CONSTANT AS THE SPEED OF LIGHT! The parson Meacham just couldnt wait to repeat a simple story: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2005
JESS B. SEMPLE: Three cheers for Lisa Randall, Harvard physics professor! In Sundays Times, she wrote a lengthy piece about distorted public discussions of science. Deep in her piece, she hit on a problem—people love simple stories, she said, and the press corps loves to supply them:
RANDALL (9/18/05): Sometimes, as with global warming, the [seriousness of the scientific communitys] claims have been underplayed. But often it's the opposite: a cancer development presented as a definite advance can seem far more exciting and might raise the status of the researcher far more than a result presented solely as a partial understanding of a microscopic mechanism whose connection to the disease is uncertain. Scientists and the public are both at fault. No matter how many times these ''breakthroughs'' prove misleading, they will be reported this way as long as that's what people want to hear.Our analysts cheered as Randall told a verboten tale—we humans just luvv simple stories. Soon, the professor prescribed:
RANDALL: [M]ost important, people have to recognize that science can be complex. If we accept only simple stories, the description will necessarily be distorted. When advances are subtle or complicated, scientists should be willing to go the extra distance to give proper explanations and the public should be more patient about the truth.Weve spoken here, year after year, about the press corps love for the dumb, simple story. Our analysts had a brief bounce in their step after a truth-telling Harvard professor echoed our (completely pointless) cry.
CONSTANT AS THE SPEED OF LIGHT: And speaking of inane, simple stories, we had the parson, Newsweeks Jon Meacham, reciting a new script on Imus this morning. Evan Thomas had typed it last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/16/05) and Meacham couldnt wait to recite it. The scribe was discussing how much more brilliant Bushs father had been. (Like you, Im a big fan of 41, Meacham said.) Then, he obediently said this:
MEACHAM (9/19/05): I dont think this is the usual spit-balling of the press because anyone who had a television in the first 48 hours of the hurricane knew that things were awful. And we reported last week that Bush wasnt watching the news, of course, and so Dan Bartlett had to make him a DVD of the news, and then when he saw it, he said, hey, maybe this is worse than he thought.But Newsweek didnt report the part of the story weve highlighted; as we noted on Friday, Evan Thomas simply made that part up, taking the edge off a puzzling story. What actually happened after Bartlett made that DVD on the first Thursday night? Bush showed up in Mississippi and New Orleans the next day, telling Brownie how well he was doing, jesting about fixing up Trent Lotts house, and joking about how he used to get wasted when he would go to New Orleans to party. This odd conduct was apparently too much for Thomas, so he simply invented a new story element; he simply pretended that Bush had been shocked when he watched the news Thursday night. And this morning, Meacham couldnt wait to repeat the simplified tale.
No, Newsweek wasnt willing to go where the facts of this story took them. But then, simple stories abounded in last weeks edition. For example, here was Jonathan Alter, doing what he so rarely does—reciting a simple, dumb tale:
ALTER (9/19/05): Racism was clearly present in the aftermath of Katrina. Readers of Yahoo News noticed it when a pair of waterlogged whites were described in a caption as "carrying" food while another picture (from a different wire service) of blacks holding food described them as "looters."Racism was clearly present in that first photo caption? As weve noted, you couldnt get a stupider story—and Alter couldnt wait to recite it, long after its problems became evident.
Give it up, professor! Youre wasting your time! As constant as the speed of light is the press corps commitment to dumb, simple stories. Only those who actually care reject them—and very few of our powdered press elite can be placed in that dwindling class.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE: Needless to say, Frank Rich was also keeping it simple on Sunday. Heres the way he told a preferred tale—and a way he could have typed it:
RICH (9/19/05): The Knight Ridder newspapers found last week that it was the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, not [Michael] Brown, who had the greater authority to order federal agencies into service without any request from state or local officials... Like Mr. Brown, he was oblivious to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the convention center, confessing his ignorance of conditions there to NPR on the same day that the FEMA chief famously did so to Ted Koppel.As usual, Rich played his readers for fools, handing them a simple story that made them feel good but rearranged basic facts. How pleasing it felt to type oblivious to instead of the more precise unaware of—and how pleasing it was to omit the fact that very few people (including the New York Times own reporters) were aware of the Convention Center before Thursday morning. (The Times didnt report the situation until its Friday edition. Neither did the Washington Post.) Meanwhile, did Brown famously confess his ignorance of conditions there to Koppel on Thursday night? From Richs artful construction, a reader might think that Brown was still ignorant Thursday night. That, of course, is plainly untrue—but when Chris Wallace made a similar (bogus) claim on Fox News Sunday, the tape was played all over the press. By the way, who bungled the facts when Koppel met Brownie? Oh thats right—Koppel did! He falsely claimed that ABC had been reporting the story for days.
But then, this is precisely the way your lazy pundits hand you those pleasing, simple stories. Give it up, professor! Asking Rich to abandon such tales is like asking a dark star to shine.
TARGET ONE: And then, theres Target One, Bill Clinton, always the source of a good simple tale! In this mornings Times, Philip Shenon goes to great lengths to hype and pimp the troubling way Clinton went after Bush on This Week. (Headline: Clinton Levels Sharp Criticism At the President's Relief Effort.) At one point, for example, Shenon types this:
SHENON (9/19/05): The White House has been under siege from critics, assailed first for the effectiveness of its response to the storm, and challenged more recently by questions about the long-term fiscal implications of its plans for rebuilding in the Gulf states.From the larger context of the article, anyone would think that Clinton was targeting Bush in that troubling quotation. But here is the actual passage. Everyone got blamed except Bush:
CLINTON (9/18/05): In Louisiana, if what you do affects poor people disproportionately, then it will disproportionately affect black people. Now, there were a lot of poor people in St. Bernard Parish who were white, who were also were hurt. But I think the fundamental problem there was, it's like when they issued the evacuation order, that affects poor people differently. A lot of them in New Orleans didn't have cars. A lot of them who had cars had kinfolks they had to take care of, they didn't have cars and they couldn't take them out.Maybe the mayor, maybe the governor, Clinton said. By morning, Shenon had turned that into the White House—and the half-witted Imus, and his guest Meacham, were telling dick-jokes about Clintons vile statements. (Text of their comments tomorrow.) These gentlemen luvv a simple story. And they luvv to get back to the smut.
Professor, you need to give it up! You need to get back to your ivory tower! Perhaps in that place you can find some smart people—trainable people you can teach to reject simple stories. But the Meachams, the Riches, the Shenons, the Imuses? Theyre simply committed to dumb, silly stories. Theyre paid good dough to play that dumb game—and it well suits their slumbering intellects.