SWARNS (2/2/07): ''When you think of a president, you think of an American,'' said Mr. Lanier, a 58-year-old barber who is still considering whether to support Mr. Obama. ''We've been taught that a president should come from right here, born, raised, bred, fed in America. To go outside and bring somebody in from another nationality, now that doesn't feel right to some people.''That paragraph appears above the fold on page one of todays New York Times front page. Again, it raises the anthropological question: Are we Americans smart enough to conduct the most basic journalism?
Well assume that Swarns (and/or her editor) are stupid, not devious. But as we told you just last week, this is one of the simplest ways a reporter can spread false information. Want to put a false claim into print? Without making the bogus statement yourself? Simple! Go talk to the main-in-the-street! As every reporter surely knows, if you interview twenty barbers, youll hear a wealth of bogus factual statements. You can then pick out the false claim you like. You can type it up; put it in quotes; then put the false statement into the paper. And yes: People who proceed to read the false claim will often believe that its accurate! To see the Washington Times play this game RE Candidate Gore, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/99.
Duh! When people read false claims on page one, theyll often think the claims are accurate. Does Swarnsdoes her editorthink her readers know better? If so, Rachel Swarns and her hapless editor are the dumbest human beings on earth.
Swarns performance is especially clownish because of the context of this reporting. In the very next paragraphin paragraph 6she discusses the fact that Joseph Biden made a clumsy statement about Obamas race! But right before this rumination, she herself broadcasts a set of statements about Obama which are utterly false! And yes: People do come to believe false claims when false claims appear in the newspaper.
Are we humans smart enough to perform the simplest acts of journalism? The question had already come to mind when we read todays columns by David Ignatius and Eugene Robinson, and when we tried to decipher the start of this report by Amy Goldstein. But Rachel Swarnspage one of the Timessent our analysts back to their desks. They puzzled again about a deep problem. They pondered the state of the race.
THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF TRANSCRIPTION: As she continues, Swarns transcribes Bidens statement about Obama. Heres her account, to her readers, of what Biden supposedly said:
SWARNS (2/2/07): On Wednesday, the question of race took center stage in the presidential campaign because of remarks that Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, made about Mr. Obama. Mr. Biden characterized Mr. Obama as the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy'' and then spent the dayhis first as an official presidential candidate, explaining and apologizing for his remarks.As we noted yesterday, Biden made a hopelessly clumsy statement. But that transcription (which, in part, is simply inaccurate) makes his statement even worse. But so what! This lazy transcription has become standard, and a string of daft cable hosts took things one step farther last night. Duh! They could have simply played the tape, letting viewers hear what Biden had said. But no! Instead, they posted this incomplete transcription on the screen, then read the transcription in their own voices! Lost were Bidens own inflectionsand part of what Biden had said.
BIDEN: I mean, youve got the first, sort of, mainstream African-AmericanWell pass you on to Paul Kiel for this, although wed express certain points somewhat differently. Note: Some statements, including this one by Biden, are extremely hard to transcribe if youre trying to be fair to the speaker. In such cases, journos should simply present the transcription which comes most easily. But expecting our press corps to deal with such matters is like asking gorillas to invent fine perfumes. Swarns transcription removes several things which were actually said in this exchange. And when TV hosts insisted on reading the simplified text for themselves, they also dumped Bidens inflections.
BIDEN: Who is articulate and bright and, and, and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, thats a storybook, man.
MATTHEWS (2/2/07): Is this media too in love with "gotcha?"Is this media too in love with "gotcha?" Surely, the gods on Olympus howled, delighted by this borderline mortal!
BIDEN: Well look, I mean this is
MATTHEWS: Is this "gotcha journalism jumping on your back?
Lets all giggle together! And on Thursday and Friday of the previous week, Matthews had pretended that Clintons husband calls her an uppity woman. And, of course, during Campaign 2000, he played gotcha with Gore for two solid years. He lied his ass off about various pseudo-scandals, and dumped an endless stream of insults on the Democratic candidates head. Now, he worries that the corps may be playing gotcha with Biden! Hes worried, of course, because Bidens involvedand Biden is part of the club.
Matthews is a stupidand nastypiece of work. He tore your candidate to pieces in 1999 and 2000, and hes planning to do this to your nominee once again. But last night, the borderline talker cried real tears as the press corps mistreated his tribal buddy! But then, Jack Welch bought this strange boy a long time agoand Welch knew which boy he should purchase.
WHY JESSE REAMED CHRIS: Last night, Matthews was playing friend-to-the-brothers, talking about the great work of the movement and praising Jesse Jackson great traits to the skies. Of course, weve shown you, in the past few days, the sorts of things this borderline nut really says about third world parts of the Democratic Party. But last night, he played kiss-kiss smooch-smooch, gettin right down with the brothers. Of course, it sounded like Jesse may have been helped him a tad. Al Sharpton was discussing Bidens ill-conceived statement about Obama being the first mainstream black candidate:
SHARPTON (2/1/07): Reverend Jackson beat Joe Biden in some states [in 1988]. So who defines mainstream?It sounded like Jackson had put the wood to Matthews, reminding him of certain facts. At any rate, Chris played friend-to-the-brothers all night. Read the transcriptyou can tease out a few low, mordant chuckles.
MATTHEWS: I was reminded of that yesterday by the Reverend Jackson. He made it clear
SHARPTON: So, I mean, who defines mainstream? Mainstream, who defines that? If youre getting more votes than another guy, I think you are mainstream.
Dukakis: 784,422 (51%)Jackson finished second in the New York state primary, getting 37 percent of the vote. And he finished second at the convention. Mainstream is an amorphous term (in part, thats why Biden shouldnt have used it). But if you arent in the mainstream when you run a strong second, we find it hard to interpret the term.
Jackson: 573,910 (37%)
Gore: 156,480 (10%)
Others: 34,655 (2%)
Last night, Matthews fawned and pandered to Jackson, saying how super-fab he is. And yes, it sounds like Jesse called Chris up and gave Mr. Dumb-ass a pep talk. But readers, why did Jackson have to call Matthews up? Heres what Jacks boy said Wednesday night, speaking about this same subject:
MATTHEWS (1/31/07): Im going to ask you, Tony [Blankley], after I read the response from Senator Obama. This took a couple hours, by the way, this response. I think it was staffed up. Just askingjust thinking.Classic Matthews! On Wednesday, he said he didnt think that anybody would call Jackson mainstream. It was outside the realm of thought. By Thursday night, he was pandering hard. He was a man of the brothers.
"I didnt take Senator Biden`s comments personally, but, obviously, they are historically inaccurate. African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate."
I dont think Biden called him inthe others inarticulate. I think he was saying, all these good qualities together haven`t been there before.
I dont think anybody would call Jesse Jackson mainstream either.
CARNEY (1/31/07): What Biden was saying, and this is Bidens fault for not being clear in what he was saying in this interview, is that there hasnt been a candidate, a viable African-American candidate with all those qualities in one.You think Biden tends to express himself poorly? According to Carney, youre not a mainstream candidate if you come from the civil rights movement! If the gods still laugh on Mount Olympus, its because they watch Hardball each night.
MATTHEWS: And mainstream.
CARNEY: Who is mainstream.
MATTHEWS: Mainstream is the key to me.
CARNEY: Who didnt come from the civil rights movement, you know, who came up through elected office, who wasnt, you know, simply a boutique or fringe candidate...