How much have the basics changed? Long ago and far away, Daniel Dale appeared as a guest on CNN's Reliable Sources, a weekly, hour-long program.
Dale is a full-time Trump fact-checker for the Toronto Star. As for Reliable Sources, CNN describes it as follows:
Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter examines the media world—telling the story behind the story—how the news gets made.We agree with your observation; that's just barely written in English. This may be part of the overall point toward which we're slowly proceeding.
Way back when, CNN's description of Reliable Sources parsed a bit more smoothly. In the late 1990s, Howard Kurtz, then the program's principal host, would open each week's show like this:
KURTZ (11/13/99): Welcome to Reliable Sources, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.In those days, Kurtz and Kalb served as the program's co-hosts. According to Kurtz's weekly intro, Reliable Sources was the program which "turned a critical lens on the media."
You may recall an observation we made at that time. In what way was Reliable Sources "turning a critical lens on the media?"
How was it turning a critical lens? It was doing so in this unusual manner:
CNN had hired two members of the upper-end mainstream press to serve as the program's co-hosts. (At that time, Kurtz was the media reporter for the Washington Post.)
CNN would then assemble panels of upper-end mainstream reporters and pundits with whom its two mainstream press corps hosts would "turn a critical lens" on the industry, or dare we say on the guild, of which they were all a part.
As we noted at the time, if any other industry was discussed this way in a weekly program, the program would be described as an infomercial, not as a TV news show. Try to imagine a weekly show on the banking industry which was cast this way, with no one appearing on the show except rotating groups of banking executives being interviewed by other banking executives.
Any other such weekly program would have been laughed off the air.
This doesn't mean that the old Reliable Sources was completely worthless. At the time, Kurtz was sharper than the average media bear. He sometimes raised highly relevant questions about the mainstream press corps' behavior, as he did two separate times on Reliable Sources in the fall of 1999.
On those occasions, he asked two separate panels of mainstream reporters why Candidate Gore was getting such negative treatment within the mainstream press. In late June of that year, Kurtz had written a lengthy analysis piece for the Post in which he raised that same question. Now, four and five months later, he raised this important question again, on two separate Reliable Sources shows.
What happened was highly instructive:
None of his panelists disagreed with Kurtz's basic premise. They all agreed that Candidate Gore was getting highly negative coverage, compared, for example, with the fawning coverage being dished to Candidate Bradley, Gore's sole opponent for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
No one challenged Kurtz's premise—but then again, how odd! None of the panelists seemed to be able to say why Gore was getting this coverage.
The panelists worked for the very news orgs which were producing this negative coverage. But they seemed baffled by the reason for the negative coverage. In this way, a basic fact of life was put on display:
What happens in the mainstream press corps stays in the mainstream press corps! Our upper-end journalists maintain a code of silence which would put the Mafia to shame.
No one seemed to able able to tell Howard Kurtz why Gore was getting that coverage. During calendar year 2000, Kurtz finally stopped asking the question and the negative coverage grew.
As everyone above a certain age within the mainstream press corps knows, this negative coverage ended up sending George W. Bush to the White House. In that sense, it also sent many children in Iraq to their deaths.
Breaking every rule in the book, Kurtz inquired about the negative coverage on three occasions in 1999. He got no help from his guests and his interview subjects, and he basically agreed to it play dumb about this matter himself.
Especially for the children who died (along with the many others who died), that negative coverage changed the course of world history. But right to this very day, that code of silence has been maintained. Meanwhile, a new generation of 24-year-old pundits crowd the cable screen.
Just a guess. Many of these very young pundits are being selected for televising because they're conventionally attractive. But however their owners may judge their appearance, these young people don't know what happened back then.
Those who do, by rule of law, are never going to tell.
In the nearly twenty years which have passed, partisan preference patterns have changed within the mainstream press. Back then, the mainstream press was waging war on President Clinton and those to whom he was tied. Yesterday, in a column which was accurate in all its basic respects, Frank Bruni offered this absurd account of the way his guild viewed Candidate Gore:
BRUNI (11/14/18): He wasn’t always easy to like. He could be patronizing and stiff. He exaggerated. His judgment wobbled. He let his disgust with Bill Clinton’s conduct eclipse his need for Clinton’s help.The era's scripts are plentiful there; the silence is being maintained. That said, consider this complaint:
"He let his disgust with Bill Clinton’s conduct eclipse his need for Clinton’s help."
In that passage, Bruni recites a standard post-election script, one in which Candidate Gore was pleasingly blamed for his own defeat:
He was so disgusted with Clinton's misconduct he didn't let him campaign!
That is one of the basic scripts the silence-mongers agreed to recite. That said, another one of their basic scripts ran to the equal and opposite:
He refused to denounce Bill Clinton's misconduct!
Candidate Gore had refused to denounce President Clinton's misconduct! This script was humping everything that moved as of June 1999, when Kurtz first raised his important question about Gore's negative coverage. And while we're looking for contradictions, let's not forget another script which ran full-blown for two years:
Al Gore would lick the bathroom floor to be president!
That was a favorite of Chris Matthews; it was an especially colorful version of the more basic script, in which it was said that Candidate Gore was willing do and say anything. Somehow, this all-purpose script coexisted with the claim that Gore loathed Clinton's conduct so much that he threw the election away by refusing to let him campaign. When the children go to war, they aren't fazed by self-contradiction.
When the children go to war, they're liable do and say anything! They'll wallow in pleasing self-contradiction, as E. J. Dionne pointed out on the one tiny occasion when he dared to issue a peep about what his guild was doing:
DIONNE (9/24/99): The Gore apparatus can point to a couple of good weeks on the campaign trail and genuine enthusiasm among some key supporters...The Gore camp also has reason to complain that national political commentary treats the vice president with about as much respect as the Russian economy.As Dionne correctly observed, Candidate Gore was getting attacked no matter how he dressed. Why was his wardrobe getting frisked at all? Dionne knew enough not to ask.
If he wears a suit, he's a stiff guy in a suit. If he wears an open shirt, he's a stiff guy in a suit faking it. He gets no credit for Clinton's achievements, inherits all the baggage—and finds his political skills compared unfavorably with Clinton's. To paraphrase an old Chicago political joke, if Gore walked on water, the headlines the next day would read: "Gore Can't Swim."
Unfair? Absolutely. But that's the way of presidential campaigns.
"That's the way of presidential campaigns," Dionne quickly said, reverting to patterns of silence. But that isn't the way of presidential campaigns. That's the way of presidential campaigns when the press corps' boys and girls have selected a target.
Today, the mainstream press corps is strongly opposed to Donald J. Trump. We agree with their general assessment of Trump, though not with their various ways of reacting.
(We also respect the fact that tens of millions of our neighbors and fellow citizens have a different view at this time.)
On Sunday morning, November 4, Brian Stelter spoke to a panel of mainstream pundits about Trump's latest behaviors. Everyone agreed with what everyone else said, as is now quite often the way when the boys and girls spend an hour on the screen with "their favorite reporters and friends."
The panel was soon dropping its bombs; along the way, Daniel Dale picked out an obvious "lie." But how did he know that this lie was a lie?
We think major lessons lurk there. Tomorrow, we'll finish this series.
Tomorrow: Anthropological lessons