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FRIEDMAN WONDERS! With masterful dumbness, Tom Friedman asks if we can have real debate: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 17, 2010

A census of (tea party) loons: We were intrigued by reactions to David Barstow’s report in the New York Times about the tea party movement (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/16/10). We’ll probably discuss some liberal/progressive reactions next week. For today, we’ll simply note a bit of what Bill O’Reilly said on the subject last night.

On the one hand, O’Reilly battered the Times, saying it was trying to “diminish the [tea party] brand” through Barstow’s piece. In O’Reilly’s vew, Barstow’s report represented an attack on the tea party movement by the left-wing media:

O’REILLY (2/16/10): Enter the New York Times, which is finally taking the tea party seriously. In a front-page article today, the paper put forth that tea party people are primarily extremists. They lump in the John Birch Society, the patriot movement, Friends for Liberty, and other groups that are on the fringe. The Times also attempts to link Fox News to tea party extremists.

[I] predicted this would happen, that a movement with the potential power of the tea party would be attacked by the left-wing media. At first, the Times ignored the tea party. Now it's trying to diminish the brand.

Did Barstow’s piece really “put forth that tea party people are primarily extremists?” His report didn’t strike us that way; we thought his portrait was much more nuanced. But O’Reilly’s reaction was intriguing because he recalled what he himself had said, just eight days earlier, about tea party members. As he started last night’s program, O’Reilly played tape of what he said on February 8, at the time of the Nashville convention. Including that tape from February 8, this is the way O’Reilly started last evening’s show:

O’REILLY (2/16/10): Hi, I’m Bill O’Reilly, reporting tonight from Southern California. Thanks for watching us. The tea party and extremism, that is the subject of this evening's “Talking Points Memo.”

Two weeks ago I said this:

O'REILLY (videotape): Some of these Tea Party people are nuts. They are. They're crazy. I mean, we sent Jesse Watters down there. And he puts the number at about 10 percent that are just loons, out of their mind. Every group has that.

(end videotape)

O'REILLY: And that's true. No matter what group you're talking about, you're going to find loons. Enter the New York Times, which is finally taking the tea party seriously. In a front-page article today, the paper put forth that tea party people are primarily extremists...

On February 8, then again last night, O’Reilly said that ten percent of the tea party people are nuts, crazy, out of their mind. This “tormented tenth” is a gang of loons, O’Reilly said.

It seems to us that’s a much stronger statement than anything said or implied by Barstow. We have no idea how to quantify such a thing; we’d like to see more tea party people interviewed on national TV. But of all reactions to Barstow’s report, this was one of the most intriguing.

That said, many people seemed to see many different things in Barstow’s long rorschach report.

Special report: Global dumbing!

PART 3—FRIEDMAN WONDERS (permalink): Thomas Friedman’s new column about climate change is worth reading, though we disagree with several big chunks. (“Global weirding.” Good God.) But we’d have to say, in one major respect, Friedman has been an extremely slow learner when it comes to one of his country’s most basic dilemmas.

As he opens his column, Friedman gazes on the global clowning staged by Republican senators last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/16/10). He understands how stupid their comments were. But try to believe the question which goes through his mind as he watches them clown:

FRIEDMAN (2/17/10): Of the festivals of nonsense that periodically overtake American politics, surely the silliest is the argument that because Washington is having a particularly snowy winter it proves that climate change is a hoax and, therefore, we need not bother with all this girly-man stuff like renewable energy, solar panels and carbon taxes. Just drill, baby, drill.

When you see lawmakers like Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina tweeting that “it is going to keep snowing until Al Gore cries ‘uncle,’ ” or news that the grandchildren of Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma are building an igloo next to the Capitol with a big sign that says “Al Gore’s New Home,” you really wonder if we can have a serious discussion about the climate-energy issue anymore.

On which warming planet does this failed wordsmith live? Watching the harlequins Inhofe/DeMint as they disinform the public, Friedman “wonder[s] if we can have a serious discussion about the climate-energy issue anymore.”

Friedman wonders if we can have that discussion? Good God. Of course we can’t have a serious discussion! This has been true for a very long time, though Friedman shows no sign of knowing. Since Friedman cites the clownish statements these senators made last week about Gore, let’s briefly return to 1999, when clowns like Friedman stared into space as this nation-destroying syndrome began moving into high gear.

Quick review:

Gore formally launched his White House campaign on June 16, 1999. In the days preceding his launch, the RNC flooded the zone with press releases pimping the silly, ludicrous claims which were already driving the coverage. Al Gore said he invented the Internet! Al Gore said he inspired Love Story! Al Gore said he grew up on a farm! In the five days before Gore’s formal launch, the RNC issued at least five separate press releases pimping this trio of narratives. But the RNC was pimping other ludicrous claims, including claims about the need to mitigate global warming. Sorry. Gore had never advanced the “strange idea” of “eliminating the family car.” But this utterly stupid claim was fast becoming an RNC favorite—and it was even getting some play in the hapless national press. Result? In a June 15 press release, it joined the RNC’s line-up of stupid claims about the Internet and Love Story. On June 16, the day of Gore’s launch, the RNC ran full-page ads in national newspapers pimping this stupid assertion.

How stupid was the RNC’s claim? By now, the CEOs of all major car companies had gone on the record agreeing with what Gore had actually said (in 1992, in Earth in the Balance)—that it should be possible to eliminate the internal combustion engine in the next twenty-five years, replacing it with cleaner technology. Repeat: By now, the CEOs of all major car companies had publicly said the same thing (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/29/99.) But so what? As the RNC pimped its stupid claim, utterly useless “experts” like Friedman sat with their pee-pees hanging out, staring dumbly into the air and keeping their useless traps shut. On cable, liberal co-hosts fumbled and frowned while their pseudo-conservative counterparts pimped the RNC line. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/24/99.)

Sorry, Tommy! As of June 1999, it was already “impossible to have a serious discussion about the climate-energy issue.” Today, Friedman thunders, howls and complains—and wonders if we’ve reached that point yet.

It’s hard to be dumber than people like Friedman, though people like Friedman will try. This brings us back to John Broder’s weak and timid news report about those same ridiculous claims concerning last week’s winter storms.

Might we state a simple point? It’s news when ranking senators and major broadcasters aggressively disinform the public. It’s news when people like DeMint and Inhofe say and imply the dumbest things known to earth; it’s news when Sean Hannity does the same thing, disinforming 2.7 million viewers at 9 PM, and many more at midnight. When people of this stature and influence make ridiculous, flat-earth-style statements, news organizations should make it their business to report this matter as news. Hannity made direct assertions about the storms; DeMint and Inhofe merely insinuated. But they were all pimping a notion so dumb that it reaches the level of flat-earth dogma. To wit:

Every serious person knows that those winter storms don’t “contradict” current climate change theory. But so what? Hannity, DeMint and Inhofe were disinforming the public about this point. And when they engaged in this loathsome conduct, what they did was news.

When someone like Inhofe disinforms voters, his conduct should be regarded as news. But on the front page of the New York Times, John Broder (no relation) seemed to have a very hard time taking this basic approach. Persistently, he made it sound like some real debate was swirling around those Washington storms. (The “two sides” disagreed, he said.) He seemed to place Inhofe’s flat-earth insinuations on a par with true “expert” judgments.

Why didn’t Broder simply report that voters were being disinformed? We’ll offer two possible answers:

First, it may be that Broder and/or his editors were just too afraid to report that. People who tell the truth about Republican lunacy tend to get pushed back at—hard. Broder’s extremely timid report may simply represent the press corps’ latest failure of nerve.

Unfortunately, there’s a second possible explanation for Broder’s timid report. To some extent, his report simply reflects prevailing press corps convention. In 2005, Paul Krugman cited this journalistic convention when he told the semi-famous joke we’ve written about this week. If George Bush said the earth was flat, how would the press corps report it? This is what Krugman wrote:

KRUGMAN (8/5/05): There are several reasons why fake [scientific] research is so effective. One is that nonscientists sometimes find it hard to tell the difference between research and advocacy—if it's got numbers and charts in it, doesn't that make it science?

Even when reporters do know the difference, the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism get in the way of conveying that knowledge to readers. 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.'' The headlines on many articles about the intelligent design controversy come pretty close.

This is what Krugman said that day: Even when reporters know that fake research is being presented, “the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism get in the way of conveying that knowledge.” This might help explain why the fake, flat-earth statements of Hannity, Inhofe and DeMint got so much love from poor Broder.

Alas! By long-standing journalistic tradition, reporters simply like to report what all major parties have said. They’re in the habit of reporting what everyone, even Inhofe, has said. In truth, there is little precedent for news reporting in which a reporter makes an accurate statement like this: Senator Inhofe handed the public some flat-earth bullsh*t about climate change last week.

Where did the “the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism” come from? In part, such conventions may stem from convenience and fear—from the desire to avoid conflict. But these conventions may reflect an unfortunate fact: It may be that current public figures simply make more flat-earth statements than was the case in the past. In the past, when journalistic conventions were formed, did public figures like Inhofe and Hannity so blatantly disinform the public? We’re not sure, but we’ll guess that current levels of flat-earth disinformation may not have existed before, except among secondary figures who tended to have much less influence.

With the rise of partisan “news,” we’ve seen a rise in flat-earth proclamations. To this day, news orgs haven’t developed new conventions in which they report such things.

All last week, Hannity disinformed millions of people, making strings of flat-earth statements. His viewers deserve to be told about that. Tomorrow, we ask a basic question:

Why have we liberals been so ineffective at spreading news of this type?

TOMORROW—PART 4: More global dumbing from Dana and Tom. And liberal contempt for the public.

Tom Friedman’s global dumbing: How useless was Friedman in 1999? In June 1999, the RNC ran full-page ads making ludicrous statements about Gore’s “strange idea” concerning climate mitigation. Other silly, ludicrous claims were driving the bulk of our discourse. But so what? Friedman next mentioned Gore some four months later, starting a column like this:

FRIEDMAN (10/31/99): I don't know how Al Gore will do in the upcoming race. I think he's got a lot more substance than the press has given him credit for. But if Mr. Gore's candidacy does go down early, it could have one interesting side effect. It might actually free up the Clinton Administration to govern in its final months without worrying about politics.

Praise has seldom been so faint, dumbness has rarely been so global. By way of chronological context:

Four days before that column appeared, Gore and Bradley had staged their first Democratic debate. In a separate press room, 300 journalists “erupted in jeering” during Gore’s various statements; they “groaned, laughed and howled” at almost everything Gore said. Three different journalists, in separate reports, described this astonishing conduct. “That's the only time I've ever heard the press room boo or hiss any candidate of any party at any event,” Jake Tapper said on C-Span. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/14/99, with links to earlier reports.)

Here at THE HOWLER, we learned about this stunning occurrence in a telephone call from the site, minutes after the debate ended. Four days later, Friedman wrote this about Gore: “I think he's got a lot more substance than the press has given him credit for.”

As usual, Friedman had his hand on the pulse! Eleven years later, this pompous poov has started to “wonder” if we can have a serious debate!