The absence of the intelligentsia!


James Gleick chats with Dowd: James Gleick started out at the New York Times, then moved upward from there.

He spent ten years at the Times, then began writing highly-regarded, widely-praised books on scientific topics. As such, he is part of the intelligentsia, to the extent that we have one.

That’s why it’s instructive to see Gleick’s presence in today’s New York Times.

Over the weekend, Gleick wrote a piece for New York magazine about the way information spread concerning the Boston bombing. He noted the failures of cable news and the shortcomings of new, faster media.

The things he said made perfect sense, although they were hardly earth-shattering.

Gleick’s piece caught Maureen Dowd’s eye. “I asked Jim to elaborate over coffee,” she writes today in today’s New York Times.

Strikingly, Gleick said yes. (At one time, he was Dowd’s editor.)

Let’s start with a cynical thought about one part of Dowd’s column. In the passage which follows, she quotes Gleick praising the New York Times for its reporting of the Boston bombing.

In this passage, Dowd is quoting Gleick. We don’t disagree with what he says. But Dowd is advertising the Times, just as Margaret Sullivan did in Sunday’s public editor column:
DOWD (4/24/13): [Gleick said,] “People on Twitter were crowing about how superior Twitter is to old media. What they meant was, ‘See, we’re faster than TV.’ And I’m there. But I’m also still an old-media guy, because the information that matters sometimes comes the next day or the next month, when there is time to digest and interpret. The best reporting in Boston last week was not in cyberspace. It was in the two great daily newspapers that were on the scene, The Boston Globe and The Times.”
We largely agree with what Gleick said. But as the battle for market share burns, does it seem like the Times is now advertising itself in a whole new set of ways?

Whatever! We were more stuck by the criticisms of various media which emerged from this conversation. More precisely, we were struck by the fact that Gleick would voice these criticisms to a cipher like Dowd.

As Dowd quotes and paraphrases Gleick, perfectly valid complaints emerge. Gleick complains that “crowd-sourcing quickly turned into witch-hunting” in cyberspace last week. (That was a paraphrase by Dowd.) He is quoted complaining about the “new forms of banality” which he encountered on-line.

“The battle lines are being drawn between the crowds and the experts,” he is quoted saying. “The crowds are fast and can be smart, but sometimes they’re horribly wrong, like the Internet vigilantes on Reddit who thought they could do better than the F.B.I. in looking at photographs and exposing the guilty.”

Near the end of her piece, Dowd presents Gleick saying this:
DOWD: “We have all these new channels and tools to understand the world as it happens, but there’s no reliable algorithm for sorting through the morass. It used to be to read the morning paper on the way to work and read the evening paper on the way home. Now we have to invent a new personal methodology every day. And if we’re waiting for things to settle down and become simple, that’s never going to happen.”
We don’t disagree with any of that. But we were struck by the fact that Gleick would say these things to Dowd.

James Gleick is part of the intelligentsia, to the extent that we have one. Does he understand the world in which he has been living?

Over the past twenty years, Maureen Dowd has set the standard for journalistic “witch-hunting.” She has been the leading inventor of the “new forms of banality.”

Has anyone ever been “horribly wrong” quite as often as Dowd? Has anyone in the nation been a bigger “vigilante?”

“There’s no reliable algorithm for sorting through the morass?” Dowd has played the leading role in creating the “morass” which has taken the place of a public discussion. No one has been less reliable as an algorithm for sorting through the swamp which she herself created.

In 1992, one brave journalist warned her colleagues about the perils of “Creeping Dowdism.” Since that time, Dowd has helped instruct the nation in our new forms of banality.

She has relentlessly taught her readers that politicians should be judged by their hair and by their clothes—and by their spouses’ hair and clothes. She has invented a string of bogus quotations, then offered inane accounts of what these faux statements supposedly mean—what they mean about the pols who didn’t make them.

In 1992, Katherine Boo noted where things were heading with Dowd. From that time to this, the nation has been desperate for someone from the intelligentsia to stand and renew that complaint.

But as we have long tried to tell you, we don’t have an intelligentsia at this point in time. Instead, we have a bunch of self-dealing celebrities who are trying to sell us more books.

Do we have an intelligentsia? Obviously no—we do not.

No intelligentsia could have sat by for twenty years as Dowd simpered, invented, cooed and played, dragging our discourse way, way down with her banal with-hunting. No intelligentsia could sit by as people like Jal Mehta present scripted, cherry-picked accounts of our students’ test scores.

In what kind of nation can work like that be the expected norm?

Maureen Dowd has invented the new and the banal! What does it mean when a lauded fellow like Gleick joins her for a discussion which, just to be perfectly honest, isn’t much sharper than that?


  1. Worth noting where Gleick praises the Boston Globe and the New York Times: the NYT owns the Boston Globe.

  2. Actually, Bob, Dowd does get a lot of guffaws, but it's by people you might not read.

    R. Emmet Tyrell:

    Or how about the inimitable Maureen Dowd publishing a playful and girlish column at her venerated site on the op-ed page of The New York Times? Surely she could tap out a clever column about the Enron executives' neat haircuts, or their membership at posh golf clubs, or something about Rodeo Drive. Typical of her, it would have the Light Touch. It would bring in all manner of knowing detail about the typical Enron executive's lifestyle, his wife's lifestyle, his pedicurist's lifestyle or that of his highly pedigreed dog. It would be another of Dowd's "Makes-you-think" pieces. Surely I am not the first to observe that she is more than a writer of occasional columns, she is a sociologist -- like Flaubert!"

    William F. Buckley

    "Consider Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. Her recent assault on Gingrich was ostensibly triggered by his confession that he was not schooled in foreign policy (he had blurted out that Taiwan should be recognized diplomatically). But Miss Dowd doesn't conceal the totality of her concern over the Speaker. She entitled her piece ``The Loss of the Dodo''; led off by remarking that Newt was ``sickeningly'' cute; and ended by confessing her ``distress'' at the prospect of ``the Speaker frolicking in the woods with a bunch of guys in sheets and dresses.''

    The ``cute'' business was a reaction to Mr. Gingrich's having told a visiting witness that she was welcome to ``come see my dinosaur.'' The reference is to a facsimile skull kept in Mr. Gingrich's office, which wouldn't strike most people as ``cute,'' so long as the addict stops short of dinosaur figures on his stationery or calls for a National Dinosaur Day."

    Mark Steyn

    "I get many e-mails from soldiers in Iraq, and they sound a lot more grown-up than most Ivy League professors and certainly than Maureen Dowd, who writes like she's auditioning for a minor supporting role in ''Sex And The City."


    This was a little alarming and almost got my back up a little for a fellow sistah.

  4. What exactly is the job of a "Public Intellectual"?