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LEFT UNSAID: David Brooks had 800 words. A great deal was left unsaid: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JULY 2, 2010

Paul Krugman and the rational animal: As we enter a holiday weekend, let’s step back and enjoy the Big Picture. Paul Krugman takes us there today right in his opening paragraph:

KRUGMAN (7/2/10): When I was young and naive, I believed that important people took positions based on careful consideration of the options. Now I know better. Much of what Serious People believe rests on prejudices, not analysis. And these prejudices are subject to fads and fashions.

The analysts gathered at our feet, telling us they felt Krugman’s pain. “Why, that’s just like the stories you’ve always told,” the young people glumly said.

So true! In today’s column, Krugman discusses the best ways to deal with the world economic downturn/depression. But we’ve noticed this problem with Serious People all through our adult life, dating to the instruction we received when we were in college. (Professor Cavell not included.)

More on that troubling topic below. But do Serious People (adult intellectual authorities) form their beliefs based on prejudices, not analysis? Are they subject to fashions and fads? Consider two topics we’ve written about through the years.

Low-income education: We came to Baltimore in 1969, taking over a fifth-grade class in November of that year. In the forty years which have followed, we’ve been amazed by the way the nation’s Serious People shape our education debates—by the way these Serious People form their beliefs in this area.

Do these beliefs tend to rest on prejudice, fad? Does the pope’s keister have two parts? Most impressive is the way these Serious People assert contradictory beliefs—asserting these beliefs as a group, the only way Serious People speak. These beliefs, for example:

America’s schools are an unholy mess; attempts at reform have failed.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the gold standard of testing.

At present, each statement is highly conventional. In recent months, Serious People have been pimping Diane Ravitch for her assertion of the former claim. But test results from the NAEP seem to show large gains, in the past several decades, among white kids, black kids and Hispanic kids. No one attempts to explain this fact. Assertions of GroupThought remain.

There’s more! Over the past several decades, Serious People have maintained a largely incoherent discourse about the role of “standards.” Simultaneously, Serious People are willing to proclaim:

Many kids in our public schools are years behind traditional grade level.
We need to raise our academic standards.

But if kids can’t meet the current standards, how will they meet the new, tougher standards? Someone may have an answer to that, but have you seen the question asked? Meanwhile, the New York Times has finally warned us about a problem which has been plain for the past forty years (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/21/10). Serious People come to their knowledge in remarkably glacial ways.

The journalism of the past twenty years: During the 1990s, conservative power congealed inside Establishment Washington. Unfortunately, Clinton and Gore were in the White House at the time.

Apparently as a result, we got an era of astonishing pseudo-journalism—a situation which Serious People haven’t discussed to this day. Gene Lyons tried to open a discussion with Fools for Scandal, published by Harper’s magazine in 1996, based on an earlier piece in the time-honored journal. But Serious Liberals all knew one thing: They mustn’t read or mention that book! To this day, Serious People in the liberal world have agreed to pretend that the astonishing journalism of this era simply didn’t occur. It has been wiped from our history.

Minor, illustrative example: Just this week, Steve Benen discussed an astonishing incident from October 1999 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/1/10). Benen showed how easy it is to inform the public about this event. Question: How many Serious People have ever mentioned this truly remarkable incident? Eleven years later, Serious People all know that this event, like the other events of this era, simply must not be discussed.

As Krugman notes, Serious People work from fads and fashions. “Knowledge” is formed few other ways. One result: For the most part, Serious People don’t say squat about squadoodle until six other Serious People have said it. In the case of the Clinton-Gore era, few people were willing to state the obvious—the mainstream press corps went to war against Clinton, then against Candidate Gore. To this day, the Riches, the Dionnes, the Robinsons—the upper-shelf Serious People—haven’t been willing to say it.

Let’s sum things up:

Krugman’s observation is quite important. But his observation defies wide belief. Why is it so hard to grasp the obvious fact he has observed?

Consider The Emperor’s New Clothes.

In that famous fable, the citizens of an imaginary empire can’t see what’s happening right before them. They can’t see because, like the rest of us shlubs, they’re inclined to defer to authority. This is how Serious People function—but this basic fact has been contradicted at the heart of our culture since the dawn of the west. Man [sic] is the rational animal! This statement is rather blatantly false, but it’s one of the western world’s foundational beliefs. The false belief suffuses our culture, helps blind us to obvious fact. Krugman’s observation flies in the face of this foundational belief, and is thus rather hard to process.

By the way, what did we “study” in those college (philosophy) courses? For the most part, we studied our Wittgenstein. Since we’ve dealt with some sentence pairs today, let’s consider this illuminating tandem, basically taken from Wittgenstein:

Statement A: It is now three o’clock on the moon.
Statement B: It is now three o’clock in Los Angeles.

Let’s paraphrase loosely. According to Wittegnstein, western philosophy is largely composed of statements like Statement A—statements which make no sense, except as some form of poetry. But their incoherence escapes detection, because their “surface grammar” is so much like various Statements B—statements which make perfect sense.

Serious People, those rational animals, constructed this incoherent “philosophy.” Even today, their cousins advance the fads and fashions which have Krugman tearing his hair.

Reading Krugman, we chuckled morosely. We were young and naive once too! As the analysts watched, we thoughtfully spoke: Professor! Welcome aboard!

Special report: How we got here!

PART 3—LEFT UNSAID (permalink): Let’s be clear about one thing: We wouldn’t really expect David Brooks to trash-talk Maureen Dowd, grand duchess of Lower Inania.

Quite conceivably, Dowd has done more than anyone else to create the journalistic culture Brooks criticized in last Friday’s column—a culture in which “the inner soap opera” has come center stage, “elevat[ing] the trivial over the important.” (Brooks: “Over the course of 50 years, what had once been considered the least important part of government became the most important.” See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/10.) But Brooks and Dowd are employed by the same newspaper. It isn’t realistic to think that Brooks would trash-talk his colleague by name.

That said, we do think Brooks took the easy way out in his three-part account of the fall of the west. How did we reach our current sad state? He blames cable news, and he blames the Net. But when it comes to real moral failure, the establishment press gets a pass. Once again, we review the three steps which produced our failed culture. 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.

In that account, Brooks’ own tribe (“journalists”) responded to the chaos of Vietnam; they may have over-reacted a tad, although Brooks doesn’t quite say that. But after Vietnam, the deluge! Along came those cable and Internet clowns! Sorry. Brooks’ own tribe, including Dowd, took the lead in enshrining that “inner soap opera”—in making it “the most discussed and the most fraught arena of political life.” Surely, Brooks could have noted this fact, without naming Maureen Dowd’s name.

To his credit, Brooks is much more frank about this topic than most big-time journalists are. We thought his column was short, but constructive. But when it came to ultimate blame, even Brooks succumbed to temptation, leaving his high colleagues out. People! It’s easy to blame the last twenty years on cable TV and the Net. Why implicate the lofty penseurs who parade through the halls at the Times?

While we’re batting Brooks around, why not note a few other omissions?

In his column, Brooks described a slow transition from “the reticence ethos” (which ”had its flaws”) to “the exposure ethos” (which has “elevated the trivial”). That’s a perfectly decent way to frame the change of the past fifty years. But we can’t help recalling the other ethoses which have been on display in the past twelve years, as we’ve pounded away on our sprawling campus.

Have we moved to an “exposure ethos?” Yes, we have. But just as Langston Hughes saw rivers, we’ve seen many other journalistic ethoses in that troubled time:

We’ve seen the pseudo-psychiatric ethos, in which hapless scribes with nothing to say remember stale frameworks from Freud.

We’ve seen the character divination ethos, in which journalists pretend they know how to character, despite their endless groaning failures in this area.

We’ve seen the clownish prediction ethos, which dominates cable time-killing. (Just this week, we heard a sports talker explain why he has to predict college football games. All the research shows that listeners want predictions, he said.)

We’ve seen the liar versus straight-talker ethos, in which journalists make up lies by their chosen liars and ignore major groaners by their chosen straight-talkers.

We’ve seen the make up blatantly bogus facts and recite them as a group ethos.

We’ve seen the ethos best expressed this way: The news is really a novel.

We don’t blame Brooks for omitting these ethoses, and many others; he only had 800 words. That said, we were puzzled by one early part of this recent piece by Jay Rosen.

At his PressThink blog, Rosen does careful, thoughtful, detailed work about the press corps’ instincts and practices. In this detailed post, he lists some of the elements which comprise “the actual ideology of the American press.” You can read Jay’s detailed post yourself to see his thoughts about press “ideology.” But early on, he quotes the late David Shaw, long-time media reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Shaw wrote the following in 1988. Fairly clearly, Jay seems to affirm it as accurate:

SHAW (1988): The one thing a journalist prizes above all else in his professional life is a good, juicy story, and most good stories offer bad news—scandal, war, disaster, murder. Most journalists I know would rather write an expose than a flattering profile, regardless of whether their subject is liberal or conservative. That may reveal something unhealthy about journalists’ psyches, but it doesn’t say anything about their partisanship.

Again, we think it’s fairly clear that Jay affirms that passage as basically accurate. We can’t imagine why.

We wouldn’t necessarily criticize someone who authored such a thought in 1988. But how can anyone offer that description of the press corps in 2010? Does anyone think that journalists wanted to write exposes, not flattering profiles, of Candidate McCain in 1999 and 2000? (And in the years which followed, until perhaps 2007?) Of Candidate Bradley? In the years from 1998 through 2010, hasn’t it become fairly clear that Shaw’s idea, however strongly believed in 1988, is hard to sustain today?

Let’s put “liberal” and “conservative” to the side. Hasn’t it become fairly clear that, as individuals and as a group, journalists don’t tend to treat all subjects the same? That they may be eager to write exposes of certain people at certain times, even as they’re eager to write flattering profiles of others? As he introduces Shaw’s remark, Jay notes something “most journalists will admit.” As he does, we’d have to say he misses one more ethos:

ROSEN (6/14/10): Also involved is the one bias most journalists will admit to exhibiting (which doesn’t mean the only bias they have.) I refer to the love of a good story, and the glory of being credited for breaking that story, which causes them to look for revelations that will capture attention, provoke reactions and dominate a given news cycle.

Most journalists will admit to one bias, Jay says—“the love of a good story, and the glory of being credited for breaking that story.”

It’s true—most journalists will “admit” to that. But in the time we’ve been doing THE HOWLER, we’ve often seen a different “bias” expressed in the press corps’ conduct. Here it is: Journalists will often fight to avoid “breaking a story,” if that story flies in the face of some prevailing mainstream press line.

That said, might we note that one last journalistic ethos? It’s the false confession ethos.

In fact, journalists will “admit” to a lot of flaws. Over the years, we’ve noticed one thing about such admissions: When journalists admit to a certain flaw, they’re often concealing a deeper flaw, the actual flaw, which is much more offensive. This connects to one more basic ethos—the ethos of never telling the truth about the group’s real procedures.

Shaw may have been sincere in 1988. When it comes to describing their own behaviors, journalists rarely are.

David Brooks broke all the rules, talking about our broken press culture. But he only had 800 words. A great deal was left unsaid.