FOR THE NEW YEAR: What do you want from your liberal news orgs?


Part 2—In place of “chronic outrage:”
What are you hoping for in the new year? Yesterday, we noticed that Jonathan Capehart was making a thoroughly modest request:

“All I want for the new year is the banishment of ‘post-racial’ anything from all social and political discourse.”

So requested Capehart.

In truth, almost no one ever says that we live in a “post-racial” world. For that reason, we thought Capehart’s dream for the new year was small.

Go ahead! Dream a larger dream! How would you like to see our society function?

Yesterday, the question came to mind when we read about declining ratings at The One True Liberal Channel.

In his weekly New York Times column, David Carr listed several media players whose jobs may be on the line in the coming year. This was his assessment of the recent performance of MSNBC president Phil Griffin:
CARR (12/29/14): Those familiar with television news will tell you that Mr. Griffin is one of the smartest people around, but you wouldn’t know it from MSNBC’s ratings. Stalwarts of the liberal-leaning channel—“The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Morning Joe”—are posting some of their lowest ratings ever and some of the fixes that Mr. Griffin has come up with—Ronan Farrow, anyone?—went nowhere.

Cable news outfits are always compared with Fox News, but that channel is in its own business, which involves grilling and serving red meat to devoted conservatives. With a Democratic president viewed by many as disappointing, and control of both houses belonging to Republicans, liberals are less interested in tuning in to chronic outrage. It’s been said that television news is a business where elections, in the form of ratings, are held every night, and by that measure, MSNBC is losing its base. Eventually, attention will focus on both the overall approach and the leader of the ticket.
For more on the year’s cable news ratings, you can just click here.

As we’ve noted in the past, TV ratings are not a measure of quality. In theory, a cable news channel could improve the quality of its programs while losing ground in the ratings.

That said, MSNBC has had a tough year in the ratings. In Carr’s somewhat snarky assessment, this means that liberals have become “less interested in tuning in to chronic outrage.”

Is that what MSNBC sells? Not entirely, no.

That said, tribal outrage plays an increasing role at emerging liberal sites like MSNBC and the new Salon. In our view, these sites tend to eschew the notion of building bridges. Instead, they're inclined to revel in the driving of wedges.

“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” So said Robert Frost.

In our view, a progressive could do much better than be a driver of wedges. That’s especially true when the driving of wedges is pushed along by the invention and disappearance of facts. Increasingly, this is the practice at corporate liberal news sites like MSNBC and the new deranged Salon.

In recent decades, the driving of wedges has tended to work for “the right,” at least on a political basis. We aren’t sure the practice is suited for serious work from “the left.”

What is your dream for the new year? Over Christmas, we found ourselves thinking, via Miep Gies, about a replacement for chronic outrage—Dr. King’s unembarrassed “love ethic,” which he hailed long ago.

Next: Revolutionary refusal

FOR THE NEW YEAR: All we want!


Part 1—Capehart’s dream:
Today, at the Washington Post web site, Jonathan Capehart has a dream for the coming year:
CAPEHART (12/29/14): All I want for the new year is the banishment of “post-racial” anything from all social and political discourse. From its first utterance in 2008 to herald the rise of Barack Obama, the concept was misguided and delusional. That giddy moment when Obama won the bitterly fought South Carolina primary and the audience chanted “Race doesn’t matter” is but a distant memory. News, polls and studies that emerged in the last half of 2014 made it painfully plain that race still matters.
Capehart would banish the term “post-racial” from the national discourse. Starting tomorrow, we’ll be revealing our own dream for the coming year(s).

For today, we’ll limit ourselves. We’ll state our frustration with dreams and observations like Capehart’s.

Question: Did anyone ever actually say that Barack Obama’s election meant that our society had entered a “post-racial” state?

We’ll assume that somebody must have said that somewhere. That said, we conducted a brief search a few years ago trying to locate some major pundit who actually made that widely-referenced statement.

We didn’t have any success. As best we could tell, the term “post-racial” wasn’t thrown around by the nation’s intellectual leaders in the aftermath of Obama’s election.

Did anyone ever actually say that we were now “post-racial?” In our experience, this notion has largely been advanced by pundits like Capehart, though they never seem to quote anyone who actually made the claim.

Just for the record, American society isn’t “post-racial” in any obvious sense. It’s perfectly clear that “race still matters” in various ways, just as Capehart says.

Everyone of substance knows that, not excluding Jonathan Capehart, who seems like a good decent person.

Our point today would be different. As far as we know, no major pundit ever said that we were now post-racial. People like Capehart tend to advance the contrary notion to heighten the pathos of current complaints, whatever they may be.

In Capehart’s case, the current complaint may not always be entirely edifying. Before he’s done today, he laments the findings of a new study—a study he makes little attempt to examine or explain.

The study deals with reactions by whites to two different terms: “black” and “African-American.” (Reactions by blacks weren’t elicited.) After encouraging us to read the study, which is complex, Capehart offers a gloomy thought:
CAPEHART: This study alone should dispel any notion that ours will ever be a “post-racial” society. Before that could happen, we Americans first would have to deal with our “current-racial” society. But as I’ve written many times, we would have to talk to each other one on one, face to face, in an intensely personal and uncomfortable exercise.
Will we ever achieve a “post-racial” society? Our own assumption would be that we will, at least to the extent that white Americans now largely live in a “post-ethnic” society.

We have no idea why Capehart thinks that this study, which he probably can’t explain, means that this will never occur. But then, Capehart is one of many frustrating players who help fashion our low-voltage national discourse.

We’ve never met Jonathan Capehart. We assume he’s a good, decent person, as so many people are. We’d also have to say that he can be a deeply frustrating intellectual leader. But then again, can’t we all!

In our view, Capehart has an extremely modest dream for the new year. He seems to want pundits to stop saying something which very few ranking pundits have ever actually said.

Our own dream would be larger than this. It would even require some changes on our own part!

Tomorrow, we’ll start presenting that dream. We’ll be adapting a famous dream from a person of vast moral brilliance.

We think that brilliance holds today, decked out with some adaptations. Capehart is feeling gloomy today. We think he should fill up with hope.

What we (re)read on our Christmas vacation: Decades later, so well-written! Just click here.

THE EMPATHY FILES: How far does our understanding extend?


Part 4—Liberal lectures police:
Here at the Howler, we’ve never worked as a police officer.

We think of it as a difficult job. We don’t know what we would do in every situation a person confronts on that job.

In part for these reasons, we’re disinclined to judge the conduct of police officers, especially in cases where the facts are unclear. We’re often amazed at how easily others make judgments in such cases.

In the past few years, we’ve been struck by how easily many liberals make such judgments, then start rearranging and inventing facts to drive their judgments along.

All too often, we invent and rearrange facts to construct a perfect case. It’s sad to see the liberal world engage in this sort of conduct.

What’s it like to be a policeman? We can’t really say. But two weeks ago, David Brooks wrote a column, The Cop Mind, which attempted to answer that question.

We were struck by the way some liberals reacted to the things Brooks wrote.

The modern “liberal” tends to be quite dismissive of the modern policeman. We noticed this tendency in many comments to Brooks’ column. But then, the New York Times published a letter which truly captured this instinct.

Brooks discussed some of the fears, anxieties and uncertainties policemen inevitably face. His discussion seemed to make little impression on one reader in Stamford, Connecticut.

The reader offered his thoughts about Brooks’ column. We were struck by his reactions, all of which took a scolding or reproving tone toward police.

Just a guess. The reader's thoughts after reading David Brooks’ column were exactly the same as the thoughts he had had before:
TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (12/16/14): Some thoughts after reading David Brooks’s column “The Cop Mind” (Dec. 9):

Police officers are volunteers, not conscripts; they choose to accept the risk of the job, and must accept its responsibilities.

The insane proliferation of guns in our society has made policing, and just living, in our country, more dangerous. Police officers should be the first to lobby for, and vote for, strict gun control.

Prospective police officers should be tested thoroughly to establish that they are able to keep their cool and their testosterone in check during altercations and trained repeatedly on how to do so.

They are supposed to be the professionals, not the citizens on the street. Officers who are an integral part of, and really know, the community they police are much less likely to see danger where it does not exist, and much more likely to be supported by the members of the community they serve.

The priority of every police department must be to ensure that the percentage of officers of color is proportional to the population of color in the community they police.

H— H—
Stamford, Conn., Dec. 9, 2014
This was just one letter, or course. That said, we thought it was striking.

Brooks’ column was intended to let readers see the world through a policeman’s eyes. But how odd! In every one of the reader’s reactions, he was basically lecturing police from his position of comfort.

It isn’t that anything reader wrote was technically “wrong.” Still, we were struck by the lack of empathy on display in his letter, by his failure to engage with anything the Brooks column asked him to think about.

Does this reader have any empathy for the people who police the nation’s streets? Even when he talked about “the insane proliferation of guns” which “has made policing more dangerous,” he ended up saying that police officers should support gun control, the way he does!

(Police organizations have tended to support such measures.)

Police departments should “ensure that the percentage of officers of color is proportional to the population of color in the community they police?” That sounds like a decent idea to us! But that idea has nothing to do with the considerations advanced in Brooks' column. The reader was simply repeating the “thoughts” he had before reading the piece.

We liberals tend to say that we’re the ones with the empathy. That said, there are quite a few groups for whom we tend to display no empathy at all.

Empathy is a form of insight; we liberals often lack it. For that reason, we find ourselves heading off for Christmas after a disappointing, dismaying year.

In the end, just how sharp are we the liberals really? How many realities can we take in? From how many (legitimate) points of view can we imagine the world?

We’ll continue to ask such questions after we return from a very Durham Christmas. As we harness our sleigh, we'll only say this:

In the past, limited vision from us the liberals has provided a path to defeat.

Supplemental: The way we present important statistics!


No one knows what this means:
Are we humans really “the rational animal,” as Aristotle is said to have said?

Not exactly, no.

This morning, the New York Times ran an op-ed column about rates of rape and sexual assault. Iconic statistics have been floating around in discussions of this subject, each one a bit shakier than the rest.

Right at the start of her column, Callie Marie Rennison presents a relatively new statistic. This new statistic has been getting some play.

We don't know what it means:
RENNISON (12/21/14): Lately, people have been bombarded with the notion that universities and colleges are hotbeds of sexual violence. Parents fear that sending their teenagers to school is equivalent to shipping them off to be sexually victimized.

But the truth is, young women who don’t go to college are more likely to be raped. Lynn A. Addington at American University and I recently published a study based on the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey data from 1995 to 2011. We found that the estimated rate of sexual assault and rape of female college students, ages 18 to 24, was 6.1 per 1,000 students. This is nothing to be proud of, but it is significantly lower than the rate experienced by women that age who don’t attend college—eight per 1,000. In other words, these women are victims of sexual violence at a rate around 30 percent greater than their more educated counterparts.
Professor Rennison makes an important point. Young women who aren’t in college seem to be assaulted more frequently than young women who are in college.

Why does all the attention go to sexual assault in colleges? We’ll let you ponder that question. For today, consider the statistic Professor Rennison presents:

“We found that the estimated rate of sexual assault and rape of female college students, ages 18 to 24, was 6.1 per 1,000 students.”

Do you understand that statistic? Frankly, we do not.

As you know, “6.1 per 1,000 students” is less than one percent. That may seem like a low percentage, since current discussions often turn on the claim that one woman in five—or even one woman in four—will be the victim of rape or sexual assault during her time in college.

Here’s the problem:

Professor Rennison doesn’t specify the time period covered by her statistic. Are 0.61 percent of college women assaulted every year? Every month? Over the course of their four years in college? During the seven years of life from the start of age 18 through the end of age 24?

Professor Rennison doesn’t explain, and her editor at the Times didn’t require her to do so. For that reason, we have no idea what her statistic means.

This is a college professor writing about an important subject in our most famous newspaper. She starts her piece with a key statistic—a statistic which goes undefined in an important way.

“Man [sic] is the rational animal,” Aristotle is said to have said. The famous saying constitutes proof that Aristotle, for all his brilliance, never had to come to terms with the work found in the Times.

THE EMPATHY FILES: Giuliani feels sorry for the mayor!


Part 3—Salon sells tribal hatred:
At highly tribal times, we the humans are strongly inclined toward tribal hatred.

Among us the liberals, the new Salon is actively involved in selling this righteous old brew. Consider what readers are being told about what Rudy said.

At the new, deeply tribal Salon, young Luke Brinker’s latest report appears beneath these exciting tribal headlines:
Conservatives’ sick reaction to NYPD officer killings: Blame Obama and de Blasio
Right-wingers politicize deaths of two officers to condemn liberals and protesters against police brutality
What “sick reactions” does Salon have in mind? And who is blaming Obama and de Blasio for these recent killings?

At the start of his report, young Brinker tells propagandized readers what Giuliani said. A large photo of Giuliani sits atop the report:
BRINKER (12/21/14): Conservatives seized on the shooting deaths of two New York City police officers on Saturday to attack President Obama, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and other figures who have spoken out on the fraught relationship between police and minority communities, with some going so far as to blame them for the killings of the two officers.

The two officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were shot at point-blank range in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on Saturday afternoon. The suspect, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, then killed himself. Brinsley, who had threatened to kill police officers on social media in response to the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, had traveled to New York from Baltimore, where authorities believe he also shot his ex-girlfriend.

Merely by voicing concerns about police treatment of black men like Garner and Brown, many conservatives asserted, figures like Obama, de Blasio, and Attorney General Eric Holder encouraged vigilantism against law enforcement. Appearing on “Fox News Sunday” this morning, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, “They have created an atmosphere of severe, strong, anti-police hatred in certain communities. For that, they should be ashamed of themselves.”
Just for the record, the excited young Brinker didn’t seem to know which program he was discussing. In fact, Giuliani didn’t appear on yesterday morning’s Fox News Sunday. In fact, the young reporter was quoting from an appearance by Giuliani on Sunday’s Fox and Friends.

For ourselves, we aren’t fans of Giuliani. But did Giuliani “go so far as to blame [Obama and de Blasio] for the killings of the two officers?”

A reader could certainly get that impression from the quotation Brinker provided. But here’s another statement from that same TV show, a statement the fiery young Salon reporter omitted:
GIULIANI: (12/21/14): I feel bad for the mayor. I think the mayor must be heartbroken over the loss of these police officers. I can’t believe this is what he wanted. I don’t think he’s a bad man in any way. I think he’s a man who pursues the wrong policies.
To watch the full segment (from Fox and Friends), just click here. You’ll see the statement Brinker quoted—and the statements he left out.

Did Giuliani blame de Blasio for the killings of the two officers? In two appearances on Fox and Friends, he explicitly rejected the statement to that effect by police union spokesman Pat Lynch:
GIULIANI: I admire Pat Lynch very, very much. I think he’s a great union leader and I consider him a good friend. I think it goes too far to blame the mayor for the murders or to call for the mayor’s resignation.
In an earlier segment on Fox and Friends, Giuliani voiced the same judgment, specifically noting that other police officers have been killed under other mayors. To watch that earlier segment, click here.

At Salon, readers were told about the one remark by Giuliani. They weren’t told about the other statements—and Brinker didn’t even seem to know what program he was quoting. Had he actually watched these segments? Or did he simply take his cues and his information from this report at Think Progress, the report to which he linked?

These are difficult times. At times like these, the tribal mind will be strongly inclined to pump out the tribal perspectives.

As an inevitable part of this process, the tribal mind will want you to hate. The younger they are, the more easily they seem to fall into this well.

Reading the lazy work by young Brinker, we thought of one of our favorite literary passages. In The Iliad, the headstrong young Diomedes challenges Agamemnon, king of men, during a tribal council.

Diomedes has offered some lousy advice. Noble Nestor, the seasoned charioteer, quickly rises to offer good counsel:
HOMER: And all the Achaeans shouted their assent,
stirred by the stallion-breaking Diomedes' challenge.
But Nestor the old driver rose and spoke at once.
"Few can match your power in battle, Diomedes,
and in council you excel all men your age
But you don't press on and reach a useful end.

How young you are—why, you could be my son,
my youngest-born at that, though you urge our kings
with cool clear sense: what you've said is right.
But it's my turn now, Diomedes.
I think I can claim to have some years on you.
So I must speak up and drive the matter home.
And no one will heap contempt on what I say,
not even mighty Agamemnon. Lost to the clan,
lost to the hearth, lost to the old ways, that one
who lusts for the horror of war with his own people.
The sage old driver advised all the Argives: "Tonight's the night that rips our ranks to shreds or pulls us through.”

At the new Salon and in other locations, we liberals are being sold the world’s oldest and easiest product. We’re being told to hate the other tribe.

It isn’t a smart thing to do.

Giuliani has said some things we ourselves don’t agree with. But alas! Wanting to stir your tribal fury, headstrong youngsters like Brinker will only show you some of the things Giuliani and others have said.

We strongly advise you to turn these true believers aside. Tomorrow, we’ll explain the title of this series, a series which basically died in the crib.

Why did we call it “the empathy files?” Tomorrow, we ask you a basic question:

How far does your empathy spread? With how many groups can you empathize?

Depressing discourse watch: From the banana republic files!


The disintegration of the American discourse:
We don’t know when the American discourse has ever been so depressing.

In fact, we don’t know when it was ever depressing at all. We’ve covered a lot of journalistic misconduct since 1998, when this site began. Only now has our national discourse struck us as truly depressing.

Why do we find the current discourse depressing? Because the liberal world is playing an active role in its disintegration.

In 1998, the liberal world was largely asleep in the woods. A person could imagine that we liberals might turn out to be giants, if we were ever roused.

Now, the corporate world is building “liberal” news sites. As they do, an unfortunate fact becomes clear: our intellectual capital is no more impressive than that on the other side of the aisle.

This morning, three examples:

Professor Cooper’s response: As we noted yesterday, someone on a crowded commuter train touched Professor Cooper’s bag, which was occupying a seat.

At the new pseudo-liberal Salon, the professor staged her weekly rant about this fiendish act. Evoking Rosa Parks, she said the incident “encapsulates the breadth of the battle against racism we have to fight in this country.”

(The man who touched her bag was white.)

In comments, hundreds of readers ridiculed Professor Cooper’s reaction. As if to prove our point about the liberal world’s lack of intellectual capital, the professor replied with the following tweet:

“So during the protests in Ferguson, white folk were beside themselves abt their property. I get indignant about my property, and I'm a jerk?”

Are you able to follow the logic there? In Ferguson, business owners of various races were upset because their businesses were getting burned to the ground.

At Salon, the professor was upset because some guy on a train moved her bag six inches so he could sit down. Can you see the connection?

When our intellectual leaders “reason” this way, we’re lower than the ditto-heads. Salon is publishing work of this type every day of the week.

Rothkopf watches BillO: This morning, we finally went for the bait. We read yesterday’s post at the new Salon about a recent O’Reilly segment.

The piece was written by Joanna Rothkopf,
an “assistant editor at Salon, focusing on science, health and society.” Briefly but excitedly, Rothkopf discussed the appearance of Martin Luther King III on Wednesday night’s O’Reilly Factor.

Rothkopf prepped at Georgetown Day, graduated from Middlebury in 2012. She is very, very young—and her skill set and her judgment are both extremely limited.

Increasingly, our mainstream and our liberal news orgs feature writers like Rothkopf—writers who are very young and surprisingly unimpressive.

In this instance, Rothkopf wrote three paragraphs about the segment in question, then posted videotape of part of the segment. She introduced the videotape with this exciting blurb:

“Watch below for the most hateful segment in recent memory.”

What was supposed to be so “hateful” about the segment? In the context of the new Salon, there’s rarely a need to explain such things—and Rothkopf didn’t exactly try.

In fact, King and O’Reilly agreed on a wide array of points that night. Rothkopf edited her videotape so you wouldn’t see King semi-agree with the point O’Reilly had just expressed at the point where the hateful tape cuts off.

(King’s immediate reaction to O’Reilly presentation: “Well, I think that's a part of it, but that's not the entirety.”)

King and O’Reilly agreed on an array of points that night. Neither man speaks for us on the racial matters they discussed. But if this full segment was the most hateful thing this child has seen, she needs to get out much more.

Rothkopf’s post is very unimpressive. This dumbness was once the hallmark of the ditto-headed right. Increasingly, it’s our liberal hallmark too.

Back to Kristof’s perfect story: We keep trying to get back to Nicholas Kristof’s perfect story of forgiveness and redemption.

We think that column was fairly dumb too—and that it was designed to drive the kinds of wedges which keep us divided and conquered.

That said, the new Salon is actively trafficking The Dumb. We find it hard to believe that any good is going to come from this cynical corporate practice.

Salon is stunning every day. We can’t say that MSNBC’s work is gigantically better.

Postscript—omitted at Salon: Some of the comments by O'Reilly we weren't allowed to see:

“The cold truth is African-Americans have it harder than other ethnic groups in the USA. That is a fact. And anyone who denies it is not living in the real world.”

“It is certainly valid for President Obama to tell People magazine that he has experienced racism in his life. He and the first lady tell stories about white folks talking down to them. I believe every single African-American has experienced that.”

“A bad decision by a grand jury, such as the one in the Eric Garner case, does not mean the entire justice system is rigged.”

“Again, African-Americans do have it much tougher than whites. It's true some cops don't like blacks. It's true historical injustice has affected the black experience in America.”

Progressives can build on comments like those. At cynically tribal sites like Salon, such comments must be disappeared.

Intellectual capital: Professor Cooper and Rosa Parks!


Our tribe’s self-defeating dumbness:
For many years, we liberals laughed at the dumbness of the ditto-heads.

They’d call Rush Limbaugh and echo reams of pseudo-conservative cant. No claim was too dumb for them to swallow, too tortured for them to repeat.

At the time, our tribe was asleep in the woods. But for liberals who wanted to feel superior, it was a wonderful time.

In the past ten years, our liberal world has roused itself from its slumber. As corporate liberal news orgs have formed, an unfortunate fact has emerged:

As a group, we liberals are every bit as limited as the conservatives are. From our academic and journalistic elites down through our true-believing foot soldiers, our tribe’s intellectual capital is extremely limited too.

As with the ditto-heads, so too with us. We liberals just aren’t very sharp.

Examples? Over at the Washington Post, Sally Kohn offers the latest multiply-bungled piece about the gender pay gap. Her analysis is bad in so many ways that it ought to make liberals weep.

(Kohn’s piece appears at the Post’s aptly-named “PostEverything” site. Was the Post trying to tell us something when it adopted that name?)

That said, we’re going to skip Kohn’s piece and consider work that’s even worse. We refer to Brittney Cooper’s latest piece at Salon, where she posts a weekly essay, generally on matters of race.

Cooper is a 30-something assistant professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers. Her latest essay concerns a personal incident on a commuter train.

Race is a very important topic. For that reason, we’re sad to show you the way her column starts.

As she starts, Cooper describes a trivial incident which occurred when someone wanted a seat on that crowded train. In the trivial interaction the overwrought professor describes, she says she can see “the breadth of the battle against racism we have to fight in this country:”
COOPER (12/17/14): On Friday, I was on the train to New York to do a teach-in on Ferguson at NYU. Beats headphones on, lost in thought, peering out the window, I suddenly saw a white hand shoving my work carry-on toward me. Startled, I looked up to see the hand belonged to a white guy, who was haphazardly handling my open bag, with my laptop perched just inside to make space for himself on the seat next to me.

That he wanted the seat on the now full train was not the problem. That he assumed the prerogative to place his hands on my bag, grab it, shove it at me, all while my computer was unsecured and peeking out, infuriated me. I said to him, “Never put your hands on my property.”

His reply: “Well, you should listen when I talk to you.” That line there, the command that when he, whoever he was, spoke, I should automatically listen encapsulates the breadth of the battle against racism we have to fight in this country.

Buoyed by his own entitlement, his own sense of white male somebodiness, this passenger never even considered that he might simply try harder to get my attention before putting his hands on my stuff. His own need to control space, his own sense of entitlement to move anything in his way even if it held something of value to another person, his belief that he had the right to do whatever he needed to do to make the environment conform to his will are all hallmarks of white privilege.
Remember when we used to roll our eyes at things the ditto-heads said?

Cooper’s piece goes on from there, at considerable length. It’s the type of piece which displays a sad fact:

Increasingly, we liberals are matching the ditto-heads in our lack of intellectual capital.

Needless to say, there is no way of knowing whether this minor incident occurred in the way Cooper describes. We have no videotape of the event. We don’t know exactly what was said and done.

We don’t know the tone of voice in which words were said, or the manner in which this man moved the professor’s bag. We only know this:

Someone moved the professor’s bag so he could sit down on a crowded train. In this utterly trivial matter, Cooper is somehow able to see the breadth of that battle against racism.

As third parties who weren’t present, we can’t asses Cooper’s claim that the fellow in question was rude. But we can assess the sheer absurdity of Cooper’s reasoning process.

Let’s assume that the person who angered Cooper really was rude and abrupt. It's stunning to see the sweep of the vision Cooper is willing to draw from one such incident.

Can we talk? Millions of people are rude and abrupt, in various ways, every day of the week.

People are sometimes rude and abrupt to people of the same race. People are sometimes rude and abrupt to people of other races.

In this case, Cooper says a white man was rude and abrupt toward a woman who is black. In this incident—an incident her readers can’t assess—she somehow thinks she sees the breadth of the nation’s racism.

Soon, she’s mentioning Rosa Parks. When liberal elites say things like this, the wider world starts thinking, correctly, that we liberals should be disregarded:
COOPER: Some will argue that I cannot generalize ideas about white entitlement from the action of one jerk on the train. After all, people get into petty squabbles on the train all the time. Let us not forget, however, that the civil rights movement was catalyzed by a squabble over a seat on a bus. I’m no Rosa Parks, of course. But what these connected histories teach us is that the right to occupy public accommodations unharassed is a right black people fought for. Died for. Endured centuries of indignity and white entitlement for. Battles over how we share public space are foundational to the narrative of race in this country.
People squabble all the time! Yes, but Rosa Parks!

We’re sure that Cooper is well intentioned. Her work has become more unbalanced as incidents like the one in Ferguson have gained the nation’s attention.

That said, serious progressives of all “races” need to take professors like Cooper and throw them from the front of the bus. Whatever its motivation, work of this type seems to come from a liberal clown car—and the broader electorate will always see it that way.

It’s hard to capture the dumbness of this essay. It’s hard to capture the small-mindedness and the self-involvement of its overwrought author.

If you can't see how dumb it is, face it—you're part of the problem! However well-intentioned it may be, nonsense like this will never serve progressive interests.

(I'm no Rosa Parks? Truer words were never spoken. Civil rights leaders like Mrs. Parks and Dr. King were morally and intellectually brilliant. Increasingly, highly privileged assistant professors evoke their names as they betray their astonishing legacy—as they rage about the fact that someone moved their bag as they zoned out to their high-priced name-brand ear phones.)

Alas! The ditto-heads of the liberal left are emerging on an array of fronts. A horrible fact is clearly emerging: Our tribe is just as irrational as theirs.

Speaking with Rush, they announced their own limitations first. The rise of corporate “liberal” news sites is letting us answer in kind.

This is a very serious issue. It raises the most serious possible question: Now that our gatekeepers are gone, are we the people bright enough to conduct a real democracy?

Go ahead—read that piece. As monster dumbness arrives on the left, our future is put in peril.

THE EMPATHY FILES: Perfect forgiveness, plus human resilience!


Part 2—Kristof’s account feels good:
In his latest New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof told a morally-uplifting story.

In one way, it’s a perfect story of perfect forgiveness. It’s also a story of human resilience. For part 1 in this series, click here.

Kristof’s story, which is familiar, tugged at the heartstrings. Judging from reactions in comments, it made many liberal heartstrings soar.

The story, which seems to be largely accurate, basically went like this:

Back in 1990, a young woman named Debbie Baigrie was attacked in the streets of Tampa by several teenagers one night.

One attacker, Ian Manuel, was only 13 years old. Despite his tender years, he had already been arrested sixteen times.

As part of a gang initiation, Manuel shot Baigrie in the face. The injuries required “10 years of repeated, excruciating surgeries” to Baigrie’s face and mouth, according to Kristof’s account.

Manuel was soon arrested again; he admitted shooting Baigrie. Despite his age, he was sentenced to life in prison without hope of parole.

Here’s where the story gets heartwarming. When Manuel was 14 or 15, he placed a collect phone call to Baigrie from prison. Baigrie accepted the call. A correspondence ensued.

From there, Kristof tells a perfect story of perfect selfless forgiveness. Based on comments, many readers were deeply moved by this perfectly shaped moral tale:
KRISTOF (12/14/14): Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades. who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” [Manuel] wrote in one letter. “You are about one in a million who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” [Manuel] wrote in one letter.

Over time, Baigrie became friendly with Manuel’s brother and mother.
Baigrie began to feel sympathetic because, as she says: “When you’re 13, you do stupid stuff.”

“I wish I was free,” he wrote in another. “To protect you from that evil world out there.”

Baigrie was also troubled by the racial dimensions of the case. “If he was a cute white boy at 13, with little dimples and blue eyes, there’s no way this would have happened,” she says.

Her husband and friends thought Baigrie was perhaps suffering from some bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome. “People were saying, ‘you’re an idiot,’ ” Baigrie recalls.

Yet she persevered and advocated for his early release. When the Supreme Court threw out life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who had not committed murder, she testified at his resentencing and urged mercy. It didn’t work: Manuel was sentenced to 65 years. He is now scheduled to be released in 2031.
“Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades.” Or at least, so Kristof said.

This is a perfect story of perfect saintly forgiveness. Baigrie, who is one in a million, rejects the skeptical reactions of her husband and her friends.

She becomes friendly with Manuel’s mother and brother. This being a column by the new-and-improved, racially-conscious Kristof, she’s inevitably troubled by what she takes to be the racial discrimination involved in Manuel’s original sentence.

Baigrie becomes the advocate for her assailant’s early release. Even today, twenty-four years later, she is working on Manuel’s behalf.

This story is built on an unusual base—the sentencing of someone who is just 13 to life with without hope of parole in an adult prison. As Kristof continues, the story becomes even more disturbing, then becomes a story of human resilience:
KRISTOF (continuing directly): Manuel, now 37, did not adjust well to prison, and his prison disciplinary record covers four pages of single-spaced entries. He was placed in solitary confinement at age 15 and remained there almost continually until he was 33. For a time, he cut himself to relieve the numbness. He repeatedly attempted suicide.

Returned to the general prison population, Manuel did better. He earned his G.E.D. with exceptional marks, including many perfect scores. He drafts poems and wrote an autobiographical essay, which Baigrie posted on her Facebook page. His mother, father and brother are now all dead; the only “family” he has left is Baigrie, who sometimes regards him as a wayward foster son.
The story becomes more horrible here. Manuel isn’t just sentenced to life without hope of parole. He then endures roughly 18 years of solitary confinement. Based on other journalistic accounts, Kristof underplays the psychological horrors of this type of confinement.

In obvious ways, this is a terrible story—but this is where the perfect story of human resilience starts. Kristof pleases us with his story of Manuel’s personal improvement, which is captured by Manuel’s “perfect scores” and those “exceptional marks.”

Can we talk? Everyone has seen this movie a hundred times. Unfortunately, it’s a Hollywood movie. In many ways, it’s brainless and simple-minded.

We don’t mean that people who are 13 years old should be sent to adult prisons. We don’t mean that they should be sentenced to life without hope of parole.

We don’t mean that someone who is 15 should spend the next 18 years of his life in solitary confinement. We agree with Baigrie’s statement about the stupidity of 13-year-olds.

(Depending on where the 13-year-old lives, the stupidity to which he finds himself drawn may even involve use of guns.)

We don’t mean that Baigrie was wrong to advocate for her assailant. We aren’t judging Baigrie here. We’re judging Kristof’s journalism, which we think is very poor.

What was “wrong” with Kristof’s journalism on this heartwarming occasion? So many things that we won’t be able to examine them today.

For today, we’ll only say this. In our view, Kristof’s column was simple-minded in many ways, some of which we haven’t even mentioned.

This column was also perfectly built to divide the nation’s tribes—to drive a wedge between groups of people who bring different instinctive reactions to stories of this type. In our view, it’s easy to fashion a column like this—and it tends to make it harder for the nation’s warring tribes to come together to fashion improvements in the society’s practices.

What makes this column so thoroughly simple-minded? Tomorrow, we’ll look at the way Kristof takes us back to the 1970s—back to a set of simplistic, simple-minded bromides which helped create a conservative era the last time they were bruited about by lazy thinkers from within our own liberal tribe.

Kristof is a former Rhodes Scholar from Harvard. In our view, it’s very hard to discern these facts from his lazy, unhelpful work.

Tomorrow: “It’s our fault more than his,” Kristof unhelpfully said

Health costs: The New York Times does it again!


Arranges to hide the big picture:
On the front page of today’s New York Times, the paper has done it again.

Elisabeth Rosenthal writes her latest lengthy report concerning the outlandish costs of American health care. In the process, she hides the big picture—“buries the lede”—in familiar, remarkable fashion.

In today’s report, Rosenthal focuses on the wildly varying cost of a certain medical procedure. Headline included, this is the way she starts:
ROSENTHAL (12/16/14): The Odd Math of Medical Tests: One Scan, Two Prices, Both High

Len Charlap, a retired math professor, has had two outpatient echocardiograms in the past three years that scanned the valves of his heart.
The first, performed by a technician at a community hospital near his home here in central New Jersey, lasted less than 30 minutes. The next, at a premier academic medical center in Boston, took three times as long and involved a cardiologist.

And yet, when he saw the charges, the numbers seemed backward: The community hospital had charged about $5,500, while the Harvard teaching hospital had billed $1,400 for the much more elaborate test. “Why would that be?” Mr. Charlap asked. “It really bothered me.”
The more elaborate echocardiogram was billed at $1400. Earlier, at a community hospital, the patient had been charged four times as much for the same procedure.

On its face, that’s a remarkable difference. Rosenthal devotes 2357 words to questions about the way this procedure gets billed.

Along the way, very much in passing, she drops a genuine bombshell. This tiny paragraph passes so fast that a reader might not grasp its truly remarkable content:
ROSENTHAL: In other countries, regulators set what are deemed fair charges, which include built-in profit. In Belgium, the allowable charge for an echocardiogram is $80, and in Germany, it is $115. In Japan, the price ranges from $50 for an older version to $88 for the newest, Dr. Ikegami said.
Say what? Elsewhere in the developed world, this procedure costs $115 or less, Rosenthal mentions in passing. Those prices include a built-in profit!

In Belgium, the procedure costs $80. That is stunning fact. Rosenthal includes that fact, but it passes by so quickly, with so little hype, that readers may barely notice. Much later, in paragraph 27 (of 42), Rosenthal briefly expands this startling international comparison:
ROSENTHAL: Claims data shows that Japanese patients received 6.6 million echocardiograms last year, about five times the rate per capita in Britain.

Despite Japan's fondness for testing, its health spending is about $4,000 a year a person, or 9.6 percent of gross domestic product. By contrast, the United States spends more than $9,000 per person annually, more than 17 percent of G.D.P., although some studies indicate that health care spending is leveling off.

The difference is in part because Japan decides the value of each test and medicine, sets a price and demands that it decrease over time.
It isn’t just that Americans may pay vastly more for that one procedure. In paragraph 27 of a lengthy report, readers are finally told, very much in passing, that Americans spend vastly more per person for their overall health care than people in Japan.

Good grief! Americans spend $9000 per person per year on health care; the Japanese spend only $4000. This is a much larger, much more important story than the narrow tales about health care spending Rosenthal has presented in the past two years.

Rosenthal has done a series of front-page reports about the costs of American health care. Persistently, she focuses on the cost of some particular procedure.

In the process, she completely ignores the overall cost of our health care. Or she cites this matter in passing, in paragraph 27.

As we’ve noted for years, Americans are massively looted in the costs of health care. This looting affects liberals and conservatives alike. Correctly understood and explained, it could provide the basis for political agreement across our current tribal lines.

Americans spent vastly more per person on health care than people in any other nation. But so what? You never see that remarkable fact explained in the New York Times. You never see it discussed on MSNBC.

In these ways, the American middle class gets looted—and the health industries thrive. This morning's front-page report is just the latest example of the way the “journalism” works.

Why does the Times report this topic this way? We can't tell you that. But liberal heroes on corporate TV are never going to ask.

THE EMPATHY FILES: Helping us care!


Part 1—Kristof’s latest story:
Ma Joad, Tom Joad and Preacher Casey? These were fictional characters.

The events of their lives were described in The Grapes of Wrath, a prize-winning book which everyone knew was a novel.

Those events were meant to capture the experiences of a great many people. But no one thought the Joads’ experiences had happened to actual people bearing those names out in the actual world.

No one tried to find Rose of Sharon so they could help her with her baby. No one tried to find Tom Joad to give him a place to hide.

You can learn a lot about the world from a well-written novel. A novelist’s story can help you conceive the real events which take place in the world.

That said, a journalist shouldn’t invent a novel—a perfect story—then present that story as fact. That may be what Sabrina Rubin Erdely did with the story she presented in this month’s Rolling Stone.

To a lesser extent, it may be what Nicholas Kristof did in yesterday’s New York Times.

Erdely told a perfect story about heinous misbehavior on a college campus. Kristof told a perfect story about a saint-like victim of s shooting who knows what it is to forgive.

Kristof’s story starts in 1990. In Florida, a 13-year-old boy with sixteen prior arrests shoots a woman in the face as part of a gang initiation.

The woman in question is horribly wounded; her youthful assailant is soon apprehended. Despite his youth, a judge sentences him to life without hope of parole.

In this passage shown below, Kristof describes the saint-like act of forgiveness which drives his perfect story. The youthful shooter was and is named Ian Manuel. Debbie Baigrie is the person he horribly wounded:
KRISTOF (12/14/14): Manuel found himself the youngest, tiniest person in a men’s prison—by his account, abused and fearful. One day as his second Christmas behind bars approached, he placed a collect phone call to Baigrie.

Baigrie debated whether to accept the charges. She said her dentist had wept when he had seen her jaw, for the bullet had torn out five teeth and much of her gum. She faced 10 years of repeated, excruciating surgeries, requiring tissue from her palate to rebuild her gum.

Still, she was curious, so she accepted the charges. Manuel said he wanted to apologize for the shooting. Awkwardly, he wished her and her family a Merry Christmas.

“Ian,” she asked bluntly, “why did you shoot me?”

“It was a mistake,” he answered timidly.

Later he sent her a card showing a hand reaching through prison bars to offer a red rose. Baigrie didn’t know whether to be moved or revolted. “I was in such pain,” Baigrie remembers. “I couldn’t eat. I was angry. But I’d go back and forth. He was just a kid.”

Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades. “You are about one in a million who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” he wrote in one letter.

“I wish I was free,” he wrote in another. “To protect you from that evil world out there.”
“Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades,” Kristof writes. A bit later, he describes Baigrie advocating for Manuel’s release from prison:
KRISTOF: Her husband and friends thought Baigrie was perhaps suffering from some bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome. “People were saying, ‘you’re an idiot,’” Baigrie recalls.

Yet she persevered and advocated for his early release. When the Supreme Court threw out life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who had not committed murder, she testified at his resentencing and urged mercy. It didn’t work: Manuel was sentenced to 65 years. He is now scheduled to be released in 2031.
Kristof uses his story to illustrate a wide array of points. In comments, many liberals praised Baigrie for her act of forgiveness, thanked Kristof for telling her story.

One commenter said something different. She said she had clicked on the links Kristof provided in his column. When she did, she found a somewhat different story being told about this case in Florida newspapers.

Kristof offers a range of ideas in this column. Some are straight from the 1970s, which doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. Some of his (apparent) ideas are very poorly explained, quite lazily argued for.

How should society treat Ian Manuel now that he's in his mid-30s? More generally, how should society deal with children like Manuel, who had been arrested a dozen times by the age of 13?

Those are important questions. They’re also hard to answer. We wish Kristof had spent a bit more time giving those answers, a bit less time tugging our heartstrings with his perfect story.

Rolling Stone told a perfect story about heinous misconduct on campus. As it turns out, the heinous events Rolling Stone described may not have occurred.

Kristof tells a perfect story about forgiveness. In its basic outlines, his story is certainly true, though he may have improved the facts a bit to make his tale more perfect.

Steinbeck told a great story too, but he told us it was a novel. In this, our brave new polarized age, many “journalists” no longer do that.

Final point:

Debbie Baigrie has shown a great deal of empathy for the person who shot her. Much of our broken politics turns on an important question:

Among all the people and groups in our sprawling society, how many people, how many groups, can you feel empathy for? Can you empathizes with some? With others, not so much?

Tomorrow: Clicking Kristof’s links

THE AGE OF BELIEF: True belief will often be false!


Part 4—The age of the perfect story:
How can you tell that you’re reading a novelized account of some situation, as opposed to a real news report?

How can you tell that a journalist is fashioning a preconceived narrative—a well-shaped story designed to lead you in a preferred direction?

Sometimes, the novelized elements of the report are staring you right in the face! For one possible example, this was the third paragraph of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s now-famous report, A Rape on Campus:
ERDELY (11/19/14): Four weeks into UVA's 2012 school year, 18-year-old Jackie was crushing it at college. A chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town, she'd initially been intimidated by UVA's aura of preppy success, where throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students fanned across a landscape of neoclassical brick buildings, hurrying to classes, clubs, sports, internships, part-time jobs, volunteer work and parties; Jackie's orientation leader had warned her that UVA students' schedules were so packed that "no one has time to date—people just hook up." But despite her reservations, Jackie had flung herself into campus life, attending events, joining clubs, making friends and, now, being asked on an actual date. She and Drew had met while working lifeguard shifts together at the university pool, and Jackie had been floored by Drew's invitation to dinner, followed by a "date function" at his fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. The "upper tier" frat had a reputation of tremendous wealth, and its imposingly large house overlooked a vast manicured field, giving "Phi Psi" the undisputed best real estate along UVA's fraternity row known as Rugby Road.
Just for the record:

As it turns out, the lifeguard called “Drew” actually wasn’t a member of Phi Kappa Psi. Meanwhile, did Jackie come from a “rural Virginia town?” According to the Washington Post, she comes from northern Virginia, the state’s population center. According to the Post, there were 700 students in her high school’s graduating class.

Whatever! We were struck by Erdely’s description of the UVA student body. Here’s our question:

Is the student body at UVA “overwhelmingly blond?”

That description might set a nice tone for an ideological novel—a novel about the depraved behavior of “preppy” white students who hail from “tremendous wealth.” Given the facts about UVA, we’d have to say that that description is more novelistic than factual.

Are the students at UVA overwhelmingly blond? “Overwhelmingly” is an imprecise term, of course. But according to this official fact sheet, the student body at UVA is currently 28.4 “minority” (mainly black, Hispanic and Asian).

Forget about being overwhelmingly blond; is that student body even overwhelmingly white? Journalists should avoid such imprecise claims. We’d be inclined to call that strange description part of an Erdely novel.

A cynic would say that Erdely was setting a tone for the story to come. Her story would pack a tremendous punch—and it seems it was too good to fact-check.

Cynics are saying that Erdely had an ideological message she wanted to convey through the story she told in her now-famous report. To convey that message most strongly, she constructed a “perfect story” about the most heinous sexual assault a person could ever imagine—or so the critics have said.

If you have an eye for novels, we’d say a novel was already forming in the use of that phrase, “overwhelmingly blonde.” Was Erdely trying to inform her readers? If so, she probably should have omitted that loaded description.

By now, it’s clear that Erdely utterly failed to perform the most basic tasks of a journalist. Her fact-checking was basically non-existent. She didn’t interview obvious people, including the three friends who went to Jackie’s assistance on the night in question, immediately after the alleged assault.

In her report, Erdely says that one of the three—the friend she called “Randall”—refused to speak to her about the events of that night. The actual “Randall” has now said he was never approached for an interview.

The other two friends who helped Jackie that night aren’t quoted in Erdely’s article either. In her report, Erdely never says why their accounts of the night in question aren’t included. (They have now contradicted basic parts of Erdely’s report.)

Erdely tells a compelling story; it just isn’t clear that her story is true. Let’s consider two other people Erdely never spoke to.

In Erdely’s telling, Jackie is subjected to a vicious sexual assault in her first month on campus. By the end of her sophomore year, matters have gotten worse.

In Erdely’s telling, Jackie has been violently attacked by a bottle-throwing student outside a campus bar. Even worse, she learned that two other women have been gang-raped at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in recent years.

The violent gang rapes have claimed two more victims. Given Erdely’s overall performance, a cynic can guess what happens next:
ERDELY: She e-mailed Eramo so they could discuss the attack—and discuss another matter, too, which was troubling Jackie a great deal. Through her ever expanding network, Jackie had come across something deeply disturbing: two other young women who, she says, confided that they, too, had recently been Phi Kappa Psi gang-rape victims.

A bruise still mottling her face, Jackie sat in Eramo's office in May 2014 and told her about the two others. One, she says, is a 2013 graduate, who'd told Jackie that she'd been gang-raped as a freshman at the Phi Psi house. The other was a first-year whose worried friends had called Jackie after the girl had come home wearing no pants. Jackie said the girl told her she'd been assaulted by four men in a Phi Psi bathroom while a fifth watched. (Neither woman was willing to talk to RS.)
“Neither woman was willing to talk to Rolling Stone?”

By now, a cynic will wonder if Erdely actually attempted to contact these alleged victims. Given the way other parts of this report have broken down, a cynic may even wonder if these other two victims exist.

We don't know if those victims exist. That said, please note the state of the UVA campus as Erdely describes it:

Jackie has been viciously attacked by nine fraternity members. She refuses to name her attackers, even after she seems to learn that they are continuing to attack other women.

Two other women have been viciously attacked at the fraternity house. Those women refuse to name their attackers too.

Jackie has been viciously assaulted outside a bar by a bottle-throwing student. Erdely doesn’t even ask why no one was charged or pursued in the case of that (criminal) attack.

Not since the old movie “Bad Day at Black Rock” has a community been so enveloped in so much silence. Gang rapes continue at the fraternity in question. But even as the number rises to three, no one seems to be telling Jackie that she should consider naming the people who are conducting these vicious attacks.

Erdely completely skips this obvious moral question. Instead, she criticizes the dean for her alleged lack of action:
ERDELY (continuing directly): As Jackie wrapped up her story, she was disappointed by Eramo's nonreaction. She'd expected shock, disgust, horror. For months, Jackie had been assuaging her despair by throwing herself into peer education, but there was no denying her helplessness when she thought about Phi Psi, or about her own alleged assailants still walking the grounds. She'd recently been aghast to bump into Drew, who greeted her with friendly nonchalance. "For a whole year, I thought about how he had ruined my life, and how he is the worst human being ever," Jackie says. "And then I saw him and I couldn't say anything."

...That interaction would render her too depressed to leave her room for days. Of all her assailants, Drew was the one she wanted to see held accountable—but with Drew about to graduate, he was going to get away with it. Because, as she miserably reminded Eramo in her office, she didn't feel ready to file a complaint. Eramo, as always, understood.
Did Jackie ever tell the dean about these other alleged attacks? At present, there is no way to answer that question.

Nor should anyone feel certain that Erdely knew the names of these other alleged victims, who may or may not exist, or actually tried to interview them. At present, there is little reason to believe any of Erdely’s claims, explicit or implied.

At present, there’s no way to know if Erdely made any attempt to do any real fact-checking. We do know this:

Starting with the portrait she drew of the “overwhelmingly blond” student body, Erdely told a compelling story with a fairly obvious point. You might say she told a “perfect story,” a story about the most heinous possible behavior of a certain type.

Depending in part on one’s sympathies, it’s easy to be swept away by such stories of perfect complete misconduct. In this case, Erdely portrayed a “town without pity”—a campus full of preppy blond children with an amazingly heinous “rape culture.”

Rape is a terrible crime, and Erdely’s portrait is compelling. It just isn’t clear that her portrait, however compelling, is accurate, fair or truthful.

More and more, our journalism features these perfect stories. Facts are changed, invented and discarded to create compelling tales which support a partisan news org's larger view of the world.

Depending on one’s sympathies, such perfect stories are easy to believe. But uh-oh! When these stories are built on bogus or selective facts, they also create tremendous backlash from those whose instinctive sympathies may differ somehow from those of the novelist/journalist.

Different segments of the society rally around their instinctive beliefs. This may make it harder for the society to agree upon a constructive course of action.

For our money, the most consequential “perfect story” in recent years was the one about Big Liar Candidate Gore. Back then, we still had a unified mainstream press corps—and that guild was very angry at Big Liar President Clinton and his chosen successor.

Over the course of two years, they created a perfect story about Candidate Gore. They kept inventing lies they said he had told. As they invented these lies, they puzzled about why he insisted on telling them.

Many people believed the perfect story of the puzzling liar. In November 2000, false belief in this perfect story changed the course of world history.

Today, our press corps is much more fragmented. Various groups have their own news orgs. Erdely told a perfect story which captured one view of the world.

Erdely described a town without pity. For some, her story was easy to believe. For others, though, her story has brought on the hate against those accursed “feminists” with their endless lies and distortions. Fragmentations harden.

Because they are so compelling, perfect stories can be easy to believe. Often, though, this true belief is actually false in various ways. And the false claims being on the hate from other parts of the culture.

Is this the path to a better world? Everything is possible! This helps the culture of the perfect story thrive.

THE AGE OF BELIEF: Rolling Stone truly believed!


Part 4—The Washington Post checked facts:
Today, a set of sad stories:

In the autumn of our own freshman year, a classmate had earned himself a derisive nickname: “The Birdman of Wigglesworth.” (Or it may have been Holworthy, a different freshman dorm.)

This young man had been behaving erratically. One evening, he had gone out onto his fire escape and issued bird calls into the night. In this way, he had earned the derision.

We can’t recall how we knew this young man; we don’t think we actually “knew” him at all. But we felt sorry for his plight. We spent an hour in his room one day discussing his situation.

We don’t recall a word that was said. Before long, he left the campus, never to return.

We felt sorry for that young man, who seemed to be struggling. We also feel sorry for the young woman at the center of Rolling Stone’s amazingly bungled “gang rape” report.

We think you should feel sorry for that young woman too.

As of today, Rolling Stone’s report has turned out to be one the most remarkable journalist fails of the modern era. We say that because the Washington Post has published a new report, in which a reporter actually interviews some of the people involved in this sad and strange story.

Truth to tell, Rolling Stone failed to interview almost everyone involved in this jumbled matter. The magazine published an horrific story—a story so unrelentingly horrific that it strained credulity in various ways for quite a few observers.

For reasons only the Stone can explain, its reporter and its editors didn’t seem to consider the possibility that the story they were publishing might be false in some major way. They didn’t seem to execute even the simplest fact checks.

The Post has now done some of those fact checks. Most significantly, they interviewed the three friends of Jackie—the victim of the alleged assault—who went to help her on the night of the alleged attack.

In major ways, the testimony of those three students fails to comport with Rolling Stone’s report. Their story involves a byzantine set of events.

These events suggest that the young woman at the heart of this story may be having some serious problems, like the young man with whom we spoke that evening, 49 years ago.

Please note. It’s entirely possible that Jackie was sexually assaulted that night. According to her friends, she did describe an assault that night, although the story they say they heard differs in major ways from the story which appears in Rolling Stone’s report.

According to her friends, Jackie described a heinous assault. A different, even more heinous assault is described in Rolling Stone’s report. By normal journalistic standards, no journalist has the slightest idea what actually happened that night. For that reason, Rolling Stone’s compelling report shouldn’t have been published.

You can read the Washington Post’s new report for yourself. In what follows, we won’t be talking about the student at the heart of this bungled story, which shouldn’t have gone into print. We’ll be talking about the bizarre yet sadly familiar behavior authored by Rolling Stone.

Why in the world did Rolling Stone fail to fact-check its report? We all can speculate about that. But let’s get clear on some of the ways the magazine failed to perform its most basic and obvious duties.

At the start of her report, Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely told a truly horrific story about an alleged gang rape. In Erdely’s horrific report, Jackie is assaulted by seven fraternity men as two other “brothers” look on.

At the start of her ordeal, the student is thrown through a glass table; “sharp shards dig into her back” as a three-hour assault begins. At 3 A.M., she emerges from the fraternity house, barefoot, with her “bloody body” encased in “her bloody dress.”

Already, Rolling Stone’s report is deeply horrific. According to Erdely, this is what happened next:
ERDELY (11/19/14): Disoriented, Jackie burst out a side door, realized she was lost, and dialed a friend, screaming, "Something bad happened. I need you to come and find me!" Minutes later, her three best friends on campus—two boys and a girl (whose names are changed)—arrived to find Jackie on a nearby street corner, shaking. "What did they do to you? What did they make you do?" Jackie recalls her friend Randall demanding. Jackie shook her head and began to cry. The group looked at one another in a panic. They all knew about Jackie's date; the Phi Kappa Psi house loomed behind them. "We have to get her to the hospital," Randall said.

Their other two friends, however, weren't convinced. "Is that such a good idea?" she recalls Cindy asking. "Her reputation will be shot for the next four years." Andy seconded the opinion, adding that since he and Randall both planned to rush fraternities, they ought to think this through.
The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie's rape, while Jackie stood beside them, mute in her bloody dress, wishing only to go back to her dorm room and fall into a deep, forgetful sleep. Detached, Jackie listened as Cindy prevailed over the group: "She's gonna be the girl who cried 'rape,' and we'll never be allowed into any frat party again.”
In Rolling Stone’s report, unrelentingly heinous conduct occurs within the fraternity house. When Jackie emerges and asks for help, her friends behave in deeply uncaring ways.

As Jackie stands in her bloody dress, they debate their future social standing. Their conduct recalls the heinous stepsisters from the Brothers Grimm.

In the real world, people can behave extremely badly, of course. Incredibly, though, there is no sign that Rolling Stone interviewed any of the three friends to get their account of the events of that night.

On a journalistic basis, this was amazingly strange behavior. In the past week, the Washington Post did speak to the friends. Their account of the events of that night, and of the surrounding week, differs substantially from the story told in Rolling Stone—and they have emails, text messages and photos to support their deeply sad, strange, convoluted tale.

Question: Did Rolling Stone even try to interview these students? Note the slippery way this point is addressed in its report:
ERDELY: Two years later, Jackie, now a third-year, is worried about what might happen to her once this article comes out. Greek life is huge at UVA, with nearly one-third of undergrads belonging to a fraternity or sorority, so Jackie fears the backlash could be big—a "shitshow" predicted by her now-former friend Randall, who, citing his loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed. But her concerns go beyond taking on her alleged assailants and their fraternity. Lots of people have discouraged her from sharing her story, Jackie tells me with a pained look, including the trusted UVA dean to whom Jackie reported her gang-rape allegations more than a year ago.
Did Erdely actually ask Randall for an interview? Many readers will get that impression from that passage. But no such assertion is made.

Did Erdely ask for an interview? In the highlighted passage, Erdely may simply be reporting something Jackie told her. Beyond that, Erdely never reports what Cindy and Andy, the other two friends, said about the events of that night—nor does she offer any sign that she tried to interview them.

Alas! The friends say there was no bloody dress. They say there were no apparent injuries.

They say they did meet Jackie that night, but not near that fraternity house. They say she did describe a sexual assault—but an assault of a different nature than the one described in Rolling Stone.

Did Erdely try to interview the friends? We can’t answer that question. But this is what T. Rees Shapiro reports in this morning’s Post:
SHAPIRO (12/11/14): The Rolling Stone article also said that Randall declined to be interviewed, “citing his loyalty to his own frat.” He told The Post that he was never contacted by Rolling Stone and would have agreed to an interview.

The article’s writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not respond to requests for comment this week.

Rolling Stone also declined to comment, citing an internal review of the story.
Did Erdely try to interview Jackie’s friends? We have no way of knowing. But on a wide array of points, there is no sign that Erdely conducted any basic fact-checking at all.

(At some point, Rolling Stone’s “internal review” may help resolve such questions.)

We recommend the Washington Post’s sad, convoluted report. Beyond that, we recommend that you feel sorry for young people who may be having substantial problems—and for a young woman who may have been assaulted on the night in question.

In closing, we want to note two basic points. Let’s start by noting something Erdely accomplished.

In her horrific report, Erdely told the “perfect story” about a campus rape victim. All the conduct is deeply heinous, as if drawn from a Lifetime movie by the Brothers Grimm:

The victim is raped on broken glass by seven different men. When she calls her friends for help, they turn out to be the most self-centered people in the known universe.

The dean is slippery and slick—a fixer. Someone throws a bottle at Jackie with so much force that it somehow breaks on her face.

Jackie says she learns about two other gang rapes at the same fraternity. But those women aren’t “willing to talk to Rolling Stone” either. (We aren't told if Erdely knew their names or actually approached them.)

This is a Perfect Story, a story of conduct which is horrific in every possible way. All too often, our modern “journalism” turns on such perfect stories.

Here’s the problem:

Often, facts must be rearranged, invented or discarded to create these “perfect stories”—perfect stories which fire the soul and compel the reader’s reaction. All too often, our journalism runs on embellished tales of this type. Tomorrow, we’ll consider the most consequential such story of the past twenty years.

Erdely told a “perfect story.” Here’s something else she did.

Erdely discussed a story she never should have discussed. As Rolling Stone went to press, its journalist had no real idea if its story was actually true.

Even as we write today, there is no way of knowing what actually happened, or didn’t happen, to Jackie that night. As of now, the facts are a deeply confusing mess, to the extent that the facts are known at all.

What actually happened to Jackie that night? There is no sign that Erdely knows. But so what? In the absence of actual knowledge, she penned a compelling tale.

Erdely told a perfect story. She didn’t know if the story was true. She made no apparent effort to check it. But still, she rushed the story to print.

As always happens in these matters, large numbers of people believed it.

Tomorrow: False belief changes the world

THE AGE OF BELIEF: What should universities do?


Part 3—Rolling Stone fails to ask:
Let’s return to yesterday’s question. Did a college student tell Rolling Stone that this event occurred?
ERDELY (11/19/14): This past spring, in separate incidents, both Emily Renda and Jackie were harassed outside bars on the Corner by men who recognized them from presentations and called them "cunt" and "feminazi bitch." One flung a bottle at Jackie that broke on the side of her face, leaving a blood-red bruise around her eye.

She e-mailed [Dean Nicole] Eramo so they could discuss the attack—and discuss another matter, too, which was troubling Jackie a great deal.
Did a college student named Jackie actually tell Rolling Stone that this event occurred? Did she tell Rolling Stone that someone threw a bottle at her head? That the bottle hit her with so much force that it “broke on the side of her face?”

As noted in yesterday's report, it seems hard to believe that such an event could have happened. Did the student tell Rolling Stone that it did?

We wouldn’t make that assumption. Once we realize that a journalist is an unreliable player, we should stop assuming the truth of various things she has said.

In this case, it may be that the student described some similar type of incident and the journalist embellished what she said. At this point, we can only know what the journalist wrote, not what the student said.

That journalist, Sabrina Rudin Erdely, told a compelling tale in the pages of Rolling Stone. It may turn out that some or most of the story she told is accurate, although the journalist’s failure to fact-check the student’s story has left this question in doubt.

Friends of the student have now contradicted some of the things the student seems to have said. That said, we’re focusing on the journalist here, not on the student.

The journalist told a compelling story in her 9,000-word report. She described the most heinous possible conduct on the part of various actors.

Indeed, the conduct is so unrelentingly heinous that some observers have found the story hard to believe. Along with the heinous conduct, events are described which seem impossible, given the basic laws of physics, including that bottle which was thrown with such force that it broke on the student’s face.

The journalist’s story is quite compelling. It carries a familiar cast of villains, including nine amazingly heinous men who stage a vicious, preplanned attack and three teen-aged friends of the victim who give her the world’s most shallow advice in the immediate wake of the heinous assault.

In effect, Erdely has written a Lifetime movie. It may turn out that the events she describes happened in much the way she reports them. But we don’t have much faith in Erdely’s accuracy, or in her morals or judgment.

Let’s return to that broken bottle so we can tell you why.

Erdely would have us believe that someone called the student a vile name, then threw a bottle at her with such force that it broke against her face. It seems hard to believe that this could have happened.

But as we continue this part of the story, the student reports this latest attack to the appropriate dean, Nicole Eramo. She also reports two other recent gang rapes on the UVa campus:
ERDELY: She e-mailed Eramo so they could discuss the attack—and discuss another matter, too, which was troubling Jackie a great deal. Through her ever expanding network, Jackie had come across something deeply disturbing: two other young women who, she says, confided that they, too, had recently been Phi Kappa Psi gang-rape victims.

A bruise still mottling her face, Jackie sat in Eramo's office in May 2014 and told her about the two others.
One, she says, is a 2013 graduate, who'd told Jackie that she'd been gang-raped as a freshman at the Phi Psi house. The other was a first-year whose worried friends had called Jackie after the girl had come home wearing no pants. Jackie said the girl told her she'd been assaulted by four men in a Phi Psi bathroom while a fifth watched. (Neither woman was willing to talk to RS.)

As Jackie wrapped up her story, she was disappointed by Eramo's nonreaction. She'd expected shock, disgust, horror. For months, Jackie had been assuaging her despair by throwing herself into peer education, but there was no denying her helplessness when she thought about Phi Psi, or about her own alleged assailants still walking the grounds. She'd recently been aghast to bump into Drew [her principal assailant], who greeted her with friendly nonchalance. "For a whole year, I thought about how he had ruined my life, and how he is the worst human being ever," Jackie says. "And then I saw him and I couldn't say anything."

...That interaction would render her too depressed to leave her room for days. Of all her assailants, Drew was the one she wanted to see held accountable—but with Drew about to graduate, he was going to get away with it. Because, as she miserably reminded Eramo in her office, she didn't feel ready to file a complaint. Eramo, as always, understood.
Forgive us for a flippant remark. But as Erdely extends the story there, the Lifetime movie continues.

The student continues to be taunted and failed by everyone around her. She is disappointed in the dean—but Erdely never explains what the dean should have done, given the fact that the student was still refusing to file a complaint.

Perhaps there’s an answer to that question. Erdely doesn’t attempt to provide it.

That said, note the deeply heinous situation into which we have now descended. It is now the end of the student’s sophomore year. By now, the following events have occurred:

The student has been brutally raped by seven men, as two other men look on.

The student has been attacked in a public place, in a way which presumably could have killed her.

Most remarkably, the student has become aware of two other gang rapes at the same fraternity where she herself was assaulted. One of these assaults has occurred that very year.

According to what the student has heard, young women are still being assaulted by other students—students she can name. But she still refuses to file a complaint. As far as we know, she still refuses to provide their names. This is a situation Erdely barely deigns to explore.

In the real world, a victim of a vicious assault might react in the way this student is said to have done. That said, we’re struck by the relative nonchalance Erdely seems to bring to this horrible matter.

Should it perhaps be troubling in some way when the student keeps refusing to name her attackers? Should the student perhaps be encouraged to step forward?

Even as others are being assaulted, Erdely never really explores these obvious questions. Instead, she offers this confusing account of the reasons why many victims at U-Va have refused to file formal complaints.

The student is now meeting regularly with a 45-member campus support group. Erdely offers this account of their attitudes about the pursuit of the heinous people who are conducting gang rapes:
ERDELY: After feeling isolated for more than a year, Jackie was astonished at how much she and this sisterhood had in common, including the fact that a surprising number hadn't pursued any form of complaint. Although many had contacted Dean Eramo, whom they laud as their best advocate and den mother—Jackie repeatedly calls her "an asset to the community"—few ever filed reports with UVA or with police. Instead, basking in the safety of one another's company, the members of One Less applauded the brave few who chose to take action, but mostly affirmed each other's choices not to report, in an echo of their university's approach. So profound was the students' faith in its administration that although they were appalled by Jackie's story, no one voiced questions about UVA's strategy of doing nothing to warn the campus of gang-rape allegations against a fraternity that still held parties and was rushing a new pledge class.

Some of these women are disturbed by the contradiction. "It's easy to cover up a rape at a university if no one is reporting," admits Jackie's friend Alex Pinkleton. And privately, some of Jackie's confidantes were outraged. "The university ignores the problem to make itself look better," says recent grad Rachel Soltis, Jackie's former roommate. "They should have done something in Jackie's case. Me and several other people know exactly who did this to her. But they want to protect even the people who are doing these horrible things."
“Although they were appalled by Jackie's story, no one voiced questions about UVA's strategy of doing nothing?” Was anyone concerned about the student’s refusal to report?

Was anyone troubled by the fact that the student refused to name her assailants, even as assaults continued at their fraternity house? Did anyone try to persuade the student that, despite her apparent traumatization, she ought to report?

This problem doesn’t even seem to occur to Erdely. In the second part of that passage, she describes a student criticizing the university for failing to “do something,” even though the student in question was still refusing to file a complaint.

In the process, no one ever explains what the university should do. No one is ever asked if the student should be encouraged to name the criminals who assaulted her—the criminals who seem to be attacking other students.

At one point, Erdely seems to suggest one possible course of action. The university should have “warned the campus of gang-rape allegations against a fraternity that still held parties and was rushing a new pledge class.”

The university could have done that, of course—assuming the student in question actually made that allegation to the dean. Under the circumstances, though, would that have been a wise decision? Would it even be allowed under the federal guidelines which now regulate these matters?

Erdely rushes past these questions. And uh-oh! By now, it seems that the student may have named the wrong fraternity as the site of her attack—may have been confused about the location of her alleged gang rape.

Does it still seem that the university should have warned the campus about that fraternity? We don’t have the answer to that; Erdely doesn’t much seem to care.

Rolling Stone told a lurid, cinematic, highly compelling story. In the process, it included a range of events which strain credulity a bit, including a few which seem impossible on their face.

The magazine told a compelling story. Here’s what it didn’t do:

It didn’t attempt to fact-check even the most basic elements of the case. And it didn’t do a very good job of explaining what a university can and should do when faced with events of this type.

The deans are included among the villains; such villains help make a story compelling. That said, what should those villains have done in this appalling situation, assuming the student made the allegations Erdely describes?

Erdely is lazy and weak on that point. She didn’t bother checking her facts, nor did she outline solutions.

What kind of journalism is this? In part, it looks like the pleasing journalism of the perfect story.

Tomorrow: The role of the perfect story

THE AGE OF BELIEF: Do you believe in physics?


Part 2—Rolling Stone’s broken bottle:
Professor Trefil thinks our human brain is a miraculous instrument.

(For yesterday's post, click here.)

On balance, we regard this familiar old claim as dangerous. It may tend to keep us from seeing how weak our human brains actually are, especially given the credulous ways we employ them.

Despite our magnificent brains, we humans are actually rather gullible. We’re easily led to false belief. The recent debacle at Rolling Stone helps illustrate this point.

Here’s what we mean by that:

In its 9000-word cover report, Rolling Stone described a remarkably heinous rape on a college campus.

Indeed, the conduct described was so heinous that some observers found the story implausible on its face. This is why they said that:

According to Rolling Stone’s account, an 18-year-old college freshman was brutally raped by seven undergraduate men at a fraternity event, while two other men gave guidance.

According to Rolling Stone’s account, this was not a spur-of-the-moment, drunken assault. The heinous assault has been planned in advance, possibly for several weeks.

Some observers found this implausible. According to Rolling Stone’s account, the young woman knew the identity of at least two of her attackers. Had she gone to the police the next day, all nine could presumably have ended up in prison.

With malice aforethought, would nine young men have put themselves in such major jeopardy? Everything is possible, of course. But some observers thought this framework seemed a bit hard to believe.

For ourselves, we don’t know what happened, or didn’t happen, to the college student in question. Given the bungled reporting by Rolling Stone, there is, at present, no real way to know what did occur.

Other parts of Rolling Stone’s account also seemed to strain credulity, to greater and lesser extent. But the magazine’s story-telling was gripping, horrific.

Was Rolling Stone’s gripping story impossible on its face?

Few allegations are impossible. But it seems to us that one small part of Rolling Stone’s story pretty much was. This involves an incident from the student’s sophomore year.

According to Rolling Stone, the student reported her rape to campus officials near the end of her freshman year. During her sophomore year, she became involved with anti-rape groups on campus.

To us, that sounds like a good thing to do! But in the passage shown below, Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely describes some hideous blowback.

Question: Do you believe this incident actually happened? Given what you know of physics, do you believe this incident could have occurred?
ERDELY (11/19/14): Jackie dove into her new roles as peer adviser and Take Back the Night committee member and began to discover just how wide her secret UVA survivor network was—because the more she shared her story, the more girls sought her out, waylaying her after presentations or after classes, even calling in the middle of the night with a crisis...

But payback for being so public on a campus accustomed to silence was swift. This past spring, in separate incidents, both Emily Renda and Jackie were harassed outside bars on the Corner by men who recognized them from presentations and called them "cunt" and "feminazi bitch." One flung a bottle at Jackie that broke on the side of her face, leaving a blood-red bruise around her eye.

She e-mailed [Dean Nicole] Eramo so they could discuss the attack—and discuss another matter, too, which was troubling Jackie a great deal.
We’ll leave Rolling Stone’s account right there, although we’ll resume there tomorrow. For now, let’s only say this:

Rolling Stone describes the student meeting with a dean, “a bruise still mottling her face.” At this point, let’s put our miraculous brains to work.

Do we believe the college student was assaulted in the manner described? Do we believe that someone outside a bar angrily threw a bottle at her, hitting her in the face?

More specifically, do we believe that she was hit with so much force that the bottle actually “broke on the side of her face?” Do we believe that this could happen without the student being seriously injured, possibly even killed?

We’ve all seen cowboys break beer bottles over other cowboys’ heads. But that happens in movies—and that isn’t what Rolling Stone says occurred in this instance.

According to Rolling Stone, someone threw a bottle at the student, and the bottle was thrown with such force that it actually broke on her face. Do you believe that occurred?

This is only one small episode in a 9000-word report. For the record, it may be an embellished account of something the student said.

It’s clear from the way she handled this piece that Rolling Stone’s reporter is an unreliable narrator. We don’t know if this small story-within-the-story represents a faithful account of something the student said.

We do know this:

At some point, Rolling Stone’s editor read this gripping report. It included that account of the beer bottle breaking on the student’s face. (We’re assuming it was a beer bottle.)

Given his miraculous brain, did the editor ask if such an incident could have occurred? Did he question the claim that a bottle was thrown with such force that it actually broke on her face?

Almost everything is possible. We’re not sure this is.

And yet, Rolling Stone was telling a gripping story, a story about deeply heinous conduct. Given the way our human brains work, we routinely get swept along when professional writers tells us very good stories.

In various forms, this has been a deadly part of our journalism for a good many years. The convincing deceptions we get fed have often been swallowed down whole.

Did the student actually say that she was hit in the face by a bottle? Did she say she was hit so hard that the bottle broke on her face?

We don’t know if the student said that, but the Rolling Stone journalist did. It seems to us that this almost surely couldn’t have happened. But this claim was just one part of a gripping, convincing tale.

Alas! When professional writers start telling good tales, we can get swept along all too easily. Over the past thirty years, our journalism has often been driven by such journalistic misconduct.

People are dead all over the world because our brains weren’t able to see that we were getting conned, taken for a very bad ride. As he ponders quantum mechanics, Professor Trefil doesn’t seem to have noticed these widespread human fails.

Tomorrow: The journalist doesn’t ask