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Journalists never trash the press corps. But last Friday, David Brooks did
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THE ROAD TO TRIVIA! Journalists never trash the press corps. But last Friday, David Brooks did: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 28, 2010

Krugman must be read: In this morning’s column, Paul Krugman makes a gloomy semi-prediction about where we may be heading. (We may be heading toward “The Third Depression.” Just click here.) He describes the global “failure of policy” which is leading us there.

“Why the wrong turn in policy?” he asks. At least in the American sphere, we’ll suggest two major answers:

The Infection of Dumb
The Triumph of Power

The Infection of Dumb has long been obvious in certain major sectors. Question: Are you sure that this infection hasn’t affected the burgeoning new liberal world? More to come on this question.

Krugman’s column deserves a thorough review. Today, though, it has to be read.

Al Sharpton takes yes for an answer: In the past dozen years, we have come to admire Al Sharpton’s wisdom, savvy and good sense concerning matters of race.

One example: Al Sharpton knows how to take yes for an answer! If you doubted that, just check Dana Milbank’s column in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Milbank discusses the recent South Carolina primary, in which Republican voters nominated Tim Scott, a very conservative African-American, to run for the House of Representatives from the state’s 1st congressional district. “And the story gets better,” Milbank writes. You see, one of the candidates Scott defeated was Paul Thurmond, son of the late Strom Thurmond. For well over half a century, the elder Thurmond was an icon in South Carolina politics, dating back to the days when he ran for president as a hard-core segregationist.

Say what? South Carolina’s Republican voters chose a black guy over the son of Strom Thurmond? (Scott also defeated the son of former governor Carroll Campbell.) When Milbank asked Sharpton what he thought about that, Sharpton took yes for an answer:

MILBANK (6/27/10): Scott, who had been embraced by white voters for years at the county and state levels (he even co-chaired Strom Thurmond's Senate reelection campaign in 1996), is a racial outlier.

But that doesn't change the fact that white, conservative voters in Thurmond's Dixie, in the privacy of the voting booth, chose a black man over Strom's son. To savor this irony, I called up the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose great-grandfather is believed to have been a slave owned by Thurmond kin.

"Given that Strom Thurmond's family owned my family, Strom is somewhere trying to think how an African American Republican could beat a relative of his," Sharpton told me. Though he called it a "bittersweet celebration" that voters merely chose "a black reactionary over a white reactionary," it's still a celebration. "You'd have to say there has been some kind of shift in racial attitudes in that area," the civil rights leader said. "When a relative of a segregationist can be defeated by an African American, it's some kind of statement.”

Milbank calls Scott’s nomination an “irony.” We’d call it an advance.

Are Scott and Thurmond “reactionaries?” That’s a matter of judgment. That said, we think Sharpton’s reaction to this recent vote is quite wise. In the past year or so, an entire world of white liberals has happily played a string of race cards; we’ve insisted on advancing familiar slanders in every conceivable circumstance. We think Sharpton is very smart to observe a distinction here—and to observe an advance. Voters in South Carolina’s 1st district are still extremely conservative, he notes. But he’s willing to say that something has changed when they elect an extremely conservative black candidate over other such folk who are white.

Are there still white racists in South Carolina? Presumably, yes—there are. (So too with the other 49 states, though white liberals especially love to race-bait the southern states. This requires very few IQ points.) Indeed, it’s fairly clear that Candidate Obama lost a lot of votes in some deep south states for reasons of race; this seems fairly clear from the 2008 exit polls, which show Obama drawing a much smaller share of the white vote in these states than Candidate Kerry had drawn. For whatever reason, these striking data have rarely been discussed, even as we pseudo-liberals treat ourselves to endless attacks on the “redneck racists” (Janeane Garofalo) who allegedly make up the tea party movement—the entire movement, of course.

Milbank draws the hopeful lesson about that South Carolina vote. As usual, as if by obedience to guild by-laws, he goes on to miss other basic points, including a key point about Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s Republican nominee for goverrnor:

MILBANK: South Carolinians have had plenty to be embarrassed about lately: Mark Sanford's fling in Argentina via the Appalachian Trail, Joe Wilson's "you lie," Jim DeMint's "Waterloo," the preposterous Alvin Greene candidacy, the allegations of [Nikki] Haley's infidelity, the state legislator using the term “raghead” for Obama and Haley (of Sikh ancestry), the state GOP activist who called an escaped gorilla one of Michelle Obama’s ancestors.

Milbank’s list includes a lot of the usual unexplained fluff. (Are all South Carolinians supposed to be embarrassed about Sanford’s fling? Why?) His list also includes some conduct which goes well beyond “embarrassing,” including the sad, stupid, fallen remarks about ragheads and escaped gorillas. But you know Milbank! Even as he offers a column about changing attitudes in South Carolina, he cruises right past a basic point concerning the insult aimed at Haley. To wit:

When a good ol’ boy called Haley a “raghead,” the state’s Republican voters weren’t buying! Just as they nominated Clark, a black guy, they went ahead and nominated Haley, an Indian-American.

To which we say: Good for them!

Al Sharpton, taking yes for an answer, notes the advance in the racial horizon of this very conservative state. For genuine progressives, the next step in South Carolina is clear: Progressives need to find ways to convince Palmetto voters that Scott’s politics are no good.

Sharpton’s hopeful observation lets us look to that next step, a step which will be very hard. Those of us who enjoy yelling race pretty much won’t take the message.

Same word, same idea: In this morning’s New York Times, Noah Feldman makes a similar observation about the larger society’s advance. No one cares that Elena Kagan is Jewish! We’ve come a long way, Feldman says:

FELDMAN (6/28/10): Five years ago, the Supreme Court, like the United States, had a plurality of white Protestants. If Elena Kagan—whose confirmation hearings begin today—is confirmed, that number will be reduced to zero, and the court will consist of six Catholics and three Jews.

It is cause for celebration that no one much cares about the nominee’s religion. We are fortunate to have left behind the days when there was a so-called “Catholic seat” on the court, or when prominent Jews (including the publisher of this newspaper) urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 not to nominate Felix Frankfurter because they worried that having “too many” Jews on the court might fuel anti-Semitism.

“It is cause for celebration,” Feldman says, describing the advance of the larger society. That’s pretty much what Sharpton said about South Carolina—even as he looked ahead to the next difficult step.

Special report: How we got here!

PART ONE—THE ROAD TO TRIVIA (permalink): What really happened when Stanley McChrystal (and his staff) made their now-famous remarks? Over the weekend, David Brooks and Frank Rich offered two different ideas.

To Brooks, the remarks were probably standard piffle—pretty much not worth reporting. To Rich, the remarks represent an assault on all we hold dear by a general who was “out of control.” Rolling Stone has saved the republic by building its profile around them.

Whose account is more on the mark? In the particular instance, we have no idea. But in the course of his column, Brooks offered a history of American journalism over the past (perhaps) sixty years. Here’s the shocker: His portrait of modern press culture is quite unflattering—and it’s quite accurate.

Granted, Brooks’ portrait is brief—and we think he takes it easy on some of his most famous colleagues. But it’s very rare to see major journalists talking smack about the press corps’ culture. Darlings, this sort of thing just isn’t done! For that reason, we think this column deserves examination.

Today, a quick overview.

In Brooks’ history, the mainstream press has undergone a culture change in the past sixty years. At one time—think Jack Kennedy in the White House pool—the establishment press corps operated from a “culture of reticence:”

BROOKS (6/25/10): During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly—and maybe too gently—on public duties.

When Dear Jack carried on in the pool, we rubes didn’t have to know it. After all, Kennedy was capably performing his duties in the public sphere. Brooks suggests that this “culture of reticence” may have been overdone in such cases. But as he continues, he describes the way this prevailing culture changed. In three basic steps, the culture of reticence was tossed away. A hunt for exposure prevailed:

BROOKS (continuing directly): Then, in 1961, Theodore H. White began his “The Making of the President” book series. This series treated the people who worked inside the boiler rooms of government as the star players. It put the inner dramas at center stage.

Then, after Vietnam, an ethos of exposure swept the culture. The assumption among many journalists was that the establishment may seem upstanding, but there is a secret corruption deep down. It became the task of journalism to expose the underbelly of public life, to hunt for impurity, assuming that the dark hidden lives of public officials were more important than the official performances.

Then came cable, the Internet, and the profusion of media sources. Now you have outlets, shows and Web sites whose only real interest is the kvetching and inside baseball.

In Brooks’ capsule history, three important things happened:

First, Teddy White wrote a famous series of books, starting in 1961. These books began to pull some traditional curtains away, showing us politicians as they actually are.

Then, Vietnam led journalists (and others) to think that politicians’ hearts of darkness had to be explored and exposed.

Finally, the rise of cable and the Net produced a warren of noise machines. News entities had to kill time all day, or churn many pixels—and they had to attract an audience. Since it was now OK to discuss private lives and “inside baseball,” that’s what these new orgs did, pretty much all the time.

As he continues, Brooks describes where this cultural change has led—and he scalds the prevailing culture of the modern press corps:

BROOKS (continuing directly): In other words, over the course of 50 years, what had once been considered the least important part of government became the most important. These days, the inner soap opera is the most discussed and the most fraught arena of political life.

“The inner soap opera” is now central, Brooks says, correctly describing American discourse. Later, he offers his overview of this cultural change:

BROOKS: The reticent ethos had its flaws. But the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important.

We have gone from a “reticence ethos” to an “exposure ethos,” Brooks says. This new culture has “elevated the trivial over the important.”

In the next few days, we plan to find a bit of fault with some of the things Brooks has said—while noting that he only had 800 words to fashion this history. But Brooks’ brief history of journalistic culture is a rare bird indeed.

Perhaps as a courtesy, Brooks never quite says he’s discussing the press corps, but this is clearly a history of modern journalism. And omigod! His basic portrait is quite unflattering—and it’s right square on the mark.

The modern press corps is built around the pursuit of trivia, Brooks says. Its culture is devoted to exploring “the inner soap opera”—matters which were once regarded as “the least important part of government.” Let’s speak a bit more plainly here—Brooks is describing the Triumph of Dumb, its powerful hold on American discourse.

Your country is dying from this cultural triumph. But very few journalists, and very few liberals, ever come out and describe it.

Tomorrow—part 2: Blaming cable, deep-sixing Dowd

Wednesday—part 3: At least two additional ethoses

Thursday: On to Rosen!