Donald Trump's latest bold plan: For quite a few years, it seems to us that we've been living in "interesting times."
Anthropologically speaking, of course! The journalism of the past thirty years gave us an intriguing look at the way we "rational animals" actually tend to behave.
Our culture was in a disturbing decline; many children had died in Iraq. But you can't say it wasn't an interesting time in the anthropological sense.
In part, the times were interesting because of the conduct displayed Over There, among The Others—conduct by baldly dissembling leadership and by a gullible rank and file.
We would have loved to see average voters quizzed about their belief concerning Obama's place of birth. Why do people believe such things?
Our "press corps" never asked.
In part, the era was interesting because of the gullibility of that rank and file. Then too, there was our own tribe's instinctive reaction:
If we call them racists often enough, they'll decide they should do what we say!
Over the past dozen years or so, we thought the most interesting story of these times involved the way we liberals increasingly adopted the behaviors we've always said we abhorred. Then too, there was the work of the mainstream press, with its various novelized narratives.
Before we return to loftier themes concerning the logic of 2 + 2, we still want to explore Michelle Cottle's recent editorial in the New York Times. Also, we want to re-explore Cottle's presumed source—this front-page news report by Megan Twohey.
Cottle's lengthy "Editorial Observer" continued her newspaper's endless, unintelligent war against Bill and Hillary Clinton. Almost surely, that long war—on the part of the Times and the rest of the guild—explains why Donald J. Trump has the power to send troops to the southern border, instructing them on the best way to repel rock-throwing hordes.
Twohey came along quite late in this 26-year game. (Cottle's been here all along.) When Twohey wrote that front-page report in October 2016, four weeks remained until the 2016 election—and the Times had been playing this destructive game for just over 24 years.
Twohey's front-page report continued that pitiful war. Future anthropologists, living in caves, have carefully studied her piece. They hope to define the folkways, dysfunctions and crackpot beliefs which, alas, eventually led to what they call Mister Trump's War.
We'll return to Cottle and Twohey next week, remembering that they didn't start this long, sad press corps war. Sadly, we expect to start with Carl Bernstein's detailed report about the marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton during the Arkansas years.
Bernstein presented that reported history in his bio of Hillary Clinton. You've never seen that reported history discussed because, as anthropologists note, the life forms who serve in our "mainstream press" prefer to work from gossip and novels, as Professor Harari has said.
Next week, we'll hold our noses and return to this destructive novelized nonsense, hopefully for the last time. For today, we'll return to Jim Rutenberg in this past Monday's Times, in which he wondered if Donald J. Trump's attacks on the press have actually been working.
Yes, they have, he says.
According to future anthropologists, Rutenberg's piece displays the slipshod logical style which characterized the work of the upper-end press during this devolving era. He started with snark and an anecdote, though it didn't exactly make sense:
RUTENBERG (10/29/18): He was at it again.Without any question, Donald J. Trump has made denigrating the news media "one of [the] identifying features" of his presidency.
At 3:14 a.m. on Friday, President Trump was awake and tweeting.
“Funny how lowly rated CNN, and others, can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of Bombs and ridiculously comparing this to September 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing,” he wrote, “yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, ‘it’s just not Presidential!’”
He tapped that one out as federal authorities were investigating the 12 pipe bombs mailed to the billionaire George Soros, Democratic politicians, Robert De Niro and CNN. Hours later, Mr. Trump’s tweet was national news.
“President Blames Media For Attempted Bombs,” read the onscreen chyron on “Good Morning America” as an ABC News correspondent, Jonathan Karl, briefed the anchor George Stephanopoulos on the president’s latest digital sortie from the still-dark White House lawn.
So began Day 645 of a presidency that has made denigrating the news media one of its identifying features.
He identifies certain journalists as "enemies of the people." Deranged supporters then attempt to send these enemies bombs.
That said, Rutenberg began with a bit of snark, then uncorked a minor non sequitur. He quoted a chyron accusing Trump of "blaming the media for the attempted bombs." But had Trump done that in the tweet Rutenberg cited? Truth to tell, we can't exactly say that he had!
Everybody knows the rules by which this game is played. Work like that is "close enough for press corps work," as the old chestnut goes. Soon, Rutenberg was asking his basic question, and was slip-sliding again:
RUTENBERG: By referring to likely domestic terrorism as “this ‘Bomb’ stuff” and tying it to the coming midterm elections, Mr. Trump was making the not-so-veiled suggestion that the news media was exaggerating the story because of some political motivation. Even in a national crisis, he was sticking with his anti-media strategy."The strategy is working," Rutenberg said. But based upon the data he cited, how well is the strategy working?
The question is, Is it working?
The short answer is yes. Increasingly, the president’s almost daily attacks seem to be delivering the desired effect, despite the many examples of powerful reporting on his presidency. By one measure, a CBS News poll over the summer, 91 percent of “strong Trump supporters” trust him to provide accurate information; 11 percent said the same about the news media.
According to that CBS poll, only 21 percent of respondents identified as "strong Trump supporters." This means that only 19 percent of respondents qualify as strong Trump supporters who trust him to provide accurate information.
That isn't a very large number. The strategy may be working for Trump, but the evidence provided by Rutenberg's data turns out to be fairly thin.
Was Rutenberg's evidence fairly weak? So what, anthropologists said. Despite what Aristotle is said to have said, our national press, at its upper end, works from novelized scripts.
"Our journalism is largely narrative," they said, as they pointed to Twohey's report. "These people build tales from their prearranged scripts. It's narrative all the way down!"
In Rutenberg's piece, the scribe skimmed surfaces right to the end. At one point, he quoted Stephen Pinker. This is what he wrote:
RUTENBERG: Mr. Trump’s communications director for 10 days, Anthony Scaramucci, was matter-of-fact when he told Bloomberg TV on Thursday, “Yes, the president is lying, but he’s doing it intentionally to incite certain people, which would include left-leaning journalists and most of the left-leaning politicians.”Tell the truth! From that passage, how well so you understand what Pinker said and believes? Do you think you understand his point (or points) well? We'll admit that we do not!
By engaging with his ceaseless attacks and baseless claims, are journalists falling into a trap? That’s the view of Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of cognitive science, who has described the president as a promoter of a “counter-Enlightenment ideology.” Even with its saturation coverage of the pipe bombs, Mr. Pinker argued on Twitter, “The press gets gamed again.”
In a telephone interview, he said the news media had read too much into the acts of one disturbed person. “It’s not a reflection, in itself, of the mood of the country,” Mr. Pinker said.
He conceded, though, that the news media cannot ignore Mr. Trump. And there’s the conundrum...
Rutenberg skimmed surfaces every step of the way. According to anthropologists, it's the way we "rational animals" tend to work. That said, we'll also say this:
We had to laugh at the way Rutenberg vouched and vouched, then vouched again, for the good faith of his guild.
Plainly, Rutenberg [HEART] the mainstream press. In one of the passages posted above, he referred to "the many examples of powerful reporting on [Trump's] presidency."
He seemed to reject Trump's alleged "suggestion that the news media was exaggerating the story because of some political motivation." In the passage shown below, he continually seemed to assume and assert the mainstream press corps' good faith:
RUTENBERG: Reporters respond by pointing out that these assertions have no basis in fact, just as they attempt to knock back Mr. Trump’s manufactured content by producing running tallies of his false statements—more than 5,000, says The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column.According to Rutenberg, the press corps' "good faith efforts" haven't been working thanks to Trump's framing of the press as an "invented opposition." It can't be imagined that those "endless panel discussions" on CNN might be seen as a marker of actual opposition to Trump, not to mention the "running tallies of his false statements" which are a bit hard to credit as a basic procedural matter.
Now and then journalists will resort to the L-word, “lie,” as The New York Times has done on occasion. Other frequent targets of the president’s disdain, CNN and MSNBC, have debunked his claims with onscreen headlines and endless panel discussions.
Such good-faith efforts, however, seem increasingly ineffectual. The president has succeeded in casting journalists as the prime foils on his never-ending reality show, much to the delight of those who cheer him on at rallies.
“He has succeeded in creating a daily narrative in which he is the central figure,” Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism and a staff writer at The New Yorker, told me. “And he uses props and invented opposition—whether they are migrants hundreds of miles from the U.S. border or the press right in front of him—to pursue this kind of idea he has about how his populism works.”
Poor Rutes! Throughout the piece, he rarely lets it enter his head that some of the press corps' behavior may fall short of perfection. At one point, he recalls the way the press allegedly fought back against demonization of Candidate Kerry in 2004. He fails to recall the demonizations of other candidates which have come, live and direct, straight from the mainstream press.
We encounter little talk of the press corps' possible flaws. In the following passage, his affirmation of the guild reaches a comical level:
RUTENBERG: [B]y so often putting his words under a microscope, journalists may give the impression to Mr. Trump’s supporters and even some undecided voters that they are out to get him.Good God! As Rutenberg surely must understand, his guild has trafficked in many falsehoods over the years. But in this piece, that must be forgotten. Our journalists get up in the morning solely to challenge such errors!
“It signals that there is a different issue at play here, which is a desire to constantly portray Trump and everything he and his administration says as lies,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization. She added that the media should stop picking at his every rhetorical nit and focus, instead, on his biggest whoppers.
But the idea of letting falsehoods and lies go unchallenged for the sake of public relations goes against the average reporter’s reason for getting up in the morning. So what to do?
Earth to Ruteneberg, who seems like the world's nicest person: Some journalists are "out to get" Trump, and his supporters can see this! They're able to see a wide range of journalists "picking at his every rhetorical nit," in ways which do get utterly silly, during their "endless pundit discussions."
Pletka says the press would be better advised to focus on Trump's "biggest whoppers;" in that, she's probably right. But Trump's supporters can see the nit-picking as they watch the endless discussions—and when they see Rutenberg describe his colleagues' reason for being, they're liable to laugh out loud.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. So too with the mainstream press corps.
Rutenberg vouches for his guild. But it was his guild which invented the wars which sent Donald J. Trump to the White House, and it was his guild which invented the twenty-month war against Candidate Gore which killed all those kids in Iraq.
Megan Twohey's front-page report continued two decades of mainstream press war. Anthropologists say we should tell that story for the ten millionth time, and we'll do so again next week.
We'll start, once again, with what Bernstein reported. It relates to the tale Twohey told.
Meanwhile, President Trump has told the troops that they should shoot rock-throwing migrants. Rutenberg's guild put this man where he is—and with the pipe bomb attempts and the shootings in Pittsburgh, the times, they're no longer interesting.
The times, they are a-disintegrating. But, we hope for the very last time, how did we get to this place?
Next week: For the final time