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THE EARTH IS ROUND, ONE EXPERT SAID! An expert said the earth is round in John Broder’s hapless report: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2010

Barstow v. Olbermann/John Broder/Maddow: We’ve been fans of David Barstow ever since, as a fill-in reporter, he tattled a bit on the great Saint McCain during the 2000 GOP primaries (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/3/00).

In 2099, Barstow won the Pulitzer Prize—and the praise of progressives—for his investigative report, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand.” For Wikipedia’s account, just click here.

This morning, Barstow performs a major service on the front page of the New York Times. He presents a very long, 4700-word profile of some people within the tea party movement. (No, he doesn’t get to them all.)

If progressives care about what’s actually true, we will study this report. After that, we’ll ask for more.

Today, we’ll offer a few quick reactions to Barstow’s profile. Then, we’ll make three comparisons.

First: We were struck, though unsurprised, by the relative lack of political background he finds within this movement. In this passage, he describes a meeting of a small tea party group—and the background of one participant:

BARSTOW (2/16/10): In October, Mr. Selle, Mrs. Stout and about 20 others from across the region met in Liberty Lake, Wash., a small town on the Idaho border, to discuss how to achieve broad political change without sacrificing independence. The local Republican Party was excluded.

Most of the people there had paid only passing attention to national politics in years past. “I voted twice and I failed political science twice,” said Darin Stevens, leader of the Spokane 9/12 Project.

Until the recession, Mr. Stevens, 33, had poured his energies into his family and his business installing wireless networks. He had to lay off employees, and he struggled to pay credit cards, a home equity loan, even his taxes. ''It hits you physically when you start getting the calls,'' he said.

He discovered Glenn Beck, and began to think of Washington as a conspiracy to fleece the little guy.

Like most Americans, Stevens wasn’t especially active in politics until recent years. This is true of various players in Barstow’s report.

Second: We were struck by the role played by the recession in Barstow’s individual profiles. According to Barstow, Stevens was rocked by the recession (see above). So was Pam Stout, 66, the person Barstow describes at the start of his report:

BARSTOW: Pam Stout has not always lived in fear of her government. She remembers her years working in federal housing programs, watching government lift struggling families with job training and education. She beams at the memory of helping a Vietnamese woman get into junior college.

But all that was before the Great Recession and the bank bailouts, before Barack Obama took the White House by promising sweeping change on multiple fronts, before her son lost his job and his house. Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated—even manufactured—by both parties to grab power.

She was happily retired, and had never been active politically. But last April, she went to her first Tea Party rally, then to a meeting of the Sandpoint Tea Party Patriots.

Like Stevens, Stout “had never been active politically.” Then, in the course of the Great Recession, she saw her son lose his house and his job.

Third: We were struck by the merit of some of the views ascribed to these inexperienced political actors—by the way their views sometimes dovetail with those of us genius progressives. In the case of Barstow’s profile of Stout, Washington actually is “a threat, a place where crisis in manipulated.” In many ways, Washington actually is “a conspiracy to fleece the little guy,” the view attributed to Stevens.

Those were a few quick reactions. A few more will be mentioned below. But as we read the Barstow profile, we couldn’t help making a few comparisons:

Barstow v. Olbermann: Last night, Keith Olbermann closed his show with one of his patented “Special Rants.” In it, he attempted to explain the genesis of the tea party movement—or the “Tea Klux Klan,” as he cleverly dubbed it. Quite literally, the word “recession” never appeared in KO’s long “rant.” Indeed, you have to scour the text of his rant to even imagine that you are reading any reference to economic dislocation. Instead, this “rant” attributed one sole motive to the tea party movement—and that motive, of course, was racism. In all candor, this often seems to be the only political driver Olbermann has ever heard of.

As we watched Olbermann rant, we were struck by this single-minded focus. Reading Barstow, we though we were reading a vastly more intelligent take on this nascent movement. (Though no one can fully explore such a movement in a mere 4700 words.) That said, we think the weakest section in Barstow’s piece is the section which deals with race. He never asks Stout or Stevens to discuss the role race plays, or doesn’t play, in the growth of the tea party movement. In our view, this part of his profile is weak, quite perfunctory. (We will guess that his editors stepped in.)

Barstow v. John Broder: Barstow doesn’t shy from discussing the implausible “conspiracy theories” driving some of the tea party movement. Nor does he shrink from naming the names of some individuals and groups who drive some of these implausible theories. Last week, in the same New York Times, we thought John Broder went a million miles out of his way to avoid naming names of the actual people driving one current “flat earth” belief (see below). We thought Barstow was more frank:

BARSTOW: It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters—from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.

WorldNetDaily.com trumpets “exclusives” reporting that the Army is seeking ''Internment/Resettlement'' specialists. On ResistNet.com, bloggers warn that Mr. Obama is trying to convert Interpol, the international police organization, into his personal police force. They call on ''fellow Patriots'' to ''grab their guns.''

[Glenn] Beck frequently echoes Patriot rhetoric, discussing the possible arrival of a ''New World Order'' and arguing that Mr. Obama is using a strategy of manufactured crisis to destroy the economy and pave the way for dictatorship.

How fair and accurate are Barstow’s characterizations? Presumably, opinions will differ. But he was willing to name specific names and describe what these names have been saying.

Barstow v. Maddow: Comparisons here are less direct. But in our view, Barstow presented an intelligent first report—and Maddow’s last few shows, on Friday and Monday night, have been deeply unintelligent. The Maddow show is full of hooks designed to make us think it’s a very smart program, performed for us by Our Own Rhodes Scholar. But in our view, the program simply isn’t very smart (in the main), a point we expect to discuss before the week is done.

What is driving the tea party movement? Olbermann, a loud, unintelligent oaf, has only one card to play. By way of contrast, Maddow presents herself as sane, smart, open-minded. In our view, she should have interviewed people like Stout and Stevens long ago, trying to see just what they do think. Instead, she manufactured a reign of childish dick jokes at their expense, even pretending, night after night, that she was embarrassed to do so.

Routinely, Maddow’s show just isn’t real smart. Barstow’s profile represents a first attempt to determine what’s up with this movement. Maddow’s program would be much smarter if she would talk to these folk on the air. (Before airing, she could of course have their limbic brains checked by an expert, like Dr. Garofalo.)

What would she find if she spoke to these folk? We have no idea—though some of the things these people think are also believed by us genius progressives. At least we might get past our “tea bag” jokes—past our always intelligent quips about the Tea Klux Klan.

Final guess: Some geniuses won’t like Barstow’s piece. There isn’t a dick joke in it.

Special report: Global dumbing!

PART 2—THE EARTH IS ROUND, ONE EXPERT SAID (permalink): At this point in time, very few serious people still think the earth is flat. For that reason, this famous claim has become an emblem of ludicrous misinformation.

If someone says the earth is flat, they’re seen as clownishly misinformed. They get laughed at in the wider culture. Indeed, the ludicrous claim that the earth is flat has become standard fodder for jokes—like the joke Paul Krugman told about the press corps and President Bush:

“I once joked that if President Bush said that the Earth was flat, the headlines of news articles would read, ‘Opinions Differ on Shape of the Earth,’ ” Krugman wrote in 2005 (click here). His point: The press was so cowed by this president’s power that it would refuse to reject even the most ludicrous claim—if this utterly ludicrous claim was made by the bold leader Bush. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/15/10.

“The earth is flat” is a very dumb claim. But it’s no dumber than the ludicrous tripe that was spewed around last week by hustlers and con men like Sean Hannity—and by at least three Republican senators. Sorry! No one with an ounce of sense believes that last week’s storms in D.C. “disprove” or “contradict” climate change theory. But Hannity made such claims all week. And at least three Republican senators seemed to be pimping along.

No serious person believes that the earth is flat—and no serious person really believes that the heavy snow in Washington shows that climate change theory is wrong. But alas! On the front page of the New York Times, John Broder (no relation) couldn’t quite bring himself to say this. As he started his “news article” (see Krugman’s joke), he seemed to suggest that a debate about this matter is raging between “the two sides in the climate-change debate.” Some “climate experts” do believe that the winter storms “prove that the planet is cooling,” Broder seemed to say. And then, as he continued his piece, he made a truly gruesome conflation. What follows is paragraph 5-8 in his front-page news report:

BRODER (2/10/10): As an illustration of their point of view, the family of Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, a leading climate skeptic in Congress, built a six-foot-tall igloo on Capitol Hill and put a cardboard sign on top that read “Al Gore's New Home.”

The extreme weather, Mr. Inhofe said by e-mail, reinforced doubts about scientists' conclusion that global warming was “unequivocal” and most likely caused by human activity.

Nonsense, responded Joseph Romm, a climate-change expert and former Energy Department official who writes about climate issues at the liberal Center for American Progress.

''Ideologues in the Senate keep pushing the anti-scientific disinformation that big snowstorms are evidence against human-caused global warming,'' Mr. Romm wrote on Wednesday.

You have to read the full eight-paragraph opening to see how awful the full passage is. But in this passage, clownish insinuations by Inhofe seem to get some sort equal billing with the views of an actual expert. You have to get down to paragraph 14 before you read the obvious truth—no serious person actually thinks that snow in DC (or warm weather in Vancouver) means that climate change theory is wrong (or right). But even then, Broder was only willing to present this statement in the voice of an expert.

This expert was saying the earth is round. Broder wouldn’t say it himself.

These are paragraphs 12-14 of Broder’s report. You had to read to paragraph 14 before you heard someone say that yes, the earth is round:

BRODER: Speculating on the meaning of severe weather events is not new. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a deadly heat wave in Europe in the summer of 2003 incited similar arguments about what such extremes might—or might not—say about the planet's climate.

But climate scientists say that no single episode of severe weather can be blamed for global climate trends while noting evidence that such events will probably become more frequent as global temperatures rise.

Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who writes on the Weather Underground blog, said that the recent snows do not, by themselves, demonstrate anything about the long-term trajectory of the planet. Climate is, by definition, a measure of decades and centuries, not months or years.

“Climate scientists say that no single episode of severe weather can be blamed for global climate trends?” We’re not sure that sentence is written in English. But finally, in paragraph 14, someone says the earth is round: “The recent snows do not, by themselves, demonstrate anything about the long-term trajectory of the planet.” Everyone knows that this statement is true; this included all three “all-stars” on last Wednesday’s Special Report, a program which airs on Fox (see yesterday’s HOWLER). But you had to wait until paragraph 14 to read the statement in Broder’s report—and even there, Broder was only willing to put the claim in the mouth of an expert. Earlier, at the top of his piece, Broder had seemed to suggest that the opposite is true—that “the two sides” are fighting over this matter, that “some climate experts” wouldn’t agree with this blatantly obvious statement.

Opinions differ, Broder said and implied, just as Krugman had joked.

This was a truly woeful report, written at an unfortunate time. Even as Broder was writing this piece, a whole generation of circus clowns was telling the public the earth is flat. Every single night, on Fox, Sean Hannity was disinforming millions of viewers, saying and implying that Washington’s storms “contradict” warming theory. Other hacks were pushing this claim on conservative talk radio. And yes: At least three Republican senators were pimping this bull-roar too. Can we talk? Millions of Americans don’t know enough about this topic to understand that this is pure tripe—that they are being fed “flat earth” claims by people they believe they can trust.

If the Times is unwilling to tell these people that this disinformation is happening, how are they supposed to know that they are getting played?

What made Broder so timid, so ineffectual, when it came to Hannity’s “flat earth” pronouncements? Millions of people watch Hannity’s program on Fox each night. (On the first night he made his flat earth pronouncement, 2.74 million people watched him at 9 PM alone. Click here.) Millions more hear Hannity’s “flat earth” claims on his daily radio program. Yet his name appears nowhere in Broder’s report. Among the various hacks and frauds who played the “flat earth” card last week, only the clownish Inhofe was named—and he almost seemed to be given a type of “expert” status.

What made Broder so timid, so weak? What made him so ineffectual? Put another way: What made his front-page “news article” seem so much like Krugman’s joke? Tomorrow, we’ll offer some basic speculations. Still coming: Global dumbing by Dana—and our need for a new paradigm.

TOMORROW—PART 3: Why so meek?