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Daily Howler: Your journalism just got dumber. In the process, the chimps have switched sides
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PLANET OF THE CHIMPS! Your journalism just got dumber. In the process, the chimps have switched sides: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, AUGUST 22, 2008

GEORGE F. WILL, SLOW LEARNER: Is there any other subject where so many know-nothings pose as experts? Yesterday, George F. Will displayed his vast brilliance about the state of elementary ed. In the following part of his column, Will is discussing Benjamin Chavis, who runs a well-known public charter school in Oakland:

WILL (8/21/08): He and other practitioners of the new paternalism—once upon a time, schooling was understood as democracy's permissible, indeed obligatory, paternalism—are proving that cultural pessimists are mistaken: We know how to close the achievement gap that often separates minorities from whites before kindergarten and widens through high school. A growing cohort of people possess the pedagogic skills to make "no excuses" schools flourish.

That highlighted statement is simply astounding. And trust us: Will knows as much about this subject as you know about the space shuttle program. We know how to close the achievement gap! It’s amazingly easy to say—and many hustlers now constantly say it. For all we know, Will may be channeling Wendy Kopp, well-known biggest hack in the land.

Sorry, but no—we don’t “know how to close the achievement gap” at this time. When people parade about saying we do, they commit an unfortunate act. But then, every dumb-ass on earth seems to say this now—often on the flimsiest “evidence.” In large part, Will seems to be basing his uplifting claim on the high test scores at Chavis’ school (the misleadingly-named American Indian Public Charter School, which kids of all races and ethnicities). Many kids have achieved great success at the school. But does that mean we know how to achieve such success as a general matter? Will seems willing to say it does. But right at the start of his column, this “know-nothing know-it-all” dumbly describes one part of this school’s success:

WILL: Seated at a solitary desk in the hall outside a classroom, the slender 13-year-old boy with a smile like a sunrise earnestly does remedial algebra, assisted by a paid tutor. She, too, is 13. Both wear the uniform—white polo shirt, khaki slacks—of a school that has not yet admitted the boy. It will, because he refuses to go away.

The son of Indian immigrants from Mexico, the boy decided he is going to be a doctor, heard about the American Indian Public Charter School here and started showing up. Ben Chavis, AIPCS's benevolent dictator, told the boy that although he was doing well at school, he was not up to the rigors of AIPCS, which is decorated with photographs of the many students it has sent to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. So the boy asked, what must I do?

We often deride “slow-learner” students. But could anyone show less capacity for learning than George F. Will, right in this piece?

Why does Chavis’ school send so many students to Hopkins? Duh. In part, because it picks and chooses the kids who attend! The 13-year-old whom Will describes is already “doing well at school,” we seem to be told. Not only that: He’s so motivated that he’s paying another student to tutor him—and he’s already purchased the uniform of a school which won’t let him in! We’ll applaud that student, just as Will does. But if Will would only submit to paid tutoring, even if he could probably see that public schools, as a general matter, don’t select their students this way. The average school must accept all the kids who arrive—not just the brightest, most determined students, the ones who “refuse to go away.”

Friends, for just $5 a month, you can provides books and equipment for Will. Won’t you consider making that small donation to give him the help he deserves?

PLANET OF THE CHIMPS: A massive change in our political journalism can be seen in this morning’s Washington Post. “Houses Add Up to A Snag for McCain,”says the headline on Jonathan Weisman’s report, right at the top of the paper’s front page. In recent weeks, Weisman’s work has been grindingly bad—and it’s bad again today. Instantly, Weisman starts playing the chimp—and displaying that change in our journalism. This is his opening paragraph:

WEISMAN (8/22/08): Sen. John McCain’s inability to recall the number of homes he owns during an interview yesterday jeopardized his campaign's carefully constructed strategy to frame Democratic rival Barack Obama as an out-of-touch elitist and inspired a round of attacks that once again ratcheted up the negative tone of the race for the White House.

Weisman may be right about the jeopardy to McCain’s strategy. But is he right on his most basic facts? With his first breath, Weisman asserts that McCain couldn’t “recall” the number of homes he owns. Yes, that’s the script—and Weisman types it. But for ourselves, we hear nothing in McCain’s interview statement at all which demonstrates that he couldn’t “recall.” (It may be that he didn’t want to discuss such tangential matters with Mike Allen, one of our most useless journalists.) And by the way—McCain’s interview happened on Wednesday, not “yesterday.” That error is trivial, of course—unlike other mistakes in this piece. But the error reminds us of a fact which has been clear for a very long time: Chimps like Weisman can barely gargle without getting the simplest facts wrong.

Beyond that: Scribes like Weisman can barely gargle without repeating Approved Standard Narratives. In today’s report, Weisman has virtually married a narrative—and another part of the new standard narrative gets recited a bit later on. Truly, what follows is gruesome. But as of today, it’s being pimped all over the mainstream press:

WEISMAN: Obama campaign aides and Democratic National Committee researchers had been sitting on film clips, tax records, photos and other information on McCain's real estate holdings for weeks. The now-defunct Progressive Media USA, a liberal activist group, had done polling on the potential line of attack and concluded that it alone would have little impact against McCain, whose "brand" as a maverick Republican has proved difficult to crack.

But Obama aides were collecting documentation of separate incidents they wanted to string together as a narrative: McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm’s comment to the Washington Times that the United States was "a nation of whiners" stuck in a "mental recession" and overstating the current economic woes; a McCain assertion that the economy is fundamentally strong; and the Arizonan's comment Saturday at the Saddleback Civil Forum in California defining the threshold for being rich as an income of $5 million a year.

When McCain made his comment to Politico, Obama communications director Dan Pfeiffer flashed the green light.

Let’s give Weisman a little credit; in this passage, he correctly said that the Saddleback forum happened on “Saturday.” But in this passage, Weisman asserts, without qualification, that McCain made a peculiar statement about “the threshold for being rich”—failing to note, as others have done, that the statement was made as a joke. In today’s Post, even Gene Robinson made himself be semi-truthful:

ROBINSON: I don't begrudge McCain his multiple residences or his $520 Ferragamo shoes. I understand that he was just being flippant and unresponsive when he said at the Saddleback forum last weekend that being rich meant having an income of at least $5 million a year. But it's a stretch, to say the least, for McCain to portray himself as a Regular Joe while painting Barack Obama as some kind of jet-set celebrity.

Robinson couldn’t quite make himself tell the truth—but even he felt required to say that McCain was “just being flippant.” But in Weisman’s prose, a joke becomes a straightforward assertion. And this brings us to a basic rule for those who would understand their press corps: If you want to know who the press corps is hunting, just see which candidate’s jokes they transform into straight assertions.

We know, we know! Some of us are such chimps ourselves that we want to believe that McCain’s wasn’t joking. Olbermann, our side’s uber-chimp, has been flinging this poo this whole week. (Along with so much more. Good God, that man is a chimp!) But at any rate, fairly or not, our longings are being rewarded this week: The press corps has widely acted as if McCain’s joke was a serious statement. It’s as we told you long ago: This is not a campaign in which the press corps will be group-pimping the Republican candidate. And that represents a major change in recent political journalism.

We won’t attempt to capture all the chimp-like work on display today—although if you like seeing poo flung about, we’ll recommend Josh Marshall’s efforts. (Or just go read Olbermann’s transcripts.) Instead, we’ll offer a few basic thoughts about the shape of this major change in the press corps’ conduct:

The power of ridicule: In mainstream press treatment of this story, McCain is being subjected to a type of ridicule which has only been aimed at major Democrats in the Clinton/Gore/Clinton era. (Dan Quayle was the last Big Republican treated this way—and that began in 1988.) This kind of group ridicule, if widely sustained, is very difficult for a candidate to address. Later, press spokesmen like Michelle Cottle—our own era’s “Cokie-in-training”—will announce that this just shows how ineptly the hopeful campaigned. Why couldn’t he make us stop repeating those ludicrous statements?

The reason for the ridicule: As a general matter, the press corps aims this type of ridicule at hopefuls it hopes to defeat.

Previously disappeared: Many voters will be surprised to learn that McCain is very wealthy. They’ll be surprised for an obvious reason: This basic part of McCain’s biography was widely suppressed by the mainstream press in the past dozen years, when they were pimping his vast moral greatness and tearing down Major Dems. (Your “liberal journals” also stared into air. That seems to be why they’re there.) To state the obvious, McCain’s wealth should have been part of the story long ago; by normal standards, it’s a basic part of political bio. This hasn’t been part of the public record because hacks and stooges—let’s mention the gruesome Gene Robinson again—buried this matter in the years when they were destroying Big Dems like Al Gore. (Who grew up in a fancy hotel—at the Ritz!—according to one of their scripted group lies.) Quite routinely, wealth has been used to slime Big Dems—even wealth that didn’t exist. For that reason, McCain’s real wealth had to be disappeared.

Why they’ve flipped: As we’ve told you, major elements of the mainstream press have lost patience with the Endless War Culture. Other elements of the press genuinely favor Obama; almost surely, Chris Matthews wasn’t kidding about that “thrill up the leg.” Under these stresses, the group nervous breakdown of the Clinton/Gore/Clinton era has, in many ways, run its course. And remember: These life-forms are thoroughly chimp-like. They react in one way to those they disfavor—by flinging poo all around. It would be too much for them to discuss McCain’s errors, flips, contradictions.

In our view, it has been a bit embarrassing this week—watching Obama campaign against McCain’s joke. In our view, you suspect a candidate has little to say when he campaigns in that fashion. But as the press corps starts pimping Obama’s new narrative, you see the shape of an important new fact: Major elements of the mainstream press are, at long last, switching sides. It has been a very long time since they flung poo to the right.

“McCain couldn’t remember how many houses he owns!” It isn’t clear that this is accurate, and the narrative it serves is largely inane. But you live on a planet of chimps; it’s driven by people who just can’t get serious. This morning, poo is being flung in a new direction. Your discourse got even dumber this week. And good lord! Some chimps have switched sides!

Spinning bio, Saint McCain style: Candidate bio was endlessly spun during McCain’s first run for the White House. His massive wealth was rarely mentioned; so too, journalists rarely discussed the seamier side of his conduct in the years when he divorced his first wife and married Cindy McCain. Understandably, voters thought the Keating Five was a jazz group McCain had once played in—no doubt during the glory years, when he’d chased all those stripper ex-girl friends around. And something else got disappeared: You almost never heard that McCain grew up as part of insider Washington, the same-name son of a father who was a powerful Washington political player. You almost never heard that he’d gone to an elite Washington prep school. There’s nothing “wrong” with any of that—but you didn’t hear them for an obvious reason. You see, the press corps was using that particular poo to punish the deeply vile Candidate Gore. The fact that the very same script applied to McCain simply couldn’t be mentioned.

POSTSCRIPT—DUMBEST QUESTION: We decided to skip this topic at the start of the week. But now that McCain’s “$5 million” statement has become a key part of the discourse, let’s go back and take a look at the dumbest question Rick Warren asked during the Saddleback summit.

Unsurprisingly, the chimps failed to notice. On Sunday’s This Week, E, J. Dionne emoted about Warren’s vast brilliance. Who won the Battle of Saddleback? This was his odd reply:

DIONNE (8/17/08): Rick Warren wins. That was an extraordinary debate. If you only had two hours of information, that wouldn't be a bad thing to go on if that's all you could cast your vote. And he really dispelled some people's stereotypes about evangelicals.

Is the real Dionne in a holding cell, locked away with the real Josh Marshall? We thought Warren’s performance was reasonably OK; he was completely polite to both candidates, and he seemed sincere. But why gush over someone who asked so many truly bad questions? Many of Warren’s questions were bad—but this question, as it was posed to Obama, was perhaps the worst of the evening:

WARREN (8/16/08): OK. Taxes! This is a real simple question. Define rich. [Laughter ] I mean, give me a number. Is it $50,000, $100,000, 200,000? Everybody keeps talking about who we're going to tax. How can you define that?

Actually, that’s a “real simple minded question—one that’s utterly foolish. Warren may have been sincere in asking, but it plays to a potent, pseudo-conservative framework: Democrats want to tax the rich—but they can’t even define it! Talk hosts constantly pimp this framework—and many listeners think it makes sense. Warren’s presentation was unique because, perhaps for the first time ever, the question was posed to a Republican as well as a Democrat. This pointless framework is normally reserved for use against Democrats only.

Duh. There is no number an intelligent person can cite which would sensibly define a person as “rich.” There is no cut-off point! Any such designation is arbitrary—and this utterly empty exercise plays no role in the formulation of actual tax policy. Obama knows that, and McCain know it too. (We’ll guess that Warren, an amateur, doesn’t.) But this is a dangerous framework for Dems. As soon as a Democrat answers this silly question, he is left open to a wide array of well-entrenched, familiar charges. Inevitably, this framework takes Dems into the realm of “class warfare.”

At any rate, here’s how Obama responded to this pointless and dangerous framework. Like McCain, he told a joke. It’s a way to be polite as you slip past a moderator’s nonsense:

OBAMA: You know, if you've got book sales of $25 million, then you qualify—

[LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE]

WARREN: No, I'm not asking about me!

OBAMA: Look, the—here's how I think about it. Here's how I think about it. And this is reflected in my tax plan. If you are making $150,000 a year or less, as a family, then you're middle-class—or you may be poor. But $150,000 down, you're basically middle-class, obviously depends on the region where you're living.

WARREN: In this region, you're poor.

OBAMA: Yes, well—

[LAUGHTER]

OBAMA: Depending. I don't know what housing practices are going. I would argue that if you're making more than $250,000, then you're in the top three percent, four percent of this country, you're doing well. Now, these things are all relative. And I'm not suggesting that everybody is making over 250,000 is living on easy street. But the question that I think we have to ask ourselves is, if we believe in good schools, if we believe in good roads, if we want to make sure that kids can go to college, if we don't want to leave a mountain of debt for the next generation, then we've got to pay for these things. They don't come for free, and it is irresponsible—

[APPLAUSE]

I believe it is irresponsible inter-generationally for us to invest, or for us to spend $10 billion a month on a war, and not have a way of paying for it.

[APPLAUSE]

That, I think, is unacceptable. So nobody likes to pay taxes. I haven't sold 25 million books but I've been selling some books lately, and so I write a pretty big check to Uncle Sam. Nobody likes it. What I can say is under the approach I'm taking, if you make $150,000 or less, you will see a tax cut. If you're making $250,000 a year or more, you're going to see a modest increase. What I'm trying to do is create a sense of balance, and fairness in our tax code. One thing I think we can all agree on, is that it should be simpler so that you don't have all these loopholes and big stacks of stuff that you've got to comb through, which wastes a huge amount of money and allows special interests to take advantage of things that ordinary people cannot take advantage of.

WARREN: Right. OK. We'll be right back.

Eventually, Obama discussed his actual tax proposals—while stressing that nobody likes paying taxes. At first, though, he came perilously close to “answering” Warren’s question—so close that some people later claimed, inaccurately, that he’d said that you’re “rich” if you make more than $250,000. You’ll notice that he didn’t say that—but he came (a bit too) close. Please note: Obama didn’t say he wanted to tax “the rich.” He said that somebody had to pay for our schools and our roads, and that he wanted to be fair about it.

Obama started with a joke, then sensibly moved to a discussion of his actual tax proposals. But there is no sensible way to answer Warren’s actual question. Any designation is arbitrary—and any number a pol might offer exposes him to pointless complaints. Most likely, McCain understood this basic fact too. What follows is his full Q-and-A. His answer includes the obvious joke which is now being treated as serious. This morning, Weisman—an endless hack—pretends McCain’s joke was a statement:

WARREN: OK, on taxes, define "rich." Everybody talks about taxing the rich, but not the poor, the middle class. At what point—give me a number, give me a specific number—where do you move from middle class to rich? Is it $100,000, is it $50,000, is it $200,000? How does anybody know if we don't know what the standards are?

MCCAIN: Some of the richest people I've ever known in my life are the most unhappy. I think that rich should be defined by a home, a good job, an education and the ability to hand to our children a more prosperous and safer world than the one that we inherited. I don't want to take any money from the rich—I want everybody to get rich.

(LAUGHTER)

I don't believe in class warfare or re-distribution of the wealth. But I can tell you, for example, there are small businessmen and women who are working 16 hours a day, seven days a week that some people would classify as—quote—"rich," my friends, and want to raise their taxes and want to raise their payroll taxes.

Let's have—keep taxes low. Let's give every family in America a $7,000 tax credit for every child they have. Let's give them a $5,000 refundable tax credit to go out and get the health insurance of their choice. Let's not have the government take over the health care system in America.

(APPLAUSE)

So, I think if you are just talking about income, how about $5 million?
(LAUGHTER)

But seriously, I don't think you can—I don't think seriously that—the point is that I'm trying to make here, seriously—and I'm sure that comment will be distorted. But the point is that we want to keep people's taxes low and increase revenues.

And, my friend, it was not taxes that mattered in America in the last several years. It was spending. Spending got completely out of control. We spent money in way that mortgaged our kids' futures.

(APPLAUSE)

My friends, we spent $3 million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Now I don't know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue—

(LAUGHTER)

But the point is, it was $3 million of your money. It was your money. And, you know, we laugh about it, but we cry—and we should cry because the Congress is supposed to be careful stewards of your tax dollars. So what did they just do in the middle of an energy crisis when in California we are paying $4 a gallon for gas? Went on vacation for five weeks. I guarantee you, two things they never miss—a pay raise and a vacation—and we should stop that and call them back and not raise your taxes. We should not and cannot raise taxes in tough economic times.

So, it doesn't matter really what my definition of "rich" is because I don't want to raise anybody's taxes. I really don't. In fact, I want to give working Americans a better shot at having a better life, and we all know the challenges, my friends, if I could be serious. Americans tonight in California and all over America are sitting at the kitchen table—recently and suddenly lost a job, can't afford to stay in their home, education for their kids, affordable health care. These are tough problems. These are tough problems. You talk to them every day—

WARREN: All the time.

MCCAIN: Every day. My friends, we've got to give them hope and confidence in the future. That's what we need to give them, and I can inspire them. I can lead, and I know that our best days are ahead of us.

(APPLAUSE)

WARREN: All right. Thank you.

Warren’s framing of the question was even dumber this time around. (“Everybody talks about taxing the rich?” No pol ever does, unless he’s accusing opponents.) Like Obama, McCain slid away from Warren’s request for a number, turning to a discussion of his actual tax proposals. And along the way, he told a joke, in which he said that “rich” would be an income of $5 million a year. After a very large laugh from the audience—it’s absurd to claim that this wasn’t a joke—he then said: “But seriously.” And then, he made an accurate prediction: “I’m sure that comment will be distorted.” Perhaps he knew the day when Weisman would clown and cavort.

Warren asked a very dumb question. No skillful pol would ever give a number in response to this query. (Other questions were quite bad too.) But the next morning, E. J. Dionne was praising Warren for his very brilliant questioning. And on Monday, Obama began campaigning hard—against his opponent’s joke.

Campaigning that way can work quite well—if the chimps are on your side. This morning, Weisman’s poo-flinging “news report” signals a change in our journalism.

We are all Sean Hannity now: Good God. What a poo-king Olbermann is! We are all Sean Hannity now as we listen to his screeching and watch him presenting his back-side. We’ll give some examples on Monday.