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.


Kate Douglas said...

When Obama says people are bitter, he's got his finger planted squarely on the pulse of the nation. I wouldn't know all that much about the rest of the debate, however. When the question of whether or not he was a patriot because he didn't wear a flag pin came up, I turned off the TV. I was embarrassed for the media, not the politicians.

Nathan Bransford said...

Body slam!!!

Wow, what an interesting post. I think one of the most interesting things about this election is that there is a battle going on over the intelligence of the electorate, and honestly I don't know who's going to win it.

The mainstream press, and certain candidates I won't mention are on the one side (they are clearly skeptical of the electorate's intelligence -- i.e. soundbites, manufactured "issues," etc.), and on the other side, the blogosphere and one candidate (they think America is smart enough to know what's what -- i.e. longer speeches, analysis of real issues, etc.).

Are we a smart nation or a dumb nation? It may be too simplistic to say that this election is going to decide that, but I think there are divergent views on that question that are being played out on a national stage.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Let's face it, Brooks has finally decided Obama is the heir apparent for the Dems is, so he can stop pouncing on Hillary and take on Obama. Is their any doubt who his candidate is?

Joshua James said...

Amen, Barry.

Randy Johnson said...

Unfortunately I missed the debate. But watching Fox last night, even Bill OReilly seemed appalled at how partisan Stephanopoulos seemed, giving Hillary a pass on really tough questions. It was pointed out that Stephanopoulos was propped up by Hillary during the Clinton administration.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem is that journalism has become less and less about the facts, and more and more about how these facts affect public opinion. so where journalists once would focus on reporting the facts to stimulate public opinion, now it's about reporting the facts in a way to lead or support public opinion. the opinion is only as important as the person with the opinion it seems, and this case it's increasingly about the journalists opinion. I mean sure there are opinion articles where this is relevant, but everyday journalism should never be this way. it makes it hard to form our own opinions when the 'journalism' is now designed to promote the 'journalists' opinion instead.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Barry! Your analysis of that worthless debate is superb!

Shari Meyr

JD Rhoades said...

Brooks doesn't do analysis; he's basically writing press releases for the RNC. I don't even bother to read him anymore.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I think I'll start reading your books. You take on David Brooks' words are spot on! With Mr. Brooks voluminous verbal excretions, one doesn't need to step in it- to see it, or smell it. You called it what it was....Bullshit.

I do think journalists try to get a politicians dander up- or rather on ANYONE they interview for the sole purpose of ratings. When do you ever hear about a kind and gentle interview? No, buzz is on about making people angry or cry.

And while I understand the reason for ratings, I think this type of 'journalism' sullies the newsworthiness of what's elicited from the engagements. It may be interesting to know if Stephanopolus and Gibson are responsible for all the content of their questions or if they are fed some by producers.

It pleases me you spoke on the ridiculousness of the lapel pin issue, or really NONissue. This was another example of making something out of nothing, just like wearing a red ribbon was in the Academy Awards broadcast years ago. Celebrities were basically bullied into feeling as though they had to wear one to 'prove' solidarity or they were actually questioned about their beliefs and compassion! McCarthy would be proud.

THANK YOU for posting your article on MySpace for us to read, and bravo!

PBI said...


David Brooks has repeatedly shown himself to be about as disconnected from fact as it is possible to be; almost every single position he attributes to the public is nothing more than his own, unsubstantiated by polling data or other concrete support. I am at the point where I largely ignore him, reflexively.

The debate was an absolute disgrace, but what is heartening is the fact that more than 10,000(!) people left comments stating that fact at ABC News' blog. That said, politicians and big media wouldn't be catering so single-mindedly to the lowest common denominator if there wasn't a market for it. I am relieved to see, however, that - spurred on by what has been an eight-year beat-down for the general public - in today's world of alternative information sources, they appear to have misjudged demand for the shameless pabulum they're peddling by a significant margin. I think it's too early to sing praises for a newly educated and involved American body politic, but there are certainly hopeful signs. Who knows - if we keep the pressure up by ignoring them, maybe we can even force the members of the mainstream press who work so closely with establishment politicians to actually begin acting like the adversarial fourth estate envisioned by the founders!

Now all we need to do is get them to start putting both candidate McCain - he of the serial flip-flops, questionable personal morals, corruption and pandering to religious extremists - and his positions (four more years of Bush, anyone?), and we'll be all set!

(I can dream, can't I?)

Take care,
Sensen No Sen

As a fellow, huge fan of Glenn Greenwald, I am eagerly awaiting delivery of my pre-ordered copy of his latest!