Conclusion—Amy Goodman's approach to the facts: We began exploring the topic we leave today because of a column by Charles Blow. The column made a claim which struck us as highly implausible.
When Rosa Parks died in 2005, was her life “sanitized and sugarcoated for easy consumption” in “nearly every account?” More specifically, was her life “sanitized and sugarcoated” in the ways Blow described?
That claim struck us as highly implausible. After maybe five minutes of fact-checking, we had begun to see how absurd that claim really was.
(For one more example, keep reading.)
This brings us to an intriguing question: What role is played by the concept of fact in the working of the modern mind? Let’s start with a point of professed agreement:
Almost everyone pays lip service to the importance of fact. By the mid-1950s, this was a foundational notion even in popular culture.
“Just the facts, ma’am—just the facts!” That’s what Detective Joe Friday would say when he interviewed women on Dragnet. (For a more precise transcription from Snopes, click here.)
More than fifty years later, everyone says that accurate facts should play a central role in our discourse. Everybody talks about facts—but few people do much about them.
We all say we believe in facts—but there are few signs that anyone does. Consider four lessons we might learn from Jeanne Theoharis’ book:
Lesson 1—The massaging and invention of facts isn’t restricted to those on the right: In recent decades, our public discourse has been driven by bogus claims from the right. Many of these bogus claims have concerned matters of public policy. Many other bogus claims have been used to attack major liberals and Democrats.
From this history, many liberals have developed the pleasing idea that dissembling is an artefact of the right. But as we liberals have emerged from the woods in the past ten years, as we’ve begun to construct our own think tanks and news orgs, we have begun to teach an old lesson:
Grasping figures of the left will often bullshit you too.
Lesson 2—Journalism barely exists in the modern world: Professor Theoharis’ book about Mrs. Parks is fascinating; as long as you're warned about its author, we strongly recommend it. That said, the book is built around some obvious bullroar, starting with that ridiculous claim about the coverage of Mrs. Parks at the time of her death.
(This claim helps Theoharis paint herself as a fiery historian hero.)
In a rational world, journalists would have challenged the bogus and/or shaky claims which are central to Theoharis' book. But Blow simply treated these claims as gospel. This reaction has also driven her major interviews.
By now, Theoharis has been interviewed by an array of major broadcasters—by Diane Rehm, Amy Goodman, Gwen Ifill, Melissa Harris-Perry. We haven’t seen an ounce of actual journalism in any of these sessions.
We’ve discussed the groaning performances by Ifill, Rehm and Harris-Perry. Below, you see the saddest moment from Goodman’s session with Theoharis:
GOODMAN (2/4/13): We’re talking to Jeanne Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. When Rosa Parks died in 2005, there was a huge memorial service for her in Washington, D.C. She was the first African-American woman to lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda, then her body brought to a church before the big funeral in Detroit. And I remember the networks talking about Rosa Parks. I mean, there’s no question it was a big moment, and the media took notice. I remember CNN saying Rosa Parks was a tired seamstress—Describing Mrs. Parks as a “troublemaker” strikes us as childish, inane. That said, please note Goodman’s total lack of the journalistic instinct:
GOODMAN: —she was no troublemaker. But Rosa Parks, as you point out, was a first-class troublemaker.
Goodman tells us that she remembers CNN describing Mrs. Parks in a certain way—as “a tired seamstress” who wasn't a “troublemaker.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that she might want to fact-check her memory.
In fact, the Nexis archives record no instance of either quoted term being used in the discussions of Mrs. Parks on CNN in the weeks after her death. Nor was the “tired seamstress” narrative advanced on the channel’s programs.
Below, you see how the news of Mrs. Parks’ death was first announced on CNN. Aaron Brown spoke with Anderson Cooper. Immediately, they began debunking the myth described by Theoharis and Goodman.
But then, this conduct was completely routine all through the media, as we've endlessly shown. Eight years later, the foundational claim of Theoharis' book was absolute horseshit, though Goodman pimped it along:
BROWN (10/24/05): Well good evening again. We'll get to the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma in just a moment. But first, some late breaking news tonight:We're letting you see what Goodman remembers—and what Cooper and Brown really said.
The death of a civil rights icon. The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement in America, Rosa Parks, died at her home in East Detroit, Michigan today. We all know her legacy by now. We certainly all should. She inspired the American Civil Rights Movement when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955.
“A gentle seamstress,” she's often described as. I don't know how “gentle” her action was. It was an act of courage at the time. And that refusal—that refusal to get up out of that bus seat became the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Rosa Parks was 92 years old. She had been sick, Anderson, for some years. But her death will be one of those milestones that will have us all talking about what went on in that period from the mid-50s through certainly the mid-60s and in many ways beyond, for many days to come.
COOPER: Yes, I think also what a lot of people don't remember about Rosa Parks and don't realize is that she had been doing work in the Civil Rights Movement long before that day on December 1, 1955. Twelve years before, she had actually been kicked off a bus because she entered through the front door of the bus instead of through the back door. The bus driver kicked her off.
Twelve years later, it would be that same bus driver who called the police to have her arrested; and when her brother, Sylvester, served admirably and honorably and was awarded medals in World War II, fighting in Europe, fighting in the Pacific. And when he was returned home, and when he was treated badly by bigots in Alabama, it was that event which started her working in the Civil Rights Movement, working with the NAACP and working with veterans and cataloging how African American veterans were being treated when they returned home from World War II.
So a remarkable history, even before that day which changed us all, December 1, 1955. We'll have a lot more about Rosa Parks on the program tonight.
Memory can be fun. It can even help us create new legends, legends which please our tribe. But in the real world not of Goodman's memory, Brown instantly debunked the “gentle seamstress” narrative; Cooper supplied the type of information Theoharis said the press corps had suppressed “in nearly every account.”
Amy Goodman and her trick memory were basically making it up. Later, lobbing a scripted softball, she pitifully said this:
GOODMAN: Who was Rosa Parks’ hero?That claim is extremely shaky too. A journalist would have tried to clarify the basis for this claim. Instead, Goodman played the catechismal fool for her guest, thus mistreating her viewers.
THEOHARIS: Rosa Parks’ hero, she describes as Malcolm X. She very much—she loved, she admired, she had—I mean, she had tremendous admiration for King, but she describes Malcolm X as her personal hero.
Lesson 3—We liberals love being lied to: We liberals like to tell ourselves that the other tribe has malfunctioning limbic brains which make them deny reality.
Please don’t let yourselves buy this line. We liberals enjoy being lied to too. It's why we watch The Channel and praise books which make such claims.
Lesson 4—We liberals have constantly settled for The Culture of Close Enough: In various ways, Theoharis’ book comes out of The Culture of Close Enough. The author massages quotations, stretches facts, imposes a world view on events. Confronted with these reinventions, we liberals will tend to say that her massaged facts are “close enough.”
We enjoy the story she is telling. Even when her massaged assertions are challenged, our lizard brains tell us to say, “Close enough!”
For the record, we liberals have relentlessly accepted this culture in recent decades, even when this culture was being used to attack our interests. Did Al Gore say he invented the Internet? No, but our intellectual leaders all said, “Close enough!”
We’ve swallowed this bullshit from others for decades. Now, as folk like Theoharis emerge, we swallow it from ourselves.
As we end our award-winning series, one final point about “progressive” elites like Theoharis:
Theoharis is a highly privileged if incompetent elite. She graduated from Harvard in 1991, somehow managed to get a doctorate from Michigan.
Elites like Theoharis seem to think they have the right to rearrange the actual facts about lesser persons like Mrs. Parks, who was just a working-class black. The fiery professor knows best! In telling the story of Mrs. Parks, she reinvents facts, massages quotes, withholds basic information.
(Too funny: In her book, Theoharis never mentions the name of Mrs. Parks’ second book, Quiet Strength. She builds her highly doctrinaire book around a complaint about the word “quiet.” She can’t afford to let you know that Mrs. Parks used that very word when she described herself!)
Does Brooklyn College feel embarrassed when they read her self-serving bullshit? We have no way of knowing. That said, Theoharis is a bit of a throwback to the doctrinaire days of the New Left.
For the record, some of our best friends really were in the PLP and the SDS! Some of them have gone on to lead the best lives we know about.
But forty years later, a 42-year-old professor seems to think she knows best. In our view, this professor displays a great deal of contempt for the lesser person she reinvents.
People, the Maoists have always been with us. They may be on the way back!