Part 1—The medical kit of the press: Be forewarned! For our money, Stacy Schiff's new book is an annoying, difficult read.
You won't be told that in the reviews, almost all of which are glowing. But for our money, Schiff takes a fascinating historical episode and, through her precious, confusing constructions, makes it a very hard slog.
That said, even Schiff can't rob this episode of its fascinations. In the passage shown below, she describes the state of medical science in the Massachusetts colony at the time of the Salem witch trials.
Samuel Parris is the minister whose 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old niece touched off the famous panic in January 1692. This is the sort of help he got when he called in the doctors:
SCHIFF (page 23): Through February Parris looked largely to fast and prayer. He consulted with fellow clergymen...But when he had had enough of the “odd postures and antic gestures,” the deranged speeches, when it became clear that Scripture would not relieve the girls’ preternatural symptoms, Parris called in the doctors.As we read that passage, we're supposed to be struck by the total lack of medical science available to Salem village. We're supposed to be struck by the way the world of Salem differed from ours.
Years later, the practice of medicine in Boston would be deemed "perniciously bad" by a university-trained physician: in 1692, no university-trained physician had yet arrived in Salem town or its neighbor, tiny Salem village, where the girls twitched and snapped. A basic medical kit looked little different from an ancient Greek one, consisting as it did of beetle’s blood, fox lung, and dried dolphin heart. In powders or plasters, snails figured in many remedies. They were at least easier to harvest than unicorn's horn. The fat of a roasted hedgehog dripped into the ear constituted "an excellent remedy for deafness." The most informed medical man in the colonies at the time swore by saltpeter for measles, headache and sciatica. Cotton Mather believed sixty drops of lavender and a mouthful of gingerbread cured memory loss...Hysteria had been cataloged well before 1692. A Salem physician treated it with a brew of breast milk and the blood from an amputated tomcat ear.
We had a second reaction. You see, we read that passage shortly after the crackpot grilling of Candidate Clinton before that special House committee. But also this:
We read that passage during the time when several major American news orgs pretended or seemed to stage debates in which the current Republican candidates were questioned about economic issues.
On October 28, CNBC pretended or seemed to stage the first of these two debates. Thirteen days later, on November 10, the Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal pretended or seemed to stage the second such session.
We watched the way those debates were conducted. We also watched the way those debates were critiqued by the mainstream news corps, including our top liberal pundits.
During this period, we read that passage from Schiff's book. Perhaps for that reason, we had a second reaction to that passage:
As were read Schiff's descrption of Salem's lack of medical science, we thought of the utter lack of journalistic skill on display in our modern "press corps"—the lack of skill we accept from these doctors on a regular basis.
Did Mather believe that lavender drops might cure memory loss? That's nothing! Ezra Klein didn't know what it meant when a journalist accused a candidate of running a "comic book" campaign!
Did Salem physicians treat hysteria with blood from an amputated tomcat ear? That's nothing! Our brightest, most dispassionate liberal pundit thinks that derisive comments represent the most honest way for a journalist to challenge a crazy tax plan!
He couldn't think how else you could do it!
Is it strange to think that doctors in Salem village carried basic medical kits which "consisted of beetle’s blood, fox lung, and dried dolphin heart?" Does it seem strange to think that no one perceived this as strange?
On both counts, it does seem strange, at least from the modern perspective. But it was just as strange to see the attention deficit disorder which seemed to afflict the highly-paid, high-ranking journalists who conducted those recent debates. And it was just as strange when our leading liberal pundits couldn't seem to discern this affliction, even as it played out before our eyes.
When Samuel Parris called in the doctors, did the doctors arrive bereft of any medical skills? So it seems from Schiff's account. But that's nothing! A similar problem obtains in our own village when we call in the people who, or so we're told, come bearing journalistic skills.
Why did we think of Harwood, Quick and Quintanilla—of Klein, Saletan, even of Drum—when we read that passage from Schiff's book? A very fast review:
The current GOP candidates have proposed the craziest budget plans in the history of the republic. One day before the CNBC debate, one of their number, Candidate Kasich, expressly said as much.
"Crazy," Candidate Kasich said. He was describing the budget plans of Candidates Carson and Trump.
Those plans are crazy—and Kasich said so! But one night later, the journalists from CNBC arrived with peculiar medical kits. They pretended to ask a couple of questions about the craziness of those plans, and then, their attention deficits took hold.
Losing their focus, they wandered the countryside; they avoided the craziness of those plans for the rest of the evening. But so what? By the next day, liberal pundits were standing in line to praise them for the "substantive" nature of their evening's work!
The moderators' bags had been full of lavender too. Our pundits couldn't seem to see this. Within our own failing culture, it has become the norm to see TV stars work from journalism kits filled with tomcat ears.
For eighteen years, we've been trying to warn you, much as Cassandra once did:
Our modern mainstream press corps is a Potemkin village. Its inhabitant are largely actors. They possess, or are willing to employ, almost no journalistic skills.
Salem's physicians were hopeless, clueless. Our journalists pretend or seem to be clueless too.
Last week, our journalists focused their lack of skill on a new, extremely important topic. They focused their lack of skill on events at Missouri and Yale.
What's happening at Yale and Mizzou? Like you, we don't have the slightest idea. All week, we'll examine the journalism about those important events.
Try to remember—we're talking about the journalism, not about the students involved in those important events. Regarding the journalism, we'd have to say this:
It's been the fat of a roasted hedgehog, pretty much all the way down.
Tomorrow: Attempts to report what happened at Mizzou
The one high-placed dissenter: Routinely, our mainstream journalism works from script. Not infrequently, this is true of book and film reviews.
Schiff's book has been widely praised. One dissenter spoke from a rather high scaffold. We refer to Professor Kamensky, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
For our money, Schiff's book is a strangely difficult slog. To review Professor Kamensky's critique, you can just click here.
Jim Sleeper didn't like the book either. He opined at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.