Two scribes spot "well-informed experts:" In the wake of Sunday night's cable show, the New York Times editorial board has been getting a bit of attention.
As presented, the hour-long TV show may have suffered from a bit of a "Cupcake Wars" feel.
Beyond that, the board—or, at least, the deputy editorial page editor—decided to endorse two candidates in a Democratic nomination fight which only one hopeful can win.
(No real attempt was made to explain how she reached the decision. She described the decision as hers, though she did share it with "the publisher.")
As we noted yesterday, the board was mocked for its self-importance, but also for its self-indulgence. Kurt Andersen delivered the ultimate blow, saying the televised discussion snippets revealed board members to be "no smarter or more knowing or wiser than somebody at a dinner party."
In short, criticisms rolled down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. In the end, how should we regard the thirteen to seventeen different people who may sit on the board?
How should we regard the board? We were struck by a discussion which was posted at New York magazine's Intelligencer site.
Three of the journal's reporters or columnists debated whether newspaper endorsements have any real value at all. All in all, the discussion was perfectly sensible.
That said, we were struck by a larger problem. On the meta level, we were struck by the highlighted characterizations in this early statement by Josh Barro:
BARRO (1/21/20): I’m not sure they ever made sense. I’m not sure that unsigned editorials on any topic make sense....I don’t know what the particular expertise of the New York Times editorial board is supposed to be that gives these endorsements weight. They’re a bunch of well-informed liberals. But the people to whom this endorsement is directed largely are also well-informed liberals. They’re positioned to draw their own conclusions.Barro described the board members as "a bunch of well-informed liberals." Beyond that, he may have suggested that they have some type of "expertise."
Moving much farther out on a limb, Barro even seemed to say that New York Times readers are "well-informed!" For today, let's stick with his characterization of the people who sit on the board.
Are Times board members "well-informed?" Do they possess "expertise?" Much more significantly, is that the fundamental or only way we should regard the board members?
That's the impression which may have emerged from this three-way discussion. As the discussion continued, Eric Levitz extended Barro's description in a series of remarks, and no one piped up to complain:
LEVITZ: I think the Times’ endorsements are a useful institution in the context of state and local races/ballot referenda—low salience, low visibility elections where a significant segment of the (low turnout) electorate might both want and heed the guidance of well-informed liberals.The overall discussion was perfectly sensible. That said, Levitz doubled down on Barro's initial characterization, even while drawing a useful distinction between the editorial board and the Democratic electorate.
And on those things, the subject-area expertise of certain board members is helpful.
[T]oday’s Times board is a semi-random assortment of left-of-center journalists and experts who have no reason to share a consensus take on the 2020 presidential race, and manifestly don’t.
[B]y its nature, the board can’t not be a collection of “extremely high-information, professional class” voters, and the Democratic primary electorate is not uniformly those things.
Readers were persistently told that the New York Times editorial board is a collection of "well-informed" "experts," full and complete total stop.
Board members are “extremely high-information voters" possessed of "expertise." Full and complete total stop.
Full and complete total stop! When it came to the editorial board, no countervailing characterization was offered in this discussion.
How about it? Is the Times editorial board a collection of extremely well-informed experts? More to the point, is that the way we should think of the board, full and complete total stop?
We're going to say that the answer is no. We'll also say that Aristotle's ancient, unhelpful framework was very much alive and well in those characterizations.
"Man [sic] is the rational animal!" Aristotle is widely said to have said it.
It isn't entirely clear what he meant by whatever it is he actually said in the original Greek. But down through the annals of time, this characterization has come to define the way we humans tend to think of ourselves, at least over here in The West.
That said, we pose a question:
Can anyone read the New York Times and think they're being exposed to fully rational expositions driven by expertise, full stop?
Sadly, the answer to that question is yes. We hugely gullible liberal subscribers are strongly inclined to see the Times that way. This perceptual failure helps explain the current state of our failing democracy.
Briefly, let's be clear! The people who sit on the editorial board are not in charge of the newspaper's news reporting. Increasingly, that's the province of people barely out of college, people who may be heavily steeped in certain kinds of tribal propaganda.
Tomorrow, we'll return to the types of work which are increasingly being characterized as possessing "a very stable dumbness." Most of that work isn't done by the board.
On the other hand, some of it is.
Go ahead—we dare you! Watch the hour-long TV show the editorial board allowed to be broadcast.
(The program is available through FX or Hulu, or maybe through your cable On Demand.)
After doing so, ask yourselves if you just watched a set of discussions conducted by “extremely high-information" people possessed of "expertise," full and complete total stop.
When we watched, we thought we saw a fair amount of silly simpering of a horribly familiar kind. We also thought we might have seen occasional hints of tribal dumbness. Reading through the full transcripts of some of the interviews, the picture may have become a bit worse.
Within our modern upper-end journalism, there is no word that's more misused than the pleasing and silly term "expert."
Reporters constantly use the term in support of their own preferred views. Meanwhile, we liberals persistently read the New York Times without being able to see the presence of a very stable type of tribal dumbness.
We've lived with that unhelpful dumbness for a very long time now. By the nature of the species, it's hard for tribal members to see it.
Andersen seemed to say the dumbness was visible during that TV show. If the society hopes to survive, it's time to start spotting such manifestations, and also to loudly complain.
Tomorrow: Candidate Pete meets AOC, plus Greta and Barack