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24 January 2002

Our current howler (part I): Straw man

Synopsis: Even we were surprised by the way Michael Reagan talked down to the cattle.

TV sales pitch
Michael Reagan, Fox News Channel, 1/20/02

Even we were surprised by the way Michael Reagan talked down to the cattle. There he was, in a TV ad, trying to peddle an exciting new t-shirt—and a thoroughly ludicrous notion:

REAGAN: Hi, I’m Mike Reagan. As my dad used to say, "It’s morning again in America." Americans are taking back their country from the Big Media Establishment. George Bush won big across America—and this map proves it! Yes, this is the map the media just doesn’t want you to see. The map that shows, county by county, that Bush won big-time. Now, my favorite web site, is offering the map t-shirt…

On he went with his sad, silly pitch.

Speaking of things the media don’t want us to see, if Reagan had an ounce of self-respect—if he had a scrap of respect for his viewers—he wouldn’t want the world to see this thoroughly embarrassing sales pitch. Yes, his map the media doesn’t want you to see is the map you’ve seen a thousand times—the map which shows, by red and blue colors, which counties Bush and Gore captured. Since Bush, of course, did extremely well in counties where no people live, the map shows very large areas of red (for Bush), and very small areas of blue (for Gore). Those blue zones, of course, are the cities and suburbs—where such things as "population" can be found.

Does Michael Reagan think his viewers have an average IQ of 19? Clearly, that’s the only conclusion one can draw from his sad and embarrassing sales pitch. Everyone knows the 2000 election was close, with Gore winning the popular vote by a half million. But not in Michael Reagan’s America! Feeding pabulum to the cattle, Reagan told them Bush won big! And he even fed the cattle further—pretending there’s some startling story the Big Media just won’t let them have!

The cattle were lowing—and Reagan had straw. He threw them the tidbits he felt they should have. But then, is it any different from what has gone on since Daschle gave his speech about taxes? Pandering, dissembling—and feeding the cattle—the talk-show right has once again shown there’s a great big collapse on the way.

Next: Be it George winning big—or Ted raising taxes—the pundits love feeding the herd.


The Daily update (1/24/02)

While Maslin slept: With Bernie Goldberg’s lazy book now at the top of the best-seller charts, it’s worth examining the way the tome has been limned by the major press. Alas! When Janet Maslin penned her review in the Times, her somnolence almost matched Bernie’s. What is wrong with our public discourse? Goldberg’s book is a good example. But so, of course, is Maslin’s review. Her nugget statement follows:

MASLIN (pgh 3): Even among those who reject [his central] premise, or some of the ad hominem bitterness on display here, "Bias" should be taken seriously. Unlike Bill O’Reilly, whose best-sellers (like "The No-Spin Zone") trumpet a bullying brand of conservatism as they recycle transcripts of television interviews, Mr. Goldberg has done real homework and has written a real book. Whatever his conclusions, however shaky his suppositions, he asks questions that are worth asking.

Too bad Maslin hasn’t "done real homework!" O’Reilly has only written one best-seller (his latest) which "recycles transcripts of television interviews," and if Maslin thinks Goldberg has "done real homework," maybe she’s been out of grade school too long. Does Goldberg "ask questions that are worth asking?" That, of course, is easily done. But has Goldberg actually done any homework? Reading Maslin, one suspects that pampered Times scribes may no longer grasp the key concept:

MASLIN (4): "Whenever you hear an anchorman or reporter use the word ‘controversial,’ it is usually a signal that the idea that follows is one the media elites do not agree with," he maintains. And whenever you hear the word "conservative" on one end of the political spectrum, he adds, you won’t often hear "liberal" on the other. That, he says, is because network heavyweights regard their own opinions as middle-of-the-road and simply assume that the wider world agrees with them. (He twice quotes Pauline Kael’s astonished reaction to the fact that Richard Nixon had been elected president. "I don’t know a single person who voted for him!" she exclaimed, despite the fact that Nixon won in 49 states. She did live in the 50th state, Massachusetts.)

After noting that Goldberg has "done real homework," Maslin immediately cites an area where Goldberg did almost no work at all. His claims about ideological identifications may be true, but he makes absolutely no effort to support them (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/14/02). But then, would Maslin know evidence if it bit her? She seems to think that the views of Kael—a movie critic—are relevant to Goldberg’s claims about bias in political coverage. This takes "anecdotal evidence" to a whole new realm; in this case, even the single anecdote cited is irrelevant to the topic at hand.

A few paragraphs later, Maslin displays her puzzling concept of evidence once again. She limns Goldberg’s efforts on race:

MASLIN (7): [W]hen it comes to race-related issues, Mr. Goldberg also presents his strongest evidence. He claims that a CBS producer was chided ("We have to be more careful next time") for filming too many black prisoners on an Alabama chain gang, even though only one prisoner happened to be white. If the program was truly sensitive to race, he asks, why not investigate whether the black convicts had been unfairly arrested, instead of worrying about putting them on the air? And why, he wonders, are there demonstrably fewer black interviewees on newsmagazine shows during the all-important periods that determine advertising rates? "South Africa in the bad old days was more integrated than ‘Dateline’ during sweeps!" he says.

In the latter part of this passage, Maslin falls for one of the most ludicrous parts of Goldberg’s book—the section where he comically claims that TV magazine shows are guilty of "liberal bias" when they strive to keep minorities off the air! Maslin fails to see that Goldberg’s claim argues against his broader thesis. But she also fails to note the groaning problem with the "evidence" presented to back Goldberg’s assertion. Maslin highlights Goldberg’s claim that magazine shows use fewer blacks during "sweeps" month—the "all-important periods that determine advertising rates." Alas! Goldberg cites absurdly limited data in this area; in keeping with the total sloth on display in his book, he only examines one sweeps month, May of 2000. (By total coincidence, Brill’s Content had already examined this month; Goldberg simply uses their data.) And what did those limited data show? Goldberg mentions only four magazine programs, but concerning one, Sixty Minutes, he notes some interesting facts. During sweeps month, the show featured seven black main characters in its twelve stories. Two months later, in Goldberg’s non-sweeps "control" month, the show featured two black characters, in fifteen stories. In short, Sixty Minutes used far more minorities during sweeps month; the other three programs used marginally fewer. But Goldberg made his sweeping claim about sweeps month despite these contradictory data, and Maslin, laughably, praises him for it. Indeed, in keeping with the general tone of Bias, Goldberg presents the data from Sixty Minutes without so much as stopping to note that the data flatly refute his thesis. But then, why shouldn’t he go ahead and lodge a claim which is contradicted by his facts? Even a critic from our greatest paper is too lazy and inept to notice the problem. Indeed, Maslin thinks that this burlesque is an example of the book’s "strongest evidence."

One further note about Maslin and race, this time concerning those prisoners. Goldberg describes a CBS producer who was concerned with footage from a prison work gang, but the problem is not as Maslin describes it. Goldberg quotes the producer saying, "Well, we have to be more careful next time. We don’t want to give the impression that the only prisoners down there are black." We would have thought that only a 90s-era Angry White Male could fail to see the good judgment in that; assuming that Alabama has white convicts too, it would surely be better to avoid showing chain gangs where the dudes are all black. (This is, of course, especially true because of the very history of race-on-TV which Goldberg assails in this book.) But Maslin joins Goldberg in his incomprehension of the producer’s concern. She even misstates the nature of the problem; the problem was the fact that the chain gang was almost all black (and the prison system probably wasn’t), not the fact that the cameraman filmed the prisoners who were actually there.

Goldberg’s book is a total joke—a lazy insult to the American public discourse. But then, when we see the areas where the New York Times thinks Goldberg presented his "strongest evidence," we see that the Goldberg’s obtuseness and sloth may have entered the bloodstream elsewhere. Indeed, Maslin closes out in grand fashion, failing to notice the greatest absurdity in a book that spills over with same:

MASLIN (9): In the end, the observations in "Bias" about the economics of television are as disturbing as what he has to say about women in the work force…the homeless…or religion… The most important bias to contemplate here is the one against serious, unglamorous news. "Edward R. Murrow’s ‘Harvest of Shame,’ the great CBS News documentary about poor migrant families traveling America trying to survive by picking fruits and vegetables, would never be done today," he says. "Too many poor people. Not our audience. We want the people who buy cars and computers." [END OF REVIEW]

As we noted last week, the claim that Harvest of Shame wouldn’t be aired today is an argument against the central claim of Bias—the claim that liberal bias is ruling the media. But Goldberg didn’t seem to notice, and Maslin didn’t notice either. Maybe it isn’t "liberal bias" which we should fear most from the Times.

A Network Veteran Bites The Hands That Fed Him
Janet Maslin, The New York Times, 12/13/01