Part 1—Sadly, we’re with Stupid: Large chunks of our political journalism fit an unfortunate profile.
The coverage in question is deeply lunk-headed. But for reasons involving culture and marketing, it’s mistakenly taken for smart.
(And for honest, sincere!)
A great deal of this lunk-headed coverage occurs in the New York Times, a famous newspaper which markets itself to upper-end readers as high-toned, elite—and smart.
That said, did you hear the one about Candidate Rubio’s four (4!) traffic tickets? Did you read the Times’ recent report about his “oversized windows?”
The Times has played it this way for decades, both in its political reporting and on its opinion pages. We’ll review more of the paper’s dimwitted work before the week is done.
For today, let’s examine another source of lunk-headed work which is mistakenly taken for smart. Let’s discuss the way Rachel Maddow opened last night’s cable news program.
Maddow became a nightly host on MSNBC in September 2008. At that time, she was heavily marketed as a Stanford grad and as a former Rhodes Scholar.
Maddow has always been marketed as smart. That said, it would be hard to overstate the dumbness of her “campaign coverage” over the past month.
Last night was no exception. Let’s set the scene:
On Saturday morning, Candidate Clinton had made her most substantial speech as a White House candidate. Yesterday, Clinton conducted her longest press availability as a candidate—and Candidate Bush formally announced that he is running for president.
If you wanted to cover the White House campaign, you could have focused on those events. Instead, Maddow spent the first half hour of her program thinking about Donald Trump.
Why on earth would someone make so strange a selection? We don’t know how to answer that question. But Maddow began her program by indulging in one of her favorite activities—talking about herself.
Maddow constantly seeks out ways to talk about herself. It may be part of a marketing strategy designed to make us lunk-headed liberals think that “Rache” and her various staffers are really our TV friends.
Whatever the reason, Maddow was talking about herself again as she opened last evening’s program. She took the throw from Chris Hayes and began to muse, in humble fashion, about her own professional shortcomings.
“I I I I I I I!” Around here, that’s what the analysts chant when Maddow embarks on one of her pointless, deep-thinking fugues about her favorite subject:
MADDOW (6/15/15): Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend...And thanks for staying with us for the next hour.“A little analysis thrown in!” Already, the analysts were in tears, in some cases from laughter.
Even for things that we are pretty good at, even for things that we are paid to do, all of us have our limits, right? Part of being an adult is recognizing the outer boundaries of what we are capable of as people.
So my job, for instance, is understanding and explaining the news. And in order to do that job, I do a lot of exposition in terms of just the raw, factual explanation of what’s going to in the world and in the news. I also do some analysis, a little analysis thrown in to explain about what’s important about going on in the news or at least what makes it interesting.
As if she was on the road to Damascus, Maddow continued her Waldenic search:
MADDOW (continuing directly): I don’t think I’m the best at my job. There are people in this building, for example, who are better than me at every aspect of my job.If you have a way to watch the tape, you’ll see Maddow performing effusively as she offers these thoughts, presumably in ways she’s been trained to do.
I think I’m OK. Mostly, I’m really glad this is my job because I love doing it. I work hard to get better all the time.
But I have come to realize that there are limits. There are some things I can’t explain, or at least that I can’t analyze in any meaningful sense, because there is something that plainly is appealing about these things, or that seems important about these things, but I just can’t grasp it.
I know it means something to other people. I can see it in their faces. But I can’t get it. I can’t empathize.
And there aren’t a ton of these things, but there a few of them that come in a recurring way in politics, things that obviously really resonate with other people that honestly, I’ve figured out, I just don’t get.
By the time she’s saying that she “can’t empathize,” she’s staring stage left at her hand, not unlike tormented Hamlet addressing the skull of poor Yorick. Later in this ridiculous segment, you’ll see a lot of the toothy grinning that helps establish Rachel as our funnest friend.
That’s part of the performance factor in last night’s opening segment. That said, let’s return to the content as Maddow spends a ludicrous 23 minutes talking about Donald Trump.
According to Maddow, there are several things in politics that she isn’t able to get. As she continued, she shared three examples.
Maddow doesn’t get the appeal of term limits, she said. She also doesn’t get the appeal of “nepotism,” defined as the practice of “voting for somebody or feeling loyal to somebody as a politician because you liked a family member of theirs as a politician.”
“Obviously this has some resonance. But I don’t feel it, I don’t get it,” Maddow thoughtfully said.
She then moved on the third thing she doesn’t get—“purpose-built political clothing.”
As she discussed this third topic, she showed a photo of President Bush’s boots at an inaugural gala, followed by a photo of President Obama on Air Force One. Judged as political journalism, this is amazingly low-IQ stuff:
MADDOW: I also don’t get purpose-built political clothing. It’s fine for presidents to wear cowboy boots, for example. I think it’s weird for presidents to wear boots that are designed to remind them that they are president with the presidential seal on them.Already, Maddow had been discussing herself for almost five minutes. The IQ level of her discussion rivaled that of a dumpster fire.
Why do presidents need those jackets whenever they go on Air Force One? Those jackets that tell them they are president while they are on that airplane? I mean, would they otherwise forget? They don’t have to wear a little uniform any other time when they`re president. Why do they have to wear the special purpose-built political clothing while they`re on that plane? It`s very strange.
So, things large and small! There are things that are beyond the outer limits of my capacity as somebody who has this job, somebody who explains the news and does political analysis. And I get that.
That said, this is where the ultimate focus of her lengthy opening segment finally appeared. According to Maddow, the thing she really can’t understand is the political appeal of possible candidate Trump.
“The thing I don’t understand is how he is a political figure, or what kind of political figure he is, or what sort of political juice he’s got, because he’s got some,” the puzzled broadcaster said. “I just can’t figure it out. I can’t get there.”
She summarized Trump’s past feints at running for president, then copped again to the limits of her ability to understand:
MADDOW: And here, we get to the limits of my abilities as a person who has a job like this, because it is not at all that I dislike Mr. Trump and, therefore, don’t see the appeal because I don’t share the affection for him that his supporters have. It’s nothing like that. It’s not qualitative at all.It isn’t that Maddow dislikes Mr. Trump! “It’s nothing like that. It’s not qualitative at all,” she oddly said.
I do not recognize— What’s going on here is that I don’t recognize, I cannot see that what he is doing is something that might conceivably to anyone have any political appeal.
It isn’t that Rachel dislikes Trump; she just doesn’t understand his political appeal. After playing some tape of the blustering Trump, the broadcaster who is often mistaken for smart decided to quantify his “political juice:”
MADDOW: I can’t see that kind of public persona, as being something that lays the foundation for a viable presidential run. But I also recognize that Mr. Trump does very well in the polling among Republican voters. There’s one new poll out today which he does lousy, comes in at 2 percent. But usually, and most of the national polls this year, he does pretty great. I mean, he is certainly on track to be included in the national debates, even as like the guy who came in second to Mitt Romney last time around and the governor of Ohio and the former governor of Texas, people who would seem to have a much more straightforward shot at the nomination, are coming in fairly consistently after him in the polling.In most of the national polls this year, Trump “does pretty great,” Maddow weirdly said.
As she spoke, results of three polls of Republican voters appeared behind her on the screen. In those polls, Trump had been preferred for president by 5 percent, 4 percent, and 3.6 percent of Republican voters.
Adding in the most recent poll where he scored only two percent, this means that Trump is averaging 3.8 percent in Maddow’s four polls. For unknown reasons, this is Maddow’s idea of “doing pretty great.”
(According to Maddow’s analysis, two percent in a poll is lousy. Four percent? Pretty great!)
By this point, the nonsense had barely started. That said, Maddow’s performance last night was almost dumbfoundingly dumb.
Starting at 9 o’clock, she devoted 23 minutes to a discussion of Trump’s political appeal, which seems to be rather limited at this time. Eventually, she called in her friend, Chris Matthews, to explain that appeal.
Tomorrow, we’ll show you what Matthews said about Trump. But there’s only one term for the silly gong-shows Maddow has been presenting, night after night, over at least the last month. As has been the case for a month, Maddow’s “campaign coverage” last night was almost defiantly dumb.
In large part due to marketing, Maddow’s work is often mistakenly taken for smart. The same is true of the New York Times’ hopeless political coverage.
Last night, Maddow seemed to be talking down to kindergartners as she discussed herself and puzzled about Trump’s political juice.
She’s been staging these gong-shows for a month. It’s hard to believe that this work is being done in good faith. But plainly, her work is the farthest thing from smart—and the Times is just as bad.
What explains such low-IQ work? Tomorrow, let’s speculate!
Tomorrow: At 9:30, Maddow moved on to Bush
Next post: Salon fact-checks David Brooks