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Print view: Wallace and Crowley were thoroughly flummoxed by the world's dumbest idea
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ANSWERING KRUGMAN! Wallace and Crowley were thoroughly flummoxed by the world’s dumbest idea: // link // print // previous // next //

Naming Sean Hannity’s name: Something unusual, and very constructive, occurs in today’s New York Times.

In a detailed news report, Sheryl Gay Stolberg provides a chronology of the Shirley Sherrod matter—and in one part of Stolberg’s chronology, she names Sean Hannity’s name! We start with paragraph 10 of a 21-paragraph report, as it appears in our hard-copy Times:

STOLBERG (7/22/10): Fox News began its pursuit of Ms. Sherrod in prime time on Monday night on three successive opinion shows that reached at least three million people. Leading off, [Bill] O’Reilly asked on his top-rated program, “Is there racism in the Department of Agriculture?” He discussed the tape, plugged Mr. Breitbart’s Web site and demanded that Ms. Sherrod resign immediately.

By the time Mr. O’Reilly’s remarks, which were taped in the afternoon, were broadcast, Ms. Sherrod had indeed resigned, a development that Fox’s next host, Mr. Hannity, treated as breaking news at the beginning of his show. He played a short part of what he called the “shocking” video from Mr. Breitbart, and later discussed the development with a panel of guests, mentioning the N.A.A.C.P.’s recent accusations of racism within the conservative Tea Party movement.

“It is interesting they just lectured the Tea Party movement last week,” Mr. Hannity said, telegraphing a talking point that would come up repeatedly on other shows.

Fox’s 10 p.m. show also covered the resignation as breaking news. Ms. Sherrod later said Fox had not tried to contact her before running the video clip repeatedly on Monday.

If we were Stolberg’s editor, we would have dumped that “telegraphing a talking point” language; “stating a framework” would have conveyed the same facts in a less argumentative way. Beyond that, we think Stolberg overstates O’Reilly’s performance on Monday night; on Monday, he only mentioned the Sherrod story in passing, in a brief segment at the end of his program. (On Tuesday night, he doubled down hard in a grisly performance, long after it became clear that this story had been miscast. Last night, O’Reilly repeatedly apologized to Sherrod. This fact appears in Stolberg’s on-line report.)

Stolberg’s report could be improved. But good God! She named Sean Hannity by name, engaging in a rare practice—describing the actual role played by Fox in this unfolding affair.

Unheard of! New York Times readers got to read about the actual role played by Fox, a highly influential player in our national discourse. Good lord! They got to see the Times report on the work of another news org! At the same time, they learned that Fox wasn’t quite the prime mover in this affair, a fact which may have escaped MSNBC’s viewers over the past few evenings. As readers can see in the quoted passage, Stolberg reports that Fox’s pursuit of this case only began on Monday night, after Sherrod had been fired. As far as we know, that is accurate.

(On Monday night, Sherrod wasn’t mentioned by Glenn Beck at 5 PM; by Brit Baier at 6 PM; or by Shepard Smith at 7 PM. The coverage didn’t begin until late in O’Reilly’s program.)

It’s good to see Stolberg naming names and describing the coverage on Fox. Big newspapers like the Times have tended to avoid such reporting, failing to inform their readers about the work done by people like Hannity. Last week, NASA reported that the first six months of 2010 have been “the hottest globally since measurements began in 1880.” That quote comes from Nicholas Kristof’s exceptionally formulaic column on this important subject. Times readers would have been better served if this very cautious fellow had named Sean Hannity’s name—had reminded viewers of the way this consummate fool clowned during last winter’s snowstorm.

That clowning, like the work Stolberg described, was performed for “at least three million people.” It’s news when broadcasters function that way—and the New York Times should report it.

Back to Sherrod. Fox wasn’t the prime mover in this affair, a fact which Stolberg reported. (The prime mover was Andrew Breitbart. We hope the New York Times does further reporting on him.) Last night, MSNBC did some good reporting on the Sherrod matter—and the channel also did some work which was utterly foolish. The liberal world should try very hard to avoid getting turned into dopes, a la Fox. That’s why we think it’s worth considering what Melissa Harris-Lacewell said.

Harris-Lacewell appeared on Countdown, speaking with guest host Lawrence O’Donnell. What follows is the first Q-and-A. O’Donnell’s question was utterly foolish—and the answer was worse:

O’DONNELL (7/21/10): I don’t quite get why this vilification of Shirley Sherrod was so completely successful so very, very quickly before anyone knew the truth. How did this move so fast?

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think it’s simply because the vilification of black women for sport and for political gain has been sort of a basic part of the American political strategy for both the Republican and Democratic parties for a couple of decades now. It certainly began with Ronald Reagan’s attempt to blame a majority of the economic problems of the 1980s on the mythical “welfare queen” who was somehow stealing from government coffers. But it continued into the Clinton administration when Bill Clinton, as a candidate, made an unprovoked attack on Sister Souljah as a way of demonstrating kind of that he was a new and different Democrat who wouldn’t be beholden to typical race issues and it continued when he turned his back on a law school friend in the person of Lani Guinier.

You know, I have to say that, for me, this is not surprising but it is painful to watch it again, even in this administration, how easy it is to assume that an African-American woman deserves to be vilified.

O’Donnell “doesn’t quite get” why this bogus story gained purchase? Good God! As Paul Krugman notes in this post, the press has been relentlessly fooled in this sort of way, going back through the Clinton years; indeed, American discourse has virtually been defined by the widespread acceptance of such bogus tales over the past several decades. What’s actually new in the Sherrod case? The remarkable fact that a bogus tale has now been widely rejected!

Of course, since O’Donnell played a major role in pimping such tales about Clinton, then Gore, the fraudulent fellow has a stake in pretending this history doesn’t exist. But the answer O’Donnell received was even more absurd than his question. Like O’Donnell. Harris-Lacewell seems to be newly arrived from Neptune; she seems completely unaware of the patterns of the past twenty years. Why did the story about Sherrod gain purchase? It must be because she’s a black woman, this big dope from Princeton now said.

What a ridiculous notion! Reagan toyed with his “welfare queen” back in the 1980s. From that point forward, Harris-Lacewell is able to name three examples (including Sherrod) of black women getting unaccountably trashed, one of them being Sister Souljah! For ourselves, we hope Souljah is doing well; it seems that she is now a novelist. But might we remind you of the remarks for which Souljah was criticized by Candidate Clinton, when he found himself sharing a forum with her? This is part of what Sister Souljah had said, just one month before:

SISTER SOULJAH (5/13/92): I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I'm saying? In other words, white people, this government, and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?


You ever heard of Hammurabi's Code? Eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? It's revenge. I mean, that seems so simple. I don't even understand why anybody [would] ask me that question. You take something from me, I take something from you. You cut me, I cut you. You shoot me, I shoot you. You kill my mother, I kill your mother.

One month later, Clinton found himself sharing a forum with Souljah! Do you recall the way politics worked in that era? Do you understand how monumentally stupid Clinton would have been had he had failed to challenge these comments?

Today, all good liberals feel free to name-call the New Black Panthers. We wouldn’t be inclined to do that ourselves, but Souljah’s remarks were right in line with the remarks which have most liberals batting the New Black Panthers around. We’re really dumbing the liberal world down when we present patent nonsense like this. Can’t we just say a prayer for those poor Princeton kids, but keep their professor off our liberal TV shows?

Shirley Sherrod got crucified, just like Sister Souljah before her? As the Times takes a creaking step forward, will MSNBC insist on dumbing the liberal world down?

Special report: Triumph of the dumbest idea!

PART 3—ANSWERING KRUGMAN (permalink): Just try to fathom the deep inanity of the long-standing American discourse—an inanity built on one team’s lying, another team’s feckless incompetence.

In November 1999, Candidate Bush unveiled a tax cut plan—the largest budget proposal in Campaign 2000. For the next eighteen months, Candidate Bush, then President Bush, kept promoting this plan. And in all that time, Bush never suggested, not even once, that federal revenues would somehow increase because of his large tax cuts. For eighteen straight months, the candidate/president said the same thing: His tax cuts would reduce federal revenues by $1.3 trillion over the next ten years.

(Calculating a bit more rigorously, Candidate Gore said the actual cost would be $1.6 trillion or $1.9 trillion. Correctly adding in one more factor, the true projected cost of the cuts computed to $2.2 trillion.)

Bush said it again and again and again: His tax cuts would reduce federal revenues. (This was OK, the candidate said, because of projected surpluses.) But so what? Ten years later, Mitch McConnell suddenly said that Bush’s tax cuts had increased federal revenues. This contradicted everything Candidate Bush ever said about his own brilliant plan.

McConnell had voiced the world’s dumbest idea: If we lower tax rates, we get higher revenue! But in the face of this dumbest idea, we liberals were reduced to tearing our hair, trying to figure what “facts” we could cite to “prove” that this claim wasn’t accurate! When we reacted this way, we showed how thoroughly we still don’t know how to argue these kinds of issues. We showed how thoroughly we’re outdone by the skill—and the sheer gumption—of those on the other side.

How can this dumbest idea persist? You just can’t kill it, Paul Krugman said, quite correctly tearing his hair. Indeed, this dumbest idea has roiled our discourse for thirty years, making a joke of American life. And we liberals, who love to announce that we’re the smart ones, still don’t know how to defeat it!

How does this dumbest idea persist? Krugman asked a very good question. And in part, this dumbest idea can’t be killed because of the mainstream “press.”

Consider what happened on last weekend’s Fox News Sunday when Mike Pence voiced this dumbest idea.

Chris Wallace got off to a decent start, asking a perfectly sensible question about two Republican budget proposals. “Congressman Pence, why is it that extending unemployment benefits has to be paid for, according to Republicans, but extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which would cost $678 billion [over ten years], that doesn’t have to be paid for?”

Good question! In his answer, Pence predictably wandered off-topic, so Wallace asked his question again. In response to this second attempt, Congressman Pence seemed to voice a version of the dumbest idea:

WALLACE (7/18/10): You're not answering my question. I can understand the argument—pay for the unemployment benefits. Why, then, not pay for the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy?

PENCE: Well, I think the reality is that as you study— When President Kennedy cut marginal tax rates, when Ronald Reagan cut marginal rates, when President Bush imposed those tax cuts, they actually generated economic growth. They expand the economy; they expand tax revenue.

Say what? Like Senator McConnell before him, Pence seemed to have voiced the world’s dumbest idea! When Bush imposed his tax cuts, they expanded tax revenue, the congressman dumbestly said.

In this manner, Pence made a claim for Bush’s tax cuts—a claim which contradicted everything Candidate Bush ever said in his run for the White House. Bush had said, again and again, that his tax cuts would reduce federal revenues! In a rational world, a major broadcaster might have challenged Pence’s assertion, noting that his strange assertion flew in the face of Bush’s own claims. “Surely you aren’t trying to say that the Bush tax cuts paid for themselves” this host might have said. “As a candidate, Bush himself said they’d cost $1.3 trillion.”

In a rational world, you could picture that question. Instead, Wallace raised a largely irrelevant point, giving Pence the opportunity to recite even more standard cant:

WALLACE (continuing directly): But the deficit still grew!

PENCE: And so the way— Well, the deficit grew under the Reagan administration and the Bush administration for different reasons, and it had a lot to do with spending.

The reality is that during the Reagan years, for instance, we doubled the amount of revenue that we were sending to Washington, D.C., after the tax cuts took effect.

The point is we've got to get this economy moving again and we can't go back to either the tax-and-spend policies of the Democrats or the tax-cut-and-spend policies of the prior administration.

WALLACE: Let me—

PENCE: —fiscal discipline and tax relief; that's how we get America moving.

At this point, Wallace gave up, as the “press corps” typically does. Bush’s tax cuts expanded federal revenue! The triumph of the world’s dumbest idea had been recorded again.

For the record, Pence’s statements to Wallace were basically true; they just weren’t especially relevant. In part, the deficit did grow under President Bush due to increased federal spending—but that has nothing to do with the consummate dumbness of the world’s dumbest idea. Second claim: Did revenues really double under Reagan after his tax cuts went into effect? Actually, no (though revenues did go up)—and certainly not when it came to income taxes, where the major tax cuts occurred. (Reagan raised tax rates for payroll taxes.) Again, though, that’s not the relevant question. Revenues almost always go up, in part because of increased population and in part because of inflation. The relevant question in this matter involves a different consideration. (How much would revenues have gone up if tax rates hadn’t been changed?)

When Candidate Bush said his tax cuts would cost $1.3 trillion, he meant the following: The government was going to take in $1.3 trillion less than if his tax cuts hadn’t occurred. And here, a terrible fact must be noted, a point we’ll examine tomorrow. A rumination of that type is simply too complex for the men and women of America’s “press corps.” Our press corps simply can’t keep up with a rumination of that complexity They’ve proven this fact again and again—in the long debate about Medicare cuts in the mid-1990s, for example.

Why does the dumbest idea still exist? In part, because liberals don’t know how to attack it. In part, because its rather simple structure is too complex for the people who pose as the “press corps.”

This morning, we’ve looked at Broadcaster Wallace, fumbling badly with Congressman Pence. But people! What about Candy Crowley? On CNN’s State of the Union, Crowley interviewed McConnell himself! And it was McConnell who had set off this flap, voicing the dumbest idea! Republicans could extend Bush’s tax cuts, he had said, because the tax cuts pay for themselves! Every Republican believes that, the senator had seemed to say.

It would be OK to extend the cuts—because these tax cuts increase federal revenues! On Sunday, Crowley conducted a long interview with McConnell—and guess what? She never asked a single question about this, the world’s dumbest idea.

Go ahead—click this link, then start reading! In a long, one-on-one interview, you won’t see a single question about the world’s dumbest idea! How does this zombie idea stay alive? Krugman asked a very good question. Crowley gave part of the answer.

Tomorrow—part 4: What Ezra said