Friday, April 18, 2008

Journalists and Bullshit

In a New York Times column Wednesday, David Brooks nicely (albeit unintentionally) summed up much of what's wrong with the mainstream media. In the course of awarding George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson an "A" for Tuesday night's execrable debate moderation, Brooks argued, "The journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities."


Brooks' confident assertion is odd first on a grammatical level. Is Brooks arguing that "The journalist’s job is: (1) to make politicians uncomfortable; and (2) to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities"? Or is he saying that "The journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable by exploring evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities"?

Regardless, on a substantive level, Brooks clearly believes the primary mission of journalists is to make politicians uncomfortable. If this bizarre assertion is true, I assume Brooks was disappointed that Gibson and Stephanopoulos failed to ask the candidates about their sexual experiences and bathroom habits. After all, those subjects would have made the candidates absolutely squirm. Brooks could have raised his A rating to an A+.

(James Fallows suggests that it would be simpler to just put the candidates on Fear Factor and have them eat pails full of maggots. And really, if we're to take Brooks' argument seriously, why not?)

But if Brooks doesn't think candidates should be grilled about their sexual experiences and bathroom habits (and if he doesn't think they ought to be contestants on Fear Factor), he must not really believe the journalist's job is to make politicians uncomfortable. Discomfort might be a side-effect, but it couldn't be the primary mission.

Maybe, then, Brooks sentence was just inexpertly constructed, and what he really meant to say was that "The journalist’s job is to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities, regardless of whether doing so makes politicians uncomfortable." This is the most charitable interpretation to which Brooks' argument is susceptible, but even if this is what Brooks meant -- and the balance of his column indicates it isn't -- his formulation is still at best incomplete because it excludes any mention of relevance -- of any responsibility to prioritize, to assign weight to issues that matter.

Actually, elsewhere Brooks does include some implicit notion of relevance. He claims, "We may not like it, but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall."

When someone issues a subjectless, overgeneralized, evidence-free argument such as "Issue X will be important," there's a good chance you're being bullshitted (or that the writer is bullshitting himself). Pause as you read Brooks' column and ask yourself the question Brooks never bothers to ask (or try to answer) himself: "Important to whom?" Who is Brooks speaking for here, besides himself? How did Brooks, how does anyone claiming to be a journalist, determine what's "important?" When someone who writes for the Times claims something is important, is the columnist's pronouncement itself expected to make it so?

Maybe that's it. But it's been my experience that when someone tries to persuade you more by his position or title or resume than by the merits of his argument, you are being bullshitted.

Scroll through the transcript of the debate. The moderators don't even mention the word "Iraq" until the halfway point. At about two thirds, Stephanopoulos, in an act of monumental blindness to irony, introduces the first question about the economy by saying, "Let me turn to the economy. That is the number one issue on Americans' minds right now."

Yes, by all means, let's start the debate with a question about why the candidates won't run together, then move on to how well Obama knows someone who was part of the Weather Underground when Obama was eight years old, and then ask about whether Obama is elitist, and whether Obama thinks his former pastor is patriotic, and whether voters think Clinton is trustworthy because of her story about coming under fire in Tuzla, and why Obama doesn't routinely wear a flag lapel pin, and then back to the Weather Underground, and then, finally, after an hour wallowing in such excrescence, we can talk about Iraq and even, eventually, the economy, which the moderators claim are the really important issues and were presumably just saving for later after they got all that other stuff out of the way. Makes sense to me.

I've thought about it, and the only way I can make sense of Brooks' notion of what's "important" is to understand the debate this way:

"Senator Obama, America is mired in a war in Iraq that has so far cost over 4000 American lives and about three trillion dollars. Can you explain how your position on lapel pins will end the war?"

"Senator Clinton, America is now either in or on the verge of a recession. Can you tell us how your inaccurate description of coming under fire in Tuzla will restore America's economic strength?"

"Senator Obama, during the Bush administration North Korea became a nuclear power. Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden remains at large, faces a growing Islamic insurgency that could lead to the country's nuclear weapons falling into jihadists' hands. Can you tell us how accusations that you are elitist (whatever that means) will affect your ability to prevent further nuclear proliferation and resulting danger to America?"

In his op-ed column today, Brooks actually lamented Obama's bowling scores (!) as something that will cause voters to "wonder if he's one of them." So let's include another question to make it all make sense:

"Senator Obama, the current administration has arrogated to itself tyrannical powers of torture, suspended habeus corpus, and suspended the fourth amendment. Congress is supine, the mainstream media an active enabler. In the face of this unprecedented threat to the Constitution, can you tell us what it means that you're not a good bowler?"

Brooks argues that Obama's debate responses on taxes and the war in Iraq would put him in an untenable position as president. Maybe yes, maybe no... but wouldn't it have been useful to use the debate to publicly grill the candidate on precisely these points? The moderators didn't, and they didn't because they don't really care about a candidate's policies on taxes and war (nor, despite his protestations, does Brooks -- otherwise he would actually write about such matters instead of just mentioning them in a column devoted to bowling skills and the like). If they cared, they wouldn't have chosen to use their time asking about lapel pins and the rest instead.

Brooks claims that Hillary has "ground Obama down." Actually, polls in Pennsylvania and nationally indicate the opposite, once again raising the question of the basis of Brooks' opinion, which, again, he doesn't provide. Nor does he offer any recognition, let alone a mea culpa, of his own roll in any such grinding.

Here's the best part. The same guy who in two columns in two days suggests that Obama is out of touch for calling people "bitter" concludes by saying, "Welcome to 2008. Everybody's miserable."

Yes, that's right. When Obama says some people are bitter, he's out of touch. When Brooks says everybody's miserable, he's got his finger right on the national pulse.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the solipistic, self-important, supremely irony-blind... mainstream media. Remember, whatever happens, it isn't their fault.

P.S. For much, much more on how the media works (or, more accurately, doesn't work), including an amazingly accurate prediction of the garbage Stephanopoulos and Gibson served up in Tuesday's debate, read Glenn Greenwald's new book, Great American Hypocrites. It's an indispensable guide to politics and the media, and a gripping read, as well.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Great American Hypocrites

I just finished reading my advance copy of Glenn Greenwald's outstanding book, Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics. It's the best book I've read on how the media works since Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

In some ways, I think Glenn's book is a more important read for conservatives than it is for liberals -- at least for conservatives, like yours truly, who put principle before party. If you want to understand how politics and the media work today, how the Republican party has betrayed the principles it purports to defend, and how opinion is manipulated by appeals to fear, prejudice, and other irrational emotions, Great American Hypocrites is indispensable.

Glenn discusses the book on his blog here. It's available for online ordering today and will be released on April 15. Give it a try -- you won't be able to put it down, and you'll never read the paper or watch the news the same way after.

-- Barry