ROSA PARKS AT 100: Four lessons!


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—


GOODMAN: —she was no troublemaker. But Rosa Parks, as you point out, was a first-class troublemaker.
Describing Mrs. Parks as a “troublemaker” strikes us as childish, inane. That said, please note Goodman’s total lack of the journalistic instinct:

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:

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.
We're letting you see what Goodman remembers—and what Cooper and Brown really said.

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?

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.
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.

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!


  1. Truly a brilliant analysis and criticism from the beginning till now. Possibly you can put this all together under a single heading, but no matter I am deeply grateful.

    As for Amy Goodman, there are times recently when I have been startled at the absence of checking on an issue that seemingly conformed to "liberal" stereotypes.

  2. Goodness,

    Today Maureen Dowd takes Ben Afflick to task for massaging some facts in ARGO.

    You know, the old 'pot calling the kettle black.'

    Many of her commenters say they won't go to movies at all because Hollywood misinforms the public; as if all films are documentaries.

    I didn't believe for one second that Iraqi guardsmen chased a jumbo jet down the runway, or the fake producers were held up from answering the phone by a "gofer" helping a film crew on the movie lot, but I thank Ben Afflick for telling a story that every American should know.

    People that are inclined to make life-changing choices based on movie scripts should indeed boycott theaters.

    I saw 'SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden'. I wasn't worried about being influenced since I was going to vote for Obama regardless of what was in the film.

    Nevertheless, I purchased the E-book "No Easy Day" by Mark Owen (AKA Matt Bisonette) the day it became available on Nook.

    There were not enough discrepancies between Harvey Weinstien's account and Bisonette's version to keep me awake at night.

    As far as liberal liars, I enjoy Reverend Al because he if funny even if his presentations are predictable.

    In fact, most of the talking heads on MSNBC are predictable.

    My favorite guest is Amy Huntsman, the delightful daughter of Jon Huntsman, Jr., AKA "The Only Good One."

  3. Theoharis deserves to be taken to task if she has been misleading, dishonest, slippery with facts. I don't see any evidence presented that she's a Maoist though. Where does that come from?

  4. I believe the Maoist reference was to the PLP, the Progressive Labor Party, a US group that felt the Soviets had become "Soft on Communism."

  5. I live in the NYC metro area and listen to WNYC, NYC's major public radio station. Their late morning show, The Brian Leher Show, has a host who is amazingly erudite, BUT....

    But, he, too, I've noticed over the past decade, more and more is captured by the NYTimes and Beltway conventional wisdom. Al Gore is almost always referred to as someone who lied about discovering the internet, among other zombie lies which plague this otherwise excellent interviewer. He seems to have swallowed the current austerity arguments hook, line, and sinker.

    I don't listen Democracy Now! as often as I used to, simply because WBAI which carries it changed the broadcast time and not it's inconvenient for me to listen to it live. But, when I do listen, occasionally I've noticed some of the MCM (Mainstream Corporate Media) CW fogging Amy Goodman's statements.

    Now, in that interview with Theoharis, she may have been searching for a phrase to encapsulate what so many of the public believe, based on most MCM reporting about Rosa Parks. I thought I knew the basics about her, but in recent years I have learned about her long work for civil rights prior to the bus boycott. I also learned some details about her long training from interviews with Theoharis.

    I appreciate Bob Somerby pointing out what was said on CNN on this one program at the time of Park's death, but I wonder how much else on CNN mentioned these aspects of her long work for civil rights? I also appreciate his review of the book.

    Usually, our MCMers do not serve us well. It's good to hear when they do. But does that make up for all the accetable CW they dish out?

    BTW, it is awesome to me what Democracy Now! does with what appears to be a small staff. Overall, Amy Goodman is an excellent means to hear about what the MCM doesn't necessarily want the public to learn. NPR used to be good for that; now that happens much less frequently. Usually NPR is toeing the Powers That Be lines.


  6. It is common for readers to accept the writings of previous and current generations' intellectuals. After all, what purpose could be served in misinforming their readers and leaving evidence around of their intellectual dishonesty for posterity. Unfortunately, modern intellectuals seem to be in an informal contest in which the winner is the writer who manipulates history or facts in the most convincing manner.

    During the 2012 presidential candidate debates journalists fell all over each other rating Romney's debating skills on performance rather than the overkill of mendacity that was the content of his side of the debates. Being dishonest about everything seemed of little importance to journalists, but his ability to sell his dishonest remarks were commented on with respect for his skill.

  7. Actually, if you go to Snopes you don't get a more "precise transcription", you discover that Joe Friday never said, "just the facts, mamm" at all. That was a parody of Joe Friday. Alas, that sets the standard "The Daily Howler" follows on this whole series about Rosa Parks.

    I went to a very average middle American College. When I graduated in the early eighties, somehow I had learned this without any extensive study of the civil rights movement: Rosa Parks famous sit down was indeed a carefully executed media event, and that Parks was indeed very involved as an activist. I might have been told this in the "here's the real story" terms The Daily Howler so decries, but I don't remember it that way.

    The major bone of contention here seems to be weather or not Parks thought a great deal of Malcolm X. This may be a relevant issue, and some of these terrible people may have fudged the truth. This is not surprising, even in his own time, King was seen as suspect by some on the left, they didn't buy the passive resistance thing. Some think Malcolm X effectively played bad cop to King's good cop, and scared White America into shaping up. Others think Malcolm X and The Black Panthers effectively killed off the Civil Rights movement before it's time. These are issues The Daily Howler SEEMS to be interested in, but it's hard to tell.....

    Because rather than showing what is or is not known about Rosa Parks feelings about Malcom X, he's really lost himself in browbeating lizard brain liberals like me (who never had the story wrong in the first place) who loved being lied to, and must be just as terrible people like Goodman, who think Rosa Parks was troublemaker (no context here).

    It's too bad, because the legacy of what King did and stood for is important. Non Violent Civil disobedience may not be much understood by contemporary Americans too young to have experienced King's work. Alas, the general confusion does not get much help from The Daily Howler in this series.