Part 2—His next imitation of life: Imitations of life define the work of our national press corps.
On Monday night, Charlie Rose staged an imitation of debate, as we noted yesterday. For the record, this imitation occurred on his nightly PBS show, not on his daily CBS program.
These days, if a broadcaster doesn't host two daily programs, it means he doesn't count.
On Monday evening, Rose pretended to moderate a debate between Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough. In fact, Rose was staging an imitation of this familiar broadcaster function. This fact became clear quite early on, when this strange exchange occurred:
ROSE (3/4/13): But in terms of the short-term, Paul doesn’t think we have a spending problem.Just twelve minutes into an hour-long program, a remarkable moment had occurred. In a nation which is screeching and yelling about $85 billion in spending cuts this year, Scarborough had proposed something quite different.
KRUGMAN: No, right! We’re not—
ROSE: You think we have a spending problem in the short term?
SCARBOROUGH: In the short term? Right now? This year?
KRUGMAN: Next year?
SCARBOROUGH: I don’t think over the next three, four, five years it’s going to cause a serious problem. I think—I think if you look again at the projections, if you look at what, what we need to do for Medicare, Medicaid, I think we need to start planning for that right now and that’s I think where we disagree as well. I think Washington can do two things at once.
KRUGMAN: But let me ask a question. Would you support an extra $200 billion a year in spending on infrastructure and education right now?
SCARBOROUGH: Oh yeah, I talk about it all the time.
KRUGMAN: Then you’re—
SCARBOROUGH: And I go around, and I talk, I talk to Republicans all the time. And I’ll tell you the example I use...
He had proposed $200 billion per year in additional federal spending! This is precisely the type of proposal for which Krugman routinely gets flayed!
In a world which wasn’t imitation, a moderator would have seized the day. He would have declared a remarkable point of agreement between the two combatants.
Krugman tried, several times, to note the oddness of Scarborough's statement. But Charlie Rose, the program’s host, was involved in an imitation of life.
Perhaps he was tired from all the nonsense he had pimped on his morning program. Perhaps he didn't want to offend against Very Serious Pseudo-Centrist Scripting, to which he is a bit of a slave in the budget area.
But Rose completely failed to declare this striking point of agreement. Instead, he let this italicized comment by Scarborough stand (our emphasis added):
”I think if you look again at the projections, if you look at what, what we need to do for Medicare, Medicaid, I think we need to start planning for that right now and that’s I think where we disagree as well.”
That’s where they disagree as well? Scarborough had just described a point where the sachems weren't disagreeing at all! But in line with Very Serious Scripting, Scarborough did what had to be done:
He had to pretend that he was piling up points of disagreement with Krugman. And so, immediately after agreeing with Krugman, he said he had done just the opposite.
In an imitation of life, Rose let this bullroar stand.
How odd! In the evenings, Rose’s eponymous program appears on PBS, which is widely reputed to be our smartest source of news. All around the United States, people tune to PBS thinking they’re getting the goods.
But the bulk of our American discourse is composed of imitations of life—imitations of discourse. Consider what happened when Rose sat down with Sandra Day O’Connor last night.
The transcript and tape aren’t available yet; we’ll have to work from memory, as we did yesterday morning. But at one point, Rose began talking with Justice O’Connor about a famous case: Bush v. Gore, the important decision which made it clear that George W. Bush was going to reach the White House.
This is a very famous case. In a rational world, a major journalist would want to question O’Connor about it. As you may recall, all five Republican appointees ruled in the way which favored Bush—and all four Democratic appointees ruled in the way which favored Gore! Adding to the appearance of politicization, the Court appended a peculiar coda to the decision. It said the ruling couldn’t be used as precedent in any future case.
Or something like that. And by the way:
How much controversy did this case create? A very large amount! “The decision in the Florida election case may be ranked as the single most corrupt decision in Supreme Court history,” Alan Dershowitz pungently wrote, and he was hardly alone in this general view. In a rational world, a journalist would want to ask O’Connor, or any other Justice, about this famous decision.
That didn’t happen last night. After seeming to raise the topic, Charlie quickly backed away, thus creating the false impression that questions had been asked. But then, the same thing had happened the night before, when Rachel Maddow pretended to question O’Connor about the same topic.
Maddow rarely interviews people who don’t come from her tribal clique. She also tends to defer to power, at least when power is physically present right there in the room.
None of this makes her a bad person. It does mean that she tends to stage imitations of interviews with high-ranking folk like O’Connor.
For ourselves, we’re fans of Justice O’Connor. We could listen to her talk for hours. We’re transfixed by the western inflections which derive from her youth on a very large ranch on the New Mexico-Arizona border.
Very few people lived in that place at that time. Those inflections are rarely heard.
We also admire Justice O’Connor for the clipped, no-nonsense way she tends to respond to questions. But then, people like Rose and Maddow almost always defer to O'Connor in such interviews. They stage imitations of life.
Tomorrow, we’ll post the transcript of what was said as Rose backed away from Bush v. Gore. If you watch the Maddow segment, you will see Maddow back away from the famous case on two separate occasions.
Maddow staged an imitation of an interview; one night later, so did Rose. But then, such imitations virtually define our Potemkin public discourse.
The evidence shows that we rarely notice. Even worse, our intellectual leaders pretty much never do. People! Such things aren't allowed!
Tomorrow: Joe Nocera’s imitation of life