Part 1—"How America lost its mind": Over the weekend, we marveled at many things we read in the New York Times.
More precisely, we marveled at the way we rational animals were reacting to Charlottesville. Why not start with a pair of reports from page D1, the first page of the stand-alone, hard-copy section called Saturday Sports?
Not to pull rank, but, if memory serves, we were present in Fenway Park when Pumpsie Green hit his triple in July 1959.
We say "if memory serves" because history records that the game in question was the first in a Tuesday twi-night doubleheader.
We don't know why, at age 11, we would have been in the yard that night. But we've always thought that we could recall what happened when Green made his first Fenway appearance:
We still think we can see the towering fly ball he hit off the left field wall. If memory serves it barely scarped the Green Monster as it descended to earth, 340 feet from home plate—a can-of-corn, fly ball to left in any other major league park.
In Fenway, the pop fly scraped the left field wall; it had been hit so high that Green ended up with a triple. It was Green's first game in Fenway Park as the Red Sox finally fielded their first "black" player. (Earl Wilson came up one week later.)
The triple we think we can recall is recorded in the official box score. On Saturday morning, the New York Times recalled that game in two lengthy pieces, a sprawling "news report" reaction to what happened in Charlottesville.
Question: Should the city of Boston change the name of Yawkey Way, the two-block-long street "which borders Fenway Park along the third-base side and gives the place its mailing address?" On Saturday morning, the Times devoted two lengthy pieces to this general question in a sprawling display which ate the top two-thirds of page D1 and all of page D2.
Green was mentioned in both pieces; his triple went unremembered. And yes, in fairness, there was an actual "news hook" for this absurd display.
That said, the notion that this is a major question, even within the realm of sports reporting, helps show how we creatures tend to react when anthills get kicked down:
We ants begin racing in all directions. Intellectual chaos will reign. No distraction, no matter how inane, will be left behind.
If you care about racial justice—if you care about the black kids being born today—should you care about the name of Yawkey Way? If your IQ is 11, then yes, you should! And we were present that day, and thrilled, when Pumpsie Green hit his triple!
When our anthills get kicked down, we ants start to scurry about. Eventually, ants rebuild their homes. At first, though, it's nothing but turmoil and chaos.
That's how it's been in the New York Times as we, the rational animals, have reacted to Charlottesville. During the rest of the week, we'll explore some of the work in the Times. For today, though, let's start with the silly Kurt Andersen.
Yesterday, we enjoyed the partial eclipse from an exclusive southbound train proceeding along the Hudson. As we rumbled along in air-conditioned splendor, we fell upon the cover report in this month's Atlantic. It was written by Kurt Andersen, who has always fascinated us as one of New York cafe society's totally empty suits.
The headline on the Atlantic's hard-copy cover wasn't encouraging: "How America Went Haywire," it shouted.
Quick guess! When a flyweight like Andersen says that "America" has gone haywire, he means that others have done so, not him.
Apparently, Andersen has an entire bookful of this dreck about to appear. That said, the analysts were already screaming after they read the first two paragraphs in his endless essay in the Atlantic, a major American journal.
Why does our discourse lie in ruins, as it so plainly does? Among other explanations, try to believe that a Gotham "thought leader" actually wrote what's shown below, then got it published in The Atlantic. Headline included:
ANDERSEN (9/17): How America Lost Its MindHow monstrous a flyweight is Andersen? Let's get clear about what he says in that sad opening passage.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality...That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness....
Whoa, yes, I thought: exactly.
Sad! According to Andersen, America has become "untethered from reality." In fairness, he doesn't spell the nation's name with a "k" at any point in his endless report. On the other hand, he lets us know when he, a Manhattan-certified thought leader, first noticed this problem, which of course is quite real.
Good God! According to Andersen, he first noticed the problem in 2004, as did every liberal with cable TV or an Internet hookup. His first encounter with this problem came with that statement by Karl Rove, a statement bruited far and wide at that point in time.
After that, he may have noticed the problem even more because of Stephen Colbert. What a thing to admit!
How dumb does a person have to be to put this into print? How dumb does he have to think Atlantic subscribers are?
The person has to be very dumb. In explaining why we say that, let's discuss some events which occurred before the year 2004.
Way back in October 1994, Gene Lyons published a piece in Harper's, a famous New York-based journal.
Andersen has almost surely heard of Harper's. Lyons' piece appeared beneath this title:
Fool for Scandal: How the Times got Whitewater wrongYou can read the Lyons essay here. The next year, the essay was converted into a book by "Gene Lyons and the editors of Harpers." That book, which was published by Harper's, carried this title:
Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented WhitewaterIf Andersen is a sentient being and not a cyborg, he must have had some passing contact with these publishing events. Lyons' book described the way a giant pseudo-scandal—a pseudo-scandal which gave its name to an era—had been "invented" by the media, by which he meant the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Ten years later, Andersen, ear to the ground, began getting the sense that something was going wrong. He began to get the sense that "America" was involved in a "lurch toward fantasy."
The Lyons book appeared in 1995. For reasons we'll mention below, hacks like Andersen knew they mustn't discuss what it said.
In large part thanks to their silence, a second major event occurred. We refer to the twenty months, starting in March 1999, in which the Washington Post and the New York Times staged a lunatic "War Against Gore," a war which sent Bush to the White House.
Feelers to the ground, Andersen still sensed nothing wrong. As the mainstream press corps kept inventing crazy misstatements by Candidate Gore, Andersen was able to spot no possible "lurch toward fantasy" in the air.
His antennae only perked up in 2004, when everyone with cable TV or the Internet heard about that comment by Rove. In short, Andersen "first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy" at the exact same time that everyone else did. Rather, at the time when it became Completely Standard and Acceptable to notice this alleged lurch.
A nation whose thought leaders are this dumb, or perhaps this dishonest, is headed toward disaster. Andersen's endless Atlantic piece is basically unreadable. But in that opening passage, he tells us that he catches on to troubling trends At The Exact Same Time Everyone Else Does.
With intellectual leaders like that, we have no hope of escaping the downward spiral being caused by the rise of major news orgs devoted to dissembling and misinformation. Andersen prefers to splash around in the sex-drenched 1960s seeking the source of our current problem.
Andersen's opening passage is sad. It also speaks to an industry-wide code of silence.
How does that code of silence work? Consider this later passage, in which Andersen dumbly cops to something he probably shouldn't have mentioned:
ANDERSEN: When [Trump] entered political show business, after threatening to do so for most of his adult life, the character he created was unprecedented—presidential candidate as insult comic with an artificial tan and ridiculous hair, shamelessly unreal and whipped into shape as if by a pâtissier. He used the new and remade pieces of the fantasy-industrial complex as nobody had before. He hired actors to play enthusiastic supporters at his campaign kickoff. Twitter became his unmediated personal channel for entertaining outrage and untruth. And he was a star, so news shows wanted him on the air as much as possible—people at TV outlets told me during the campaign that they were expected to be careful not to make the candidate so unhappy that he might not return.Say what? During the 2016 campaign, "people at TV outlets" told this cosmic buffoon "that they were expected to be careful not to make [Candidate Trump] so unhappy that he might not return" to their programs?
Question! Which people, at which TV outlets, told this thought leader that? In what context was this said?
We ask for an obvious reason. What Andersen seems to be reporting here would seem to constitute major news! During the campaign in question, many people speculated that this transaction was in play as the candidate, Donald J. Trump, received repeated kid-glove treatment from major interviewers.
If Andersen was specifically told that this practice was in effect, he should have reported it instantly. That's especially true if he was told this in his role as an occasional cable news guest—on Morning Joe, for example.
Was Andersen told this as a way to encourage him to tone his comments down? There's no way of knowing, but it's typical of the code of silence that Andersen drops this bombshell much later, after the practice he describes has had it pernicious effect.
In that throw-way passage, you see the code of silence in action. You see the probable explanation for Andersen's silence about Fools for Scandal, and then about the War Against Gore.
According to the code of silence, one guild member doesn't blow the whistle on the others. Let's review the chronology here:
Andersen kept his trap shut all during the fantasy-based wars against both Clintons and Gore. In all likelihood, he kept his trap shut because those wars were being staged by the mainstream press corps, by his own miserable guild.
In 2004, he became aware of a lurch toward fantasy At The Same Time That Everyone Else Did. He's allowed to focus on that lurch because that lurch is being pinned on the right wing, not on the mainstream press corps.
The code of silence is deep and everlasting. Consider some nonsense which Kevin Drum, our one-time favorite blogger, posted just yesterday.
Good God! Maggie Haberman had offered a typically flyweight defense of the mainstream press corps' treatment of Candidate Clinton's emails. Drum noted how silly her statement was, then chose to play dumb himself:
DRUM (8/21/17): I wish reporters would honestly engage with this question. I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that the emails and the FBI investigation weren’t a story. Of course they were. The question is, were they this big a story?Drum then presented some examples of massive over-coverage of the Clinton emails. He had already made the world's dumbest statement. But he continued like this:
DRUM: This question isn’t important because it’s worthwhile to relitigate 2016 forever, but because it matters for the future. The press got badly played on the Clinton Foundation story, which was almost completely baseless, and they got played only slightly less on the email story, which was kept alive by a calculated campaign to drip information to the press every week—mostly from sources that should have set alarm bells ringing instead.We've polled every one of the analysts. No one believes, not for a second, that Drum is really that dumb.
Pointing out the failures of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is fine but nonresponsive. The question isn’t whether there were lots of things that decided the 2016 race—there were—or whether Clinton’s emails should have been covered at all—of course they should have been. The question is about editorial judgment in an era of widespread media manipulation. If we don’t want 2020 to be like 2016, political reporters should be willing to ask some hard questions about how and why Hillary Clinton’s emails got such massively outsized attention.
No one believes that Kevin Drum thinks the press "got badly played on the Clinton Foundation story [or] on the email story." Despite his silly wish, no one thinks that Drum believes that Haberman, or anyone else in the mainstream press, will ever "honestly engage with" the questions he raises.
How many times does it have to be said? For whatever reason, the mainstream press corps started a war against the Clintons in 1992.
Lyons described the start of that war in Fools for Scandal. In March 1999, the mainstream press extended that war to Clinton's chosen successor.
They revived and extended that long stupid war during Campaign 2016. And they are never going to "honestly engage" with the various things they have done in the course pf conducting that war.
Drum will jump off the Disneyland monorail before he'll state that obvious fact. The code of silence requires him to play dumb on these basic points, as he does in that post. More on that tomorrow.
Dumber than dumb is the ludicrous Andersen, New York's idea of an intellectual. Our tribe is hopeless, dumb, unseeing when it remains in such hands. Twenty-four years later, this monster dumbness within our own tribe has given us President Trump.
Back to Pumpsie Green! If memory serves, he tripled off the left field wall 58 Augusts ago. Last Saturday, the New York Times went all in on changing the name of that road.
Our team is very dumb. Our tribal leaders are even dumber, and they aren't obsessively honest. We'll run through such points all week.
When anthills are ruined, the startled ants run all about. They enter a state of turmoil.
In the wake of Charlottesville, that's what our various leaders are doing. Ants are creatures just like us, though we may be too dumb to survive.
Tomorrow: Live and direct from the Sunday Times, somebody's noxious confession