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PLANET OF THE PRESS CORPS! The editors have an astounding idea: “Let’s explain this to the voters!” // link // print // previous // next //

One of the worst segments ever: On Tuesday, out in Beverly Hills, the elders brought the brilliant child forward, letting the press corps gape at her answers. Later, when she spoke to a home-town reporter, she explained how her own channel’s work differs from that at Fox:

BARNEY (8/3/11): One of the people behind [MSNBC’s] success is East Bay native Rachel Maddow, whose evening ratings are up 23 percent over a three-month period ending in June. Her reward? A brand-new contract extension that will keep her at MSNBC for, um, well, she doesn't want to talk about it.

"It's for a few years. That's all I'm saying," she said when approached after the news conference.


Maddow, who grew up in Castro Valley, bristles at the often-uttered assertion that MSNBC is simply the political and ideological polar opposite of Fox News.

"I think that's a caricature of us ... but I don't think it's a fair caricature," she said, claiming that MSNBC brings more "nuance" to its presentation and is "more unpredictable."

To enjoy the “nuance” Maddow brings to her work, we’ll suggest you watch her Wednesday and Thursday reports about the now-settled FAA dispute. The Wednesday report is especially instructive. To watch that full segment, click here.

This “report” was more than eleven minutes long. Indeed, Maddow’s opening monologue lasted more than seven minutes all by itself. But go ahead—watch the whole thing! Were you ever told, in any real way, what this dispute was about? Don’t get us wrong! As Maddow goes on and on and on, you do get handed the bumper stickers you should repeat about this dispute; repeatedly, you learn that you’re supposed to say that the Republicans were “trying to break the backs of American unions” through their “union-busting demands”—in their “union-stripping” behavior.

Granted, you learned what phrases you should repeat. But did Maddow ever try to explain what this dispute was about?

In fact, Maddow’s presentations in the past two nights have been examples of pure propaganda. There wasn’t an ounce of “nuance” to them—though she did engage in the ludicrous, screeching, hey-look-at-me conduct which is her stock in trade. (Catch her screeching review of the last Super Bowl in the first two minutes of Wednesday’s segment. And people, don’t be afraid to adore her! That’s what this shit’s all about!) For ourselves, we wouldn’t say the GOP was “trying to break the backs of American unions” in this latest dispute. But we wouldn’t have any idea what to say from watching Maddow’s worthless report. It was nothing but propaganda and bumper-stickers, delivered with no hint of nuance.

In our view, MSNBC is more like Fox every day—though as with Fox, the channel’s ditto-head viewers insist there is no comparison. But for a truly gruesome segment, we recommend the performance by Matthews, Fineman and Walsh from Wednesday evening’s Hardball. We’d have to say it’s one of the worst cable segments we’ve ever seen.

To watch this god-awful segment, click here. But first, a bit of background:

As everyone knows, Obama has taken a beating among liberals in the wake of the debt limit deal. Fairly plainly, the Wednesday evening Hardball segment was an attempt to counteract that reaction, which may not coordinate well with this channel’s business model.

When Cenk Uygur recently left this channel, he claimed that the channel’s management strategy pretty much involved propping Obama. We can’t tell you if Uygur was right about his own interactions with network suits. But it’s hard to watch this Foxified Hardball segment without recalling the things Uygur said.

Rather plainly, this segment was designed to restore viewer sympathy for embattled Obama. This was done by jacking up the viewer’s loathing for those who would oppose him, especially by playing every possible race card, then moving on to secession.

As they started, Matthews and Fineman returned to Inaugural Day 2009. Everyone was out on the mall—everyone but the secessionists!

FINEMAN (8/3/11): I was out there on the Mall when Obama was, the president was inaugurated. You thought that perhaps all of America was out there. There were 1.5 million people there.


FINEMAN: But it wasn’t all of America. It was Barack Obama’s America. And the people on the right, the conservatives, the corporate leaders for the most part, decided from day one that that crowd that they saw on the Mall, and that president that they saw taking the oath, was not their president.

MATTHEWS: It was like the secessionists. You know, the way you said that, the way you phrased it because of your history sense, was almost like even as he was being inaugurated, the voices of secession were uniting in the South and planning to bring this guy down. Right? And to divide.

FINEMAN: Well, that’s my view of it.

It’s hard to get more clownish than that, even if you’re on Fox. But as these long-standing hustlers went on and on, so did their rank propaganda. The boys pushed every racial hot button, trying to bring viewers back to the fold. Heroically, Fineman returned to the secession theme a bit later on. (Enjoy a good laugh when Matthews refers to “the racial part of this,” saying “I hate to say it.”)

Matthews and Fineman played all their cards, in the most ludicrous manner. And then, there was the code of silence engaged in by Joan Walsh. The problem began when Matthews made the following oddball comment:

MATTHEWS: You know, my executive producer here, runs this show, basically, has said for a while now that the Republicans cannot stand the idea of a Democrat being president.

WALSH: Well—

MATTHEWS: And I was thinking back, Howard, that goes back to Eisenhower. When did they first lay claim to the United States presidency?

That goes back to Eisenhower? We have no real idea what that meant. But a few minutes later, Walsh returned to this framework. When she did, she told you the truth—or at least, as much of the truth as this channel allows:

WALSH: The only thing I guess I would add—and to go back your brilliant executive producer, because all your staff is brilliant, is he’s right, that this also goes back to Bill Clinton because, you know, Bill Clinton had his problems, had his problems, but the effort to delegitimize him, to say he was involved with running drugs, to say he was involved with murder, with poor Vince Foster, that was coming from Jerry Falwell, that was coming from the Arkansas Project—


WALSH: —that was even coming from Congress, it was similar. It wasn’t the same, but it was similar. There was a real dehumanization of this man as our leader. He just wasn’t fit, and he could be accused of literally anything, anything—

MATTHEWS: It’s funny that—

WALSH: —and it tore the country apart.

MATTHEWS: Yes. It’s funny, you guys, the worst thing the left can say about somebody is not that they’re not American. They usually accept the fact the other side is American. They just call them idiots. Anyway–I’m serious! That seems to be the worst you can say about a right- winger. The worst thing you can say about a left-winger is, “He’s not one of us.”

WALSH: Right.

The worst thing you can say about a left-winger is, “He’s not one of us!” Surely, Matthews should know about that! You see, that is precisely what Matthews said about Al Gore in the fall of 2001, on the Imus program, at a time when Matthews was still in the employ of Jack Welch. (“He doesn't look like one of us,” Matthews disgracefully said. “He doesn't seem very American, even.”)

We’ll assume Walsh knows that Matthews said that, but she surely knows something else. She surely knows that the Clinton-hating conduct she describes was also “coming from” Hardball during those horrible years. No one chased Bill Clinton around any more than Matthews did, during the years when Jack Welch was making him wealthy; in March 1999, he transferred this ugly, disgraceful pursuit over to Candidate Gore. Fineman was Matthews’ right-hand man in the twenty months of repulsive Gore-trashing. There was nothing these two didn’t say and do. George Bush ended up in the White House.

Joan Walsh understands these facts. She just won’t tell them to you.

Matthews and Fineman are horrible people. In 1999 and 2000, they played a very active role in changing world history. As of today, they’re also quislings; they now play the fool for the other side. And Walsh is now along for the ride. She wouldn’t tell you the truth about these matters if her country’s life was at stake—which, of course, it is.

This is nothing like Fox, Darling Rachel would say. On Hardball, you get so much nuance!

We strongly suggest you watch that segment. It’s one of the worst cable segments we’ve ever seen. The reaction to the Joe Walsh tape is especially pathetic. (File under: Never explain. Propagandize.)

A nation simply can’t function this way. If you doubt that, take a good look around!

Special report: The discourse you rode in on!

PART 3—PLANET OF THE PRESS CORPS (permalink): The editors make an astounding proposal in today’s New York Times. Within our culture, it just isn’t done—but the editors go there anyway!

In this morning’s editorial, the editors sensibly say that the debt limit should be eliminated. But good lord! In service to that sensible goal, look at what they suggest:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (8/5/11): The debt limit should ideally be dispensed with, but, at a minimum, it can no longer be held for ransom. The president and Congress are free to continue talks to reduce the deficit, but not while the economy is dangling in the balance. The president should assemble a coalition of business leaders, mayors, governors and ordinary Americans ready to spend the next year explaining to voters why the debt limit should be eliminated, or blunted as a tool to change budgetary policy. If Democrats continuously remind the country how dangerous this path is, Republicans may think twice about repeating it.

Someone should “explain this to voters!” Darlings! It just isn’t done!

For our money, this editorial makes perfect sense—but we almost spat our Ovaltine out when we read that highlighted sentence. It’s ironic to see the New York Times make that suggestion, since the paper made little attempt to explain any part of the months-long debt limit fight.

That isn’t the fault of the editorial board; as we’ve noted, readers routinely get more information from Times editorials than from the paper’s feckless “news pages.” But during the recent debt limit fight, very few things got explained to voters on the Times’ alleged “news pages.” No one explained what would occur if the debt limit didn’t get raised. No one explained the role of the Bush tax cuts in creating our current deficits. Did anyone ever try to explain the likely role of federal spending cuts during an economic downturn?

Even at the top of our “press corps,” voters rarely see things get explained. And propaganda abhors a vacuum! In the absence of explanations, voters hear the darnedest things from other post-journalist news orgs. On Monday evening, to cite one example, misused viewers of Fox News saw Mr. O say this:

O'REILLY (8/1/11): Congressman Cleaver is misleading you. America can take care of the poor and the elderly in a responsible way. Change the tax code—that can happen. But Mr. Cleaver doesn't want that. He wants to redistribute income. And so does Paul Krugman.

KRUGMAN (videotape): From the perspective of a rational person—in other words of a progressive—on this stuff, we shouldn't be talking about spending cuts at all now. We have nine percent unemployment. These spending cuts are going to worsen unemployment. That's not even—it's even going to hurt the long-run fiscal picture because we have a situation where more and more people are becoming permanent long-term unemployed.

O'REILLY: Now you may remember Professor Krugman supported a massive stimulus spending package saying it would bring down unemployment. He said it over and over and over again; it didn't happen. But instead of learning his lesson, Krugman demands even more stimulus spending. And this guy teaches economics at Princeton University? How much is the tuition there?

Mr. O took that video clip from Sunday’s This Week. On that program, Krugman went out of his way to make a key point; he noted that he had said all along that the Obama stimulus package wouldn’t be large enough. (He then made the same accurate point in Monday morning’s column.) But so what? Mr. O (or his staff) played viewers for fools, pretending that Krugman had endorsed Obama’s “massive stimulus spending package.” As the Times refuses to explain basic things, others “explain” what’s untrue.

But then, voters hear the darnedest things all over the cable dial. On that same Monday evening, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) appeared on Piers Morgan Live. He offered a ginormous howler—and Morgan let it pass:

MORGAN (8/1/11): The real problem, though, Congressman, is that actually the reality is that the American people are watching these farcical scenes in Washington and they believe it's a complete disconnect between politicians today in America and ordinary members of the public, because what they have seen over the last 11, 12 years is a dysfunctional series of administrations taking the economy in this country into the cart.

MACK: I agree with you 100 percent, and that's why for up until now all we've been doing is spending more and taxing more. That is not the way forward. The way forward is to cut spending. So right now, did you know that we spend about 7.5 percent more a year every year?

So if you try to take that from 7.5 to, let's say, 6 percent, that's considered a cut in Washington. No one back home would believe that if they got an increase year after year, and if you took a little bit from that, then that would be a cut.

We need to get serious, and the people out in America are saying, “Tell us the truth, give us a solution.”

Really? Has someone been “taxing more?” Who in the world has that been? The New York Times has refused to explain the role of Bush’s tax cuts in the budget debacle. At the same time, hustlers like Mack offer scripted deceptions, even as they picture voters saying, “Tell us the truth.”

This is the shape of the public discourse you and your neighbors rode in on. (This includes those neighbors who aren’t inclined to vote the same way you do.) Essentially, your country no longer has newspapers. Potemkin “newspapers” are published each day, giving the public a pleasing illusion. But these successors to newspapers rarely explain squadoosh or even squadoodle. And in the place of such explanations, hacks like O’Reilly and Mack—and Matthews and Maddow—keep handing American voters grotesque imitations of life.

The liberal world rarely seems to notice the failure of the overall discourse. We notice the deceptions on Fox. But we rarely notice the overall failure of the reigning, upper-end “news orgs,” especially those which give us our jobs—and it’s completely against the law to see what Matthews and Maddow are doing. We don’t denounce the Noceras and Dowds, who say nothing at all in real time, then engage in name-calling after the damage is done. In fact, we love it when they issue their insults, including the insults they aim at the millions of voters who have seen nothing explained.

Insults are pretty much all we have. In truth, we’re every bit as dumb as “those people” in the other tribe are.

At the upper end of the mainstream press corps, the liberal world has one explainer; that person’s name is Paul Krugman. Twice a week, he explains X, Y or Z. In the past ten years, about 95 percent of what liberals know has come to us from Paul Krugman.

That’s why the end of the world is surely near when even Krugman starts getting it wrong, as he so dramatically did in his column from Friday, July 29. Good God! Did he really say this at the start of that column?

KRUGMAN (7/29/11): The facts of the crisis over the debt ceiling aren't complicated. Republicans have, in effect, taken America hostage, threatening to undermine the economy and disrupt the essential business of government unless they get policy concessions they would never have been able to enact through legislation. And Democrats—who would have been justified in rejecting this extortion altogether—have, in fact, gone a long way toward meeting those Republican demands.

As I said, it's not complicated. Yet many people in the news media apparently can't bring themselves to acknowledge this simple reality.

You may agree with Krugman’s account, though we wouldn’t put it that way ourselves. But can it be true that our brightest player thinks he’s really reciting “the facts” when he describes what happened this way? Obviously, it isn’t a “fact” to say that Republicans “have taken America hostage;” Krugman acknowledges as much when he adds the key words, “in effect.” You may agree with the thrust of this account, but Krugman isn’t reciting “the facts.” Nor was he reciting “the facts” when he ended his column with this jumbled account:

KRUGMAN: So what's with the buzz about a centrist uprising? As I see it, it's coming from people who recognize the dysfunctional nature of modern American politics, but refuse, for whatever reason, to acknowledge the one-sided role of Republican extremists in making our system dysfunctional. And it's not hard to guess at their motivation. After all, pointing out the obvious truth gets you labeled as a shrill partisan, not just from the right, but from the ranks of self-proclaimed centrists.

But making nebulous calls for centrism, like writing news reports that always place equal blame on both parties, is a big cop-out—a cop-out that only encourages more bad behavior. The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you're not willing to say that, you're helping make that problem worse.

You may believe that “the problem...right now is Republican extremism,” but that belief isn’t a “fact.” Beyond that, “news reports” aren’t exactly supposed to “place blame” for situations at all. Krugman is a superb policy man, by far the best the liberal world has. But in this column, he adopted some of the frameworks of our least impressive press critics. And yes, such lack of clarity actually does matter, especially when it reaches all the way to the only person on our side who has been able to explain anything at all.

Krugman’s important column that day dealt with the press corps’ failures. He was talking about important problems, but doing so rather poorly. Once again, we call your attention to a cultural problem—Krugman’s refusal to tell the world who he is talking about.

Krugman makes sweeping claims in the following passage. The claims he makes are very important. But who is he talking about?

KRUGMAN (continuing directly): Some of us have long complained about the cult of ''balance,'' the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read ''Views Differ on Shape of Planet.'' But would that cult still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom?

The answer, it turns out, is yes. And this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won't punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault.

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. As you may know, President Obama initially tried to strike a ''Grand Bargain'' with Republicans over taxes and spending. To do so, he not only chose not to make an issue of G.O.P. extortion, he offered extraordinary concessions on Democratic priorities: an increase in the age of Medicare eligibility, sharp spending cuts and only small revenue increases. As The Times's Nate Silver pointed out, Mr. Obama effectively staked out a position that was not only far to the right of the average voter's preferences, it was if anything a bit to the right of the average Republican voter's preferences.

But Republicans rejected the deal. So what was the headline on an Associated Press analysis of that breakdown in negotiations? ''Obama, Republicans Trapped by Inflexible Rhetoric.'' A Democratic president who bends over backward to accommodate the other side—or, if you prefer, who leans so far to the right that he's in danger of falling over—is treated as being just the same as his utterly intransigent opponents. Balance!

In that passage, Krugman starts with a very good joke—a joke about an alleged “cult of balance.” The joke imagines some foolish conduct on the part of the press corps. But did anything like that really occur in the course of the debt limit fight?

As he continues, Krugman discusses that “cult of balance.” He says this cult produces “reporting on political disputes [which] always implies that both sides are to blame.”  He says this cult “has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster.” But who is Krugman talking about? For his one example, he cites this AP news report, written on July 12. But can we talk? There was nothing wrong with that news report, except for a lightly bungled headline, which paraphrased the first paragraph poorly. Sorry: News reports like that did not “play an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster.” Whoever Krugman is talking about, that just can’t be it.

Who was Krugman really discussing in that important column? By long-standing rules of professional courtesy, Krugman once again didn’t say. As he continued, he correctly said this: “Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself.”

Presumably, those pundits all have names. Presumably, some of them are quite influential. But none of their names were actually cited. Another thing went unexplained.

Krugman has been a journalistic hero in the past eleven years. (In part, that’s why O’Reilly goes on TV and talks all that smack about him.) Almost everything we liberals know has come from his columns and books. By way of contrast, what have you learned from E. J. Dionne? Go ahead! We’ll wait!

But alas! Krugman works inside a Potemkin press corps which refuses to explain things to voters—and he himself keeps refusing to name the names of the prominent pundits who comprise that cult of balance. Who is Krugman talking about? At some point, explainers must tell.

Voters hear the darnedest things! But when it comes to the names of the press corps’ most influential players, they keep hearing the sounds of silence, even in Krugman’s important columns.

How are voters supposed to know when we won’t explain?