THURSDAY, MARCH 25, 2021
The Case of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch: We were trying to walk the straight and narrow this morning. But there it was, confronting us, as we scanned the web site of today's Washington Post.
It was roughly 7 A.M. Eastern. According to the synopsis on the Post's web site, the paper's "most read" report was this:
Critics pounce on Meghan McCain’s comments about Asian representation on ‘The View’
Critics had pounced on McCain's remarks. Quickly, the Post pounced too.
As of 7 A.M., that report had attracted more readers than anything else the Post offered. Courageously, we clicked the proffered link.
When we did, we encountered this news report by the Post's Meryl Kornfield, a staff writer on the general assignment desk.
We feel quite certain that Kornfield is a good, decent person. Under the circumstances, she's also extremely young. She's completing her second year out of college (University of Florida, class of 2019).
Why are so many high-end reporters so amazingly young? We'll leave that to the cynics.
The cynics tend to cite salary reduction. Quite possibly, Jeff Bezos hasn't been able to squeeze enough profit out of Amazon to keep the Post afloat.
Kornfield is surely a good, decent person. We don't have any idea who her unnamed editors are.
But when we read Kornfield's "most read" report, we encountered the kind of journalism which now defines vast swaths of the national discourse. We encountered the kind of journalism which we would say is notably lacking in anything resembling journalistic or analytical skill.
Kornfield's report concerns public reaction (on social media) to something Meghan McCain said, or at least is said to have said. In fairness, it isn't real clear just what McCain said because Kornfield's report, like so much of our modern journalism, largely runs on the petrol called paraphrase.
McCain's remarks are paraphrased as the report begins. So are remarks by two Democratic senators. Their remarks were apparently under discussion when McCain said whatever it is she actually said on The View.
For better or worse, the remarks by those senators—Duckworth and Hirono—are paraphrased in a highly innocuous way. Possibly by way of contrast, in a news report just yesterday, the Post had reported this:
WANG ET AL (3/24/21): ...Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) vowed Tuesday afternoon to vote no on Biden’s “non-diversity” Cabinet nominees until the White House addressed the issue [of Asian-American inclusion].
All 15 of Biden’s Cabinet secretary slots have been filled, and there are no Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders among them, the first time in more than 20 years a president’s Cabinet has not included at least one AAPI secretary.
Duckworth said that during the past six months she has repeatedly offered the White House the names of “many well-qualified AAPIs” for Cabinet positions, but those individuals “never even got a phone call,” she said.
“At this point … they can call me and tell me what the proposal is,” Duckworth said of the White House. “But until then, I am a no vote on the floor on all non-diversity nominees. You know, I will vote for racial minorities and I will vote for LGBTQ. But anybody else, I’m not voting for.”
As of now, Duckworth will vote to confirm no "white" nominee for any position, unless the nominee is LGBTQ. She's willing to vote for an LGBTQ white woman, but not for a white woman who's straight.
Is something "wrong" with such a stance? Is there a possible point of concern lurking there?
Different people will answer those questions in different ways. We expect to discuss this matter in more detail next week. For now, we'd score the Duckworth position like this:
Perhaps a little bit strange, but not quite the end of the world.
That would be our instant assessment. But readers of the Post's "most read" report were never told what Duckworth had said. At two different points, Duckworth's position was admiringly paraphrased, arguably in the most innocuous possible way.
Was that the remark which triggered the discussion on The View, a "more heat than light" daytime program? Based on the most-read report, we can't exactly tell you—and we had to read to paragraph 8 before we saw any quotation from McCain herself.
Even there, context was largely absent. This was a basically useless news report—but what else is different or new?
Go ahead—click anywhere on the dial! You're likely to find misleading data poorly explained; significant data which don't appear; slippery paraphrase driving excitement; or the latest bullroar from Rachel Maddow treated like the it came to us live and direct from the voice of God.
How dumb does it routinely get? Consider last night's Tucker Carlson Tonight.
The Fox star started with the comments by Duckworth—remarks which may well merit discussion. But within minutes, he was back in the early 1940s, stupidly quoting stupid things a very young version of (the late) Sen. Robert Byrd had once stupidly said.
The presentation got very dumb very fast. One hour later, how much better did Maddow do? We don't think she did well at all but elsewhere, pundits were thrilled.
The Stupid is everywhere here in Our Town; it has long since run roughshod in Theirs. That said, it's unclear whether anyone knows about The Stupid's role in all human towns. It's the story of our tragicomical human race, but it's a story which gets disappeared.
(For ourselves, we still long to return to the turn of the last century—to Bertrand Russell's comical effort to come to terms which "the set of all sets not members of themselves," but also with "Russell's Paradox." That was a wonderfully comical case of analytical breakdown at the highest end of academic authority. More than a hundred years later, leading professors still revere the comical struggles in which Lord Russell engaged. Those who managed to wriggle free are given professorial side-eye. This is the way rationality works at the very top of the pile!)
In recent years, despondent anthropologists have come to us, reporting to us from the future. They've begged us to tell the actual story of our species, the so-called human race.
At times, they're briefly able to engage in wry humor. More often, they weep inside their caves.
In this country, has the breakdown reached a point from which there will be no coming back? When we pose that question to these experts, they vanish into thin air.
But our species wasn't made for tasks like these, these experts repeatedly tell us. They point to the recent onslaught of ten-minute topics which clearly exceed our grasp.
These experts come to us on a daily basis. Recently, they pointed to the column which opened with the admission, by an upper-end columnist, that she was baffled by something a police spokesperson had said.
They call our attention to the war developing between our tribes. They recall the silly Southern boys at the start of Gone With the Wind:
The silly boys tell Miss Scarlett they're eager for the start of the war. An hour later, the camera draws back and we see their region's largest city in a state of devastation, with the dead and the dying lying on bare ground all around.
All over the press corps, the current generation of children cavort and happily play. At Slate, Elena Debre is still undergraduate age. Her latest attempt was this:
ELENA DEBRÉ / MARCH 23, 2021 / 6:00 PM
An Interview With the Guy Feuding With Cinnamon Toast Crunch Over an Alarming Discovery in His Cereal
The modern Slate crawls with bullsh*t like that. Meanwhile, this topic apparently rang some bells at the New York Times.
The Times ran a news report on this key topic (headline: The Curious Case of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch Box). This morning, on page A3, it's the second entry in a list of "six of the most read, shared and discussed posts across NYTimes.com."
It's second in a list of six. So the great paper admitted.
This bullsh*t is now endless at Slate. At the Times, things are perhaps somewhat better.
But what is the state of basic skills among high-level press corps performers? Tomorrow, we'll visit the columnist who recently said that she was baffled, and we'll wonder why she was.
According to experts, our species simply isn't wired to deal with stressors like these. Tomorrow, we'll explore an example or two.
Next week, we'll let them explain.
Tomorrow: Not unlike Lord Russell himself, baffled all the way down