No talking point left behind: Are the mainstream press, and the liberal world, possibly gripped, in some small tiny way, by the impulses future experts have called "a very stable dumbness?"
You're asking a wonderful question! We'd planned to examine that question this week, focusing on the burgeoning realm that's sometimes called "Death by Woke."
The New York Times' recent dual endorsement(s) threw that plan into disarray.
As we've skillfully noted, there's nothing automatically dumb about endorsing two candidates in a race only one hopeful can win. That's not the traditional way to play, but it could make a type of sense.
The TV show the New York Times aired was another story.
It reeked of dumbness in the way it aped the dumbest "reality shows." Beyond that, some of the interview snippets the Times chose to air did hint of that familiar dumbness. Even worse, some of the snippets struck us as highly misleading and journalistically unfair.
For one example, we would refer to a televised snippet involving Candidate Buttigieg, AKA "Mayo Pete." (The board had some good solid fun with that Internet meme, explaining to Buttigieg that the meme is based on the idea that he's both bland and white.)
Why doesn't the Mayo Man showcase more anger? In a snippet which appeared on the TV show, Binyamin Applebaum posed a remarkably prosecutorial question along this line in a strikingly hostile way:
APPLEBAUM (1/20/20): If I can put this question in a slightly different way, you’ve been on the front lines of corporate downsizing. You’ve been on the front lines of corporate price fixing.As it turned out, the Mayo Man had "been on the front lines of our misadventures in foreign policy!" Within this strikingly hostile line of questioning, this became the board's way of saying, "Thank you for your service."
BUTTIGIEG: Whoa, whoa whoa, that’s, that’s, I’m sorry, that’s—
APPLEBAUM: You’ve been on the front of our misadventures in foreign policy. You’ve had direct experience in many of the things that make a lot of young people very angry about the way that this country is operating right now. You don’t seem to embody that anger.
BUTTIGIEG: So the proposition that I’ve been on front lines of corporate price fixing is bullshit. Just to get that out of the way.
In Tuesday morning's Times, one letter writer complained about the board's interview with Buttigieg. We think his letter is worth presenting in full:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (1/21/20): I’ve been reading the transcripts of the interviews that the editorial board conducted with several of the major Democratic candidates for president. Until your interview with Pete Buttigieg, they were, for the most part, friendly and collegial. The interview with Mr. Buttigieg, which started with his stint at McKinsey & Company, was so hostile that it took my breath away. You would have thought his joining McKinsey as an entry-level employee was the equivalent of his traveling off to Syria to join ISIS.We think that reader's reaction to the Buttigieg interview isn't far off base. In some ways, the snippets the Times chose to include in its TV show only made matters worse.
On balance, we thought the board's TV show was so silly as to be an embarrassment. In that sense, the program was painfully instructive.
That said, within the realm of the modern press, no silly claim, no matter how silly, will ever be left behind. So it went when CNN's Chris Cillizza critiqued the Times' "utterly confusing 2020 endorsement."
Cillizza scalded the board for endorsing two candidates. But he also offered these remarks, reinforcing a Times talking point:
CILLIZZA (1/21/20): [T]here's lots to praise the Times for in all of this. They took what is usually a totally secret process and made it remarkably transparent—releasing not only videos of their conversations with each of the candidates but also the deliberations of the editorial board after the interviews.To their credit, the board had made the nomination process "remarkably transparent!" That claim strikes us as so absurd that we thought we'd spend one more day discussing what the board actually did.
Did the Times editorial board make their endorsement process "remarkably transparent?" Did they make the process transparent at all?
We think the claim is absurd. Again, we offer a set of questions which went completely unanswered:
Where in the world was James Bennet? James Bennet seems to be the head of the Times editorial board. But he seems to have played no role in any of the interviews or deliberations. Why not? No explanation was given.
Why did Kathleen Kingsbury make the final decision? Throughout the TV show, Kathleen Kingsbury seemed to be in charge of the process. Here's how the end-game went down:
After the board's final deliberation, each board member was shown casting a vote for their top two choices. The top vote-getters, not necessarily in order, were said to be Warren, Klobuchar, Booker and Buttigieg (!). Kingsbury was then shown saying this:
KINGSBURY: I feel very torn. I don't know. I don't know what the answer is, but I actually—like, there's part of me that leaves this room like being a little bit terrified by the idea of choosing just one of them.Why was the final decision left to Kingsbury? Despite the massive transparency, no one ever explained.
I have a few questions I want to ask to call the candidates specifically about and then I'll use that to make my final decision.
What were the vote totals? Viewers of the TV show saw "the silly high school canvas of votes" to which one letter writer referred (full text of her letter below). But viewers were never told what the final vote totals were. How transparent was that?
Did "the publisher" play any role? At one point in the TV show, we were told that Kingsbury made her decision, then shared it with "the publisher," a person who went unnamed. Did the publisher have any say in the final endorsements? Inquiring minds might sensibly want to know.
On what basis did Kingsbury make her decision? On what basis did Kingsbury make "[her] final decision?" Despite the vast transparency Cillizza spotted, this was never explained.
Somehow, Cillizza was able to watch this TV show and come away with the thought that the whole thing had been "remarkably transparent." In our view, the show was often remarkably silly, perhaps even tilting toward dumb.
That said, many questions about the endorsement process were left completely unaddressed. Cillizza's comments help us see that, within the world of the upper-end press, no simple-minded talking point is ever left behind.
Did Sunday evening's TV show perhaps expose us rubes to a surprising type of dumbness? One letter writer offered the take shown below.
In essence, her answer was yes. We think she was basically right.
Tomorrow: We return to our original scheduled programming
We think she was basically right: In our view, the process wasn't hugely transparent, but it often seemed silly and dumb.
That said, what else is new? In our view, this letter writer basically got it right:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (1/21/20): Televising the editorial board’s Democratic primary endorsement decision on “The Weekly” on Sunday night turned out to be eye-opening—in all the wrong ways. From immaterial questions (“Who broke your heart?,” apparently asked of each candidate, and cruelly asked of Joe Biden) to the silly high school canvass of votes (“Write down your top two!”), the show had all the gravitas of bad reality TV. There was scant insight for those of us still deciding between Democrats.Upper-end journos just like to have fun! This has been true for a very long time, especially when they parade around covering White House elections.
Next time, please spare us the view of the sausage making and make a damn choice.
Experts describe this as a vast "dumbness." However surprising that judgment may seem, we can't say that those experts are wrong.