Daily Howler logo
MISSING IN ACTION! Brooks mentioned cable TV, and the Net. But he forgot Lady Dowd: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 30, 2010

Dylan Ratigan’s song: As a matter of taste, we’ve never been drawn to Dylan Ratigan’s loud, familiar cable bombast. That said, attention must be paid to Brian Stelter’s profile of Ratigan in Monday’s New York Times.

At present, Ratigan does the 4 P.M. weekday hour on MSNBC. (On the weekends, this channel pimps crime.) In his profile, Stelter defines Dylan’s song. We’ll quote from our hard-copy Times, even as we link to the version of the profile which appears on-line:

STELTER (6/28/10): Mr. Ratigan does not just have a point of view, he has a point—one that he repeats relentlessly and feverishly. To hear Mr. Ratigan tell it, the American people are being held hostage by a banking system that acts like a government subsidized casino. His analogy: “My mother is paying taxes to the government. The government is giving her money to the banks. The banks are gambling like they’re watching ‘Fast Money.’ But my mother didn’t sign up for that.”

In an interview, Mr. Ratigan said, “As long as there’s been banks and governments, banks and governments have been conspiring to take money from the people.” What has changed now, he said, is that “we have the ability to engage it directly,” through fair elections and a free press. The first step in his playbook, then, is to end the denial about it.

Good lord! Ratigan states an important point, one which can be slightly expanded: As long as Wealth and Power have existed, Wealth and Power have conspired to take advantage of regular people. As most people pretty much know, this basic truth involves key aspects of our human nature.

Might we make a simple point about those regular people, the ones who are getting ripped off? (In this interview, Ratigan offered his sainted mother as an example of same.)

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t know Mother Ratigan’s politics. She may be a person of the left, right or center. Like many Americans, she may not have politics at all. But there you see a basic point about the current state of play. Regular people of all descriptions are being ripped in the manner Ratigan has described. Tea party members are being thus ripped. So are fiery liberals.

Regular people are being ripped—but we’re divided into two warring camps. And as long as those tribes keep insulting each other, Wealth and Power will prevail. Alas! At 4 P.M., Ratigan preaches the truth. At 8 P. M., KO comes on the air and makes sure that the truth won’t prevail.

(Olbermann is paid $5 million per year. For him, is it just entertainment?)

At several points in his profile, Stelter quotes Andrew Leckey, president of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State. In this passage, Leckey offers a rather good point:

STELTER: Of course, in the bailout era, going after greed is arguably an easy way to “get a lot of people behind you,” Mr. Leckey said, calling it “an almost fail-safe position to be in.”

Ratigan’s song involves a key point: Wealth and Power are ripping The People. In theory, progressives could get a lot more people behind that key point if liberals would drop their childish insistence on insulting tens of millions of the people who, not unlike Mother Ratigan, are getting their keisters ripped off.

How does this tribal division work? Last weekend, Palin hammered BP hard—and we liberals called her a moron. To review this familiar service to Power, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/29/10.

Special report: How we got here!

PART 2—MISSING IN ACTION (permalink): Unheard of! David Brooks did a pretty good job defining—and savaging—modern press culture! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/28/10.) Over the course of the past fifty years, a new press culture has come into being, he wrote in last Friday’s New York Times.

This new culture has “elevated the trivial over the important,” Brooks correctly said. The new culture is devoted to “the inner soap opera.” It devotes itself to matters which were once regarded as “the least important part of government.”

Brooks was unusually frank about the gruesome work of his own guild. That said, we thought he went a bit easy on some of his most famous colleagues. As you may recall, Brooks described a three-part process by which we moved from an earlier journalistic “culture of reticence” to the present-day “culture of exposure.” His explanation came in three easy pieces. They deserve to be posted again, though the bracketed numbers are ours:

BROOKS (6/25/10): During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly—and maybe too gently—on public duties.

[1] Then, in 1961, Theodore H. White began his “The Making of the President” book series. This series treated the people who worked inside the boiler rooms of government as the star players. It put the inner dramas at center stage.

[2] Then, after Vietnam, an ethos of exposure swept the culture. The assumption among many journalists was that the establishment may seem upstanding, but there is a secret corruption deep down. It became the task of journalism to expose the underbelly of public life, to hunt for impurity, assuming that the dark hidden lives of public officials were more important than the official performances.

[3] Then came cable, the Internet, and the profusion of media sources. Now you have outlets, shows and Web sites whose only real interest is the kvetching and inside baseball.

In other words, over the course of 50 years, what had once been considered the least important part of government became the most important. These days, the inner soap opera is the most discussed and the most fraught arena of political life.

As of 1960, journalists tended to focus on the way politicians performed “public duties.” Now, “the inner soap opera” is the focus. Teddy White started it—then Vietnam. After that, the crowning blow—cable news and the Net came along.

In fairness, there is no question that cable TV has helped create this fatuous culture. But as he relates this gruesome history, Brooks is much too easy on his own newspaper—on one of its most famous scribes.

Yes, cable “news” has driven The Dumb; so has some of the work on the web. But can’t we tell the truth for once? No one did more to create this new culture than the New York Times’ own Maureen Dowd. To refresh ourselves, let’s recall a few key moments from Gay Jervey’s profile of Dowd in the old Brill’s Content. Jervey’s profile appeared in the June 1999 issue, shortly after Dowd won her guild’s greatest award, the hot-damn Pulitzer Prize.

Jervey wrote an intriguing piece, even mentioning some of Dowd’s faults. But let’s be frank—no one on cable or on the Net has propelled the Culture of Dumb as hard as this famed empty vessel. Does modern journalism “elevate the trivial over the important” as it explores “the inner soap opera?” At one point, Jervey praised the brilliance with which Lady Dowd had plumbed one man’s inner drama:

JERVEY (6/99): Among Washington columnists, there is no keener observer of Bill Clinton than Maureen Dowd ... [S]he seems obsessed with his personality, always looking for the key to his character—or rather, his utter lack thereof. In the summer of 1997, for example, when President Clinton installed a hot tub at the White House, Dowd traveled to Santa Monica to visit the showroom of the manufacturer who had made the President’s new toy. She wanted to test the waters.

Sad. Dowd crossed the country, presumably on the Times’ dime, to visit the company which manufactured the new White House hot tub. To help you see how stupid the new culture already was, this is the start of the column which issued from this pointless trip. Dowd’s headline was “Rub a Dub Dub:”

DOWD (8/23/97): Call me crazy, but I had a funny feeling that I was never going to be invited to the President's hot tub. Michael McCurry, the White House press secretary, had said it belonged to the American public, so I considered just showing up one night at the northwest gate of the White House with flippers, a sand bucket and a towel.

[...]

But then I came to California, home of hydrotherapy, aromatherapy, all therapy, and indeed, home of the President's Hot Spring Grandee seven-seater with 31 massaging jets, and I couldn't resist dropping by the showroom of the manufacturer that donated the hot tub to the National Park Service. I wanted a test soak, as they say.

I took some friends along so we could float a few theories about the iconic meaning of Bill Clinton installing a hot tub on the South Lawn Jerry Nachman, the former New York Post editor who now works in TV; Dee Dee Myers, the former White House press secretary who now lives in L.A. and works at Vanity Fair; Barbara Hower, author and TV personality; Rebecca Liss, a reporter for The Los Angeles Daily Journal, and Mickey Kaus, a magazine writer.

Talk about displacement. Before our combined avoirdupois could be accommodated, the service manager had to suction out 100 gallons of water.

Even today, our cheeks rouge with embarrassment for Myers and Kaus. Two years later, the ninny who crayoned that ludicrous column was awarded her profession’s top prize. Bin Laden was planning attacks.

In that passage, Jervey described Dowd’s obsession with “the inner soap opera,” while praising her as a “keen observer.” At another point, though, Jervey went rogue, describing Dowd’s rejection of topics which actually matter—the topics which an earlier press corps accepted as their focus:

JERVEY: "Maureen is very talented," observes Joe Klein of The New Yorker. "But she is ground zero of what the press has come to be about in the nineties... I remember having a discussion with her in which I said, 'Maureen, why don't you go out and report about something significant, go out and see poor people, do something real?' And she said, 'You mean I should write about welfare reform?’”

Silly Klein! Why would Dowd worry her head about welfare reform? People! She wasn’t on welfare!

Of course, Dowd had been playing the fool for years by the time her comely avoirdupois helped drain that obsessed-upon tub. How had American journalists come to focus on the things which are “least important?” At one point, Jervey spoke with Bill Kovach, Dowd’s former editor at the Times—someone with a reputation for being one of the bright guys in the profession. Quoting Kovach, Jervey described an incident which had showcased Dowd’s keen eye way back in 1984.

The incident occurred in July of that year, at the Democratic Convention. Walter Mondale had picked Geraldine Ferraro as the first female nominee for vice president. On the convention’s final night, the following pitch-perfect nonsense occurred. Even then, Dowd had her insect-like antennae aimed at the inner soap opera:

JERVEY: Even as a young reporter Dowd had an eye for telling detail and nuance...“We were on deadline,” Kovach explains. “Mondale and Ferraro had just been nominated... As the candidates stood on the platform, Maureen jumped up and grabbed me and said, ‘Look! Look! There is the story. Mondale doesn’t know whether to hug his wife or Ferraro. He doesn’t know what to do.’ She saw that signaled a new era, with women playing a whole new role in politics and men not quite knowing what to do.” That keen observation...crystallized for Kovach just how clairvoyant a reporter she was.

In a slightly saner world, you might expect that anecdote to appear in a hatchet-job takedown of Kovach. But by 1999, this foolishness was being cited as evidence of Dowd’s “eye for nuance.”

Does the modern press corps focus on trivia—on the inner soap opera? Just consider what a trail-blazer Dowd already was by the summer of 84. Consider an important event which had already occurred on the night when Walter Mondale didn’t know which lady he should hug first.

On that same night, Mondale had made an important statement in his convention address. He had discussed a problem which persists to this day—the need for sane tax policy. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I,” Mondale had said. “He won't tell you. I just did.” Just two weeks ago, Walter Mondale was still being mocked in the Washington Post for having made this accurate statement (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/14/10). But in real time, Dowd saw right past this silly stale fluff! What was the actual “story” this night? To a simpering lady’s fine eye, the question of hugging came first!

Sixteen years later, at another Democratic Convention, the press corps found its way past The Hug and instead obsessed on The Kiss, a moment which still tortures their sleep (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/4/10). For herself, Dowd spent an inordinate amount of time that year discussing one candidate’s bald spot.

These kinds of judgments about what matters have increasingly defined the press corps’ culture. Doing a favor to the guild, Brooks failed to mention Dowd’s leading role in creating this death-dealing focus. To his credit, Brooks offered a good capsule history, defining a gruesome slide in press culture. Guild members simply don’t do this. But alas! At one point in his capsule history, Brooks did play a familiar old card. He blamed cable TV, and he blamed the Net—but he forgot to mention his own high colleagues. And let’s be frank: No one has spread the culture of trivia and inanity as completely as the high Lady Dowd.

Brooks forgot to mention Dowd, and others like her. That said, another sector has spent many years failing to complain about Dowd. Have you ever seen your “liberal journals” complain about the sheer inanity Brooks described in Friday’s column? Have you ever seen a “liberal journal” perform an honest profile of Dowd?

Why do our fiery liberal leaders keep their pretty traps shut about Dowd? We’ll speculate before we’re finished. But first, we’ll mention a few other matters which went AWOL in Brooks’ piece.

Next—part 3: A brace of additional ethoses