Smells like press spirit!


The Times previews body language: How empty is your political press corps?

The morning’s hard-copy New York Times leaves little to the imagination. We refer to the full-page review of tonight’s debate, a trio of pieces which consume page A16 in this morning’s Washington Edition.

At the bottom of the page, Jackie Calmes presents a sensible, perfectly serious preview of the economic claims which might be made tonight.

But that’s at the bottom of the page. The top two-thirds of A16 is consumed by a pair of reports which give us the soul of the Times.

First, could there be a story-line brewing? In this page’s featured news report, Jeff Zeleny lists “a few things to watch” in tonight’s debate.

Is a story-line possibly brewing? At several points, Zeleny suggests that Obama has to avoid giving voters the sense that he is “smug,” “arrogant” or “dismissive.”

We find no similar suggestions about Romney’s possibly unhelpful traits. Is a narrative possibly taking shape here?

We have no idea. (Careful, Obama! Don't sigh!) But lodged within Zeleny’s worthless report is the most pitiful part of this preview page—a photograph-laden review of the candidates bearing this pitiful headline:

“Squaring Off, With Body Language”

That’s right! With the help of twelve (12) small photographs, the Times offers a preview of what to watch for in the realm of twitches and other small bodily gestures! With this piece, the Times completes a long, slow slide to the lowest part of the pit.

Background: Unless we’re mistaken, it was Chris Matthews who introduced body language to cable, in his regular sessions with jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius in the fall of 1999. It was during one of these fatuous sessions that Matthews warned us against Candidate Gore’s fiendish use of those troubling three-button suits. According to Matthews, Gore was sending sexual signals to female voters, not unlike what sailors do with the buttons on the front of their pants.

Yes, he actually said that. It wasn’t Dimitrius’ fault that Matthews made this remarkable statement. But a brainless new low had been established.

Before long, others would play.

At some point, Bill O’Reilly introduced "body language expert" Tonya Reiman into his regular cast of characters. (Nexis tracks Reiman’s appearances to November 2006.) O’Reilly has never used his body language segments in the overtly partisan way Matthews did. But the dumbness of these regular segments is there for all to see.

Today, the New York Times finally goes there! Calmes’ intelligent, highly relevant piece is relegated to the foot of A16. Up top, festooned with a dozen photos, is the ridiculous piece which appears beneath this explanation:
Squaring Off, With Body Language
Peggy Hackney, an analyst working with the New York University Movement Lab, has examined the body language exhibited by President Obama and Mitt Romney in a number of speeches and debates. Here is a look at some of the signature gestures that they use.
Hackney! You can't make this up!

Hackney seems to be on the lookout for the same sorts of flaws as Zeleny. Reviewing one of Obama’s typical gestures, the unnamed author of this piece seems to warn us about his sarcasm:
NEW YORK TIMES: Mr. Obama often makes a downward chopping motion to place emphasis on an action verb. He has used this to convey a task that he or the viewer might undertake, as well as to sarcastically suggest something his opponent might do.
Along with his arrogance, smugness and dismissiveness, we are thus put on alert about Obama’s sarcasm. As in Zeleny’s report, we see no corresponding warnings about Romney’s less pleasing possible traits.

Let’s set aside the sneaking suspicion that a narrative may be forming. In this morning’s hard-copy Times, a fatuous piece about body language was given billing over a smart and serious piece about the campaign’s most important issue. Message:

New York Times readers might want to brush up on the candidates’ economic claims. But in the withering mind of the Times, their body language comes first!

To see this foolishness as it exists on-line, you only have to click here. But in this morning’s hard-copy layout, the steady dumbing of our discourse was present for all to see.


  1. Based on Jackie Calmes's economic preview, I will predict that if the Times creates a story line, it will be one that helps President Obama.

    Calmes's article reads as if it was written by Democratic Campaign Headquarters.

    1. The Anonymous IdiotOctober 3, 2012 at 6:39 PM

      "Calmes's article reads as if it was written by Democratic Campaign Headquarters."

      I don't agree, but it is a funny contrast that Somerby recommends Calmes' piece, because, as we all know, Bob is working to elect Romney.

    2. I wouldn't say Mr. Somerby favors Romney.

      However, by focusing on a few members of the press corps and a few press outlets in an attempt to prove the thesis he stated way back before the turn of the century, he is not dissimilar to the blind man trying to describe an elephant after grabbing onto its (fill in your favorite body part here).

  2. Not a word today about the Drudge-Hannity-Carlson collaborative "bombshell" that was supposed to "change the face of the election"?

    No wonder this blog has slid into irrelevancy!

    At the very least I'd expect Mr. Somerby to hold up Louis CK as the equivalent of that trio.

    1. You can find commentary here. The Romney campaign is quoted as pooh-poohing the video:

      [Romney aide] Kevin Madden said on CBS's This Morning that the content of the video, from a June 2007 speech to black ministers at Virginia's Hampton University, was sufficiently covered in 2007. Madden added that the Romney campaign views the president's statements, including a shout-out to his controversial former pastor and remarks criticizing the administration for insisting that New Orleans contribute its share after Hurricane Katrina, as irrelevant to Wednesday's debate on domestic policy.
      "What's most relevant are the president's policies and how they are affecting people's bottom line," Madden said, adding that Romney will offer new details on his tax reform proposal during the debate. "That's a much more relevant debate that we'll focus on."

    2. "You can find commentary here."

      Correction, you can find Romney campaign spin here.

      Perhaps you find it entertaining for one arm of Murdoch's media empire to comment on another arm.

      I don't.

      Did you know that during the Swift Boat campaign against Kerry, W the candidate said he had no reason to doubt the Navy's account of Kerry's service.

      Did it matter to the Swift Boaters?

  3. I remember when Hollywood body-language "experts" all proved how Tom Cruise was madly in love with Nicole Kidman.
    Ezra Klein recommends reading this before watching the debate.

  4. Somerby has claimed that is wasn't the public that "zinged" politicians after the debates, but the media.
    I think we have to give him that one.
    I for one have personally seen the process work more than a few times.

  5. Leave it to Mr. Somerby to argue television isn't a visual medium.

    Perhaps he's forgotten the way it looked like Gore was stalking W. onstage the way an accident victim can't remember the actual crash!

    1. The Really AnonymousOctober 3, 2012 at 6:40 PM

      I'm as dumb as they come.

    2. Thanks for the unsolicited admission!!

  6. Bob,

    You left out "h/t to Blake Elder" so I'll do it for you.

  7. One of the first things Gwen Ifill eagerly asked the PBS gang for their post-debate discussion was a question about "body language." Ugh!