was wrong with Givhan’s piece? In this, the first letter, a reader offered a strong overview:

LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (5/29/10): It is ironic that in the same edition in which ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote “Does the Post treat women badly?” [Sunday Opinion, May 23], the Arts & Style section included Robin Givhan’s On Fashion column, “Elena Kagan’s artful plumage: D.C. frump.”

Alexander said that Post readers "often object when they feel The Post has used sexist language or focused gratuitously on a woman's appearance."

Add my name to the list of objectors. Givhan described Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan as "dowdy" and even commented on the position of Kagan's legs when she is seated. Givhan gratuitously commented that Kagan's style "makes her seem so much older." Worst of all, Givhan elevated the Internet chatter that attempts to connect Kagan's appearance with sexual orientation.

The column was disrespectful and sexist.

The writer noted Givhan’s use of “dowdy” and “frump,” with “frump” of course reaching the headline. (Politely, the writer skipped “matronly.”) She cited Givhan’s extended thoughts on the public’s attempt to discern if Kagan is gay. And she cited Givhan’s remarkable musings “on the position of Kagan's legs when she is seated.”

She said Givhan’s piece was disrespectful and sexist; the other letters made similar complaints. We don’t disagree with those judgments. But none of these letters voiced an additional critique of Givhan’s piece.

What was wrong with Givhan’s piece? As a general matter, Givhan’s inanity is so vast that it can’t be described—it must be experienced. Here is Givhan, musing about one of her seminal topics—Kagan’s disturbing splayed posture in chairs:

GIVHAN (5/23/10): [Kagan] put on rouge and lipstick for the formal White House announcement of her nomination, but mostly she embraced dowdy as a mark of brainpower. She walked with authority and stood up straight during her visits to the Hill, but once seated and settled during audiences with senators, she didn't bother maintaining an image of poised perfection. She sat hunched over. She sat with her legs ajar.

[...]

Body language

In the photographs of Kagan sitting and chatting in various Capitol Hill offices, she doesn't appear to ever cross her legs. Her posture stands out because for so many women, when they sit, they cross. People tend to mimic each other's body language during a conversation, especially if they're trying to connect with one another. But even when Kagan sits across from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has her legs crossed at the knees, Kagan keeps both feet planted firmly on the ground. Her body language will not be bullied into conformity.

She does not cross her legs at the ankles either, the way so many older women do. Instead, Kagan sits, in her sensible skirts, with her legs slightly apart, hands draped in her lap. The woman and her attire seem utterly at odds. She is intent on being comfortable. No matter what the clothes demand. No matter the camera angle.

Aside from its jarring subject matter, it’s hard to describe how pompous—how dumb—that lengthy passage is. Needless to say, Givhan also seems to be factually wrong in her basic assertion. At Media Matters, Matt Gertz quickly posted a long string of photos in which Kagan is sitting with her legs crossed as she chats with various senators (click here). And yes, we’ve reached the point where intelligent people are forced to waste their time researching such consummate nonsense.

Givhan was wrong in her factual claim, and her subject matter was startling. But beyond that, that passage is stunningly pompous. Which leads us to the complaint-which-didn’t-bark in Saturday’s letters:

Can we talk? Like so many in the upper-class press corps, Givhan is stunningly dumb. She has been stunningly dumb for years. And by the way: Despite the statements and suggestions in Saturday’s letters, Givhan has been stunningly dumb in her analyses of women and men—although the norms of her gender-clueless clan mean that her dumbness is often expressed in ways which are or seem sexist.

In turn, Givhan’s editors are stunningly dumb to keep running these ludicrous columns. It’s stunning to think that they were willing to run that piece about Kagan.

Robin Givhan is stunningly dumb. She has been stunningly dumb for years—but none of the Post’s four letters came out and said so. We have no way of knowing what un-published letters may have said, of course. But this complaint—the complaint about dumbness—is, again and again, the complaint which doesn’t bark when citizens and activist liberals critique the mainstream press corps.

In our society, it isn’t considered polite to say that someone is dumb. Beyond that, some may find it hard to believe that our highest-ranking journalists could really be dumb. But when you assemble an overpaid, inbred, upper-class press corps, you’ll get a form of Versailles every time. Almost surely, you will get a culture of upper-class dumbness.

From the Duchess of Dowd on down, your mainstream press corps is stunningly dumb. They have been stunningly dumb for decades. This extends to the topics they choose to discuss, and to the ways they reason about them. The public deserves to hear this term applied to the work of this hapless elite. We liberals will never develop a winning critique of the mainstream press until we learn to make this accurate statement.

Though yes, it may cost some “career liberal leaders” some good-paying, high-profile jobs.

The public deserves to be told that its mainstream press is mired in a culture of upper-class dumbness. Over the weekend, this clan’s dumbness ruled. Tomorrow, Milbank and Blow.

An ancient irony: One irony attends to Givhan’s work. In November 1999, she was the only player at our major news orgs to challenge the brutal fashion- and character-trashing being directed at Candidate Gore. She got some basic facts wrong in her piece; she seemed to accept the factual accuracy of most of her cohort’s basic narratives. But her opening paragraph captured the basics of what was widely occurring, at the start of the mainstream press corps’ disastrous “month of Wolf:”

GIVHAN (11/2/99): If presidential politics were a playground brawl, the churlish scrutiny of Al Gore's personality would be akin to getting trapped inside the monkey bars. Gore has been cornered by a pack of taunting bullies. The tormentors are calling him names: prosaic, stiff, boring.

We can’t find a link to Givhan’s full piece. This is the best we can manage.

That said, November 1999 was a long time ago. Givhan’s political fashion columns have been stunningly dumb for years. Her editors are stunningly dumb to run them. The American public deserves to hear the truth, in plain fashion. You simply can’t describe this press corps without a crucial word: dumb.

Special report: Same as it ever was?

PART 1—CLUE FROM THE GODS (permalink): Sometimes, the gods try to help us out, as glorious Homer suspected.

This week, the gods sent us a helpful clue through the Mark Kirk story. Through this highly instructive story, the gods tried to help liberals frame a critique of the great New York Times.

Many liberals took a pass. Here’s the basic background:

Mark Kirk is running for the Senate (from Illinois), just as Richard Blumenthal is (from Connecticut). As it turns out, Kirk has made minor misstatements about his military record, just as Blumenthal has.

For the Washington Post’s report, click here. For more material from Steve Benen, just click this.

Kirk’s errors are different from Blumenthal’s—but as far as we can tell, each man’s misstatements have been infrequent, and relatively minor. Unless you read our greatest newspaper, the infallibly inept New York Times.

How has the New York Times treated these rather similar stories? Almost surely, the gods would like us to take instruction from the newspaper’s unbalanced labors. Let’s start with its Blumenthal coverage:

The New York Times “broke” the Blumenthal story with a massive, front-page news report on Tuesday, May 18. The next day, it ran another front-page report about the candidate’s rather small number of misstatements—although, if you were reading the Times, you may have thought that Blumenthal’s misstatements were legion. That same day, the Times ran a lengthy, follow-up news report about Blumenthal’s defense of his record, and it ran a high-minded op-ed column about related matters. Beyond that, the Times ran a scolding editorial, which opened with these deathless words:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (5/19/10): There are few sins less forgivable in American politics than claiming unearned military valor.

Wow! The Times really hates this sort of thing! There are “few sins less forgivable,” the editors nobly declared.

A great deal more Blumenthal coverage followed, although the Times broke its back to keep readers from seeing how limited its case against Blumenthal actually was:

The Times didn’t report that a string of major Connecticut journalists said they had never seen Blumenthal misstate his military record. The Times didn’t report that Jean Risley said she had been misquoted about Blumenthal in the Times’ original hit-piece. The Times didn’t report that Risley quickly said, in public, that she too had never seen Blumenthal misstate his record.

As the Times kept pounding away, it didn’t report those facts.

The Times went very hard on Blumenthal, to the extent of obscuring the record. But surely, that was because the New York Times so loathes this type of sin! Just for the record, here are the word counts from just the first two days as the Times showed how offended it is by these types of misstatements:

Word counts on Blumenthal coverage:
Front-page news report, 5/18/10: 2131 words, plus a large graphic
Front-page news report, 5/19/10: 1140 words
Additional news report, 5/19/10: 1087 words
High-minded op-ed column, 5/19/10: 664 words
Fiery editorial, 5/19/10: 258 words

Them’s a big ole mess of words—and that was just the first two days! As the week proceeded, various players wrote scolding profiles and columns about vile Blumenthal’s terrible conduct, led by—who else?—Maureen Dowd.

That’s the way the New York Times covered Blumenthal’s (handful of) misstatements. Two weeks later, it turned out that Kirk has occasionally misstated his military record too—and Kirk is running for the Senate, just as Blumenthal is! Suddenly, though, the New York Times seems less disturbed by sins of this type. As of this morning, this is the full extent of the mighty newspaper’s coverage:

Word count on Kirk coverage:
News report, page 14, 5/30/10: 511 words

The Times was appalled by Blumenthal’s sins. Kirk’s sins? Not so much.

We know, we know—defenders will say that Blumenthal is a local story for our greatest newspaper. That said, we get the great newspaper’s “Washington Edition” every morning—and the paper’s sprawling Blumenthal coverage adorned our front pages too. For what it’s worth, we think the Times gave appropriate focus to Kirk’s sins; the paper’s error lay in its sprawling, bungled treatment of Blumenthal. But then, this is much as it has always been, as papers like the New York Times have trashed the truthfulness of Big Major Dems over the past twenty years.

Big Republicans? Not so much!

The imbalance in the coverage of these stories has been familiar—and a gift from the gods. That said, the weak-kneed reactions of some major liberals has been quite familiar too. With Obama’s supremacy starting to fail, familiar patterns are reappearing in the political and journalistic currents.

Digby, Tomasky and Conason have flagged these patterns. Other big liberals still fail.

Tomorrow: Pitiful failure

Coming: Joe Sestakgate—back to the 90s!