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THE WEAK IN REVIEW! The New York Times went to war late last year. This morning, the warfare continues: // link // print // previous // next //

THE WEAK IN REVIEW: The New York Times went to war late last year, and another battle in that war is being waged in today’s paper. “Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate,” reads the headline atop a John Schwartz report. And yes, it turns out as you might have guessed—those bloggers have been up to old tricks in discussing the recent tsunami. Schwartz seems to have consulted one “expert”—an “expert” who said what he wanted to hear:
SCHWARTZ (1/3/05): [T]he blogosphere's tendency toward crackpot theorizing and political smack down could not be suppressed for long.

''It's so much of what they feed on, so much of what they are,'' said James Surowiecki, the author of ''The Wisdom of Crowds.''

Schwartz devotes his piece to the crackpot things people have said on liberal sites like Democratic Underground. Soon, his expert is waxing about the history of such hopelessly ill-informed cranks:
SCHWARTZ: Mr. Surowiecki pointed out that there is nothing new about ill-informed rumor-mongering or other forms of oddness. ''There were always cranks,'' he said. ''Rumors have always been fundamental about the way people talk, or think, about politics or complicated issues.'' Instead of a corner bar or a Barcalounger, however, the location for today's speech is an online medium with a potential audience of millions.
There have always been idiots and cranks, Schwartz assures us. But now, the idiots have left their corner bars for the richer life they lead on the Net. Schwartz does note that foolish comments are often corrected by others on-line. But he closes on a more pleasing note. “In the tsunami discussion on Democratic Underground, some participants continued to post farfetched theories about what caused the earthquake based on pseudoscience and conspiracy,” he notes, “and on Wizbang, the vituperation continued unabated, spreading even to many victims of the disaster.”

Yes, this is the latest battle in the Times’ newest war—a war the paper has declared on the Net. If we may now engage in a bit of speculation, it has become fairly clear that some in Times Nation have just about had it with this rude medium, a medium in which wildly ill-informed people dare to challenge great orgs like the Times. Result? The paper began to publish silly attacks on the “blogosphere” late last year, and Schwartz continues the onslaught this morning. The Times is eager to let readers know how stupid those folks on the Net really are. They used to rant in their corner bars! But now, they’ve been given computers!

Yes, people like Schwartz are very brave when it comes to targeting folks on the Net. They search for silly statements by anonymous shlubs, then rush the odd statements into print, letting readers understand how idiotic the Net really is. But how brave and bold are fellows like Schwartz when it comes to influential crackpots? As we read Schwartz’s piece this morning, our thoughts drifted back to the Times’ brave conduct when it came to those cranks called the Swift Boat Vets—the cranks who transformed a White House election while fellows like Schwartz sat and stared.

Ah yes, the Swift Boat Vets—a group of crackpots with powerful interests behind them, a group which actually changed an election! When John O’Neill and Jerome Corsi published Unfit for Command, it was clear—to anyone who read it—that the pair were deeply kooky themselves. The book self-contradicts on page after page, and its gonzo chapter on Kerry-the-commie was straight from a mid-50s fever swamp. Any sensible person who read it would have known that its authors had emerged from those corner bars and were now engaging in “crackpot theorizing” and “ill-informed rumor-mongering” right out in public! And this, of course, is the very problem which Schwartz bravely types on today.

So what did Schwartz and his brave colleagues do when Unfit for Command appeared? Of course! As their type has done through the annals of time, they ran and hid themselves deep in the bushes! O’Neill and Corsi were visible crackpots, but they were also powerful crackpots, with powerful interests arrayed behind them, and the Schwartzes knew that they should hide and pretend not to see the pair’s crankery. And it’s not as if the Times didn’t know. On October 10—months after Unfit for Command first appeared—Susannah Meadows wrote a short review of the book in the Times Sunday section, noting the kookiness of the tome. Repeatedly, she cited the book’s gonzo content. Here is one example:

MEADOWS (10/10/04):O'Neill and Corsi refuse to back down, even in the face of logic or history. They write that Kerry idealized the Communists, that the triumph of Communism was his goal and that his testimony contributed directly to the Communist victory. The authors say Kerry was ''a ruthless operator in the field with little regard for life'' eight pages after saying he had ''very little nerve for facing serious combat.'' They admit that only one of Kerry's crewmates is against him today. (Though not in so many words. What they actually write is: ''Steve Gardner is the sole crewman who was not swayed by Kerry during his many post-Vietnam years of solicitation aimed at gaining the support of his crew.'') Later, O'Neill and Corsi say the candidate never formed ''the kind of human relationships with his fellow sailors that are essential to effective performance.''
Somehow, Meadows was able to see the self-contradiction (and factual absurdity) that defined this crackpot book. (“While O'Neill's anger is real, his claims appear to be faulty...His fixation on attacking Kerry would be funny if it weren't so sad.”) But this was part of a short review, written months after Unfit for Command transformed the race for the White House. And where had Schwarz been while this pair of cranks were spreading their corner-bar theories around? Of course! Schwarz had been hiding beneath his desk, too afraid to say the word boo. Readers, unlike those shlubs whom he quotes from the Net, O’Neill and Corsi were actually powerful. And fellows like Schwarz always know they should hide when crackpots show up with real power.

The Times declared war on the web late last year, and Schwarz is fighting the latest battle. Like men of his kind through the annals of time, he also knew to avert his gaze when the crackpots and kooks had real clout.

COLLINS GETS IT RIGHT: Gail Collins produces a superb editorial today about the unfolding Soc Sec debate. But isn’t it strange—that the information included here can only be found in a Times editorial? The Times is quick to challenge silly misstatements when they’re made by anonymous shlubs on the Net. But it’s weird! The paper seems a bit slow to respond when the crackpot misstatements come from the White House! When that happens, fellows like Schwartz get very quiet. You have to turn to editorials if you want to receive basic facts.

Much more on Collins’ topic all week. In the meantime, you know what to do—just click here.