Part 1—The New York Times, all at sea: In the famous forty-second chapter of his longest, most famous book, Herman Melville had his famous narrator, Ishmael, explain a famous obsession.
Above all else, Ishmael explains, it was the dumbness of the whale which had him spellbound—“appalled.”
All last week, we thought of the passage we show you below as we followed the coverage of the consensus scandal which was quickly and dumbly christened “Deflategate:”
MELVILLE (1851): Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man's soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the dumbness of the whale that above all things appalled me.Forget his other attributes. It was the dumbness of the whale which left Ishmael in horror, appalled.
More than forty years ago, Melville got it right! By now, the astonishing dumbness of the whale has become both perfectly clear and almost completely invisible.
In the past few weeks, this dumbness has been put on vivid display in the press corps’ pseudo-discussion of the Deflategate fandango. In the process, no one has “done it dumber” than the New York Times’ David Waldstein.
Waldstein’s column about this matter appeared in last Friday’s editions. Let’s build a quick chronology of recent events:
Wednesday, May 6: On Wednesday, May 6, the NFL issued its official report on this matter, the so-called “Wells report.” According to the Wells report, it is “more probable than not” that two employees of the New England Patriots deliberately underinflated some footballs last January, in violating of NFL rules.
Just for the record, “more probable than not” means that the two employees may not have engaged in these actions. That said, it was also deemed “more probable than not” that Tom Brady, the Patriots’ handsome star quarterback, was “generally aware” of the actions which the two employees committed or then again possibly didn’t.
Thursday, May 14: On Thursday, May 14, the Patriots issued a rebuttal to the Wells report. The next day, the Times hurried Waldstein’s column into print, then began revising it as the morning wore on.
In hard copy, Waldstein’s column bore the headline shown below. The headline reflected the general shape of the press corps’ consensus:
“Patriots’ Rebuttal Is Foray Further Into Farce”
In our hard-copy New York Times, Waldstein’s column was bannered across the top of the first page of the “Sports Thursday” section. In subsequent editions, major portions of the column were substantially changed—you might even say dumbed down.
In Waldstein’s column, and in dozens just like it, the American people were exposed to the dumbness of the whale. They were also denied the most basic facts about our latest consensus scandal.
In what way was Waldstein’s column so preternaturally dumb? Let us start counting the problems:
In paragraph 5: In paragraph 5 of his hard-copy text, the scrivener wrote this: “From the Patriots’ standpoint, the science is indisputable.”
That sounded intriguing, though imprecise. To what “science” did Waldstein refer? Did he mean that the science in question really is indisputable? Or did he simply mean that that’s what the Patriots claim?
Who knows? In standard fashion, Waldstein never described “the science” in question. He never explained what the Patriots think the science tells us about the case.
He never said if he thinks the Patriots are right in their belief. The basic science of the case was quickly, completely abandoned.
In paragraph 8: In paragraph 8 of his hard-copy text, Waldstein seemed to say that the NFL had made some “preposterous claims” in its official report. But he never explained what those claims were, and the word “preposterous” was removed from the later versions of his piece, including the version which now appears on-line.
In paragraph 13: In paragraph 13 of his hard-copy text, Waldstein said that the Patriots “matched every far-fetched claim in the Wells report with one of their own.”
That sounded intriguing. But he never explained what the NFL’s “far-fetched claims” actually were. The word “far-fetched” has been removed from the later versions of his column.
Also in paragraph 13: In paragraph 13 of his hard-copy text, Waldstein also said this: “The Wells report engaged in a few logical contortions to show that the footballs the Patriots used in the first half of the A.F.C. title game in January were, in general, significantly underinflated…”
That sounded dishonest! But Waldstein never explained what the NFL’s “logical contortions” were. Needless to say, the unpleasant claim has been removed from the later versions of his column.
In paragraphs 16 and 17: Wow! In paragraphs 16 and 17 of his original text, Waldstein seemed to describe egregious misconduct by NFL officials. This is the text which appeared in our hard-copy Times:
WALDSTEIN (5/15/15): Finally, in a rebuke to league officials initially for leaking inaccurate figures that said the balls were egregiously below the minimum air pressure at halftime, the Patriots suggested that the real and less damaging air-pressure figures were intentionally suppressed to minimize their effect on the public, and only released in conjunction with more damning text messages.Say what? NFL officials “initially leaked inaccurate figures?” They “intentionally suppressed the real and less damaging air-pressure figures?”
“One can only speculate,” the Patriots said, “why it was so important for the league that the accurate halftime information be withheld from the public until it was ultimately part of a report that downplayed the science and instead relied on selective texts.”
Waldstein’s original text seemed to accuse the NFL of egregious misconduct. But wait a minute! Did league officials really leak inaccurate figures to the press? Or is that just the Patriots’ claim?
Alas! In his initial column, Waldstein left these basic questions unclear and unresolved. He never explained what the “inaccurate figures” in question actually were.
In the later version of Waldstein’s column, his text was changed in a major way. The column now says that the Patriots contend that the league engaged in this conduct. It says the Patriots make this contention; it offers nothing more.
Even in his original text, Waldstein didn’t say whether any inaccurate data ever appeared in the press. As readers of this site may know, the dumbness of the whale is routinely displayed in this practiced manner.
Waldstein’s original column was dumbed down, in major ways, by the New York Times. But don’t be fooled! Even his original text stands as a tribute to the dumbness of the whale—to the dumbness which controls the way our discourse works.
Even in its original form, Waldstein’s column played by the rules which have been on display in almost all opinion columns, news reports and pundit discussions of this exciting consensus scandal. Alas! He focused on the least significant aspects of the rebuttal report. He avoided the basic facts of the case in favor of silly anecdotal matters—silly “evidence” which was interpreted in the dumbest possible way.
Keeping faith with the consensus, Waldstein emphasized the allegedly “farcical” nature of the Patriots’ rebuttal. He never explained the remarkable information which is found in that rebuttal report.
Even in its original form, readers of Waldstein’s column were shielded from the most basic facts of the case. Instead, they encountered the talking points which controlled the pseudo-discussion observed all through the “press.”
Months before, a consensus judgment had been reached on this matter. Even in his original text, Waldstein seemed to know that he mustn’t explain how weak that consensus is.
Here's how vast the dumbness is. An editor at the New York Times dumbed even that column down! But this is the way our consensus scandals are served to the public.
In the global perspective, nothing much turns on the “Deflategate” matter. That said, the press corps’ discussion of this matter constitutes a perfect example of the problem Melville described, decades ago, as “the dumbness of the whale.”
Judgment first, information never! As we’ll show you all this week, that’s the way this event has been processed all through the brainless whale we still describe as our “press corps.”
Tomorrow: By rule of law, three basic facts the public can’t be told
Much as Melville said: We can’t link you to Waldstein’s original column, which stressed the allegedly “farcical” nature of the rebuttal report.
Good boy! But even that piece was considered too strong, perhaps too suggestive of real information! An amended version “survive[d] the wreck,” as Melville so memorably put it.