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SLOWLY WE LEARN! Even after all these years, Krugman’s commenters don’t seem to know the way the discourse works: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JANUARY 5, 2009

Broadcasters, please rent a room: Good God! Broadcasters simply love to stick to pre-approved Simple Stories! At last week’s Rose Bowl, Herbstreit and Musberger began the day with a simple, scripted tale: Southern Cal has the greatest defense ever! And they kept repeating that inspiring story, even as Penn State’s offense pushed the Trojans all over the field during the game’s second half.

We didn’t think anyone could do a worse job calling a game than this pair did at last year’s Rose Bowl, when they spent four hours overstating Southern Cal’s astonishing greatness. But they managed to top themselves last week. We’re major Pac-10 fans around here. But these guys need to rent a room the next time they get near the Trojans.

As the fourth quarter wore on, it became possible that Penn State could tie the game (though it would have taken an onside kick). Anyone could hear the crowd noise building—but Kirk and Brent kept blathering on about aspects of Southern Cal’s past/future greatness. We couldn’t help wondering: If Penn State actually ties this game, will these two guys even notice?

Is there anyone in the broadcasting world who will amend a pre-approved story when it’s challenged by facts on the ground? (And in the air: Penn State piled up 410 yards total offense.) For whatever reason, Southern Cal’s defense looked mortal last week—but two big scribes wouldn’t tell.

SLOWLY WE LEARN: We saw a lot of revealing work during our week in the frozen north. As the week proceeds, we expect to comment on this piece by Nicholas Kristof, which we got to fact-check over the break—and on Tom Brokaw’s inane (and revealing) recollection of his colleague and friend, Tim Russert. Beyond those groaners, major pundits wasted your time beating up retrospectively on George Bush—while failing to note the active role they themselves had played in getting him into the White House. This piece by Bob Herbert was worst of the lot—but we saw similar work by Richard Cohen and Gene Robinson, and we thought Frank Rich briefly followed suit in yesterday’s column. Is Bush “a narcissist with no self-awareness whatsoever?” Frankly, we’re slow to accept Dr. Rich’s pronouncements, when we recall the fact that he spent years insisting that Bush and Gore were equally vapid—two well-matched peas in a pod.

Meanwhile, for a fatuous phone-it-in column, could anything match this groaner by Herbert? Maureen Dowd at least admitted that she was on vacation last week.

Weirdly, though, we were perhaps most struck by a batch of reader comments. The comments were appended to this relatively inocuous blog post by Paul Krugman.

Krugman’s post is headlined “Katrina and Bush.” In this passage, he explains his reason for writing it:

KRUGMAN (12/30/09): So everyone is talking about the Vanity Fair article in which Bush aides say that Katrina is what did him in. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but what I’d like to focus on is why Katrina was such a problem for Bush.

Krugman presents two famous photos—photos which are quite similar. The first shows Bush looking out the window of Air Force One on September 11, 2001; the second shows Bush looking out the window of Air Force One as he flies over New Orleans shortly after Katrina. This second photo “was widely regarded as a PR disaster,” Krugman correctly writes, “because [Bush] seemed so disconnected. But it looks an awful lot like the first photo, of Bush on Air Force One on 9/11. And that photo was considered a wonderful picture of leadership in action.”

Krugman goes on to offer his view of why the photos were viewed so differently—why one photo was “considered a wonderful picture of leadership” while the other was widely treated as a portrait of hauteur and indifference. In our view, the reason for this disconnect is fairly easy to explain:

In large part, the press corps seized on the post-Katrina photo as a way to spread a new negative judgment it had finally managed to reach about Bush. In fact, Bush was doing nothing “wrong” as he swooped over New Orleans that day; governors and presidents routinely take aerial tours of disaster sites, and such excursions are routinely taken as signs of presidential concern. And many pundits had made an accurate point by that time: At that time, it would have hampered rescue efforts if Bush had landed and personally inspected the damage in and around New Orleans. But by this time, the press corps had largely turned against their “Bold Leader,” the one they’d invented and pimped in the earlier years, when he was running against Vile Gore, then leading his nation in a war against terror. And because the corps had reached a new Group Judgment, they did what they always do at such moments: They seized upon an innocuous photo, using it as a way to persuade the public to accept their new Group Outlook.

Duh. They did the same thing in late 1997 when they invented and pimped the ludicrous Love Story canard; they did the same thing in 1999 when they worked themselves into an Official Group Fury about Hillary Clinton, the Cubs and the Yankees. But back in 1997, they were using an innocuous comment to turn the public against the loathed Gore. In the case of that post-Katrina photo, the press corps was using a meaningless moment to promote their new view of George Bush.

In fact, the press corps does this all the time: Once opinion leaders have formed a Group Judgment, they seize upon some trivial statement, action or photo to bring the public around to that view. Simply put, you can’t understand our contemporary public discourse if you don’t understand this common practice. In the case of Katrina, it may be true that Bush was disconnected, inept, uncaring—but you surely can’t demonstrate such a thing from that innocuous photo. But so what? The press corps routinely takes short cuts of just this type in promoting its views to the public—and by now, they had turned against their Bold Leader. Result? In their standard, indefensible way, they used whatever tool was at hand to swing the public’s opinion.

The press corps does this quite routinely; it’s an exceptionally basic part of the way our modern discourse works. But go ahead! Search the comments to Krugman’s post! You’ll see a long list of “high IQ” readers who seem to have no earthly idea of the way their discourse actually works. Instead, one reader after another takes an utterly foolish approach, insisting that there really is a key difference between those two photos—a difference which explains the different reaction the photos evoked. Why were the photos viewed so differently? A string of readers seem to think this was a purely “rational” process, with people responding to meaningful differences between the two famous photos. In our view, this reveals astounding cluelessness about the way our discourse works.

Whatever you think of his post-Katrina performance, Bush is doing nothing “wrong” in that famous photo, and it’s utterly silly to claim that he was. Whatever you think of his post-Katrina performance, it was always completely silly to seize upon that innocuous photo as a marker of his lack of concern. But Brother Krugman has many readers who seem to have no earthly idea of the way our discourse actually works. Very, very late in this game, we still seem to lack the simplest idea of the way our narratives form.

The press corps tells you the stories it likes. But go ahead! Read Krugman’s readers!