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THEY GOT LETTERS! Angry comments to Salon raised some unfortunate questions: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JANUARY 25, 2011

Correct on every point: In our view, Bob Herbert’s column about Social Security is correct on every point.

That leaves one problem with Herbert’s column—it won’t help matters at all.

On what points is Herbert’s column correct? It’s true—there really are “demagogues” who “would have the public believe that Social Security is unsustainable, that it is some kind of giant contributor to the federal budget deficits.” It’s true that these claims are false. It’s true that “there is no Social Security crisis.” And we’d almost agree with all this:

HERBERT (1/25/11): Beyond Medicare, the major drivers of the deficits are not talked about so much by the fat cats and demagogues because they were either responsible for them, or are reaping gargantuan benefits from them, or both. The country is drowning in a sea of debt because of the obscene Bush tax cuts for the rich, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have never been paid for and the Great Recession.

Let’s assume every word in this column is accurate. Will it help convince people that there is no Social Security crisis?

Almost certainly, no. Here’s the reason:

People believe that Social Security is facing a crisis due to a decades-old propaganda campaign. The talking-points which have misled the public are slick, convincing, skillfully drawn. But uh-oh! Herbert mentions none of these familiar points; doesn’t explain where these points have come from; and makes no attempt to help people see past them. He simply ignores the skillful claims which have driven the public’s mistaken belief. Instead, he offers us this:

HERBERT: The demagogues would have the public believe that Social Security is unsustainable, that it is some kind of giant contributor to the federal budget deficits. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Economic Policy Institute has explained, Social Security “is emphatically not the cause of the federal government’s long-term deficits, since it is prohibited from borrowing and must pay all benefits out of dedicated tax revenues and savings in its trust funds.”

How do we know that the program is sustainable? Of course! A think tank said!

Large majorities believe that Social Security won’t be there for them. At this site, we’ve endlessly described the talking-points which have thus convinced them. Unfortunately, people like Herbert have endlessly failed to help the public unravel these claims.

Large majorities still seem to believe that Social Security won’t be there for them. (In August 2010, 70 percent of people aged 18-49 told CNN that the system “will not be able to pay you a benefit when you retire.” The hapless work of liberal “intellectual leaders” explains why this is the case.

Alas, poor Herbert: Groan. Herbert quotes a think tank referring to the program’s “trust funds.” But why do people think the program won’t be there for them? Because they’ve been told, for the past thirty years, that these “trust funds” don’t really exist!

Herbert shows no sign of knowing that this basic problem exists. But then, this is the way our “leaders” have “argued” over the past thirty years. In response, we angrily call average voters stupid!

Special report: Our’n and their’n!

PART 1—THEY GOT LETTERS (permalink): For our money, Lawrence O’Donnell made a sensible statement about Keith Olbermann’s tenure last night.

Eight years is a long run for any TV program, O’Donnell said, in the course of a long, fawning tribute. (O’Donnell has inherited Olbermann’s 8 PM time slot in MSNBC’s weeknight line-up.) But then, in the midst of that long, fawning tribute, O’Donnell offered a puzzling assessment:

O’DONNELL (1/24/11): This is the only place in television where people are surprised if you leave after eight years. In the entertainment division of this company, if a show like, say, The West Wing wins every possible award and runs for seven years, everyone just applauds an extraordinary show for an extraordinary run.

I saw—I saw exactly how exhausted the great Aaron Sorkin was after delivering 22 episodes a year of The West Wing. Well, Keith delivered 20 a month, 20 a month, hundreds of episodes a year, hundreds of op-eds a year, year in and year out, for eight years.

I have no idea how he did it. None of us do. No one in television history has ever done anything like it. No one knew it could be done before he did it. And in doing it, he took MSNBC to new heights.

First of all, poor Aaron Sorkin! (The fawning was general during this tribute.) But O’Donnell’s highlighted comments seem to come from a far, distant world. Whatever one thinks of Olbermann’s eight-year tenure, it was bizarre to see O’Donnell say that “no one in television history has ever done anything like it. No one knew it could be done before he did it.”

Really? No one has ever done anything like it? Over on Fox, in this same time slot, Bill O’Reilly has been delivering “twenty episodes a month” for more than fourteen years now! In the process, O’Reilly anchored the rise of Fox, just as Olbermann did at MSNC. Indeed, if it’s a network’s business success we’re discussing, O’Reilly has exceeded Olbermann by a considerable amount. Last Thursday, in their final straight-on, full-bore match-up, O’Reilly delivered 4.0 million viewers in his 8 and 11 PM broadcasts, as compared to the 1.6 million delivered by KO in the same time slots. In the prized “youth” demographic—25-54 years of age—O’Reilly delivered 1.05 million viewers; Olbermann had 327,000. (For fuller data, click here.)

A person may feel that Olbermann’s program was vastly superior to O’Reilly’s. But what could O’Donnell possibly have meant when he said that “no one in television history has ever done anything like” what Olbermann did? More ominously: Who could be dumb enough to hear O’Donnell without puzzling about this very strange statement?

For a possible answer, we refer you to an opinion piece published by Salon after KO announced his departure last Friday night, just before reading his Thurber.

The offending piece was written by Niall Stanage, “a New York-based writer and the author of Redemption Song: An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign.” As he started, Stanage said he shared Olbermann’s political views but wasn’t a Countdown fan:

STANAGE (1/23/11): If there was some strange parallel universe in which Keith Olbermann and I were members of Congress, I suspect we would vote together about 99 percent of the time. But when the "Countdown" host announced his abrupt departure from MSNBC on Friday night, I felt only relief.

First reactions to Olbermann’s exit have broken along lines as partisan as they were predictable. That the New York Post would respond to the news with glee and The Huffington Post with a gnashing of teeth was hardly a shock.

But back in the real world, I cannot imagine I am the only viewer who is basically simpatico with Olbermann's worldview, but who had come to find him and his show utterly insufferable. The glibness, the pomposity, the narcissism—all these foibles had, of late, reached gut-wrenching proportions.

Stanage praised Olbermann’s “increasingly forceful liberalism” through Countdown’s early years, while saying the program went into the dumpster as the years ground on. For ourselves, we would generally agree with many of Stanage’s criticisms, though we don’t see the point of such aggressive invective in the wake of KO’s departure.

That said, the comments to Stanage’s piece were the most instructive part of the package at Salon. As we type, 312 have been offered. We’ll suggest that you read every one.

Many readers disagreed with the various things Stanage wrote; there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have. But it was the tone and the reasoning of many comments that seemed most instructive to us. Rather quickly, Stanage was a “bitch” and a “p*ssy;” a wide array of unflattering motives were offered for his decision to write his piece, and for Salon’s decision to publish it. Many commenters recited a Standard Olbermann Line: At least KO corrected himself on the rare occasions when he was factually wrong!

The widespread parroting of this line predates reaction to Stanage, of course. To us, it has long suggested a possibility we’ve found surprising and quite troubling. It has suggested that we liberals tend to accept our own side’s propaganda, not unlike the “ditto heads” we have mocked for so long.

There’s no such thing as a perfect, unassailable comment, of course. Beyond that, it’s understandable that Olbermann’s fans would be annoyed by the tone of Stanage’s piece. But in the brainless political wars which define the current American discourse, do our’n perhaps tend to act just a bit like their’n? Beyond that: Was O’Donnell pandering to our ditto-heads in his extremely strange assessment of Olbermann’s eight-year tenure?

“No one in television history has ever done anything like it?” Is it a problem for our side when O’Donnell makes such puzzling statements? Is he just throwing odd comfort food to the herd? And sure enough! Minutes later, in her opening segment, Rachel Maddow offered a rather bizarre account of current “Republican disarray.” Listening to Maddow pick and choose facts, we rubes could forget all about that large Republican triumph, the one which occurred just last fall.

For years, we liberals proudly told ourselves that our’n are massively smarter than their’n. But what if that story turns out to be false? Even worse: What if our side’s intellectual leaders are pandering to the herd, like Sean, Rush and BillO before them?

Could that be good for progressive interests? In the wake of Olbermann’s departure, we’ll ponder such questions all week.

Tomorrow: Puzzling chronologies