Part 2—Meet the (shambling) Press: In Jim Sheridan’s honored 2002 film, In America, a young father whose son has died describes the way the loss has eaten away his soul.
Johnny, an aspiring actor, is no longer fully alive; he’s no longer fully human. In effect, he describes himself as one of the walking dead:
JOHNNY: You know, I asked [God] a favor. I asked him to take me instead of him. And he took the both of us. And look what he put in my place!Devastated by the loss of his child, Johnny could not longer feel.
I'm a fucking ghost. I don't exist.
I can't think. I can't laugh. I can't cry.
I can't... feel!
Johnny was one of the walking dead. In the semi-autobiographical film, Sheridan shows the process by which Johnny’s 11-year-old daughter magically restores him to a full state of life.
In the film, as if by an incantation, Johnny is returned to the ranks of the living. Here’s that magical incantation: “Say goodbye to Frankie, Dad...Say goodbye to Frankie.”
We thought of the walking dead when we watched Meet the Press this Sunday. In the Washington Post, Hank Stuever was complaining about the nihilism of the TV show of that name.
Stuever may be right. But right there on our own TV screen, we saw a collection of TV stars who can’t seem to think or feel, or conduct a human discussion.
For the most part, Sunday morning’s walking dead know how to pretend they’re alive. But are these hollowed-out beings still human? We start with David Gregory’s inability to create a focused discussion.
Gregory sat with a four-member pundit panel in the second half of his program. Lord knows there were a wide range of topics on which he could have focused.
One example: He could have tried to create a discussion about the reasons why we don’t have a federal budget for the new fiscal year. Earlier in the program, shambling visibly, Gregory had spoken with two United States senators.
In the process, that question arose. Why don’t we have a federal budget this year?
Note the pathetic focus Gregory tried to impose on the solons. He spoke first with Senator Durbin, a Democrat:
GREGORY (10/13/13): So is it both of your positions— I think this is an important moment of clarity. Do you both believe it's 100 percent the other side's fault?Portman went on at some length, discussing the growing federal debt. At that point, Gregory decided to change the subject:
DURBIN: Here's the point we've reached. We should have been in a budget conference six months ago to discuss these issues. We tried 21 times in the Senate to have a budget conference.
GREGORY: I understand it. That's the question. Is it 100 percent the Republicans' fault that we're here?
DURBIN: I can tell you, if we had engaged in this negotiation, the conference, and there was an impasse, then I'd say, “Well, there's fault on both sides.” The Republicans and the Senate would not allow us to go to a budget conference to even debate these issues for six months.
GREGORY (turning to Senator Portman, a Republican): That's like 100 percent in his view. Is it 100 percent the president and the Democrats' fault, senator?
PORTMAN: With all due respect, you know for the last three years when the Senate Democrats refused to put a budget out, the Democrats said we don't need a budget...
GREGORY: We know it gets confusing fast, so I want to ask each of you to the bottom line question: Do we have an agreement on raising the debt ceiling and ending the government shutdown by Thursday and if the answer is yes, Senator Durbin, what do you have to overcome? What are the real sticking points now that have to be overcome?He knows it gets confusing fast! So he asked a new, different question!
This is the way the walking dead pretend to conduct discussions. They jump all about, from one point to the next. For many viewers, this creates the false impression that something is being discussed.
An illusion is created as these rituals are observed. Viewers see a succession of people emitting a series of vocalizations. This may lead these viewers to think that they’re seeing an actual human discussion.
In fact, that isn’t the way the fully living discuss an actual issue. When the living conduct a discussion, they will typically try to resolve important points.
In the passage we’ve quoted, Gregory made no attempt to resolve a seminal point: Is it true, what Durbin said? Did the GOP refuse to take part in that budget conference, allegedly over the course of six months? And if that’s true, why did the GOP do that?
Portman seemed to agree with Durbin’s claim. In his response, he seemed to say the Democrats did it first, in the three previous years.
But Gregory simply let this go, jumping ahead to the next question. He knew that things can get confusing. So he abandoned this topic.
That is the way the walking dead pretend to conduct discussions. Because they can neither think nor feel, no internal signal tells them to pursue important claims, like the one Durbin advanced. Nor do they have any way to know how silly it is to build a discussion around a question like this:
Is it 100 percent the fault of the other side?
Is it 100 percent the fault of the other side? That’s the way 8-year-old children, playing with dolls, impose a simple-minded framework on a childish discussion.
There’s little point in asking that question, especially if you don’t intend to pursue the claims you get in response. But later on, when he spoke with his panel, Gregory was still in the grip of that childish framework—a type of framework the dead will impose because they can think of no others.
To all appearances, Gregory spoke with four living souls. This was his very first question:
GREGORY: Our full roundtable is here. I wanted to show everybody as we look at the politics of this and impact of this here at the end of the week, here from our NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll about reelection. And here was the question, “Would you vote to replace every member of Congress if you could?” Sixty percent in our poll—60 percent said yes.Presumably, “it” referred to that 60 percent response to that question in the new poll. Making that assumption, when did Todd “talk about it as a political depression?”
KATHLEEN PARKER: [Chuckles]
GREGORY: Chuck [Todd], you talked about it as a political depression. That is the question for all of you, are we in a political depression?
Gregory didn’t say. Beyond that, what did Todd even mean by that claim, in which he “talked about” that response “as a political depression?” Gregory didn’t explain that either, although his statement—his opening statement for the whole segment!—was extremely murky.
Inevitably, confusion reigned.
As the discussion unfolded, some panelists seemed to think that Todd had compared the current political state of affairs to The Great Depression. Others seemed to think they were talking about the emotional state of depression.
Here’s the way Todd answered Gregory. In fairness, it wasn’t Todd’s fault that his host had asked such a fuzzy question. Note the highlighted phrase:
TODD (continuing directly): Well, when eight in ten Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction and we're not in an economic downturn—we're not in an economic downturn. We are in a—it is a fragile economic recovery, but we're in recovery. It's clear we're in recovery; there is a little bit of optimism.Say what? In his answer, Todd referred to 2008’s Great Recession! He seemed to be saying that the current “wrong direction” response had only been matched at that point in time.
So when you have eight in ten Americans saying we're headed in the wrong direction, and it's not the pocketbook, and it's not the war overseas, then what is it? It is this, it is a—you know, the last time we had this, the only other time we were this bad in our poll was during The Great Recession and right after Lehman Brothers.
So there is no other way to explain it. And I think the country is totally now fed up with this broken political system. And, you know, yes, right now Democrats are quote, unquote, “benefiting” because the Republicans are taking the beating. But this is the crisis in confidence with the government and the political system. This is the hangover.
You have now seen the first Q-and-A of this panel discussion. Judy Woodruff got the next go. Note the wandering lack of focus in Gregory’s second question. Then note where Woodruff goes:
GREGORY (continuing directly): And Judy Woodruff, you covered these issues over time, yes a couple of years ago, but it goes farther back. We were talking to Leon Panetta—back in 1996 they were talking about the need to deal with Medicare! So it's Washington's inability to get past this fundamental belief that you're 100 percent wrong and I'm 100 percent right.Huh? Todd had mentioned the Great Recession (2008). Instantly, Woodruff jumped all the way back to the Great Depression (circa 1934), skipping past Gregory’s reference to that past Medicare debate (1996).
WOODRUFF: That's right, David. I mean, I didn't cover the Great Depression, but when you think about it, this is as bad as it gets if you go back to the 1930s before FDR...
Were viewers completely confused yet? Meanwhile, for the second straight time, Gregory’s question had been remarkably unfocused. As the walking dead will do, he shambled all over the land.
In his question, Gregory seemed surprised by the fact that the two parties continue to disagree about various aspects of the Medicare program. We have no idea why that is supposed to be odd.
Meanwhile, for no apparent reason, Gregory returned to the earlier premise, the premise which he never established. The problem is the fact that each party thinks the other party is 100 percent wrong!
Woodruff went on to make a valid point: when people lose faith in the federal government, Democrats, the party of government, will get hurt in the long run too. But after just two Q-and-As, this discussion had wandered through a succession of highly confusing distractors.
Go ahead! Read the transcript and try to make sense of the full “discussion.” When Harold Ford and Kathleen Parker are invited to add to the series of vocalizations, they produce elaborate statements from an Established School of Pundit Oration—the school in which it is claimed that the two parties are equally responsible for whatever may be occurring.
Earlier, Durbin made a contrary claim. Knowing that things get confusing fast, Gregory skipped past it.
This panel segment was very much like an outtake from The Walking Dead. The problem started with Gregory’s complete inability to establish a focus.
Plainly, Gregory is one of the walking dead. Lacking the ability to think or feel, he can’t tell when to drop a point; he can’t tell when to investigate further. He can’t tell when a framework makes sense. He can’t when he, or one of his panelists, is simply playing with dolls:
Is the other party 100 percent wrong?
No. The two parties are 100 percent equally at fault!
Through the use of such childish formulations, the walking dead try to perform. Back to the host of this sham:
The accumulation of wealth and fame has left him unable to think or feel. This means that he is unable to lead a human discussion.
NBC News should get him some help. But it’s highly unlikely that NBC’s suits can think or feel any more than he can.
Whatever that was on Sunday’s show, that wasn’t a human discussion! In point of fact, that segment didn’t present a “discussion” at all.
In our view, Todd showed, at one or two points, that he remains among the living. Woodruff hovers on a ledge.
But three of Sunday’s five TV stars clearly belong to the walking dead. Across the nation, voters have seen this type of segment so often that they think they’re watching a human discussion.
No one in the career “press corps” is going to tell them they’re wrong.
Tomorrow: Thomas Frank spills