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FRIDAY, JULY 31, 2009

The oligarchic model of journalism: After yesterday’s beer with his friend, Officer Crowley took questions from a group of people who must have said they were the press.

Earlier in the day, a concern had started floating around. Lucia Whalen, who made the original call to police, had said that she didn’t speak to Crowley when he arrived at Professor Gates’ home. Why then did Crowley’s official report say that he did speak to Whalen—that she “went on to tell me that she observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch of 17 Ware Street?” (To read the report, click here.) This apparent misstatement isn’t especially serious—it didn’t invent evidence which could be used against Gates, for example—but it did seem a bit odd. And since the apparent misstatement could be used to make Crowley look like a race man, Gene Robinson officially noted it.

Robinson, long a servant of Village texts—including when he was trashing Gore—knows which facts to observe.

This concern had been floating around all day. It would have been an obvious question to ask. Another obvious question: Was Crowley’s official police report “an act of pure fiction,” “from start to finish just pure fabrication,” so much so that Professor Gates was “astonished at the audacity of the lies?” If we had been asking questions last night, we would have asked about that! Did Crowley audaciously lie in his report—about that “your mama” remark, for example? If not, what did he think about Professor Gates’ charge? To us, such questions seem relevant.

We weren’t there to ask—but some “journalists” were. Below, you see their first ten questions. We’ll stop with the one about “body language,” the question this gang always asks:

QUESTION: Did anyone apologize?

QUESTION: What was accomplished today around that table with the president and the vice president?

QUESTION: When you talk about these discussions, was there some sort of plan for you and Professor Gates to be meeting again or meeting on a regular basis?

QUESTION: And you're going to meet—do you know where you're going to meet?

QUESTION: Can you tell us [where]?

QUESTION: Are you going to meet in a house, or are you going to meet in a bar for a beer, you're going to meet at the governor's mansion?

QUESTION: What kind of things would you like to discuss with Professor Gates?

QUESTION: Was anything solved today, Sergeant Crowley?

QUESTION: Was anything solved today, Sergeant?

QUESTION: Can you describe how the body language was, and how the tone was set?

Things pretty much slid from there. Two words come to mind as we read these questions: “Trivial” and “open-ended.”

As the famous old movie asked: Who are these guys?

In our view, one of the principals in this affair seems to be lying his keister off. Since police action and high academics are involved, we’d be curious to know which one it might be. But as we said yesterday, we’ll guess that few pundits will ask.

Too risky, for all concerned. This is a social class.

Who knows? Maybe yesterday’s meeting will actually lead to future discussion in which the wider community learns about some important aspect of racial justice/injustice. But we will leave this episode (we hope) with this thought: Whatever else we may have seen in this case, we have seen a comic example of what you might call “oligarchic journalism.”

In that form of journalism, a certain privileged class reports the news to suit the members, views and interests of that high class. You’ll never see a sillier example of this than with the Washington Post’s initial reaction to this less-than-earth-shattering incident.

Was Professor Gates mistreated? We still don’t know—and yes, it matters, though not as much as some other things happening in the world. But the Post’s decision to publish that op-ed piece by Professor Lawrence Bobo was truly a clownish decision. Bobo described Professor Gates as his best friend. And Professor Gates is a business partner of the Washington Post.

Have you ever seen it done so cleanly? On Day One, the Post published an absurdly one-sided piece, in which a good friend of one of principals “imagines” what was done to his friend. To his best friend—who is a business associate of the Post. (Nowhere on the op-ed page were you told about that business relationship.)

Truly, that is crony journalism, of the most laughable sort. And let’s be clear: This isn’t the fault of Professor Gates. It’s the fault of the Washington Post.

But by god, we liberals are easy! We buy this garbage, when it favors our guy—the guy we imagine to be on our team. We complain and complain and complain about this—until it favors our tribe!

Gene Robinson pimped for Gates this week. In 1999, he savaged Gore—hard. (Each action reflected the view of the Village.) We liberals, though, are easily bought. The reigning world of liberal leadership crawls with people who put Bush in power though truly ludicrous acts of “journalism.” We’ve never seen a “liberal” ask even one of these people to explain.

For all we know (we alone weren’t there), Professor Gates may be completely correct in what he said about Crowley’s report. We think a real press corps would try to find out, even if it meant omitting that question about body language. But this is about the Washington Post and its model of oligarchic journalism.

A few weeks ago, we learned about the Lady Weymouth’s plan to bring high cronies to her well-supplied table. At that time, we liberals screamed about this oligarchic approach. This past week, we stood and applauded.

It’s why we have no progressive politics. Truly, it’s amazing to see how easily we liberals get bought—how quickly our values get sold.

GREETINGS FROM NORTH KOREA: Why don’t we just come out and admit it? We’re hapless, hopeless and doomed.

We refer, of course, to the current “debate” about health care reform. We knew the debate had overwhelmed us all when Adam Nagourney crafted this bungled premise from the recent New York Times/CBS poll:

NAGOURNEY (7/30/09): Over all, the poll portrays a nation torn by conflicting impulses and confusion. In one finding, 75 percent of respondents said they were concerned that the cost of their own health care would eventually go up if the government did not create a system of providing health care for all Americans. But in another finding, 77 percent said they were concerned that the cost of health care would go up if the government did create such a system.

But where’s the confusion? Most people think the costs of their health care could go up if we don’t get reform—and also if we do get reform. Presumably, both beliefs are correct—or at least perfectly sensibly. Is the average person supposed to think that his health care costs will literally go down after we “bend the curve?” Those strike us as poorly conceived questions—why not ask if reform will slow the growth?—and Nagourney seemed a bit flummoxed by the data. He just isn’t good at interpreting polls, though he frequently gets the assignment. (To see the full poll, just click here.)

When they read that part of Nagourney’s report, our analysts softly groaned. They groaned again a few hours later, when several of our liberal leaders picked that very passage from the report and made it their own featured finding. We’re not smart enough around here, they all cried. Plus, this is North Korea.

What makes our country the new North Korea? We thought you’d never ask.

Consider the intriguing column in Wednesday’s Post by economics writer Steven Pearlstein. In the larger sense, the column criticizes “the Republican anti-tax fantasy”—the notion “that raising taxes is always and everywhere bad for the economy.” This anti-tax fantasy is threatening the possibility of health care reform, Pearlstein argues. The entire column is well worth reading. But we were struck by this highlighted point—a point Pearlstein offered in passing:

PEARLSTEIN (7/29/09): The reason I mention all this is because the liberal leadership of the House wants to pay for health-care reform in part by imposing an income tax surcharge on households earning more than $350,000 a year.

Personally, I don't think that's a good idea. We're already spending—and wasting—so much more than any other country on health care that we can surely pay for universal coverage within existing health expenditures. What's needed is not more money but the political will to lower the costs of the health-care system while redistributing its benefits.

But if Congress is unable to muster that political will, then the next-best option is to pay for health reform by raising taxes. And given the increasingly unequal distribution of income, it makes both political and economic sense to raise most of that money from upper-income households.

Say what? Personally, Pearlstein wouldn’t favor raising taxes to pay for the health reform plan—because we’re already wasting so much money in our current health care spending! Due to all that gruesome waste, “we can surely pay for universal coverage within existing health expenditures.” In the short run, we don’t know if Pearlstein is right—and he supports raising taxes as the second-best option. But we thought of our ties to North Korean culture when we read that highlighted passage.

You see, citizens of North Korea inhabit a thoroughly landlocked culture. They’re forbidden to know about other lands. So are modern Americans.

Question: How many Americans have ever really heard about the size of their country’s spending on health care—the over-spending which Pearlstein says contains enormous waste? If you want to see real “conflicting impulses and confusion”—if you want to see total cluelessness—just conduct a survey in which you ask American voters about health care in other lands. Ask them how much their nation spends per person, as opposed to other developed nations. Ask them about the health outcomes in those other countries—the ones which spend half as much as we do. Few voters would have any real idea of the facts behind that statement by Pearlstein. Like good North Koreans, we live inside a political/journalistic culture which seems to work with exceptional zeal to keep us barefoot and clueless about all foreign lands.

Below, you see the comparison one could derive from David Leonhardt’s recent New York Times piece. (And yes, you had to derive this stunning comparison—Leonhardt presented the data quite poorly.) Question: How many respondents to the New York Times/CBS poll would have had the first minor clue about a gong show like this?

Annual cost of health care, typical household:
In the United States: $15,000
In other rich countries: $8500

Pearlstein says he would pay for universal coverage out of that extra $6500 per year per household. But how many respondents would have known about the size of that over-spending? Trust us—very few. How many would have been able to discuss the health outcomes in those other rich countries—the ones which spend so much less? Fewer. Like good North Koreans, American citizens know next to nothing about the way their homeland compares to others. American institutions, including the New York Times, seem to work extremely hard to keep us proles from knowing.

Consider:

We are currently in the middle of what is called a health care discussion. In theory, we’re trying to figure if we can somehow control the massive costs of our health care. But every other developed nation has found ways to do just that; a rational person might expect to see that situation explored in the New York Times (and the Washington Post). In a rational world, you would expect to see a series of front-page reports explaining how other countries have done it.

You might also expect to see a series of articles explaining where all that extra money is going—that $6500 extra per household per year. Other countries get equal results at much less cost! So who’s draining off our extra money? But you haven’t seen those front-page reports either. In the U.S., that ain’t how we roll.

This pathological refusal-to-report is reminiscent of what occurred from May 2000 on. Early in that fateful month, Candidate Bush brought forth his masterful principles for partial privatization of Social Security—principles which were widely applauded all over the mainstream pundit corps. (Just his principles—he offered no plan.) Since some other countries had tried this approach, you’d almost think that our major press organs would have described their outcomes. And since some full-blown plans for privatization had been presented to Congress—including several by major players—you’d almost think our big newspapers would have explained how those actual plans really looked.

From those detailed plans, you could have gotten a clearer idea how Bush’s “principles” would really have worked.

Nothing dimly resembling that happened, as we’ve explained in some detail. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/06. Scroll to “second excerpt.”) Quite literally, voters were told nothing about the foreign experience, or about those actual plans which had actually been presented in Congress. Instead, the press corps got busy constructing Standard Approved Group Tales about what Bush’s proposal told us about the character of the two candidates. Simply put (and it always is), Candidate Bush had shown bold leadership. Candidate Gore was showing his vast negativity when he opposed privatization.

Big Pundits repeated these Standard Tales again and again. Voters got no information.

That’s how it’s done in North Korea. And it’s done the same way over here.

We’ve focused here on the failure-to-perform of our major news organs. Others have played key roles in the rise of this Pyongyangian culture. The hapless Democratic Party, for one. And our utterly hapless “liberal leadership,” which is, in reality, an organ—a chew-toy—of the Washington Post. We’ve had fifteen years since the failure of Clinton’s health plan to prepare the public for this current debate. Go ahead! Name the liberal leader, journal or organization which has told the public the things they needed to know—the things which would have given them a chance to react as Pearlstein does in that highlighted passage.

What liberal journal told them about the mountains of money that are being looted? What liberal journal told them about the health outcomes in foreign lands? Who told them where all that extra money is going? Who built a skillful framework through which an angry public might insist on real change, this year?

Your liberal journals haven’t done that. Their leaders have had their lips locked on NBC’s keister; they have been praying for jobs at the Post. But the Post performs oligarchical journalism, as they showed us this past week in a small but unfortunate case.

At the Post, they defend the people who might be found at Lady Weymouth’s high table. If you’re waiting for jobs with them, you can’t roll up sleeves and fight.

That said, Greetings from North Korea! Back in Asbury Park, some were blinded by the light. Here, as in the streets of Pyongyang, the blinding is done by dear leaders. We love their smiles, their genial ways. We thrill to what they’re doing.

Worst answer ever/worst frameworks: Has any major politician ever given a worse answer? A little old lady, with an old lady’s voice, asked President Obama a question on Tuesday. Something was bothering her greatly, she told him. Good grief. Here’s what he said:

QUESTION (7/28/09): I have heard lots of rumors going around about this new plan, and I hope that the people that are going to vote on this is going to read every single page there. I have been told there is a clause in there that everyone that's Medicare age will be visited and told to decide how they wish to die. This bothers me greatly, and I'd like for you to promise me that this is not in this bill.

OBAMA: You know, the—I guarantee you, first of all, we just don't have enough government workers to send to talk to everybody to find out how they, they want to die.

Granted, the president was joking. It may be the venue which set him off. He sat before a brick wall this day; as he joked, it looked a bit like a pilot for Health Care Reform at the Improv. (To watch the exchange, click here.) In fairness, he quickly went on from there to give that woman a fuller answer. The next day, he answered sincerely, from the start, when he got a strikingly similar question:

QUESTION (7/29/09): My name is Charlotte Norman from Bristol, Tennessee. I have a mother that is—will soon be 90 years old. And it's obvious that I'm a senior, too.

Rumor has it that, if we get this new health care system in, that we won't get the health care, our doctors and all, that we have now, that virtually people—older American citizens will just be put out to pasture. Please tell me that isn't so.

OBAMA: It isn't so. I mean, I don't know—

(APPLAUSE)

Look, nothing burns me up more than hearing some of these scare tactics directed at seniors, you know, because seniors, they're vulnerable, and they get worried about some of this stuff, and they get some, you know, crazy fliers in the mail, and, you know, they get scared that they might lose their—their care. So let me just be absolutely clear: Medicare is in place and, as long as I'm there, and even long after I'm gone, Medicare will continue to be in place.

There was more , but you see the change in tone. We’ll assume that someone saw the groaning problem with that first reply.

(Not to brag, but when we did Evening at the Improv, we were hosted by Barbara Eden.)

The last sixteen years weren’t Obama’s fault or doing. It isn’t his fault that people ask him, every day, about the “rumors” they are hearing. It isn’t his fault that his party, and its liberal companions, did so little, from 1992 on, to address the growing problem of rumors, including rumors which were ugly and crazy. As the Clinton/Gore years proceeded, liberal interests were eaten alive by rumors and crazy stories—crazy stories which often got spread by the fine people at Lady Weymouth’s high table.

Liberal pundits never said boo. By the way, neither did Gates. Here at THE HOWLER, we’re not real high on our professorial class. They’re so smart—and also so silent!

Rachel Maddow has done good work this week reacting to rumors and crazy stories. Others have been addressing the rumors and crazy stories too. For many years, you could say any damn thing you wanted to say in this country—as long as you said it about the Clintons or Gore, or perhaps even about Kerry. You could say any damn thing you pleased. Some of today’s finest “liberal leaders” were among the people who did.

Obama is stuck with the fruits of that era. His party developed no framework for understanding health care—and no framework for dealing with vile, evil rumors. No one ever went to this nation’s frightened old ladies and told them, in ways they could understand: People will keep telling you things which simply aren’t true. You have to be extremely careful before you believe those tales.

Obama told them to watch out for fliers. He didn’t say “Rush.” And no, that wasn’t a mistake. Before a president can say something like that, the framework has to be set.

No one has told them who does these things. But then, for a rather large part of that era, these things were done by our high liberal lords. Those stories were spread by us.