IMITATIONS OF LIFE: The sounds of shrillness!


Part 3—Joe Nocera’s selective concern: Did Charlie Rose interview Justice O’Connor on his eponymous news program? Or was that session just another imitation of life?

The interview, or the imitation of same, occurred Tuesday night on PBS, a news organ conventionally thought of as being very bright. At one point, Charlie turned to the question of Bush v. Gore, a very famous case.

Here’s how the exchange began. To watch the whole session, click here:
ROSE (3/5/13): How did you like Bush versus Gore?

O’CONNOR: Well, that was tough. It was not nine-zip.

ROSE: Exactly right. It was five—

O’CONNOR: Five-four.

ROSE: Five-four.

O’CONNOR: It was a hard case.
By now, we’d established the margin of the vote—it was exactly five votes to four—and we’d been told that the case was hard. As the discussion proceeds, we start to see what passes for “questioning” in a press corps staffed and maintained by servants to power and to the imitation of life:
ROSE (continuing directly): What did you think of that case? Hard case, somebody once said, make bad law.

O’CONNOR: Well, that’s what is said sometimes.

ROSE: Yes.

O’CONNOR: And that’s possible. But that was a very challenging case and a lot–an election–

ROSE: Yes.

O’CONNOR: —was riding on the outcome.
By now, we had learned that an election rode on the outcome. Beyond that, we had been told that the case was very challenging.

Rose’s first question (“What did you think of the case?”) had been a classic non-question question, a classic invitation to ramble. That said, Justice O’Connor rarely rambles. Pretending to conduct an interview, Charlie went on to say this:
ROSE (continuing directly): And some people believe that the Court heard that election and realized that and, and therefore politics got involved.

O’CONNOR: Well, people tend to say a lot of things that aren’t necessarily true. And I don’t think that was the point.

ROSE: You don’t.

O’CONNOR: We had some tough issues in that case to decide and we did. And we thought, and the Florida vote counters–

ROSE: Right.

O’CONNOR: —did not do the kind of job that one would hope they would do.
“Some people believe that...politics got involved!” Charlie made no attempt to explain why “some people” might believe that, nor did he quote or name any of these concerned people.

Instead, he continued, then terminated, his imitation of life:
ROSE (continuing directly): Do you regret your vote?


ROSE: You don’t.

O’CONNOR: No. I think we did the right thing based on what happened down there.

ROSE: Deciding who will be president. The Supreme Court decides who will be president.

O’CONNOR: That was the result of a decision on something else.

ROSE: Right.

O’CONNOR: How the election was conducted. But the end result was an outcome of the election. That wasn’t the intended objective of the vote.
At this point, Charlie moved on to a new topic. (“When you look at the court today, do you believe it has the same quality of the same court you served?” O’Connor’s answer was yes.)

In fairness to Rosem his preparation time may have been limited. earlier in the day, on his CBS program, he spent time asking Shaquille O'Neal what he thinks of Dennis Rodman. But in our view, that exchange with Justice O'Connor represents an imitation of life—an imitation of a discussion of a famous court case.

PBS viewers went to sleep with the impression that they had seen O’Connor questioned about that famous court case. In truth, they hadn’t seen any such thing—and it wasn’t O’Connor’s fault.

(In fairness to Rose, Rachel Maddow also pretended to question O’Connor about this famous case. To watch that session from Monday night, click here.)

Vast amounts of our public discourse are imitations of life. We see imitations of news reports; imitations of interviews; imitations of opinion columns; imitations of reasoning. This morning, in a very rare instance, Gail Collins actually wrote an actual column about an actual major news topic.

That’s something Collins rarely does. More often, she imitates journalistic life.

In large part, these imitations abound because the guild permits them. You will rarely see Rose or Collins criticized by fiery figures on “the left.” Those fiery figures defer to power within the industry. Collins and Rose both have it.

Fiery figures of “the left” hope to appear on Charlie Rose, or perhaps on CBS or the NewsHour. They hope to write for the New York Times, or at least to be quoted there.

Staging their own imitations of life, they pretend that they don’t see the imitations these fraudsters create. In this way, the liberal world gets fed an imitation of “the left.”

We mentioned the rare occasion today in which Gail Collins writes an actual column. On Tuesday, we were struck by Joe Nocera’s column in that same New York Times.

Was this column an imitation of life? In a sense, but not as such! As we read the column, we were struck by the tangential matters which may offend our journalistic leaders even when they stoop to discuss the future of the world.

Nocera’s column concerned climate change, a fascinating topic. On the one hand, the very future of the world seems to be at stake. Beyond that, the topic calls a remarkable trend into play—the growing lunacy of America’s tribalized pseudo-discourse.

In recent years, our public discourse has increasingly been marked by its sheer insanity. An unfortunate fact has become quite clear: We the people are able to believe any damn fool crackpot claim, no matter how crazy it may be, as long as that idea is driven by our tribal leaders.

In the area of climate change, this problem tends to be found on the right, though we would argue that our own liberal tribe is rapidly developing its own (self-defeating) areas of foolish belief.

For once, Nocera stopped writing about college sports and focused on something that very much matters. Having said that, we invite you to look at the aspect of climate change which drew his attention this day.

We aren’t saying that Nocera was wrong in any of the judgments he reached. For the most part, we simply can't say, in part because he is off in a part of the weeds where few other people have wandered.

We aren’t saying Nocera's judgments are wrong. Instead, we were struck by the relatively tedious matter which had him upset within this large field of concern.

From what he wrote, it seems fairly clear that Nocera regards climate change as a major threat to the future. Given his implied beliefs and concerns, we were struck by the way he focused on a climate scientist who he feels has become too shrill.

"Hello shrillness, my old friend," Nocera seemed to be singing this day. That struck us as a puzzling focus, if not an imitation of life.

Was that column an imitation of life? Not to the extent that the Rose broadcast was. Tomorrow, we’ll briefly consider what Nocera said in a column which struck us as weirdly pointless.

Then, we’ll move to a huge imitation of life—the imitation Paul Krugman has worked to describe down through all these many shrill years.

Tomorrow: The central imitation


  1. I watched Sandra Day O'Connor interviewed by John Stewart and it seemed like he deliberately avoided asking her anything that might require thinking. It made me wonder whether she remains sharp enough to respond to the kinds of questions Somersby wants journalists to ask. She seemed tired and vague and seemed to have difficulty answering easy questions like which justices in the past wrote memorable decisions. Rose may have avoided asking tough questions to keep from embarrassing his guest, who as a past justice deserves respect and is mainly on screen to shill her book.

  2. Joe Nocera simply makes stuff up as Joe Romm explains. A despicable attempt to ruin James Hansen.

  3. Sandra Day O'Connor's vote resulted in the election of GW Bush.That decision bankrupt the nation and caused misery for thousands of people. I hope she dies soon?

  4. Journalists write about what they know best. Which is most often (but not always) nothing very technical or intellectually deep. So on any particular subject matter, journalists will often steer the discussion towards human interest most of us can relate to: Emotions, personality, clothes, shrillness, likability, imminency of disaster, tone (and so on). The author of this blog has been doing a good service noting this tendency about the journalist class. For example, Joe Nocera is saying James Hansen is too shrill. Is that true: you could make a very plausible argument. But is it important?

    Even when a journalist does develop some familiarity with the subject matter, they'll often defend their incomplete and inexpert knowledge over the insights of people who are actual experts. This is a most vexing problem though. You don't want journalists who'll just roll with whatever an "expert" tells them. But you also shouldn't have a journalist become too wedded to his own incomplete understanding of an issue, since that can mislead the public.

    And you also don't want to have a group of somewhat expert Journalists developing group-think, adherency to memes, or a common "framing" of issues. But it is increasingly hard to the public to notice when this happens, as TV journalists turn away from the diversity of experts in our universities (or corporations even), and go to their in-house or think-tank supplied financial or environmental experts, panelists or reporters. Debates on issues can become strangely circumscribed. But you do get a product, with the quality of consistency.

  5. First, continuing on the corruption issue of part one: the Case never should have been five to four because the justices appointed by Bush Senior should never have voted. That is one of the reasons it IS one of the most corrupt decisions in American History.

    The Daily Howler is really missing a trick on this if Jeffery Tobin's "The Nine" is to be believed. The book shows how O"Conner most certainly does regret her decision and, as is explained by Toobin, the media absolutely affected her call. She was the one, Toobin claims, who watched the political TV shows, and might well have been tuning into "Hardball." The Nation would accept that the Democrats had to atone for Clinton's Sex life, and George W has really a good moderate Son who would be advised by the reasonable Cheney. That was the line and She bought it, though when She had to leave The Court because of her husband She was horrified by W's Presidency.

    Could Toobin be making this up? Well, I guess, but it's pretty hard that he would been either refuted or sewed by now. He almost certainly had her cooperation in writing the book. This was the ultimate in "working the refs" and it took the Country down the road to hell.

    And now a quaint notion for the room: Anybody have a problem with the pretty constant talk show and book hawking by members of the Court? . Oh sure, it was Clarence Thomas, an unabashed crook, who got the ball rolling, but it's pretty much a case now of "everybody's doing it." Not so long ago, this would have been considered wildly inappropriate behavior, no?

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