Part 2—And the fact-checkers disappear: Early in The Plague, Camus describes the way an undesirable condition can seize a community without anyone much taking notice.
He imagined a pestilence, an epidemic of disease, seizing the city of Oran. Still early in his tale, he describes why Dr. Rieux, and other citizens, failed to see it happening:
CAMUS (page 36): The word “plague” had just been uttered for the first time. At this stage of the narrative, with Dr. Bernard Rieux standing at his window, the narrator may, perhaps, be allowed to justify the doctor’s uncertainty and surprise—since, with very slight differences, his reaction was the same as that of the great majority of our townfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in the ones that come crashing down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet somehow plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.Camus was imagining a physical epidemic, though it’s often said that his plague was a metaphor for conditions of thought which conquered Europe before World War II. Whatever! He goes on to describe the way a major change, one not for the better, can sweep a society with no one noticing or even saying a word.
“Stupidity has a knack of getting its way,” he writes at one point in this brief meditation, “as we should see if we were not always so wrapped up in ourselves.” The humanists die first in what follows, he rather gloomily says.
Does stupidity have a knack of getting its way? In our view, something resembling stupidity has been getting its way in America’s press corps for at least the last twenty-one years, with the best and the brightest among us defiantly failing to notice.
For ourselves, we couldn’t take it any more by the mid-1990s, though the problem got even worse shortly after we started this site in March 1998. That said, few episodes have involved more sectors here in our own Oran than the discussion of the killing of Trayvon Martin in February 2012.
In Dubliners, Joyce tried to tell part of “the moral history of my country.” In his view, a moral and intellectual “paralysis” was general all over Ireland.
In our own Dublin, our own Oran, has there ever been a press corps episode in which so many sectors ended up playing so active a role? For today, let’s try to stick with the conduct of the professional journalists.
By this time, it’s fairly easy to see what the journalists have done. Starting in March 2012, they began constructing a Sacred Group Story about the killing of Martin. To a remarkable degree, this sacred story was built upon a steady stream of false and misleading claims made by a group of lawyers representing the Martin family.
As composed by the front-line reporters, the story, which is now quite standard, reeked of misinformation. In the second part of this journalistic breakdown, the nation’s professional fact-checkers and media critics resolutely refused to notice this rather obvious problem. Even after the problem explained in detail, everyone kept his trap shut!
There are thus two parts to this tale of journalistic misconduct. First, let’s get clear on how the sacred story was constructed by the front-line reporters.
By now, a Sacred Group Story is constantly told about the killing of Martin. The basic outlines of this story can be clearly seen in last week’s editorial in the Baltimore Sun, a large part of which we posted yesterday.
To some extent, this sacred story is built on factual misstatements, some of which are extremely familiar. But sacred stories can’t be built on false claims alone! To a major extent, the sacred story about Martin’s death is constructed of other materials. These are the four basic elements of the current story:
Basic elements of the press corps’ sacred story:We recommend you read that Sun editorial, which can best be described as journalistic porn. You will of course see some simple misstatements, which should of course shock the conscience. (George Zimmerman was acquitted by “an all-white in the South!” Should we think, for even one minute, that the editors really believed that?)
Factual statements which are false
Factual claims which are unfounded
Factual statements which are true but irrelevant
Factual information which has been disappeared, withheld
The Baltimore Sun made flat misstatements in that editorial. But just as important were the irrelevant facts which were included, generally to stir emotional reactions, and the standard factual statements which are, alas, unfounded.
Also key was the missing information—the information which was withheld. Generally speaking, this is information which makes the story less simple-minded as a pleasing moral fable. Since the Sun was really composing a fable, such complexity was disappeared.
When major news orgs compose stories this way, is this not a type of journalistic pestilence? Might it not perhaps be said that stupidity is getting its way? Alas! Our major news orgs have been creating their stories this way at least since the early 1990s, when they began constructing a decade of pseudo-scandals concerning the Clintons.
How strange! Today, both Clintons are widely admired; one hears very few words of dissent from our major news orgs. What became of all the stories the American press corps dumped on our heads, the stories which made it clear that the Clintons were deeply corrupted people even before they arrived in DC?
Those stories have simply faded away, with no one asked to explain why they were ever invented. Books by Lyons and Conason are the key texts. Those books have been widely ignored.
Starting in March 1999, the press corps began to invent a whole new set of stories. These Invented Standard Group Tales produced a disastrous outcome. We have discussed that conduct in detail. See our companion site, How He Got There, for six chapters and an Introduction.
The best and the brightest—the Krugmans, the Drums, the Dionnes—have agreed that this major historical episode simply cannot be discussed. This complicity in a bit of a plague has helped permit the current ludicrous conduct concerning the killing of Martin.
(We say that as major fans of Krugman and Drum, of Dionne to a lesser extent.)
Go ahead—read that editorial in the Baltimore Sun! Along with the flat misstatements, you will read the familiar irrelevant facts. (Martin had a bag of Skittles that night.)
You will read the familiar, unfounded suggestion that Zimmerman reacted to Martin with suspicion because he was wearing a hoodie. (That was one of the lawyers’ preferred story lines. Nothing on the tape that night suggests that this was the case.)
You will see the familiar assertion that Zimmerman “decided based on [Martin’s] appearance that he was a ‘punk’ who didn't belong”—that Zimmerman “decided based on no evidence.” That’s always possible, of course. We can’t tell you what Zimmerman was thinking or feeling that night any more than the editors can.
But, to sustain this preferred story, the editors disappear the alleged conduct by Martin which Zimmerman described to the police dispatcher that night, and later to investigators. To maintain the preferred story line, those statements, which may be true, have been disappeared.
The jury heard those statements by Zimmerman, on videotapes the prosecution entered into evidence. Readers of the Baltimore Sun are shielded from exposure to such vile claims, which may be accurate.
Did that conduct by Martin really occur? Like the editors, we don’t know; we weren’t present in Sanford that night! Unlike the editors, we aren’t going to disappear those statements to tell you a story, stated as fact, which you will find familiar and morally pleasing—a story which will let you think that they, and you, care about black kids, although rather plainly they don’t.
You can search that editorial yourself, marveling at its treasure trove of journalistic bad faith. Note the way the editors refer to “the story” that Martin had Zimmerman pinned to the ground; note the absence of any reference to any injuries; note the absence of any discussion of where the fatal fight occurred. When you read that editorial, you are lovingly being shielded from any suggestion of information which might undermine the moral fable, a sacred tale which began last year with a steady stream of misstatements from a handful of lawyers.
This included some misstatements which were unspeakably lurid and vile. The New York Times just typed them up! Literally from day one, the Times loved the sacred tale.
In the spring of 2012, a steading stream of false claims emerged about this case. These claims were advanced by many news orgs, but MSNBC disgraced itself, for several months, with its relentless misconduct.
This is where the second part of this press story begins. In this second part of the tale, we inquire about the press corps’ professional fact-checkers.
Or should we just call them The Missing?
In the spring of 2012, an astonishing string of misstatements emerged. Almost always, they could be traced to the Martin lawyers. Most of these claims have faded away, as all those claims about Whitewater did. But night after night, week after week, very bad people on The One Liberal Channel pimped this false shit to the world:
Some of the false claims from last year:With lightning speed, the claim was invented that Zimmerman used a racial slur in his call to Sanford police that night. On MSNBC, various pundits swore they could hear it.
The Sanford police didn’t take Zimmerman’s clothing for testing! (False)
The Sanford police didn’t even take Zimmerman’s gun! (False)
The Sanford police were so racist they didn’t inform the Martins that their son was dead for a week! (False)
Zimmerman weighed 250 pounds! (False)
It was obvious that Zimmerman had sustained no injuries! (False)
Zimmerman was such a nut that he had made 46 phone calls to Sanford police in the previous 14 months! (False)
Zimmerman was told to stay in his car by the police dispatcher! (False)
Heroically, Lawrence O’Donnell said he could hear it “easily.” Long before trial, the prosecution agreed—the slur had never been said.
Last spring, the factual misstatements were general all over cable, but especially so on MSNBC. As of this spring, some of those misstatements had survived, becoming part of the Standard Way this incident is described.
Sadly but comically, the first false claim about the 46 calls had been transformed into a second standard false claim! It was no false claim left behind!
By this spring, the sacred story was also driven by standard claims which were unfounded—for example, the standard claim that Zimmerman “confronted” Martin, which hasn’t been established and is quite likely untrue. (Like the editors of the Sun, we don't know what happened.) There were false claims and unfounded claims—and facts which had been disappeared.
This should have created a field day for the press corps’ alleged media critics and alleged fact-checkers. But alas! Along with all undesirable facts, these journalists disappeared!
To name one name, Howard Kurtz disappeared. Or you can go to a famous site, PolitiFact. As you examine its recent collection of fact-checks concerning the killing of Martin, you will see part of the way a journalistic pestilence swept the land—a plague of non-reporting.
Its fact-checks have been largely phony—Potemkin. To judge from their work, no one in their own guild, the press corps, has made any false claims about this case from March 2012 on.
They fact-checked emails, but no press reports. As in so many previous episodes, the fact-checkers disappeared.
Quick review: Taking stenography from untruthful lawyers, the nation’s reporters constructed their latest Standard Group Story. As this familiar process occurred, the press corps’ fact-checkers went on vacation.
Soon, the moral and intellectual squalor was spreading to other groups of Dubliners. We liberals have played a large role in the intellectual squalor, to cite one obvious group.
So have many misinformed citizens—good decent people in the grip of a frenzy, as has been seen in the past.
Tomorrow: One lawyer explains herself