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Daily Howler: When it comes to the press corps' trivia tours, voters must learn to say no
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WEDDING TRASHERS! When it comes to the press corps’ trivia tours, voters must learn to say no: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JULY 20, 2007

THINGS WE DIDN’T GET TO: Here are a couple of things we didn’t get to this week:

Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves: The Washington Post got it (largely) right in this detailed report about those threatened ice shelves. (We asked for such an inquiry a few months ago; on Monday, Juliet Eilperin delivered.) We will offer a minor complaint: We wish Eilperin had asked more climate scientists for their personal views of this matter. Might these ice sheets go in this century? What sorts of odds would they offer? Last year, James Hansen said this could be a problem in the next fifty years. Eilperin largely failed to address this. We understand that scientists aren’t offering precise predictions. But RE these sheets, where was the beef?

Hip replacement hoohah: On Monday, Paul Krugman pretty much left the iconic “hip replacements in Canada” story for dead. Yes, Americans have a somewhat shorter wait than Canadians, he said—but most of those operations are done as part of our own Medicare system! “That's right,” Kruggers explained. “[T]he hip-replacement gap is actually a comparison of two government health insurance systems. American Medicare has shorter waits than Canadian Medicare (yes, that's what they call their system) because it has more lavish funding—end of story. The alleged virtues of private insurance have nothing to do with it.” This raises an obvious question: If Krugman is right, why has this iconic story gone unchallenged so long? We have some thoughts about that. But thanks to the press corps’ devotion to trivia, we couldn’t get to them this week.

One number goes missing: Here we go again! In this morning’s Times, Robert Pear reports on the SCHIP debate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/19/07)—but one key number was suddenly missing, a number included in yesterday’s Post. In Pear’s report, we learn how much the SCHIP program currently costs—and we learn how much Bush is proposing. Can you see the key number that has been dropped? Egad! This is exactly how we got so confused during the endless, mid-90s Medicare debate. Go ahead—see if you can spot today’s missing number. We organized the numbers quite simply in our own Thursday post.

Jane gets all up in Bill’s face: Regarding the Daily Kos/JetBlue matter, Bill O’Reilly’s conduct this week has been little short of astounding—an insult to the American system. Last night, Jane Hall spoke back rather frankly to Bill about the way he’s been cherry-picking. (Bernie Goldberg, of course, rolled over and died, as Dennis Miller had done Wednesday night. You could tell that Dennis knew better.) Why is O’Reilly so free to do this? We may chat about this next week.

THE END OF OUR (MOST RECENT) TRIVIA TOUR: We’ve been on a trivia tour, sent there by the mainstream “press corps.” Why not enjoy our earlier posts before we all learn to say no:

Day 1: Foser knows trivia—but then, so does Mik. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/07.

Day 2: The press corps continued its trivia tour as Edwards talked about poverty. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/17/07.

Day 3: Campaign fund-raising reports were released—and the Washington Post loved the trivia. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/18/07.

Day 4: Ferchrist’s sake, Digby correctly complained, as Jake Tapper fished for new trivia. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/19/07.

Today: If we could wave a magic wand, we’d teach voters one thing: Just say no!

WEDDING TRASHERS: By now, the pattern is perfectly obvious. When “journalists” stage their trivia tours, they follow three simple steps. We’ll include the way it worked this week as the press corps pimped more perfect nonsense:
Step 1: They seize on some trivial matter. (Chilean sea bass was on the menu at Sarah Gore’s rehearsal dinner!)

Step 2: They bungle the facts/they torture the logic. (They forget to say that he dinner was staged by Sarah Gore’s in-laws, not by her parents.)

Step 3: They draw a sweeping conclusion about character. (Al Gore is such a phony! Omigod! He’s done it again!)
Or, as Jake Tapper so stupidly put it: “Could this be seen as the environmentalist version of Sen. David Vitter's public sanctimony/private enjoyment of love with a red-lit glow?” And no—you can’t get dumber.

But readers, it’s just as it ever was! Again, Gore’s character came under assault—again, for something he hadn’t done. But then, that three-step formula has long been the way the press corps is able to generate content. And yes—as the press corps has increasingly become an upper-class entity, this formula has increasingly been aimed at Big Dems. In the 1980s, the corps’ empty souls were still churning tales about people like the elder George Bush. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/23/07. Scroll down to HOWLER HISTORY.) But it has been a very long time since silly trivia of this type were used to take down a major Rep pol. It was done to Gore, for two solid years, until we had George Bush in the White House. And today, we hear—again and again—about John Edwards’ house and haircut.

Sensible people should be mad about this. But how should such people react?

Last week, readers reacted in a way that is understandable, but almost surely unwise. Last Monday, for instance, we got this missive from a sensible reader:
E-MAIL (7/9/07): The endless inane discussion about Edwards' $400 haircut is played against him without any investigation or discussion about how much money the other candidates spend on their haircuts and make-overs, particularly the Republican ones. Why is the price of the haircut relevant only when Edwards is concerned and not the other candidates?

I have noticed that affluent living is only used against the Democratic candidates to portray them in a negative, elitist, and negative light. Why not the Republicans? Especially when they are far richer than any of the Democratic presidents or candidates, like George W. Bush.

I would be interested in reading anything else you might have to say about this matter.
The mailer’s thought was perfectly sensible: In fairness, he thought we ought to hear about the haircut habits of Republicans too. A second mailer, on the same day, took a street-fighting approach:
E-MAIL: I think it has become time to make “haircuts” public knowledge throughout the entire presidential running candidates!!! After all what else do you NEED TO KNOW about our candidates? Who would YOU like to “have a beer with”—the “slick haircut” man or the rough & tumble MAN who doesn't even know his barber, or when the last time he even got a haircut! (Yea sure & if you believe Bush doesn't know who “does” his do—I have a bridge to sell ya)

Do you know of anyone who has the “stomach” for this kind of research? What we NEED TO KNOW AND KNOW IT NOW & TO SHOUT IT OUT TO THE PRINT WORLD—THE TABLOIDS/MSM WORLD and anywhere else we can get it out to the public, maybe the blogs can start a blog campaign. Let the entire universe know how IMPORTANT ALL the candidates haircuts REALLY ARE. Why is John Edwards the only one to get this fantastic amount of coverage???
This mailer—a seventy-year-old grandmother—continued. But we think you get her (street-fighting) point.

These readers both wondered if it might not make sense to insist that all hopefuls get the trivia treatment. In our view, that would be an unwise approach for Democrats, now and in the future. On the one hand, it would mean that we ourselves were agreeing to wallow in inane, silly tales—that we were agreeing to be as dumb as the mainstream press corps itself. But in our view, there’s a second, more basic reason why this is a bad approach.

Reason? In coming decades, the mainstream press corps will continue to be an upper-class entity. For this reason, their dull, slow minds will constantly tell them that Democrats and liberals are the big fakes—and that Republicans are highly “authentic.” (This has been their clear-cut pattern over the past fifteen years.) If we give them a license to talk about trivia, their trivial tales will almost always work against the interests of Dems. It would be silly to talk about everyone’s haircuts. And there’s little chance that the press corps will ever be balanced if we ourselves further such tales.

Nope! When it comes to press corps trivia, we have to help voters learn a key lesson. When journalists start to talk about trivia, we have to do this: Just say no!
Alarm bells should go off in voters’ heads when journalists start to talk about trivia. Liberals should work in the coming years to bring this idea to the voters.

When they talk trivia, they’re trying to misdirect you! Let’s be clear: Gore would have reached the White House if more voters had such ideas in 1999 and 2000. But it won’t be easy to teach voters this lesson. Just look at the way high-ranking liberals still react to these trivial tales:

Democratic strategist Mark Mellman: On Tuesday, the Washington Post’s Perry Bacon reported the start of the Edwards poverty tour (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/17/07). But you know how the press corps works! Before Bacon could tell us what Edwards had said, he had to remind us of all that key trivia! Democrats have to learn to reject this focus. But omigod! Look at the role a Democratic strategist played in Bacon’s report:
BACON (7/17/07): Trailing his two main rivals, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in fundraising and in most polls, Edwards has been unable to make much headway in part because of a series of controversies that cast doubt on the image he has cultivated as a millionaire lawyer who as the son of a millworker understands the plight of those with less than he has.

First there was publicity about the 28,000-square-foot mansion in North Carolina he was building, then the disclosure that he had charged a pair of $400 haircuts to his campaign, then the further disclosure that the hedge fund he worked for after the 2004 election employed the kind of overseas tax shelters he has deplored on the campaign trail.

"Voters vote mainly on who the person is. He's trying to communicate a message about who he is, a person who does not forget where he comes from," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is not working for any of the party's 2008 hopefuls. "The haircut issue is significant in that context; it cuts against the story."
In fairness, we can’t know all that Mellman said. And what he says here is technically accurate. But good grief, what hapless messaging! Let’s guess that Mellman didn’t say the following when Bacon presented his trivia:
MELLMAN REVISED: Perry, these stories are total trivia—just perfect distractions. John Edwards is the son of a mill worker who has done quite well for himself in the world. He wants other people to have that same chance. As we all know—as you yourself surely know—there is no earthly reason why a wealthy person can’t understand, and care about, the plight of the poor. Everyone knows that—it’s a large part of American history. These stories are trivia—nothing more, nothing less. Voters should be very suspicious when trivia are used to distract attention from a candidate’s actual program. It’s silly to judge a candidate’s “character” on the basis of such perfect trivia.
At this point, why would a Democrat ever say what Mellman was quoted saying to Bacon? But Mellman wasn’t the only Big Liberal reinforcing these trivia this week.

Liberal columnist E. J. Dionne: Omigod! It was Mellman Redux when we read the start of this morning’s column. At this point, why would a liberal ever frame a story this way?
DIONNE (7/20/07): John Edwards may be running third in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but he has already changed the national conversation on a crucial issue. Poverty is no longer a hidden subject in American politics.

Be as skeptical of Edwards as you want to be. Yes, he has had some trouble since he joined the 3-H Club—the $400 haircut, building a 28,000-square-foot house and taking $500,000 in payments from a hedge fund. Yes, he has gotten political traction among liberals out of saying endlessly that ending poverty is "the cause of my life."

Moreover, Barack Obama was right to say Wednesday that his early community organizing work shows that poverty "is not an issue I just discovered for the purposes of a campaign." For that matter. Hillary Clinton began her professional life laboring to eradicate child poverty.

The difference is that by harping on the issue, Edwards—whatever his motivations—has forced Democrats to abandon their fear of being seen as too focused on the needs of the poor and has thus opened political space for his rivals.
As you can see, Dionne has positive things to say about Edwards’ role in this campaign. But at this point, why in the world would any liberal say the things we’ve highlighted there? “Be as skeptical of Edwards as you want to be”—over the size of his house? Why on earth would any liberal still make suggestions like that?

Good grief! If you’ve lived on this planet in the past fifteen years, you know the way such trivial matters have been used to attack Major Democrats. Gore, of course, is the prime example. His failure to reach the White House—his earth tones were troubling—has been a disaster for the U.S. and the world. But so what! Even after watching all that, E. J.—a smart and decent person—invites his readers to “be as skeptical of Edwards as you want to be.” And he instantly recites the major trivia that have been used to undermines voters’ view of Edwards’ sincerity and character! But then, inside Washington, establishment liberals and Democrats often seem congenitally unable to understand the shape of the past fifteen years. Haircuts—and earth tones—have destroyed the known world! But so what? Dems and libs keep reciting these trivia! We keep inviting the public to draw conclusions from these idiot tales.

Are such trivia always worthless? Not necessarily—but voters should be on an endless alert. As Tapper helped remind us this week, our “press corps” is crawling with inane wedding trashers; they’ve spent the past fifteen years combing through Democrats’ garbage dumps looking for nonsense to pass off as news. They keep pleasing their millionaire bosses with silly tales about wedding dinners—and major liberals and Democratic strategists keep vouching for their focus!

In the next few months, we hope to engage some liberal press critics in a new, street-fighting venture; good sound advice for the nation’s voters could emerge from such a project. But if we could wave a magic wand once, this would be the one key rule we’d put in the hearts of the voters:
When it comes to trivia, just say no.
Liberals have to tell the public: When journalists come to you bearing trivia, all your alarm bells ought to go off. They’re rich, they’re empty—and they love misdirection. Voters must learn the basic rule: When it comes to trivia, just say no!

A COMMENTER’S ENCORE: Once again, here’s that Digby commenter, describing the world of the Tappers:
COMMENTER: these people are nihilists. they sit around in their offices laughing about this shit. it's a big crackup to them. they absolutely do not give a damn about anything, nor do they know anything, or want to. they have the intellectual capacity of sand dollars, and a moral capacity quite a bit lower than that.
“This shit,” of course, is all the trivia these journos have used to shape our discourse.