Anthropology lessons: Yesterday afternoon, exhausted from the year's longest weekend, we watched two pundit panel discussions.
We watched one discussion live. It was the opening segment of Deadline: White House, MSNBC's 4 PM Eastern show.
As she routinely does, Nicolle Wallace opened the show in a post-journalistic manner. After an opening monologue, she began introducing her panel of pundits—and as she now routinely does, she started her intro like this:
WALLACE (11/5/18): Here to break down the final frantic news on the last full day of campaigning, some of our favorite reporters and friends..."Some of our favorite reporters and friends!" That's how Wallace introduces her guests at the start of most programs.
Years back, we noted the ways in which the Rachel Maddow Show was structured to make us think that we're spending an hour with a bunch of our friends. We compared the procedures to those of the original Mickey Mouse Club, in which Darlene and Jimmy and the rest of the gang would come out and tell us their names and make us think we were friends.
Wallace is now explicitly packaging her hour as a version of Friends or Cheers. Does this make journalistic sense to Wallace, or is it merely a marketing procedure?
We can't answer your question. At any rate, as the program proceeded, Wallace's "favorite reporters and friends" performed in the way they always do at this point:
All her favorite reporters and friends agreed with each other on every point. In the case of yesterday's opening segment, they churned a highly subjective set of assessments about various acts which they described as "racism."
This is one of our tribe's favorite claims.
Wallace's reporters and friends took turns advancing a thoroughly familiar group assessment. They betrayed no sense that they were, in fact, expressing a subjective set of assessments—assessments which many others may not necessarily share.
They seemed to think, and even occasionally said, that they were simply stating facts. We were very much struck, and deeply discouraged, by their lack of sophistication.
Especially since this is the guild which worked to get us into our current mess, their remarkable lack of sophistication made us fear for our country.
Politely, Wallace's friends each took a turn agreeing with her assessments. In these ways, we learn how nations get split into warring tribe. On the brighter side, we were exposed to an instructive anthropology lesson.
We were very much struck by the lack of sophistication among Wallace's reporters and friends. Also, by the extent to which they all agreed to voice fealty to an Unchallenged Group Assessment.
No disagreement, no matter how minor, was ever voiced. No discouraging words were heard. The favorites gave voice to the Favored Assessments and no one said anything else.
(MSNBC doesn't produce transcripts for Deadline: White House. Depending on various technical matters, you can watch yesterday's full episode at the Deadline web site. We transcribed our Wallace quote there.)
We were struck by the lack of sophistication of Wallace's reporters and friends. We were struck by the ease with which each played his or her role in the chorus.
We thought their discussion was remarkably weak. That said, we thought it provided an anthropology lesson about the species which—or so says Professor Harari—drove all other humans into extinction when it acquired, through chance mutation, the ability to "gossip" and to engage in group "fictions."
Judged in terms of Enlightenment values, we thought the Deadline: White House discussion was remarkably bad. That said, we'd already watched another discussion where the skill level may have been worse.
We'd just finished watching the videotape of Sunday morning's Reliable Sources, CNN's weekly program about the media. "This hour, we are going to go behind the scenes with top editors and critics," CNN's Brian Stelter said at the start of the program.
In the first segment of the show, Stelter asked a perfectly sensible question—a question others have been asking. "I'm wondering if we [in the media] have learned anything since 2016," the cable host sensibly asked.
A desultory conversation followed. Eventually, though, the Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik gave voice to a sensible ambition, with Stelter voicing agreement:
STELTER (11/4/18): I think we can signal there are going to be surprises [on election night]. We just don't know where they're going to happen. We don't know what they're going to be, but there are going to be surprises a la AOC, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and her surprise victory in New York.You'll note that, to the defiantly impartial Stelter, Ocasio-Cortez, who we admire, is now a three-initial star, like JFK or LBJ before her. She is simply AOC, and she scored a big surprise win.
ZURAWIK: And I think, you know, Brian, one thing we've learned from 2016 I think is it's crazy to make these predictions if we don't know, because it is hurts our credibility, and we have all of these people pounding our credibility.
In Maryland, we have a race where the incumbent governor in Maryland, it will shock people, is up by 20 points in the polls, almost all the polls. Nobody at the Baltimore Sun is saying this is a done deal, this is what's going to happen. We don't know. Maybe Ben Jealous, the challenger, the Democratic challenger, gets out the vote. He said it's all about getting out the vote on the day.
Four years ago, I wouldn't have been so hesitant. Now, every third paragraph is, "If Jealous is right and they do get out the vote." And that—
STELTER: But to your point on credibility, look at this Gallup polling from 2016 versus 2018. There's actually been an increase, an improvement in people trusting or believing the press is trying to get it right. Of course, that was from a record low in 2016. It has ticked up to about 45 percent this year.
Still a low number but to your point, David, we can improve our own credibility, try to make those numbers go up a bit, or they can drop even further depending on how the press is careful in assessing this election.
A conservative skeptic might almost think that a form of bias was seeping through in Stelter's highly familiar treatment of "AOC." A jaundiced conservative might have a similar reaction when Zurawik says that he and his colleagues are refusing to predict a big re-election win for the Republican governor of their state, despite his massive lead in the polls.
A conservative skeptic might think such things! Still and all, Zurawik made an excellent general point about the dumbness involved in the pundit corps' love of utterly useless, time-killing prediction fugues. Eventually, he and Stelter agreed on a larger excellent point:
Media figures "can improve [their] own credibility" with the public by engaging in careful journalistic behavior. We'd call that a sensible point.
Stelter's opening segment ended on that thoroughly sensible point. Media figures should behave in ways which will enhance their credibility.
Then came Stelter's second segment, and with it the deluge. Daniel Dale joined the panel and, in a depressing anthropology lesson, we thought we saw the remarkable limits of pundit skill levels and thought. All week long, we're going to call it The Daniel Dale Experience.
Dale writes for the Toronto Star; he seems like the world's nicest person. But in Stelter's second segment, his panel acted like an even less impressive version of "our favorite reporters and friends" as they applauded Dale for his work as a full-time fact-checker of Trump.
Long ago and far away, Aristotle is said to have made a famous assessment about us humans, "the rational animal." Twenty-five hundred years later, the greatest logician since Aristotle devoted his life to trying to show how we humans can possibly know that 2 + 2 = 4.
We'd have to say that Godel's life provides another anthropology lesson. We're still hoping to return to that comical but instructive story, and on to the logical work performed by the later Wittgenstein as he threw his earlier puzzling work under the logical bus.
Like the wily tactician Odysseus, we've been trying to make our way home, in these and related matters. Tomorrow, though, we'll discuss The Daniel Dale Experience, and we'll ask if our species is skilled enough to retain our threatened Enlightenment culture.
We have a democracy if we can keep it! Borrowing from the Dylan lyric, we believe Benjamin Franklin said that.
Tomorrow: Dale spots an obvious lie