Part 4—The AP composes a transcript: In Jim Sheridan's autobiographical film, In America, a young Irish immigrant father is losing his soul in the wake of the death of his son.
The father can't escape or regulate his grief. At one point, he describes the sweep of his losses.
A neighbor chastises him for the way he's failing himself and his two darling daughters. "You don't believe," the neighbor says.
The father responds as follows:
In what? God?We often think of that speech when we observe the hollowed-out skill set of our celebrity press corps.
You know, I asked him a favor. I asked him to take me instead of him—and he took the both of us!
And look what he put in my place.
I'm a fucking ghost. I don't exist.
I can't think. I can't laugh. I can't cry.
They're the gang that can't paraphrase straight. They're the gang that likes to talk about candidates' haircuts and clothes.
They're the gang that invents irrelevant facts and disappears the world's most significant data sets. They're the gang that entertains us each night on our favorite "cable news" shows.
Most of all, they're the gang that works from novelized scripts. They've performed that way at least since early 2000, when E. R. Shipp, then the Washington Post's ombudsman, described the way the Post had cast the four major candidates in that year's White House campaign.
(Shipp described the "roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama." Her headline: "Typecasting Candidates." To this day, her short column is the clearest description we've ever seen of the press corps' standard functioning. To read that short column, click here.)
Those journalists! We'd be inclined to call them the gang that can't report or analyze straight. Like the suffering father in Sheridan's film, are they "f*cking ghosts?"
Like that suffering father, they can't seem to think real well at this point. On the other hand, they do seem able to feel. They seem able to feel much too much.
They clearly can't restrict themselves to reporting the things they actually know. In the case of the Associated Press, they can't seem to compose a transcript.
We refer to the transcript of Julie Pace's interview with Donald J. Trump. The venerable news org posted the transcript of the session on April 23 of this year.
You can peruse it here.
The interview was a major "get" for the Associated Press. In effect, it was Trump's official interview about his triumphant and glorious first hundred days in office.
That hundred-day milestone is silly, but standard. Because Trump had provided few interviews, the AP's long session with Trump was a major journalistic event.
Two weeks later, Masha Gessen quoted extensively from the transcript during her May 7 lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival. She did so to laughter and applause from a liberal audience. To watch the lecture, click here.
The AP transcript was flawed. Gesen's use of the transcript was deeply flawed. In a journalistic world which wasn't principally peopled by skill-free ghosts, her performance that day would seem deeply puzzling.
Gessen's lecture dealt with a deeply important subject. She spoke about the destruction of the public discourse which had occurred in her native Russia by the late Soviet period.
Six days later, the New York Review of Books published an adapted version of Gessen's lecture. In the passage shown below, Gessen describes the destruction of language and public discourse under Soviet culture and rule, and the problem journalists faced in the early post-Soviet period.
This passage constitutes an important record of the way tyrants, thugs and possibly f*cking ghosts can destroy the public sphere:
GESSEN (5/13/17): A Russian poet named Sergei Gandlevsky once said that in the late Soviet period he became obsessed with hardware-store nomenclature. He loved the word secateurs, for example. Garden shears, that is. Secateurs is a great word. It has a shape. It has weight. It has a function. It is not ambiguous. It is also not a hammer, a rake, or a plow. It is not even scissors. In a world where words were constantly used to mean their opposite, being able to call secateurs “secateurs”—and nothing else—was freedom.Gessen, who has walked the walk, is describing an important part of world history and human experience.
“Freedom,” on the other hand, was, as you know, slavery. That’s Orwell’s 1984. And it is also the USSR, a country that had “laws,” a “constitution,” and even “elections,” also known as the “free expression of citizen will.” The elections, which were mandatory, involved showing up at the so-called polling place, receiving a pre-filled ballot—each office had one name matched to it—and depositing it in the ballot box, out in the open. Again, this was called the “free expression of citizen will.” There was nothing free about it, it did not constitute expression, it had no relationship to citizenship or will because it granted the subject no agency. Calling this ritual either an “election” or the “free expression of citizen will” had a dual effect: it eviscerated the words “election,” “free,” “expression,” “citizen,” and “will,” and it also left the thing itself undescribed. When something cannot be described, it does not become a fact of shared reality. Hundreds of millions of Soviet citizens had an experience of the thing that could not be described, but I would argue that they did not share that experience, because they had no language for doing so. At the same time, an experience that could be accurately described as, say, an “election,” or “free,” had been preemptively discredited because those words had been used to denote something entirely different.
When I was a young journalist, I went back to my country of birth to work in my native language. In the early 1990s, Russian journalists were engaged in the project of reinventing journalism—which itself had been used to perform the opposite of conveying reliable information. Language was a problem. The language of politics had been pillaged, as had the language of values and even the language of feelings...
In fairness, her metaphysics is a bit fuzzy here. She never explains why this "free expression of citizen will," which was in fact an "overt governmental sham," couldn't be described in such a way, thereby "becoming a fact of shared reality." (We'll recall this objection next week.)
We mention this because it's important to avoid getting slippery about such an important topic. Gessen's lecture becomes even more important as she proceeds to compare this Soviet-era journalistic dilemma to the way our own American discourse is crumbling in this, the early Trump era.
Have we mentioned the fact that Masha Gessen has actually walked the walk? We'll recommend major respect for such an admirable person, but we'll warn against the common human instinct to confer the status of god on Gessen, or on anyone else.
Gessen covered those same points in her May 7 lecture. As she continued, she drew laughter and applause, working from the AP transcript of the interview with Donald J. Trump.
The transcript is remarkably puzzling in certain ways, especially given the importance of the interview the AP was recording. We're forced to say that Gessen's use of the transcript was substantially worse.
In her lecture, Gessen seemed to think that the corruption of our own public discourse could only be coming from Trump. It didn't seem to occur to her that the corruption of our own discourse might also be coming from the laughing, applauding liberal audience which was cheering her on, or from the journalists who did the typecasting Shipp described almost twenty years ago.
That AP transcript is a study in the banality of the press corps' lack of basic skills. We'll tell you why we'd say such a thing when we resume on Monday.
Gessen took a shaky route from there. As she worked from the AP transcript, her lack of due diligence was apparent. The audience laughed and applauded.
Gessen spoke of the loss of clear nomenclature during the Soviet period. Our warning concerning Gessen, whose soul is very much worth saving:
That suffering father was becoming a ghost. Is she in danger of becoming a part of our own nomenklatura?
Coming Monday: The banality of incompetence