KORNBLUTS CHATTER! Its stunning to think that work this bad appears at the top of our press corps:
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FRIDAY, AUGUST 17, 2007
There was some amazingly bad content writing in Wednesdays newspapers. In the Post
, Robert Samuelson licked every man in the house about Newsweeks
SAMUELSON (8/15/07): Unfortunately, self-righteous indignation can undermine good journalism. A recent Newsweek cover story on global warming is a sobering reminder. It's an object lesson on how viewing the world as "good guys vs. bad guys" can lead to a vast oversimplification of a messy story. Global warming has clearly occurred; the hard question is what to do about it.
report didnt concern what to do about global warming; it was an informative report about the denial machine which has misled the American public about whether theres a climate problem at all (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/10/07
). At any rate, Samuelson is soon making a claim he has made before. We lack the technology to stop global warming, he says in paragraph 3. Just because Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to cut emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 doesn't mean it can happen. At best, we might curb the growth of emissions, he says.
Is there a plausible way to reduce the emissions which drive global warming? We dont know, but Samuelsons piece is remarkably hard to follow. Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting emissions by 80 percent in the state of California
; in the passage we cite, Samuelson therefore seems to be saying that we can at best keep Californias
emissions to their current levels. But his piece is so incoherently written that you have to struggle to make out his meaning. In paragraph 4, he jumps ahead, with no direct notice, to a study of world-wide
emissions; in paragraph 5, hes suddenly weighing the plausibility of cutting American
emissions. And if its sheer confusion you like, check the sentence which opens paragraph 5. Even the fantasy would be a stretch, he declares. Go ahead—we dare
you to tell us what that sentence actually means in that context.
In fairness, if you struggle with Samuelsons poorly-drawn piece, you can wrestle his views to the ground. Samuelson feels it would be very hard, for political reasons, to cut emissions in this country—and even if we do succeed at that task, he says, our good works will be offset elsewhere. (If we succeed in cutting [American] emissions substantially, savings would probably be offset by gains in China and elsewhere.) But soon, hes back to arguing with that Newsweek
report—a report which was only tangentially connected to the question he seems to be discussing. Finishing off a gruesome trifecta, his specific complaints about the report are just laughable. (Dont believe the Newsweek
claim about Exxon-Mobil. Exxon-Mobil denied it!) And he presents polling data which seem so cherry-picked that they confirm his overview statement: Polls can be found to illustrate almost anything, he says.
Samuelson writes one short column a week. Given that work load, its simply amazing that he (and his editors) cant produce better work. This column is built on a tortured complaint about the original Newsweek
report. When Samuelson makes his own assertions, he does so very confusingly.
By the way: How hard would
it be to reduce American emissions? We dont have the slightest idea—because we read newspapers. It has been more than a year since An Inconvenient Truth
(book and movie) turbo-charged the global warming discussion. And at the end of the film (on page 280-281 of the book), Al Gore claims that we can bring [American] emissions down to a point below 1970s levels by roughly the year 2050 if we pursue six types of reductions. (One example: Reductions from increased reliance on renewable energy technologies that already exist, such as wind and biofuels.) This seems to fly in the face of Samuelsons thesis, which raises a fundamental question: How realistic was that claim by Gore, the one at the end of his book?
How realistic was that claim by Gore? Funny you should ask! It has been more than a year since this claim appeared, sourced to a study by Socolow and Pacala—and we dont think weve ever seen a news org try to evaluate it. Beyond that, a Nexis search of Gore AND Socolow OR Pacala produces a serious dearth of results. Does Gores most important claim make sense? Our news orgs dont seem to have asked.
Samuelsons piece is remarkably lazy—ill-reasoned, slapdash, weirdly confusing. But this is very typical work at the top
of our modern press corps.
From Sir with impatience:
Also on Wednesday, Sam Dillon presented this lengthy report
in the New York Times about former Blair aide Michael Barber. Sir Michael is now advising Joel Klein, head of New York Citys schools—and clearly, the noble fellow is full of bold talk. When schools are failing, we have to act! One phrase is too funny to skip:
DILLON (8/15/07): In Mr. Blair's Britain, it was possible to impose a new policy quickly. From 1997 through 2001, when Sir Michael headed the Standards and Effectiveness Unit of the Department for Education and Skills, he presided over the shuttering of some 130 chronically low-performing English schools.
No American state has addressed its failing schools with a vigor that is even remotely similar, even though under No Child Left Behind, about 1,800 of the nation's schools have been identified as in need of overhaul. So far, none of the 50 states have even outlined a forceful set of policies for such schools.
When it comes to failing schools, Sir Michael expresses impatience. When a public school is failing—not just going through a rough patch, but also systematically failing to educate its students—he says there is only one question the authorities should consider: ''How do I get these children a good education as fast as possible?'
'''Once you have the answer to that question, you just do it,'' he said. ''If it's close the school, you close it and move the children into a better one. If there are no better schools nearby, close it and replace it with another on the same site. But you do whatever it takes.''
Huh—intriguing! If a school is systematically failing, you close it, or try to fix it! Sir Michael blathers on and on, encouraged in this task by Dillon. Just one problem: In all his 1430 words, Dillon makes no attempt to say if Sir Michaels brilliance produced any results when he headed the comically-monikered Standards and Effectiveness Unit of the Department for Education and Skills. In first two grafs, Dillon does say this. This brief phrase explains why were listening to Sir Michael Barber:
DILLON: During a decade in power in Britain, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair made efforts to improve English schools, with some apparent successes. Because American public education faces similar challenges, like what to do with failing schools and how to recruit better teachers, some educators believe there is much to learn from England's experience.
A few are turning to Sir Michael Barber, a senior adviser to Mr. Blair from 1997 through 2005, who received his title in recognition of his educational contributions. As a partner at McKinsey & Company, he has been advising education policymakers, including the Ohio State Board of Education and Joel I. Klein, the New York schools chancellor.
In his time at the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, Sir Michael produced some apparent successes! In that twice-qualified, useless phrase, we see the utter lack of interest our big news orgs tend to bring to these labors.
Lets admit it: Weve puzzled all week about Anne Kornbluts preview of Campaign 08. Amazingly, her puzzling piece was the featured report in this Sundays Outlook section. And uh-oh! She took a stick to a hornets nest with her opening paragraph
KORNBLUT (8/12/07): President Bush came to office after the so-called "Seinfeld" election—the mindless campaign of 2000, a race filled with chatter but fundamentally about nothing, like the hit television show.
Readers noted an obvious fact—the mindless chatter of Campaign 2000 came from Kornbluts dim-witted cohort, a point Kornblut failed to mention. Atrios pounded Kornblut here
, flirting with an obvious fact: That mindless chatter by Kornbluts pals sent George Bush to the White House. And wouldnt you know it? In Mondays on-line discussion
, Kornblut was challenged three times on this point! In response to this first, insightful question, she paid homage to Campaign 2000's varied reporting, while praising the questioners fairness:
QUESTION (8/13/07): How could you write about the "Seinfeld election" of 2000 without acknowledging the role of the media (i.e., you) in setting the agenda for that election? Surely you recognize that the fixation on Al Gore's wardrobe and alleged lies was not organic, but was a creation of the media? Your article seemed to be a cheap attempt to blame the public for your institution's failings, a common problem these days in the media.
KORNBLUT: This is a completely fair question. I don't think it is helpful to lump "the media" into a single category—some reporters did certain kinds of reporting in 2000, and others did others—but I understand the resentment many people feel toward the coverage of that year overall. At the same time, though, many political operatives themselves struggled to bring meaningful definition to that race, even in hindsight; there was (they say) a degree of detachment in the public. In any event, your point is very well taken.
Shes right, of course—the reporting was
varied during Campaign 2000. Some reporters mocked Gores clothing, while others invented those phony quotations. In her second Q-and-A on this topic, Kornblut pretended that the press corps admitted problems had been quite bi-partisan:
KORNBLUT: Thank you for reading my piece in Outlook and taking the time to write in. It's a good question—and worthy of a longer discussion than I can do here— but in short I would say what I said earlier, that it was an election in which the two candidates had a hard time narrowing the focus to a single issue or group of issues that captured public imagination. At the same time, there were (as there always have been) stories of a, shall we say, less than weighty nature—about the candidates' physical appearances, and so on. But I don't think that is what fundamentally made it about nothing. I think the pre-9/11 era had much of the nation not focusing on what was at stake, the way the country does now.
Gee. We wonder why a guy like Gore had a hard time narrowing the focus to a single issue or group of issues? But once again, Kornblut is perfectly right—there were
stories about both candidates appearances. If youll recall, Bush appeared to be a Bold Leader—and Gore appeared to be a liar who wore extremely funny clothes. In her third Q-and-A on this topic, she was asked about the Naomi Wolf nonsense. And wouldnt you know it? Eight years later, Kornblut still wasnt able to answer that question specifically! She said she works so hard on her own reports that I do not spend a lot of time personally fact-checking my colleagues. She may
have heard something about the Wolf thing. But shes been much too busy to check.
Lets face it—these Q-and-As are just so funny that we should call it quits right here. But we were more struck by the heart of Kornbluts report than by its opening paragraph. Before we got to laugh at Kornbluts answers on Monday, we were forced to cry on the sabbath as we tried to decipher the prose found in her puzzling report. Indeed, weve spend a fair amount of time this week trying to puzzle our way through a question: Was Kornbluts piece really as incoherent—as intellectually immature—as it seemed to us when we read it? Late yesterday, our analysts were still at work on the piece—a piece which appeared at the very top of American political journalism.
Kornbluts report was 1900 words long. Its stunning to think that work this bad appears at the top of our press corps.
In her report, Kornblut is trying to figure out what this election will be about. How will the candidates frame this election? Her first odd construction comes early:
KORNBLUT (8/12/07): With Bush's approval ratings at historic lows, almost everyone on both sides agrees that the race could be summed up at this point in a single word: change. But a change to what?
Will 2008 boil down to continuing the U.S. commitment to the Iraq war and simply changing the commander in chief who's waging it, as several of the Republican candidates hope? Or will it be about a more radical sort of change—a shift to the first female president, to the first African American president, to a new generation of leadership or even to a third-party candidate?
Will Campaign 08 be about change? It will be if Kornblut gets her druthers! In the highlighted passage, she plainly says that, even if we elect a president who plans to continue the war in Iraq, that will be a type of change too; it just wont be as radical a type of change as we might otherwise get. The absurdity of this ought to be obvious, but Kornblut has much more where that came from. As she continues, she starts to ponder what the electorate will be looking for next year:
KORNBLUT (continuing directly): Will the electorate's primary consideration be competence and experience, after the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina and its mournful aftermath? Do voters want to relaunch the 21st century? To catapult forward into a different era? Or to return to the easier and more prosperous days of the 1990s?
"Elections are often more rejections of the prior administration than something brand-new," said the historian Garry Wills...
Puzzling. In the literal sense, voters cant
relaunch the 21st century or return to the days of the 1990s; for that reason, its hard to know what Kornblut means when she imagines them pondering such choices. (By way of contrast, other voters may want to catapult forward into a different era!) But then, Kornblut presents a striking array of puzzling points in the course of this piece. The analysts spent the entire week puzzling over this passage:
KORNBLUT: Douglas Brinkley, a Tulane historian, said that a campaign that's about Iraq plus national security would tend to favor the more seasoned Clinton, or perhaps another candidate who is advocating a careful, responsible withdrawal rather than an immediate departure. "It's like what Nixon faced in 1968: peace with honor," Brinkley said. "I don't think the country's mood is as antiwar as you think. It's more, 'We've done what we were supposed to do; it's time to come home.' "
Meanwhile, the Republicans are banking on the election's being about national security (traditionally one of the party's electoral strengths), firmly intertwined with the war in Iraq. That's a formula that worked for Bush in 2004 but failed his party miserably in the 2006 midterm elections, in which the Republicans lost control of both the House and the Senate to a Democratic Party galvanized by the war.
Did we read that correctly? Brinkley thinks that Clinton would be helped by a campaign that's about Iraq plus national security. Meanwhile, Republicans think that they
would be helped if the campaign is about national security plus Iraq! Kornblut seems to think shes presenting a contrast—but, in fact, she has only changed the order of the two topics. Lets summarize:
Clinton: Will be helped if the campaign is about Iraq and national security.
Republicans: Will be helped if the campaign is about national security and Iraq.
Oh. In fairness, our analysts finally came up with a reading of Kornbluts longer passage which makes this less absurd than it seems. She may mean that Clinton would have an advantage in the Democratic primaries
if the election is about Iraq plus security. But after four days of work, we have no idea if thats what was meant—and this earlier passage, about John Edwards, also left us kerflubbled:
KORNBLUT: [Edwards] has become perhaps the biggest gambler in the top tier of Democrats, deciding to stake his candidacy not only on the Iraq war (which he voted for but now vehemently opposes) but also on domestic issues, particularly poverty. Though there has been little to suggest that the general election will be about the poor, Edwards has calculated that paying attention to domestic concerns will entrance the Democratic Party base enough to win him the nomination—and that he can figure out the rest from there.
There has been little to suggest that the general election will be about the poor? What if Edwards wins the Democratic nomination and continues to talk
about the poor? Meanwhile, according to Kornblut, Edwards doesnt know how hed run a general election; he has calculated that, if he wins the nomination, he can figure out the rest from there. We have no idea why Kornblut says that—or why she says a raft of the things which comprise this puzzling space-filler.
Some of her piece reads like Being There 2,
involving statements so weirdly obvious that we find ourselves hunting for hidden meanings. The spirit of Chance the Gardener lived as our analysts struggled with this one:
KORNBLUT: More often not [sic], a presidential race has two separate narratives, one Republican, one Democratic. Sometimes those storylines run close together; sometimes they're miles apart. The parties "always, to some degree, run at cross-purposes to one another," said the historian Robert Dallek. "If they're agreeing too much, they don't feel like they're setting forth a real program to attract voters."
Huh! So the parties run against
one another? As Kornblut labors through this section, we learn that the two parties sometimes talk about different
issues—and that they sometimes discuss the same
issues, offering different ideas about them! At one point, she calls in Mike Murphy to clarify a difficult point:
KORNBLUT: "Usually the more pain we're in, the more things are going in a bad direction, the more elections seem pretty simple—which is a call for some sort of change," said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who worked on McCain's 2000 presidential bid. "When public opinion is a little less focused, the election is about smaller things, and it's harder to paint it in broad strokes."
Huh! According to Murphy, if things are going in a bad direction, the country tries to change
that. Other quotes make perfect sense, but are weirdly prefaced:
KORNBLUT (continuing directly): Sometimes, Barone said, voters see around the corner before politicians do. "In 1972, the Democrats thought it was about ending the war [in Vietnam], but Nixon had already basically ended the U.S. involvement by the time the election came along," said Barone, who counts himself among the then-Democrats who thought that Vietnam would define that race, only to see the antiwar candidate, George McGovern, lose.
According to Barone, the Democrats ran on ending the war—but Nixon beat them to it. But why would that be described as a case of voters see[ing] around the corner before politicians do? Frankly, we have no idea. But then, Kornblut seems to pull phrases out of the air and she lets them sit wherever they land. Just consider the amazing passage, near the end, where she ponders the possibility of an October surprise:
KORNBLUT: Or could the election wind up being about something unexpected that happens between now and next summer? After all, with the ever-shifting campaign calendar, the parties' nominees may have nearly a year to compete before Election Day 2008—a span of time in which any number of events could shake the political landscape, from another terrorist attack on U.S. soil to a crumbling stock market to worsening chaos on the ground in Iraq to an international cataclysm still unforeseen. In presidential politics, candidates are even taught to expect such unexpecteds, known universally as the "October surprise.
But if a terrorist attack occurs between now and next summer—if it occurs next March, let us say—it surely wont be an October surprise. Indeed, it wouldnt quite be an October surprise if it occurred in October 08, given that phrases traditional meaning, which has always implied deliberation and guile on the part of the incumbent administration. Lets be honest—if a high school student gave you that passage, youd tell her what was wrong with her work. But that passage appeared in Sundays Post, not in a four-page high school newspaper. In fact, it was part of the lead report in the papers famed Outlook section.
Oh, one more thing, that opening paragraph. Lets recall the mindless way Kornblut began her space-filling chatter:
KORNBLUT: President Bush came to office after the so-called "Seinfeld" election—the mindless campaign of 2000, a race filled with chatter but fundamentally about nothing, like the hit television show.
Huh! Weve studied Campaign 2000 a great deal, and well admit it—we didnt recall it being described in that so-called way. As it turned out, there was a good reason for our ignorance; the race was almost never
described that way in real time, and it has rarely been described that way since. In the entire Nexis archive, this is the only
such description of Campaign 2000 while it was going on:
SHIELDS (5/4/00): Up to now, Bush and Gore have played it safe politically, combining to make this a "Seinfeld" election campaign about nothing. Bush's regular guy likability is now an advantage over Gore, who, in spite of several public reinventions of himself, is still seen as stiff and uninteresting. A more serious problem for Gore is that, not unlike other vice presidents, he is still not seen as his own man.
But its interesting. Even as Shields spoke out this day (reciting the mantra about Gores reinventions), Bush was introducing his proposal for partial privatization of Social Security—and Gore was aggressively opposing the idea. But uh-oh! Pundits like Shields refused to discuss the merits of the two mens proposals. Instead, mindless chatter rained down on Gores head—chatter about his troubling negativity. By happenstance, this chatter began exactly one day after Shields column appeared:
Hardball, MSNBC, May 5, 2000:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Norah, lets start in talking about this amazing campaign. Who would have believed that George W. Bush would have looked so clean and so good right now after that bruising fight with John McCain? Hes up five points in a number of polls this week, and yet you see Al Gore picking away at him with these left jabs of his
Its the same thing he did to Bill Bradley—attack, attack, attack.
Russert, CNBC, May 6, 2000:
JOE KLEIN: The concern I have about the Gore campaign is that he has learned one lesson and hes kind of becoming a one-trick pony.
TIM RUSSERT: Attack. Attack. Attack.
KLEIN: Attack. Attack.
RUSSERT: Governor Bush put forward a Social Security plan calling for a partial privatizing, and he attacks, saying that is risky
Why, why—why does Gore just, almost knee-jerk, attack, attack, attack?
Inside Politics, CNN, May 17, 2000:
CHARLES COOK: For Governor Bush, its a chance to show sort of bold leadership
But at the same time, getting into that area is certainly a risky thing and its going to test all of George Bushs abilities of persuasion to sell this, because Al Gore is very good at the attack, just look at what he did to Bill Bradley on health care
BERNARD SHAW: What comes to mind, Stu?
ROTHENBERG: Well, in general, he has been attacking for months now and theres been a lot of criticism that hes been overly negative. Once again, here, attack, attack.
Everyone knew what to say about Gore—although, just as Kornblut told that questioner, there was chatter about both
hopefuls appearances. According to Matthews, Candidate Bush looked so clean and so good. According to Cook, Candidate Bush was looking like a bold leader.
In the years since November 2000, some pundits have
described that campaign as a Seinfeld election—often attributing the claim to somebody else. But wouldnt you know it? The phrase was widely used during the 1998 campaign, and it was widely used during Campaign 02. It has been widely used in the Canadian press to describe Canadian elections. As always, pundits have found themselves needing a crutch to help them extend their mindless chatter. Kornbluts chatter began with that opening graf, and continued all through her puzzling piece—a piece appeared at the very top of Americas stone-broken press corps.
Of course, Kornblut had a jibe for one of the candidates. Have we mentioned the fact that this hapless scrivener doesnt like Hillary Clinton?
KORNBLUT (8/12/07): So is 2008 all about "turning the page," to borrow a phrase Obama has been using and reusing since the February speech that formally declared his candidacy? Not so fast. Clinton, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, has declared her own vision of what the election is about, using dual parameters that suit her: experience and something new. Hence her campaign's double-barreled slogan: "Ready to Lead, Ready for Change." The concept is to offer two sides of the same coin, her advisers say—a strategy that allows her to be about change and experience at the same time.
Throughout her piece, Kornblut is respectful as she describes the way the hopefuls want to frame the coming election. Kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kss! Heres her passage on Romney:
KORNBLUT: For his part, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is credited with cleaning up the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, is hoping that the election will hinge at least in part on a desire for a more competent executive. But even he—a Republican who more or less agrees with Bush on the issues—is running on change, using his experience outside the Beltway as his chief asset. Last Wednesday, he began airing a new ad in Iowa titled, "Change Begins." "Washington politicians in both parties have proven they can't control spending and they won't control our borders," Romney says in the ad.
Everyone else can declare his own vision. But we think you know the crackpot rules that have driven this cohort for the past many years. By rule of law, one of these candidates—one out of many—speaks with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And yes, of course, its the other white meat, as Kornblut has now described Clinton (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/16/07
). Make no mistake: With creeps like Kornblut mindlessly chattering, these were the rules that were used to stop Gore—and theyll be used against Clinton.