TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2022
Charlie Savage (almost) gets it right: Increasingly, the gong-show quality of our discourse is its distinguishing characteristic.
In this morning's New York Times, Charlie Savage makes a very wise statement about certain Trump-based narratives. His news report starts like this:
SAVAGE (2/15/22): When John H. Durham, the Trump-era special counsel investigating the inquiry into Russia’s 2016 election interference, filed a pretrial motion on Friday night, he slipped in a few extra sentences that set off a furor among right-wing outlets about purported spying on former President Donald J. Trump.
But the entire narrative appeared to be mostly wrong or old news—the latest example of the challenge created by a barrage of similar conspiracy theories from Mr. Trump and his allies.
Upon close inspection, these narratives are often based on a misleading presentation of the facts or outright misinformation. They also tend to involve dense and obscure issues, so dissecting them requires asking readers to expend significant mental energy and time—raising the question of whether news outlets should even cover such claims. Yet Trump allies portray the news media as engaged in a cover-up if they don’t.
Savage identifies two basic problems with these convoluted Trumpian narratives:
They're often based on outright misinformation, or on misleading presentations. Also, the bogus claims are built upon so much complexity—involve so many "dense and obscure issues"—that they're intrinsically hard for anyone except a specialist to follow.
Basically, these balls of confusion can't be explained. Sagaciously, Savage says it isn't obvious that news orgs should even try.
We'll offer two points about that:
For starters, alas! Our own liberal tribe also churns highly complex narratives which may be full of erroneous or misleading claims. TrumpWorld churns such bullshit in its sleep, but our tribe is involved in such foolishness too.
Here's our second point:
Even when journalists try to explain these "dense and obscure" Trump narratives, they may not possess sufficient skill to untangle the confusion. Consider Savage's own news report.
Savage is reporting on a new filing by special counsel John Durham. We won't even try to tell you what it is that Durham is claiming. However, when Savage tries to present a clear account of this murky matter, we're soon given this account of a key technical term:
SAVAGE: The conservative media also skewed what [Durham's] filing said. For example, Mr. Durham’s filing never used the word “infiltrate.” And it never claimed that Mr. Joffe’s company was being paid by the Clinton campaign.
Most important, contrary to the reporting, the filing never said the White House data that came under scrutiny was from the Trump era. According to lawyers for David Dagon, a Georgia Institute of Technology data scientist who helped develop the Yota analysis, the data—so-called DNS logs, which are records of when computers or smartphones have prepared to communicate with servers over the internet—came from Barack Obama’s presidency.
According to Savage, DNC logs "are records of when computers or smartphones have prepared to communicate with servers over the internet."
Do you have any idea what that means? Let's just tell the truth this time:
Almost surely, no, you don't!
Let's simplify matters a bit:
Do you know what it means to say that a computer has communicated with a server over the Internet? Could you explain that to someone else?
We'll guess that the answer is no. But according to Savage's attempt at clarification, that isn't what a "DNS log" records!
According to Savage, "DNS logs" are records of when a computer has prepared to communicate with a server over the Internet! Go ahead! Sit your next-door neighbors down and explain to them what that means!
This morning, Marcy Wheeler appeared on Morning Joe for a (roughly) five-minute segment on this Durham filing. Wheeler is deeply informed about these matters. Almost surely, that was the problem.
Joe and Mika, along with Willie and four other stooges, sat around pretending to understand what Wheeler was talking about. At some point, we'll create a transcript of her remarks just to show you what can happen when a person who is highly informed tries to explain one of these convoluted, deeply obscure affairs in five minutes or less.
Our discourse constantly runs on such complexified Storylines. No one knows how to explain the events in question, but because of our highly tribalized news arrangements, everyone knows who the heroes and villains are.
Savage's initial assessment was very much on target. These narratives are so dense and so complicated that they basically can't be explained, not even by well-intentioned journalists who will routinely lack key clarification skills.
No one is able to untangle these balls of confusion. Tribally scripted talking-points pretty much take over from there.
The result? Nobody knows what they're talking about, but everyone knows what to say! So it goes as our failing discourse continues to run on its trademark fuel—on imitations of life.