Part 3—Incompetence of the watchdogs: How does our discourse get infected by The Crazy and The Dumb?
For starters, our gatekeepers are gone. It never exactly made sense to think that a couple of high-profile men—Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley—were supposed to sift and edit the things we were permitted to hear.
As a matter of theory, that never made sense—but the system did work that way to a large extent. Thanks to those men, and others like them, The Crazy rarely got on the air.
Today, The Crazy is all around us. Selling The Crazy is big business now, and the gatekeepers are long gone.
In theory, though, we still have the watchdogs. In theory, we still have people who can debunk The Crazy and The Dumb.
That’s the theory, but our watchdogs tend to be quite unimpressive. Today, we’ll consider some recent work by the New York Times.
In a wide array of ways, the New York Times produces work which just isn’t real impressive. Simply put, the famous newspaper isn’t especially sharp.
The mediocrity of its work is a key part of The Way We Are. Consider three recent front-page reports in the Times, the regent of the American press corps elite:
Arrests for assault in Sayreville: This Monday, a 2333-word report appeared at the top of the Times front page. Inside the paper, the continuation of the report consumed the full expanse of page A20. The layout included four color photos and a map of New Jersey.
Nine reporters were named in the hard-copy byline for the report. And uh-oh! The lengthy report reads like it was written by nine different people.
The report concerns the recent arrest of seven football players at Sayreville (N.J.) War Memorial High School “on hazing and sexual abuse allegations.” In what follows, you are charged with making a distinction between the alleged criminal conduct, which isn’t under discussion here, and the quality of the journalism performed by the New York Times.
As we’ve read and reread the Times’ lengthy report, we’d have to say the journalism isn’t especially good. Chronologies are sometimes hard to follow; character profiles are puzzling. (The head coach of the high school team “had a prominent mustache and used phrases like ‘put a whupping on teams’ and ‘take your lumps.’”)
At times, the reporters write like natives of Mars: “The order of the attacks that week is not clear. The victim in one of them, who could not be reached for comment, did not smile or laugh.”
SCHWEBER, BARKER, GRANT ET AL (10/20/14): One freshman said his classmates showed their discomfort with the attacks in their body language. ''They would look around like, 'What are they doing?' '' he said. ''It's weird.''Most strangely, the report turns on a description of a type of sexual assault which, as described, doesn’t exactly seem physically possible. The nine reporters just cruise along, failing to see the oddness of their description.
This front-page report was very long. It was also very murky. Plainly, the nine reporters don’t know what actually happened. Given the length of the report, it takes a lot of effort just to tease out what is being alleged.
On the bright side, the long report is highly entertaining. If you don’t mind our saying so, the report lets subscribers read at length about very exciting charges.
Remember when this sort of conduct produced the New Jersey preschool child abuse scandal, with its later overturned verdict? We don’t know what happened in Sayreville. But we thought about that unfortunate episode as we fought our way through this nine-person front-page report.
Hysteria concerning Ebola: Next to the giant Sayreville effort, another front-page report concerned Ebola hysteria. Of the three reports we cite today, we think this was the worst.
How bad is the judgment at the Times? In our view, Jennifer Steinhauer (and her editors) showed amazingly bad judgment as she opened her report in the way shown below.
We say that for two or three reasons. This front-page report appeared right next to the Sayreville effort:
STEINHAUER (10/20/14): In the month since a Liberian man infected with Ebola traveled to Dallas, where he later died, the nation has marinated in a murky soup of understandable concern, wild misinformation, political opportunism and garden-variety panic.In our view, that passage displays extremely bad judgment, of a very familiar kind. Three quick reasons:
Within the escalating debate over how to manage potential threats to public health—muddled by what is widely viewed as a bungled effort by government officials and the Dallas hospital that managed the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States—the line between vigilance and hysteria can be as blurry as the edges of a watercolor painting.
A crowd of parents last week pulled their children out of a Mississippi middle school after learning that its principal had traveled to Zambia, an African nation untouched by the disease.
On the eve of midterm elections with control of the United States Senate at stake, politicians from both parties are calling for the end of commercial air traffic between the United States and some African countries, even though most public health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a shutdown would compound rather than alleviate the risks.
Carolyn Smith of Louisville, Ky., last week took a rare break from sequestering herself at home to take her fiancé to a doctor's appointment. She said she was reluctant to leave her house after hearing that a nurse from the Dallas hospital had flown to Cleveland, over 300 miles from her home. ''We're not really going anywhere if we can help it,'' Ms. Smith, 50, said.
Editorialize much? Steinhauer lists three examples of the ways people have reacted to Ebola. In two of the examples, people in southern locales behave in ways which are completely crazy. In the third example, politicians support a policy Steinhauer doesn’t favor.
That’s just basically clownish. Also unfortunate is the statement that pols are adopting the position in question “even though most public health experts...said a shutdown would compound rather than alleviate the risks.”
That presentation is short, unreasoned, unexplained, cavalier. It helps explain the tribal divide which is badly harming the nation.
Here’s one more horrible problem:
Disapprovingly, Steinhauer says that “politicians from both parties are calling for the end of commercial air traffic between the United States and some African countries.” We looked to see if she cited examples. Horrifically, here’s all she wrote:
STEINHAUER: With fear riding high, Democrats, particularly those running for office, have supported a travel ban.From that, a person might think that Hagan is “calling for the end of commercial air traffic between the United States and some African countries,” the formulation with which Steinhauer started.
''Although stopping the spread of this virus overseas will require a large, coordinated effort with the international community,'' said Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina, a Democrat in a tight race, ''a temporary travel ban is a prudent step the president can take to protect the American people.”
In fact, that isn’t what Hagan has supported. But so what? Steinhauer and other Times reporters have spread that idea around. On-line, Mark Rappeport even claimed that Hagan had flipped last week from an earlier stand, a claim which was plainly inaccurate. Later, he posted a “clarification” and changed an antagonistic headline.
Times writers tend to be careless. In these ways, they keep getting “Democrats in tight races” defeated. They’ve been bumbling along in such ways for a good many years.
What Officer Wilson has said: It’s a basic part of The Way We Are. Journalists at the New York Times just aren’t especially sharp.
To a certain extent, we’d extend that judgment to last Saturday’s front-page report about what Officer Darren Wilson has said to “authorities” about the shooting of Michel Brown.
For the most part, Lawrence O’Donnell bungled his criticism of this report Monday night. Still, O’Donnell was making a valid point by the end of his ten-minute presentation, in which he told us that it pains him to criticize the Times.
What was wrong with that front-page report? The problem was a matter of emphasis, but it was very important.
To their credit, three Times reporters explained the problem at the start of their report. That said, the distinction is extremely basic, and it was quickly forgotten:
SCHMIDT, APUZZO AND BOSMAN (10/18/14): The police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., two months ago has told investigators that he was pinned in his vehicle and in fear for his life as he struggled over his gun with Mr. Brown, according to government officials briefed on the federal civil rights investigation into the matter.That highlighted point is extremely basic. As O’Donnell eventually explained, the major question in this case concerns the reason why Wilson kept firing at Brown even after the struggle at the car was over.
The officer, Darren Wilson, has told the authorities that during the scuffle, Mr. Brown reached for the gun. It was fired twice in the car, according to forensics tests performed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The first bullet struck Mr. Brown in the arm; the second bullet missed.
The forensics tests showed Mr. Brown's blood on the gun, as well as on the interior door panel and on Officer Wilson's uniform. Officer Wilson told the authorities that Mr. Brown had punched and scratched him repeatedly, leaving swelling on his face and cuts on his neck.
This is the first public account of Officer Wilson's testimony to investigators, but it does not explain why, after he emerged from his vehicle, he fired at Mr. Brown multiple times. It contradicts some witness accounts, and it will not calm those who have been demanding to know why an unarmed man was shot a total of six times. Mr. Brown's death continues to fuel anger and sometimes-violent protests.
Schmidt, Apuzzo and Bosman acknowledged that problem in the highlighted passage. But after that, they seemed to forget this basic point—and they only discussed what Wilson has said about the struggle at the car.
They didn’t offer Wilson’s account of why he kept firing at Brown after that, eventually killing him. As they continued, they injected Wilson-friendly interpretations into their work, while failing to note that their account has little to do with the key question at hand.
In recent days, we’ve struggled with each of these front-page reports. But on a very regular basis, the work performed by the New York Times just isn’t super-impressive.
Our gatekeepers are long gone. We’re left with newspapers like the Times to serve as back-ups—as watch-dogs.
Here’s a very basic fact about the troubling Way We Are. For some, this fact is highly counterintuitive:
Our elite newspapers just aren’t very sharp. O’Donnell may not be much better.
Tomorrow: The newer watchdogs at Salon