Part 1—Embellishment, gossip, group fiction: It's one of the most endearing traits of our not-quite-"human" species.
And sure enough! There it was, this very morning, in the very first item we read!
Our first perusal took us through this new op-ed column by the New York Times' Charles Blow. Midway through his predictable piece, Blow made the inevitable inaccurate statement:
BLOW (7/30/18): CNN reported on Friday that “sources with knowledge” told the network that Trump knew of the infamous Trump Tower meeting during the campaign in which Russians promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.Except that isn't what CNN reported on Friday in this online report by Sciutto, Bernstein and (Marshall) Cohen.
Beyond that, it isn't what CNN reported at 9 PM Eastern the night before, in the bombshell report which touched off three hours of gossip and speculation by the nation's "cable news" stars.
According to CNN, did "sources with knowledge" tell CNN that Trump knew (in advance) about the infamous meeting?
Actually, no. That isn't what CNN said. According to Friday's report by CNN, "sources with knowledge" told its reporters something different.
According to CNN, "sources with knowledge" told CNN that Michael Cohen is claiming that Trump knew in advance. According to CNN, sources with knowledge" say that's what Cohen is claiming, though he "does not have evidence, such as audio recordings, to corroborate his claim."
According to CNN, that's what "sources with knowledge" told them. According to CNN, its sources have knowledge have knowledge of what Cohen is claiming, not of what Trump knew.
That differs from Blow's embellished account, in which CNN seems to be saying that sources (plural) who know what they're talking about have said that Trump knew in advance.
CNN has never claimed that its unnamed, undescribed sources have personal knowledge of what Trump knew. CNN has only claimed that its sources have knowledge of what Cohen is claiming.
Those are very different things. Blow's account of what CNN reported jumped ahead of the facts a bit, as does a great deal of what we read and hear from our mainstream press corps.
We "humans!" If we might borrow from Professor Harari, we love our "gossip" and our "fictions," which we tend to adopt and assert as a group, especially when we're engaged in gossip.
According to Harari's best-selling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, our unreliable species, Homo sapiens, gained control of the planet when a set of chance mutations gave our ancestors the ability to "gossip" and to create group "fictions." These new abilities allowed our ancestors to cooperate in much larger groups, driving all other human species into extinction.
It seems to us that these all-too-human traits dominate our upper-end journalism today. Just consider our floundering nation's recent political history:
It could sensibly be said that the political journalism of the past thirty years has been dominated by gossip about the two Clintons and Gore. Also, by the widespread adoption of "fictions" about these major players.
It could sensibly be said that twenty months of such gossip sent George W. Bush to the White House through his amazingly narrow "win" in the 2000 election.
More recemtly, it could sensibly be said that twenty-five years of such gossip about Hillary Clinton sent Donald J. Trump to the White House through his narrow "win" in the 2016 campaign.
(Clinton won the popular vote by roughly 2.1 percentage points—by 2.87 million votes.)
Our journalists—quite frequently, they're "all-too-human"—gossiped about the Clintons, and then about Gore, from January 1992 on. This gossiping was largely conducted by the mainstream press, even by members and orgs which are perceived to be liberal.
These demonizations continued through the fall of 2016. "Corporate liberal" journalists stood by in general silence as decades-old themes were revived and as new themes developed. Whatever a person may think of her 2016 campaign, does anyone doubt that the demonizations of Hillary Clinton let Commander in Chief Donald J. Trump achieve his amazingly narrow "win?"
Harari has ventured into prehistory to deliver his remarks about gossip and group fictions. Even in the way he defines them, these group fictions are closely related to the age-old stuff of gossip.
We can't assess the statements Harari makes about our species' evolution in the distant past. But his claims about gossip and the adoption of fictions serve as a helpful heuristic—as a useful descriptive shortcut—for those who seek a useful general account of the way our press corps functions.
With that in mind, let's establish parameters for a week-long discussion:
Long ago and far away, Bobby Vee had a problem. He was only 18 years old—roughly the age of the typical modern journalist.
That said, Vee was troubled. He articulated his concern through the lyrics of a 1961 hit:
Bobby Vee's rumination:Vee couldn't decide if his girl friend was a devil or an angel! Almost surely, she was neither. But Vee's emotions had perhaps overwhelmed his rational faculties.
Devil or angel, I can't make up my mind
Which one you are, I'd like to wake up and find
Devil or angel? Dear, whichever you are
I miss you, I miss you, I-I mi-i-iss you...
This week, we'll walk a similar path. Are people like Blow best seen as gossips or as journalists? In the main, are they gossips devoted to adopting and promotion group fictions? Or are they the smoothly functioning "rational animals" we humans have long claimed to be?
In the paragraph we've posted above, Blow did what the gossip will typically do. He took something CNN reported and he embellished the story a bit.
All over the mainstream American press, our journalists took this approach to both Clintons and to Gore. Often, they went well beyond mere embellishment. Often, they simply invented their fictions.
That's largely the way they worked, from January 1992 on, concerning the Clintons and Gore. Now their target is Donald J. Trump, a deeply disordered person.
Their target today is Donald J. Trump, but it isn't altogether clear that their methods have changed. Gossip or journo? Do they mainly function as gossips, or are they mainly journalists?
Do they mainly work through preferred group fictions? Or do they apply the rational tests which play such a prominent role when we silly, gossiping humans start describing ourselves?
Harari mordantly notes the way we humans tend to overstate our own greatness. Since it's all anthropology now, we'll be asking a basic question this week:
These players say they're journalists. Are they actually gossips?
Tomorrow: What Natasha said—but also, Kessler, Marshall and Marcus