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BRODER MAKES US WRONG! Suddenly, Broder turns on his gang —but he maintains his gang’s standards: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, APRIL 19, 2007

HUSKER HEURISTICS: Let’s start with a bit of untrammeled straight talk; being a visiting scholar at the University of Nebraska can be exhausting work (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/16/07). Understandably, everyone wants a piece of your scholarship; in the past few days, this gave us the chance to address three undergraduate classes —and to deliver a speech on our scholarly findings over the past nine years. Nine years! Why did we start THE DAILY HOWLER, one student asked. It’s been so long that, at first, we had to say this: Sorry. We cannot recall.

But then, there’s the huge up-side to work of this type. We did get to tour Nine Mile Prairie with those bountiful botanists, for example. Indeed, as we kept traipsing further out onto the plain, we began to voice a growing concern: A blizzard might sweep in from the west and trap us, just as Laura Ingalls Wilder described. Shouldn't we all be trailing ropes behind us? So we could find our way back to the car?

And omigod! One of the botanists made our day, praising Wilder as underrated. Indeed: We’ve long admired those nine polished jewels which sit undiscussed on the children’s shelf. But it was this collection of Wilder’s early newspaper columns which convinced us of her great, deep soul. From Kirkus Reviews:
Even before The Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1932, Wilder was an experienced journalist; many of her articles, often written for a publication called Farmer's Week, described her life on the Missouri farm where she and Almanzo had finally settled. [Stephen] Hines collects these earlier works for the first time, organizing articles, columns, and poetry into categories such as “Her Husband's Partner” and “A New Day for Women,” with each selection leading naturally to the next and the overall point of view —that of a proudly rural woman.
We recommend the brilliant column, “What Became of the Time We Saved?” (April 1917), which contains what we still regard as the best joke we’ve ever seen in print. “Simplify, Simplify” (July 1919) explored this column’s themes two years later. And how about Wilder’s question from September 1921: “Are You Your Children’s Confidante?”
WILDER (9/21): In the light of experience and the test of the years, can you see how your mother might have been more to you, could have guided you better? Then be sure you are making the most of your privileges with the children who are looking to you for love and guidance.
That said, we’ll turn to a question we were asked in the first class we visited —a political communications class for juniors and seniors. Those well-prepared students asked a lot of good question. But we were struck by the clear-eyed young woman who mentioned Don Imus’ recent “racist and sexist” comment, then asked us the following question, quite simply: Why did we think he had said that?

We liked her question because it was simple —straight-forward, clear-spoken, questing. We thought our rambling answer went fairly well too. But with that student, as with so many others, we were most struck by her clear-eyed sincerity. Our sense: She would never have said something like that, and she was puzzled by the fact that Imus had. We wished again what we’ve wished before: That the nation’s young people —and their parents —weren’t stuck with a national discourse driven by a powdered elite which is so silly and so in-sincere. “Why is Al Gore so fat?” they were asking. And: “Why does John Edwards want to be so darn pretty?” Our guess: That student would see it as a privilege —and act accordingly —if she got to shape her community’s discourse. But quite often, our press corps prefers to hand us nonsense. They’ve been in love with this bilge now for years.

Final note: The assistant prof who brought us there, young Richard Graham, strikes us as a real up-and-comer. And oh yes —we don’t know what “heuristics” means either. But when we picked today’s tag-line, we did know this —“heuristics” starts with an “H.”

BRODER MAKES US WRONG: Here’s one thing we told those classes: The mainstream press corps almost never tackles the work of the mainstream press corps. And then, today, in the Washington Post, David Broder makes us wrong! Broder criticizes his colleagues concerning Imus —and he nails them about the Duke lacrosse case. Headline: “The Media in the Mud.” We offer a few quick reactions:

We don’t completely agree with Broder’s view of the Imus matter. We were struck by his method:
BRODER (4/19/07): I had never heard Imus's broadcast, because I am a longtime fan of NPR's "Morning Edition," which is on at the same time. I was stunned to learn how many of the journalists I admire had been regular guests on the program. Many are now having a hard time explaining their association.
Uh-oh! Although he never heard (or saw) the Imus program, Broder goes on to critique it with a great deal of confidence. We’re surprised to learn that Broder never listened to Imus; after all, the program’s host has been controversial in mainstream press circles since a famous debacle in 1996. Sadly, we were less surprised when Broder critiqued a program he’d never heard:
BRODER (continuing directly): It turned out that many [journalists I admire] had heard Imus ridicule and insult women, gays, African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Catholics and others. Some had been targets of his unfunny slurs and came back for more.
But as we said at the start of the week, it may not be quite that simple —if you actually listened to Imus. For example, did Imus “ridicule and insult Catholics” on his show? On balance, we’d have to “no;” on balance, we found those sketches intriguing and funny, though there were obvious problems with them. But then, we’ve actually watched the program! (We taped it most mornings for the past eight years; it was an excellent way to see major journalists speaking in an unguarded manner.) It’s unsurprising: When Broder gets around to critiquing the press corps, he does so by making definitive judgments —about a program he never has watched.

We thought Imus was awful in many ways, too. We’re glad its host got smacked for those inane, harmful comments. But our analysts rolled their eyes a bit at this part of Broder’s column. As usual! Broder was voicing his cohort’s latest conventional wisdom —while speaking with great assurance about a program he never has watched.

Regarding the Duke case, we’ll agree with Broder to some extent —but we’ll offer a word of caution. Broder quotes an early sports column from the New York Times —a column he says was “painfully” “one-sided.” Then, he quotes a second early piece, from the Post’s “Style” section, and goes on to state his thesis:
BRODER: In The Post, reporter Lynne Duke wrote a story that began: "She was black, they were white, and race and sex were in the air. But whatever actually happened that March 13 night at Duke University —both the reported rape and its surrounding details are hotly disputed —it appears at least that the disturbing historic script of the sexual abuse of black women was playing out inside that lacrosse team house party."

It was playing out, too, in the pages of newsmagazines and in newspaper columns and editorials, all with the usual brief mention that no one had yet been convicted. But the claims of innocence that were made from the beginning were given little weight.
We’ll agree with Broder —to some extent. In fact, some early reporting in his own newspaper didn’t mention the claims of innocence at all! But most reporting did mention these claims. For instance, Newsweek was sometimes criticized for buying the accuser’s story. But here’s the way Susannah Meadows began the mag’s first report on this case:
MEADOWS (4/10/06): A few —but only a few —facts are clear and uncontested. On the night of March 13, members of the Duke University lacrosse team, at the time ranked second in the nation, crowded into a small house rented by three of their captains to watch two exotic dancers perform. What happened next is very much a matter of dispute. There are at least two different scenarios, with vastly different implications for everyone involved.
In paragraph 2, Meadows described the accuser’s allegations. But this was her third paragraph:
MEADOWS: There is, however, possibly a different side to the story —a chapter from another Tom Wolfe novel, "The Bonfire of the Vanities," a tale of a prosecutor exploiting racial tensions with a trumped-up charge. The players say they are completely innocent, that no one had sex with the stripper that night and that they will be vindicated by DNA tests expected early this week. Joseph Cheshire, a lawyer representing one of the players, says that the prosecutor has unfairly tried the players in the media to serve his own political agenda. (Nifong is up for re-election in May and one of his opponents is black.) "The real story," says Cheshire, "is how he has pandered to the public to stir up race and class division." Nifong did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Cheshire's charge.
Without question, there was unbalanced reporting (and commentary). But a lot of the reporting was fair. How much reporting was unfair? Uh-oh! When we ask a question like that, press critique starts to get hard.

We’re glad to see Broder challenge his cohort. What the heck —we hope he’ll do so again! But it’s easy to be selective —to tell preferred stories —when we decide to tackle the press corps. We thought Imus stunk in major ways too. But then, we’d actually watched it.