Interlude—Dumbnification is us: In modern journalistic culture, you are allowed to talk about a journalist’s alleged “bias.”
You aren’t encouraged to think about his or her level of dumbnification. Such assessments are considered rude, beyond the pale.
In our view, this constitutes a major flaw in modern press corps culture.
It’s hard to see how dumb our press culture is, especially when the topic is kept out of sight, out of bounds. And so it continues:
The inability to report even the simplest types of statistics. The inability to quote or paraphrase public figures in even the most basic ways.
The adoption of inane, absurd topics. The widespread adoption of ludicrous scripts, which fly in the face of the basic statistics we don’t know how to interpret and refuse to consult.
For our money, the dumbnification of Salon was the press corps event of the year. But nowhere is the press corps’ dumbness more clear than it is at times of scandal.
We saw some good work on cable last night about the New Jersey matter. To cite one striking example, Rachel Maddow actually warned us about the fact that we have been shown a very small number of the relevant e-mails.
We also saw elements of the press corps triathlon, in which journalists jump to conclusions, throw hissy fits and run far ahead of their facts.
For our money, no one displays these skills as ably as Gail Collins does. For that reason, the “liberal” columnist offers this chuckling reflection in her new column:
COLLINS (1/9/14): This is very big. Voters have been known to overlook financial chicanery or stuffed ballot boxes. They might continue to love a guy who screwed up the local bond rating or got evicted from the governor’s mansion by an irate wife. But could you ever trust a politician who was implicated in a deliberate effort to ruin rush hour?“We are, of course, going to refer to this as Bridgegate,” Collins says, thus referring to it as Bridgegate. In such familiar ways, journalists chuckle at their gong-show behaviors even as they engage in those acts.
We are, of course, going to refer to this as Bridgegate. Also, we will try to figure out some way to call it a political polar vortex.
Among the range of such behaviors, they ask if you could “ever trust a politician who was implicated in a deliberate effort to ruin rush hour.”
“Implicated” is a fuzzy and therefore useful word. Soon, they are saying this:
COLLINS: Imagine what would happen if the mayor of Tijuana did something to tick off a President Chris Christie administration. Goodbye border crossing.Uh-oh! When journalists ask us to “imagine” X, we’re really off to the races! Only late in their dumbnified columns will they deign to say this:
COLLINS: Nothing in the newly uncovered email exchanges came directly from Christie. Perhaps he did not know what was going on. Perhaps Christie, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, appointed childhood chum and political blogger Wildstein to the Port Authority because of his in-depth expertise in bridges and tunnels.Snark follows the highlighted admission, which otherwise kills the joy of scandal. For people like Collins, the joy of scandal lies in the way it frees them to play their snark-ridden games.
“I am really looking forward to hearing all this discussed in the Florida primary,” Collins says as she ends her column. In that way, she acknowledges the entertainment factor in the cult and culture of scandal.
As Collins often notes in her columns, policy discussions are boring and dull. Scandal of this type is not. Trust us—she really is “looking forward to hearing all this discussed.”
Inevitably, the joy of scandal is especially strong for those who want to take down the person being pursued. In this case, pseudo-liberals like Collins don’t care for Christie. Neither do quite a few pseudo-conservatives.
That said, we’re so old that we can recall the days when Collins was playing her schoolyard games at the expense of leading Democrats, and especially at the expense of Candidate Gore. One problem with careless scandal culture is this:
It can (and will) cut various ways. Beyond that, it serves as a way to avoid the more substantial discussions which bore many modern scribes.
We’ll admit that we’re unbalanced on the subject of Collins. We still think her column of late October 1999 included the most heartless jibe we’ve ever seen from a member of her guild.
We’ll admit that this reaction is somewhat strange, since a wide range of guild members offered the same set of scripted remarks concerning that first Gore-Bradley debate, in which everyone agreed to pretend that Gore had been tremendously awful.
(As it turned out, New Hampshire Dems who watched the debate failed to agree, for perfectly obvious reasons.)
Somehow, it seemed especially cruel when Collins mocked Gore for one of the long list of scripted offenses—for asking the mother of a sick child how old her daughter was, and if she had insurance. According to the mandated script, this simplest act of human decency could only mean that Candidate Gore was trying to act like Bill Clinton!
Many others made the same remark, which was copied from a script first composed by Jacob Weisberg. For reasons we can’t explain, we have never forgotten how especially heartless that comment sounded coming from Lady Collins.
Make no mistake—the adoration of scandal culture has been one of the leading causes of our remarkable dumbnification, a punishing state of affairs which can be quite hard to see.
The adoration of scandal culture sent George W. Bush to the White House. And as long as this dumbnified culture exists, it will work that way again at some point in the future.
Maddow raised a good warning last night, even as she joined her colleagues in jumping ahead of her actual knowledge:
A journalist will wonder why she has only been shown certain e-mails.
A journalist will want to see what the rest of e-mails show. A journalist will not tell her readers to “imagine” X, Y or Z, and certainly not before she notes how little we actually know.
For ourselves, we aren’t Christie fans. Regarding his drive for re-election, Christie took $12 million in state money last year to run a separate senate election in October, increasing the chance that he would run up a large win in his own November race.
This blatantly obvious act of theft was conducted right out in the open. Perhaps because it didn’t involve big bridges and wonderfully comical traffic jams, utterly silly people like Collins utterly let it pass.
Did Christie know about this matter, assuming this matter is what it seems? We still find it hard to believe that he would engage in something so loaded with the potential for backfire.
But this has become an intriguing story. That is precisely the problem.
Christie’s theft of $12 million wasn’t entertaining enough for Collins and her colleagues. When she wrote her book about Texas schools the previous year, she didn’t bother looking up the relevant data.
Looking up data is boring and dull. For Collins, such work is no fun.
When Gore engaged in the world’s simplest act, she typed the script just as Weisberg had done. A warning at this time of scandal:
Your press corps is often defiantly dumb. Scandal brings this out.
Tomorrow: CNN dumbs down a program
Dumbnification then and now: How did standard pundits like Collins cover that first Gore-Bradley debate?
According to three different journalists, the press corps hissed and jeered Gore in the press room throughout the event. For the full story concerning what followed, see chapter 4 of How He Got There, our companion site.