THE WAY WE ARE: The professor’s big fail!


Part 2—One of our smartest discussions: Intellectually and journalistically, The Way We Are is quite bad.

Sunday’s column by the New York Times public editor didn’t even rise to the level of parody. In her bimonthly column, she sought to define the types of questions from readers which are “perfectly reasonable.”

Incredibly, there were the three questions she chose. For details, see yesterday's post:
1. How can I read the Times on-line without getting confused?
2. Who writes the Times editorials?
3. Can I get my wedding announcement removed from the digital archive?
For sheer dumbness, this column didn’t rise to the level of parody. But then, such work is so common in our discourse that few Times readers will notice.

As a general matter, dumbness will often be invisible to those who are caught in The Dumb. And we Americans are deeply snared in a very big mess of The Dumb.

The Dumb is an ingrained part of our culture, whether we’re able to see it or not. Consider two passing references in op-ed columns in yesterday’s New York Times—references to the types of dumbness which help define our discourse.

In this column, Bill Keller discussed the stakes for children in the debate about same sex marriage. Do children raised by same sex parents fare as well as other kids? Keller examined this question.

But alas! Late in his piece, Keller mentioned a very typical moment from the March 24 Meet the Press. In this very typical moment, Meet the Press viewers got semi-conned about same sex parenting:
KELLER (4/8/13): Activists against same-sex marriage, however, are not all that particular about the quality of their evidence. They are happy to enlist and exaggerate dubious research to create the illusion that there is a scientific stalemate, and they often get away with it. When David Gregory of “Meet the Press” brought up the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics endorses marriage equality, Ralph Reed of Focus on Family retorted, “And the American College of Pediatricians came out the other way.” Nobody pointed out that this “college” is a tiny, conservative rump that broke away from the main pediatric group in 2002 over gay adoption. To quote its Web site, “The College bases its policies and positions upon scientific truth within a framework of ethical absolutes.” Among its inviolable beliefs are “the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death and the importance of the fundamental mother-father family (female-male) unit in the rearing of children.”
Should Gregory have told his viewers who the American College of Pediatrics is? Should some other panelist have done so?

Clearly, Keller thinks the answer is yes. And yet, Keller understated the intellectual squalor of this typical Meet the Press moment.

What actually happened on Meet the Press? Here is the transcript of the fuller exchange as Reed, a pseudo-conservative activist, advanced an apparently bogus claim. To watch this discussion, click here:
REED (3/24/13): The issue before the country is: Do we have a compelling interest in strengthening and supporting the durable, enduring and uniquely complementary and procreative union of a man and a woman?

GREGORY: You look at divorce rates, I don’t know how durable it’s been.

REED: ...That would be an argument for why we ought to strengthen it, not why we ought to throw it down.

GREGORY: Let me get E.J.’s reaction.

REED: And by the way, the reason why is because it’s better for children, and all the social science shows that.

GREGORY: Although the American—

HILLARY ROSEN: Academy of Pediatrics—

GREGORY: —Academy of Pediatrics disagrees.

REED: And the American College of Pediatrics, Pediatricians came out the other way.

GREGORY: E.J., let me—get in here.
Please note what happened there. Reed started by saying that “all the social science” supports the idea that male-female parenting is better for children.

At this point, Gregory and Rosen jumped in to say that the American Academy of Pediatrics disagrees with that statement. It was only then that Reed offered the American College of Pediatricians [sic] as a group in support of the view that male-female parenting is best.

The unfortunate viewers of this program had thus been treated to a very familiar moment. As best a viewer could tell, one august body had said that male-female parenting is best. Another distinguished body disagreed with that view.

No one made any attempt to explain who these two groups actually are. And not only that:

No one asked Reed why he made his sweeping statement about the prevailing science in the first place. Gregory seemed to think that statement was wrong, but he let this matter slide.

Reed never disputed the claim that the American Academy of Pediatrics disagrees with his claim. Why then did he say that “all the social science” supports his view in the first place?

David Gregory made no attempt to follow that obvious thread or to resolve the seminal question involved here. But within our broken intellectual culture, this was a very typical moment.

Might we state the obvious? Our Sunday panels no longer serve as forums for real discussion. Instead, they serve as forums where partisans are invited to voice their dueling sound-bites.

Full stop! All discussion ends there.

The moderator will rarely make any attempt to examine the truth of what has been said. With your allotted chunk of time, you can make any statement you please—sweeping, damn-fool or whatever.

No one will ever ask you why you made a sweeping statement, even if your sweeping statement seems to be false. The moderator will simply move ahead to the next pseudo-topic.

The Way We Are in moments like these is just extremely dumb. Yet this is very much the shape of our current pseudo-discourse. Millionaire moderators serve as time-keepers on these programs. Their only function is to see that each panelist gets his or her chunk of time.

(Paul Krugman’s column in yesterday’s Times described a somewhat similar matter. He described a claim which turned out to be wrong long ago, but is still routinely served to conservative voters.)

For liberal readers, it’s easy to read about matters like these, in which major conservatives mislead the public in ways which are very dumb. But in our culture’s growing dumbness, our own emerging liberal world may be guilty of similar conduct.

One recent example:

On Sunday, Melissa Harris-Perry devoted three segments of her two-hour MSNBC program to the cheating scandal in the Atlanta schools. Or at least, so it may have seemed to her program’s unfortunate viewers.

In reality, Harris-Perry was so unprepared to lead such a discussion that nothing resembling a real discussion occurred. Viewers were treated to wildly shifting, often inaccurate claims from a poorly-assembled panel—a panel which was directed by an unprepared and incompetent host.

How bad was Harris-Perry this day? She was grotesquely bad—disgracefully so, if you actually care about the interests of low-income children. Tomorrow, we’ll examine the welter of claims which emerged from this pseudo-discussion.

For today, we will ask you to consider only one point:

Rather plainly, MSNBC sells itself to liberal viewers as a smart cable channel. Plainly, this is the type of marketing built around at least two of the channel’s prime-time programs, as we saw in last night’s “throw” from Chris Hayes to Rachel Maddow:
HAYES (4/8/13): That is All In for this evening. The Rachel Maddow Show starts now. Good evening, Rachel.

MADDOW: Good evening, Chris. Extra-smart show this evening! Well done.

HAYES: Thank you very much.

MADDOW: Thank you. And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour.
Was Hayes’ program “extra smart” last night? That is a matter of judgment. But rather plainly, this is the way the network markets the programs hosted by Maddow and Hayes. So too with the weekend program hosted by Professor Harris-Perry.

When liberals watch Harris-Perry’s program, they are told that they are watching the smartest discussions the culture provides. But good God!

On Sunday, Harris-Perry’s discussion of public schools was a god awful intellectual mess. The Way We Are is deeply sad when viewers are told that this sort of work is the smartest our culture provides.

Tomorrow: The shape of a pseudo-discussion

If you want to watch for yourself: Harris-Perry’s rambling discussion of Atlanta consumed three segments of Sunday’s program. The trio of segments run 26 minutes in all.

To watch the first segment, just click here. You’ll have to skip ahead to watch the second and third segments. In best MSNBC fashion, Sunday’s segments are out of order on the program’s web site.


  1. "Our Sunday panels no longer serve as forums for real discussion."

    Implied is that these panels once served as forums for real discussion. It would be useful to exemplify how and when this changed. Otherwise, it's just an unsubstantiated opinion that does nothing to advance the discourse.

  2. The smart shows like Maddow, Hays and Harris-Perry are not going to get it right every time. By putting them on the same plane as the worthless Sunday shows, Somerby perpetuates the same kind of false equivalence he has criticized the MSM for doing. And ends up sounding like those ranters at the public forums.

  3. Are they smart, these shows? Or are they really, really good at making their viewers think that they, the viewers themselves, are smart? With my acquaintances who watch these shows, instead of getting an interesting, fuller understanding of the current political issues from these programs, they are massively prepared to quickly go high dudgeon regarding how awful, stupid, and hypocritical the Republicans are on the issue. There is a clear undercurrent that there is a whole bunch of stupid out there, and just being not part of that bad, bad group shows you are at least above average in the brains department.

    There are not a lot of people these days that say, "No. The ends do not justify the means." Thank you, Bob, for doing it so well.

    Many of the commenters here who have such bad things to say about this blog have a very deep philosophical disagreement with the author about the ends and the means. I wish they would understand this, instead of turning the discussion from whether good journalism is being created to whether the liberal position is being forwarded or not.

    1. "I wish they would understand this, instead of turning the discussion from whether good journalism is being created to whether the liberal position is being forwarded or not."

      Oh, snap! I often confuse the two myself.

    2. It does say right up there in the blog title musings on the mainstream "press corps" and the american discourse.