Times watch: Gaffe recital recited at length!

FRIDAY, JUNE 15, 2012

While Romney goes uncorrected: What counts as news in the New York Times? We were struck by a pair of reports which sit side-by-side on today’s front page.

One of these reports is headlined, “With Science, New Portrait of the Cave Artist.” Whatever this report’s merits may be, it reinforces the notion that the Times is a high-IQ newspaper. It gives upper-end readers the latest news on a pointless but high-interest topic.

Dearest darlings! Some of this took place in France!

Next to this report on the cave artist era, we find a news report bearing this headline: “In the Facebook Era, Reminders of Loss if Families Fracture.” Alas! This is a classic Times “trend story,” of the type Jack Shafer used to mock during his tenure at Slate.

How smart is the work at the New York Times? This news report, by Catherine Saint Louis, seems to discuss a problem arising during the Facebook age. “[I]n a social network world, [family] estrangement is being redefined, with new complications,” the scribe gravely writes. “Relatives can get vivid glimpses of one another’s lives through Facebook updates, Twitter feeds and Instagram pictures of a grandchild or a wedding rehearsal dinner. And those glimpses are often painful reminders of what they have lost.”

It sounds like a dreadful new chapter in family estrangement is being driven along by Facebook. But then, in paragraph 4, we get the fleeting, telltale admission. In fact, this is a gossip-ridden “trend story,” assembled from anecdote and air:
SAINT LOUIS (6/15/12): No data exist on the number of family estrangements nationwide, or whether they are on the rise. But experts generally agree that family rifts—between parents and children or siblings—can lead to depression, marital strife, addiction and even suicide.
Really? Family rifts can lead to depression and marital strife? To give her readers the impression that they didn’t already know this fact, Saint Louis reports that “experts” agree on this point. But hidden within this consummate piffle, we get the telltale confession:

There are no data indicating that family estrangements are on the rise! The front-page report by Saint Louis is in fact a collection of anecdotes. The events she describes may well have occurred. But there is no sign that they constitute anything other than the unfortunate experiences of some unlucky ducks.

For those who like soap opera dressed up as science, this is a useful front-page report. And as with the cave artists, so too with this piece—readers get to imagine that they’re part of a brainy elite served by a high-IQ newspaper.

In fairness, today’s remaining front-page reports take us spanning the globe, examining serious topics. Two of these front-page reports concern unfolding events in Egypt. Another concerns the inner workings of the Communist Party in China. The sixth report on today’s front page concerns the massive storm walls which now surround New Orleans.

Whatever the merits of the reporting, these are serious topics. As such, today’s front page is a peculiar mix of the sacred and the profane. But whatever one thinks of this morning’s front page, how does this morning’s New York Times cover American politics? Alas! When it comes to our own domestic politics, the New York Times is one of the dumbest publications in the known world.

Just consider the way the paper reports yesterday’s dueling addresses.

Obama and Romney spoke in Ohio, outlining or pretending to outline their approaches to the economy. Surely, a brighter newspaper could have found something of merit to marble into its news report about these dueling speeches. But in their longest break from the bare bones facts, Cooper and Barbaro enlightened the world with this discussion of the verbal gaffes—real, imagined and invented—which are being “amplified” during this “hyperpartisan campaign season:”
COOPER/BARBARO (6/15/12): Mr. Obama’s remarks came as he is grappling with running for re-election as the national jobless rate remains above 8 percent, a daunting level for any incumbent president to overcome, particularly during a hyperpartisan campaign season in which every misstatement is amplified in a 24-hour news cycle. The president, who was hammered by Republicans last week for his statement that the private sector was doing fine, acknowledged the difficult environment.

“There will be no shortage of gaffes and controversies that keep both campaigns busy and give the press something to write about,” he said. “You may have heard I recently made my own unique contribution to that process. It wasn’t the first time; it won’t be the last.”

The Romney campaign sought to take advantage of Mr. Obama’s comment last week and released a campaign advertisement on Thursday titled “Doing Fine.” The ad features a series of sour statistics (“23.2 Million Americans Are in Need of Work”; “Millions of Homeowners Underwater on Mortgages”), and then follows up, repeatedly, with video and audio of Mr. Obama telling reporters during a news conference that “the private sector is doing fine.” It closes with ominous text: “How Can President Obama Fix Our Economy…if He Doesn’t Understand It’s Broken?”

The Obama campaign fired back, releasing a Web video with a highlight reel of Mr. Romney’s own off-key moments. “Corporations are people too, my friend”; “I like being able to fire people”; “I’m also unemployed”; “Some of my best friends are Nascar team owners”—all featured in a one-minute nonstop aria of political miscues.

The simultaneous visits to Ohio showed just how crucial the state’s 18 electoral votes are considered to be in the fall election...
Is every misstatement being amplified in our 24-hour news cycle? In that description, the reporters finally spot a trend which began in perhaps 1988, when The Cult of the Offhand Comment spent a sad amount of time debating whether Candidate Bush was out of touch based on the fact that he (allegedly) asked for a “splash” of coffee at a New Hampshire truck stop.

It wasn’t clear that Candidate Bush had actually uttered that telling locution, but the alleged misstatement was amplified anyway. By the time of Campaign 2000, the “misstatements” were routinely invented by the press corps, the better to amplify them with; the liberal world napped in the woods, failing to notice the problem. In this morning’s Times, Cooper and Barbaro come squealing up to the scene of this fire, announcing a trend that is six cycles old. And good God! They flesh out their news report by repeating the various stupid things the two campaigns are stupidly saying about each other’s allegedly stupid alleged verbal gaffes.

The reporters’ statements are accurate, of course; the two campaigns are making the statements they describe. But this was the drivel with which they chose to flesh out their news report.

They could have made other choices. Earlier this week, Barbaro led a typically brainless report with a bogus claim by Romney—a bogus claim to which Barbaro gave very wide attention. By now, the claim by Romney is known to be bogus; sensible reporters might have thought about working this fact into their latest news report, correcting a misimpression they themselves had helped promote and alerting the public to a recent real misstatement.

What did Barbaro write on Wednesday? What follows is the passage in question.

We start with paragraph 4 of his report. Barbaro gave this big play:
BARBARO (6/13/12): For the fifth day in a row, the Romney campaign assailed Mr. Obama on Tuesday over remarks that it said revealed his disconnect from economic reality, a theme that began on Friday after the president declared that the “private sector is doing fine” and shows no signs of letting up.

In a speech here in Orlando, Mr. Romney seized on a statement that the president made on Monday about the Affordable Care Act.

In an interview, a television reporter had asked the president about a small business in Iowa, whose owner claimed that the president’s health care legislation had contributed to its closing in the state. Mr. Obama said that such an assertion of cause and effect was “kind of hard to explain.”

“Because the only folks that have been impacted in terms of the health care bill are insurance companies who are required to make sure that they’re providing preventive care, or they’re not dropping your coverage when you get sick,” Mr. Obama said. “And so, this particular company probably wouldn’t have been impacted by that.”

A gaffe? Mr. Romney treated it that way, and in his speech at a factory that makes air filters, he called the statement “something else that shows just how much out of touch” the president is.

“He said he didn’t understand that Obamacare was hurting small business,” Mr. Romney said. “You have to scratch your head about that.”

Mr. Romney cited an online survey of almost 1,500 small-business owners, performed last July for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which found that three-quarters of them said they would be less likely to hire because of the burdens of the Affordable Care Act.

Afterward, a senior adviser to Mr. Romney, Eric Fehrnstrom, said that Mr. Obama’s comments about health care showed that “this is a president who is detached from the effect his policies are having on the economy.”

The charge of being out of touch is as old as politics itself. But it has become clear that the strategy will be deployed with growing regularity by the Romney campaign, allowing it to cast Mr. Obama as an entrenched Washington insider...
On Wednesday, Barbaro went on and on, and on and on, serving as stenographer to a dissembling star. He devoted a very large chunk of space to this complaint by Romney.

By now, it’s abundantly clear that Romney’s complaint was just bogus. For Glenn Kessler’s detailed report on this matter, just click here.

On Wednesday morning, Barbaro highlighted Romney’s complaint. By now, it’s clear that Romney’s statement was bogus. But the New York Times isn’t inclined to deal in such facts when it pretends to cover our politics; more typically, its silly children simply type up the latest silly things the hopefuls have sillily said. If these statements turn out to be bogus, Times readers aren’t required to know that.

Barbaro is a tribute to the way the Creeping Dowdism has actually galloped. That said, his silliness doesn’t always favor Romney. On Wednesday, the silly child crammed Romney’s pointless old statement about Nascar owners into his opening paragraph. In today’s report, the pointless remark is alive again, recited by Cooper and Barbaro.

Obama was rolling his eyes at this kind of “journalism” in the statement the silly pair quote in today's report. (“There will be no shortage of gaffes and controversies that...give the press something to write about.”) But oops! Having quoted his wry remark, the silly pair did it again!

This morning’s report is hopelessly daft—and its writers ignored the groaning misstatement which got wide play in Wednesday’s Times. That said, Times readers did get informed about the thing which truly matters—modern celebrity culture:
COOPER/BARBARO: After Cleveland, Mr. Obama headed to New York on another money run, this one a fund-raiser at the home of Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, co-hosted by the Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
There you have it, your closing paragraph! Were people who lived in caves this daft? Ain’t life in the Facebook age grand?

One of the silliest ever: Barbaro is one of the silliest children the Times has ever hired. In case you’ve forgotten, this is the way he ended Wednesday's news report, in which he devoted all that space to Romney’s bogus complaint:
BARBARO (6/13/12): The president’s campaign staff said it welcomed a debate over which candidate is more out of touch, especially given Mr. Romney’s rhetorical record during the primary. But that is not deterring Mr. Romney. On Tuesday morning, he appeared on “Fox and Friends,” where he said the president was “really out of touch with what is happening across America.”

“The president needs to go out and talk to people, not just do fund-raisers, go out and talk to people in the country and find out what is happening,” Mr. Romney said.

That criticism appears to be seeping in. At the event here, Frank Attkisson, a small-business consultant and local commissioner, nodded in agreement with Mr. Romney during the speech, and afterward said the president’s statements about the private sector and the health care law reveal “his true colors.”
Barbaro was persuaded by the look of one head nodding.

Hanna-Barbera produced silly children’s shows. Today, so does (Ashley) Parker-Barbaro.


  1. OK, just to prove that I'm not a hopeless Daily Howler fanboy, Somerby completely misconstrued the NYT story on family estrangements. The article never claims to be piece on some "trend" of rising estrangements, merely a commentary on how social media make it harder to make a clean break. Maybe it's not an example of stellar journalism, but it is innocent of the sins Somerby alleges.

    1. YMMV, cacambo, but it looked like a trend story to me.

      "The trend of increasing use of social media is having a complex effect on family estrangements," might be the thesis statement for the article.

      However, I hardly read the fact (or not) that it was a trend story as being the "sin" per Somerby. It was rather the great waste of opportunity that the useless, essentially fact-free story represented that niggled I think.

      But as Somerby acknowledged, "In fairness, today’s remaining front-page reports examine serious topics."

      So, it's little more than a frame for the real picture: the lousy job done on one of those serious topics.

      Have the dogs arrived yet to complain about *that*?

      To tell us it was really fine work Barbaro and Cooper, and their editors, did?

      To say it doesn't matter anyway? Perhaps that no one reads the Times?

      Or to say, perhaps, "well, it's all owned by giant evil interests anyway, so stop complaining, Bob, and eat the shit sandwich?"

      Maybe the extra-braindead formulation, "oh, you won't be happy until they report the news using just exactly the words you specify, Bob?"

      Or, maybe, just maybe, there will be agreement, by silence perhaps (like with yesterday's education commentary), that yes, Somerby's point is right -- we are being dis-served?

      NAHHH! That's for fanboys!

  2. The last two days of my scientific expedition observing the mores of Redneckus Americanus have been spent in South Dakota, a surprisingly pretty, albeit quaint, state. I was immensely gratified to discover they have NPR here, so instead of having to listen to more redneck music and godbabble, I got to listen to Terry Gross' superbly enlightening Fresh Air. There, I learned all sorts of things about fermented vegetables and a singer I'd never heard of, but should have. I laughed at the rubes in their American cars, and wallowed in the thought of how much better off than them I am. They were listening to redneck music, or being preached at by some religious zealot, or --worst of all, the suckers!-- listening to Rush Limbaugh thunder away about how evil and smugly superior we liberals are, while I was learning about how to ferment broccoli!

    At my hotel, the best in town, of course, although that isn't saying much, I saw a car with a set of bumper stickers on it that was perfect: one of those scolding "Coexist" stickers that all enlightened people have, another one that said "I used to believe in god, but then I ate him and got indigestion" or something like that, and another one warning people about not fucking with dragons, and yet another bragging about how the driver of the car was a dangerous bitch of some sort, so not to fuck with her (I assume it was a her, although who knows in this enlightened age?). If insulting peoples' religion and then ordering all religions to "coexist" while bragging about being a dangerous bitch won't win people over, what will? What more do these people want from us before we can get their votes?

    1. Happy now, TIL? Aren't you just so very clever. Your sarcasm isn't smug at all. Just one question: what does it have to do with the subject at hand, namely Bob's post?

  3. I would not begrudge TDH a single fanboy, and would not be a reg around these parts if I didn't agree with the premise of the blog: that the media is terrible. I do think the endlessly repeated targets, now almost solely on the liberal side, creates problems of context and perspective. Fair enough?

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