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TOO BIG TO FAIL! Jim Glassman doesn’t regret that prediction. But then, he’s too big to fail: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MARCH 10, 2009

Potemkin press corps: Over the weekend, so much nonsense clogged the air that we hit just a small part of it yesterday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/9/09). Example: How disordered was Maureen Dowd’s column—the one about the first lady’s arms? We suggest you read A. Serwer’s treatment at Tapped. Dowd has been publicly nuts a long time—and the mainstream “press corps” simply can’t see it. This column was broken-souled, even for Dowd. Go read what Serwer wrote.

But then, the lunacy—and the characteristic ineptitude—were general over the press corps this weekend. In an interview with Barack Obama, unidentified Times reporters asked the president, three separate times, about the notion that he is a socialist. We’ll recommend Steven Benen’s treatment (click here). But just to establish the record, here are the questions they asked:

QUESTION: The first six weeks have given people a glimpse of your spending priorities. Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?

QUESTION: Is there anything wrong with saying yes? [With saying that you are a socialist?]

QUESTION: Is there a one-word name for your philosophy? If you're not a socialist, are you a liberal? Are you progressive? One word?

It isn’t clear who asked these questions; Jeff Zeleny was apparently part of the mix. But if those questions were asked in good faith, the lack of intellectual sophistication is striking. If high school reporters asked those questions, you’d wince as you watched it occur.

But then, the spectacular dumbness of our mainstream “press corps” is perhaps its defining characteristic. This is a constant at the Times—the paper which keeps printing Dowd. How low is this paper’s intellectual horizon? Indulge us in an instructive pet peeve. Consider an insignificant but pitiful part of Charles Blow’s Saturday column.

In his on-line bio, Blow is described as “the Times visual Op-Ed columnist.” His column is always built around a chart or a graph; presumably, this suggests he’s especially good at working with data. And yet, on Saturday, Blow’s numbingly hackneyed column was accompanied by a typically bungled graphic. No, this bungle doesn’t “matter;” the point at issue is quite minor. But the foolishness of this particular item helps define the New York Times’ intellectual standard.

We refer to the way Blow includes Bobby Jindal’s “favorable rating” in his graphic. (It stood at 15 percent in the poll from which Blow drew his data.) In Blow’s graphic, Jindal’s rating stands in marked contrast to Obama’s, which is in the high 60s.

What makes the inclusion of Jindal’s rating so silly? In the NBC News/WSJ poll to which Blow refers (click here), 57 percent of respondents said they didn’t recognize Jindal’s name or weren’t sure what they thought of Jindal. Only one percent said the same of Obama, who is now quite famous. It’s amazingly silly to list such a rating for someone like Jindal without noting the fact that most respondents don’t know who he is. (Or for Tim Geithner: 14 percent.) Using this method, after all, Blow could have “shown” that Obama was more disliked than Jindal. In the NBC/WSJ poll, Jindal’s unfavorable rating also stood at 15 percent; by contrast, Obama’s stood at 19. What possible purpose would have been served by a chart which compared those numbers?

That silly inclusion in Blow’s graphic doesn’t make any big difference. But it does help define the New York Times’ standards. What kind of editor sees something so silly, then waves it into print? Answer: The same kind of unsophisticated rube who keeps putting the likes of Dowd in print. The same kind of editor who doesn’t blink when Obama is asked those three questions.

As was generally shown this weekend, we struggle with a Potemkin press corps. It looks like journalism is happening, but something very different there stands. We still haven’t returned to the report by the Post’s ombudsman about George Will’s bungled climate change columns. But good God! This Sunday, in just his third week on the job, new Post watchdog Andrew Alexander had back-slid to this pointless porridge.

It looks like journalism is happening. But much of what you read in the paper comes from the Potemkin Post (or Times). Denial says this can’t be true. And yet, quite plainly, it is.

TOO BIG TO FAIL: On Sunday morning, we briefly rolled our eyes at the Post’s lead editorial. After reviewing the nation’s many deep challenges, the editors criticized those who choose to deal in silly distractions.

The Battle of Limbaugh is silly, they said; we can’t say we disagree. But many folks have engaged in this war. Did the Post omit one group?

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (3/8/09): And yet for the past several days, Washington has been consumed by the point-scoring possibilities of a flap over commentator Rush Limbaugh. It is almost unbelievable that grown men and women in government, of either party, are spending time and energy on this. The whole world is watching, counting on Washington for leadership. The president and lawmakers of both parties must provide it.

Grown men and women in government? How about grown men and women in the mainstream press corps? Whatever one thinks of the Battle of Limbaugh, many big pundits have pimped it quite hard. But as we’ve long shown you: When the mainstream press corps reviews bad conduct, the mainstream press corps’ own conduct disappears. Pols can be wrong; so can late-night comedians! But the pundit corps’ record is clear.

For an odd divergence from this pattern, consider the “Conversation With James K. Glassman” which appeared in the Outlook section of Sunday’s Post.

As you may recall, Glassman co-authored the 1999 best-seller, Dow 36,000. In it, he and fellow seer Kevin Hassett predicted the Dow would hit 36,000 within three to five years.

Nothing like that happened, of course. And omigod! At the start of Sunday’s “conversation,” Carlos Lozada actually asked the former Post columnist about his bungled prediction. This sort of thing just isn’t done—but when Glassman dissembled a bit in response, Lozada even called him on that! For readability, we insert the names of the two discussants:

LOZADA (3/8/09): So, 10 years ago you predicted that the Dow would reach 36,000. Now it has fallen to its lowest level since 1997, and 6,000 seems more likely than 36,000. On behalf of investors and readers everywhere: What happened?

GLASSMAN: I think that people who read my columns would consider me a level-headed person who doesn't get upset, either way, doesn't have tremendous enthusiasms. But it's true that in 1999 Kevin Hassett and I wrote "Dow 36,000," which really made two points: The more important was that for investors who could put their money away for the long term, stocks were a much better investment than bonds. A lot of other people have said that, but we really made the case for stocks.

The second point was that based on our calculations, we believed that stocks would rise to roughly 36,000. We said in the book that it is impossible to predict how long it will take for the market to recognize that Dow 36,000 is perfectly reasonable, but then, of course, we did take a guess.

LOZADA: You said three to five years.

GLASSMAN: Obviously that hasn't happened...

“We said it is impossible to predict how long,” Glassman said, although he and Hassett had made a prediction. And omigod! Lozada corrected Glassman’s statement, recalling what the pair really said! And things only got more spicy from there. Lozada continued asking awkward questions—and Glassman continued bobbing and weaving. Before long, Lozada asked, two separate times, if Glassman had any regrets about his ginormous mistake:

LOZADA: Do you ever regret having written the book, or regret the title? Do people come up to you at cocktail parties and say “Oh, yeah, Dow 36,000—how's that working out for you”

GLASSMAN: Yeah, people do say that. There is no doubt that people—especially people who haven't read the book—think this is some sort of wild-eyed book that was part of the high-tech boom and so forth. Kevin and I usually joke that we really wish we'd called the book “A Treatise on the Declining Equity Risk Premium.” I have to say, I don't really regret it. I think if people read the book, its examination of the nature of investing is right on. I think it's exactly right.

LOZADA: Just not the number.

GLASSMAN: I think the fact that the book title is a number—as things have turned out, maybe a calmer title might have been better.

LOZADA: But you don't feel the need to apologize to someone who read your book, went in and got creamed?

GLASSMAN: Absolutely not.

Why would Glassman have any regrets? The book was “exactly right,” he explained. Except what it said in the title!

For the record, that failed prediction (“three to five years”) wasn’t just a throw-away line in a book. For example, Glassman described his book in September 1999—in his syndicated Washington Post column. “We say in the book that the Dow should be at 36,000 today, but that realistically the process should take about five years,” he wrote. “That's a growth rate of roughly 25 percent annually, not so outlandish considering the record since 1982.”

In other words, people who read the Washington Post may remember this large blunder too.

A failed prediction, no matter how ludicrous, doesn’t make Glassman a bad person, of course. It does raise fairly obvious questions about the value of his judgments. Meanwhile, his dissembling with Lozada—and his lack of regret—may set off some warning bells among those who recall the insider press corps’ endless fascination with “character.” But if Glassman comes off a bit poorly in this discussion, Lozada comes off remarkably well. To his vast credit, Lozada persisted, as few scribes ever do, with awkward questions about Glassman’s blunder. Normally, a scribe will pretend to ask twice, then desist. Lozada kept on keepin’ on.

But then, the gentleman made a turn, a turn we found instructive. Lozada began asking Glassman’s advice about other policy matters! Brother Glassman had bungled as few ever do—and Lozada seemed to want more of his wisdom! Near the end, he even asked why Obama didn’t keep Glassman on in the post he held under President Bush.

Translation: Inside the Village, you can’t be so wrong—or so disingenuous—that you’ll ever be culled from the herd. You can make history’s biggest mistake. We’ll want to know what you think next.

For the record, we share the old school tie with Glassman, although we don’t think we’ve ever met. That street-fighting Harvard class of 1969 includes at least nine major achievers. (We’re probably leaving people out.) Here they are, listed with their best-known achievements:

Harvard class of 1969:
Al Gore: Hard to distinguish from Bush (Frank Rich). Wrote “mid-life crisis book” on the environment (Kakutani, Toner, Henneberger). Produced high school film about climate change (Rich). Has lied his whole life (Arianna); uses too many big words (Milbank). Won the Nobel peace prize.
Rep. Bobby Scott: Member of Congress (D-Va.)
Tommy Lee Jones: Skilled master thespian
James Glassman: Student of the flight of birds
Chris Wallace: Veteran network newsman
Elliot Abrams: Of Iran-contra fame
The late Gram Parsons: Legendary rocker
Fritz Hobbs: Olympic silver medalist (1972, rowing)
Big Ray Peters: First-round pick, brief MLB career. (Arm trouble? From snowball fights?)

Parsons quit after one semester. Glassman went on to a failed prediction—and to that groaning C-Span appearance during the Clinton years.

How disingenuous can our big savants be? We’ve never seen the tape of that C-Span segment. But working from memory, we think we know what you’ll see if it ever appears:

Guesting on Washington Journal, Glassman railed about the way Bill Clinton avoided service in Vietnam. Recalling a shared adolescence, a thought came to mind; we would have been extremely surprised to learn that Glassman did different. And omigod! It actually happened! A caller asked Glassman if he had served! Quite extensive hemming and hawing characterized his response.

Just a guess: He doesn’t regret it. After all, trashing Clinton (then Gore) was the way of the 90s! It led us to this bungled place. But yes, it defined an era.

Lozada persisted as few scribes do, pestering a better-known colleague. But readers! Why on earth is the Washington Post still asking advice from its famous failed prophet—burning half a page in “Outlook?” Few people have ever made larger mistakes. But the Post seemed to think we’d all like to know what Glassman is thinking today.

Why on earth is the Washington Post still asking advice from its famous failed prophet? The answer is known throughout The Village. Once you become a part of the club, you’re simply too big to fail.

Kuttner got it right: To its credit, the Post let Robert Kuttner mock Glassman’s prediction in September 1999. The article, called “Giddy About Stocks,” isn’t available on-line (unless you count this). But here are its opening paragraphs:

KUTTNER (9/7/99): You know the stock market is in for a major downdraft when people start writing books with titles like "Dow 36,000." The Atlantic Monthly, ordinarily a prudent journal, has given upwards of 10,000 words and its September cover to promote the giddy new book by James Glassman and Kevin Hassett, which contends that the Dow should be at 36,000 right now. Not to be outdone, the current issue of Wired magazine insists that the new, high-tech economy justifies a Dow of around 50,000. And—what the heck—a new book by Charles W. Kadlec sees the Dow going to 100,000. A million, anyone?

David Dodd, co-author of the classic text on securities analysis, once observed that the four most dangerous words in the English language are “This time it's different.” But it isn't. The economic fundamentals can support stock price growth in excess of economic growth for only so long. Well before the e-commerce economy, stock touts and crackpot theorists were promoting manias and bubbles that were literally too good to be true.

But then, a lot of “crackpots” were “promoting manias” at this time. It was the way of the age.

As Kuttner wrote, the Atlantic was going pseudo-conservative under new owner David Bradley, who had purchased the ordinarily prudent journal in 1997. A few weeks after Kuttner’s column appeared, the late Michael Kelly (Maureen Dowd’s childhood friend) was named Atlantic’s new editor—and he was one of the Washington Post’s loudest, most dishonest Clinton/Gore-trashers. (We Irish!) The next summer, the magazine featured a ballyhooed cover portrait of Candidate Gore; it showed him with fangs coming out of his mouth. Gore was the world’s biggest liar and nastiest debater, the long, much-ballyhooed story pretended. James Fallows wrote the ballyhooed piece, though he didn’t do the cover art or write the article’s crackpot synopsis. But then, this was the way of the age. Are you sure that these life-forms are human?

They never stopped: At the pitiful, broken-souled Times, they never stopped saying that Earth in the Balance was the result of a “mid-life crisis.” Darlings! Here was Lady Collins, purring as Florida burned:

COLLINS (11/14/00): For the first time this year, Mr. Gore is looking cool. Perhaps he's secretly gearing up for a new midlife crisis, mentally composing the introduction to "Son of Earth in the Balance" while he plays photo-op touch football. Maybe he's simply dwelling on the fact that if he loses, he will never have to drive across I-4 in Florida again.

Who knows? Perhaps he was thinking he’d never have to deal with crackpots like Collins again!

For other witty jibes in the Times about Gore’s “mid-life crisis book” (Robin Toner), see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/12/07. The “liberal” world avoids discussing this era. But this is how we got here.

Childhood of Dowd/Matthews/Kelly: Three fascinating show business obits appear in today’s New York Times (click here). In one case, we learn what apparently happened in the Boston of our youth when Jimmy Boyd, then 12 years old, produced a big hit in 1952. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” the freckle-faced youngster was claiming:

“[The song] was not popular with everyone back in 1952. Initially—until it was made clear that Santa was really Daddy in costume—the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston condemned it as mixing sex with Christmas.”

That account has the ring of truth. Let’s say it again: We Irish!

And yes, as we’ve told you, this helps explain the crackpot, anti-Clinton/Gore mania of the press corps’ large East Coast Irish Catholic contingent during the last decade’s troubles. We know, we know—this is rarely discussed. That’s because it occurred.

Go ahead—reread Dowd’s latest. Think about 12-year-old Jimmy Webb—about the way our big crackpots grew up.