We humans aren't up to this task: Staggering? Remarkable? Astounding? Bizarre?
What word would you apply to PolitiFact's attempt to report the flap which broke out this Wednesday night when Candidate Sanders made this statement about Candidate Clinton:
"She has been saying lately that she thinks that I am, quote unquote, not qualified to be president."
The ensuing dispute was the type of silly, unfortunate flap which often occurs in campaigns. In this case, as in so many others, the real chaos began when we the humans attempted to discuss, or pretended to discuss, the silly, unfortunate flap.
As we've told you in the past, we the humans simply aren't up to such basic tasks. Quickly, a few examples:
In the past few days, we've been surprised to think that we might see the old Chris Matthews back.
Over the past eighteen years, Matthews went from vicious Clinton/Gore/Clinton attack dog to sycophantic Hillary Clinton supporter, all before a recent halting shift which seemed to harden this week. As we watched his weird performance on yesterday's Hardball, we flashed back to the decade in which we liberals sat and stared as Matthews seemed to do ownership's bidding, relentlessly savaging Candidate Gore and helping send Bush to the White House.
(Matthews was much more influential at that time, when there were many fewer cable "news shows.")
We saw flashes of the old Matthews this week. But then, hapless pseudo-journalism was involved in this week's flap from the start.
By some accounts, the flap began with this attempt at news reporting by CNN's Jeff Zeleny. The report displays extremely weak journalistic skills. (File under: "provocative paraphrase in the absence of direct quotation.")
The flap also involved Morning Joe, where slightly odd questioning of Candidate Clinton helped lay the groundwork for the brouhaha. (Morning Joe has been a state-of-the-art journalistic gong-show for most of the past year.)
That said, nothing can match what happened when the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact org attempted to fact-check the flap. Impossible? Amazing? Bizarre? What would be the appropriate word to describe this org's performance?
We've often warned you about a basic possibility. It often seems that we the humans simply aren't up to the task of performing basic journalism. Absent guidance from powerful gatekeepers, it often seems that we simply aren't sharp enough to conduct our own affairs.
(Down through the ages, literary greats have explored variants of this general notion. In recent weeks, we've often thought of The Grand Inquisitor, a famous piece which explores one variant of that idea.)
That said, we were amazed by PolitiFact's attempt to fact-check this latest flap. Its piece was written by C. Eugene Emery, a forty-year veteran of the Providence Journal. It was edited by Angie Drobnic Holan, who won a Pulitzer in 2009 with the PolitiFact team.
Good God! Holan is the editor of PolitiFact, full freaking stop! She and Emery aren't the inexperienced kids who now people so much of our press corps, helping owners save money on wages. A pair of veterans tried to fact-check what happened in this flap.
Holan edited Emery's piece, and she's a Pulitzer winner! That said, try to believe that PolitiFact's account started out like this:
POLITIFACT (4/7/16): Presidential candidates spend a lot of time explaining why they are the best qualified for the job. But now a brouhaha has broken out between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over whether the other is qualified at all.PolitiFact went on to judge Sanders' statement "Mostly False."
During an April 6 rally at Temple University in Philadelphia, Sanders contended that in the wake of Clinton's loss in Wisconsin, she is getting a little nervous. "And she has been saying lately that she thinks that I am, 'not qualified to be president,’ " he told the crowd.
Sanders then said, "I don't believe that she is qualified if she is, through her super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds. I don't think that you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your Super PAC. I don't think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq. I don't think you are qualified if you've supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement, which has cost us millions of decent-paying jobs."
So is Sanders correct that Clinton has been saying the he was "not qualified to be president"?
That said, our report isn't an attempt to assess the performance of Candidate Clinton or Candidate Sanders. We're judging the PolitiFact org, and through them our whole "human race!"
Bizarre? Impossible? Beyond belief? With what expression would you describe what PolitiFact did in that highlighted passage—in the part of their report where they haplessly tried to quote what Sanders said?
Is any journalistic task so basic that our journalists can handle it? Below, you see the words Sanders actually said, as compared to PolitiFact's attempt at "quoting" his statement:
The words Sanders actually said:In the passage in question, Candidate Sanders said nineteen words. In its hapless attempt at quoting the hopeful, PolitiFact recorded just seventeen.
"And she has been saying lately that she thinks that I am, quote unquote, not qualified to be president."
PolitiFact's attempt at quoting what Sanders said:
"And she has been saying lately that she thinks that I am, 'not qualified to be president,’ " he told the crowd.
They omitted two words—"quote unquote." There was no reason to omit those words. PolitiFact provided no sign that words had been omitted.
Beyond that, those are actually important words in Sanders' statement that night. In a head-slapping act of incompetence, PolitiFact didn't record them!
Let's recall what we said above. We aren't trying to judge Clinton or Sanders here. We're assessing the competence of two veteran journalists, including one Pulitzer winner.
These journalists tried to quote a statement by Sanders. Strangely and weirdly, they failed.
Humans, can we talk? When you "quote" a statement by someone, you're supposed to record every word! If you decide to leave words out, you're supposed to show you left words out by using an ellipsis (a dot-dot-dot).
That said, you're not supposed to leave words out if the words are important. In this case, the words these giants chose to omit actually were.
Fellow humans, please! By saying "quote unquote," Sanders heightened the sense that he was quoting Candidate Clinton, which he actually wasn't doing.
For that reason, it's stunning to think that PolitiFact would simply decide to omit those words as they presented their "quotation."
Nothing will turn on this peculiar decision, of course. Partisans, fans, supporters and hustlers will present the facts of this flap in a wide array of ways. In the end, PolitiFact's weird account of what Sanders said will make no particular difference.
Having said that, let us also say this. Emery and Holan remind us of an important fact:
This is no journalistic act so basic and simple that our "press corps" is able to handle it. Within our ongoing American drama, the people cast in the role of professional journalists lack even the most basic skills.
It may seem hard to believe that two veteran journalists could have so much trouble quoting something somebody said. That said, we recall the various ways these life forms "quoted" Candidate Gore all through Campaign 2000.
It may be the most significant bungled "quotation" in modern political history. We refer to the claim which defined, transformed and decided that election:
Al Gore said he invented the Internet!
Presented that way, it isn't a quote; it's just an inventive paraphrase of a slightly jumbled statement Gore made in March 1999. At that time, though, we constantly told you this—the power to paraphrase is the power to spin.
During the twenty months of Campaign 2000, the truth of that adage was constantly proven as the mainstream press corps inventively paraphrased statements by Gore. That said, the mainstream press wasn't prepared to restrict itself to inventive paraphrase.
All too often, inventive paraphrases of Gore slipped inside quotation marks, thus becoming flatly bogus "quotations." Here was USA Today's Mimi Hall in June 1999, reporting Gore's baffling problems in the polls. Note her one-word "quotation:"
HALL (6/2/99): Vice President Gore, lagging in early presidential polling and facing growing criticism for his sluggish campaign and stiff style, will formally announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 16.Back in March 1999, Gore never said "invent" or "invented" in his slightly jumbled comment about the Net. But so what? By now, the one word Candidate Gore never said had become the one word reporters like Hall were choosing to place inside quotes!
Gore's sudden decision to move up the date—after aides had said for months that he wouldn't announce until fall, then more recently said an announcement would come in July—follows a spate of bad publicity.
A series of negative news stories unnerved Gore's campaign staff, aides say. President Clinton told The New York Times he had been concerned about the campaign's lackluster start and had urged Gore to loosen up. And big Democratic donors complained publicly about disorganization in the campaign. A couple of Gore gaffes, including his assertion that he "invented" the Internet, didn't help.
Mimi Hall was an experienced reporter; so are Emery and Holan. The moral to our story is this:
Absent rule by powerful gatekeepers, we the humans simply aren't up to even the most elementary tasks. The actors hired to pose as reporters keep making this fact crystal clear.
We the liberals sit on our ascots, too dumb and compliant to notice. "Look over there," we constantly cry. "Look how dumb Those People are!"
As we've told you for many years, we simply aren't up to this task.