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Daily Howler: The parson Meacham just couldn't wait to repeat a simple story
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CONSTANT AS THE SPEED OF LIGHT! The parson Meacham just couldn’t wait to repeat a simple story: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2005

JESS B. SEMPLE: Three cheers for Lisa Randall, Harvard physics professor! In Sunday’s Times, she wrote a lengthy piece about distorted public discussions of science. Deep in her piece, she hit on a problem—people love simple stories, she said, and the press corps loves to supply them:
RANDALL (9/18/05): Sometimes, as with global warming, the [seriousness of the scientific community’s] claims have been underplayed. But often it's the opposite: a cancer development presented as a definite advance can seem far more exciting and might raise the status of the researcher far more than a result presented solely as a partial understanding of a microscopic mechanism whose connection to the disease is uncertain. Scientists and the public are both at fault. No matter how many times these ''breakthroughs'' prove misleading, they will be reported this way as long as that's what people want to hear.

A better understanding of the mathematical significance of results and less insistence on a simple story would help to clarify many scientific discussions.

Our analysts cheered as Randall told a verboten tale—we humans just luvv “simple stories.” Soon, the professor prescribed:
RANDALL: [M]ost important, people have to recognize that science can be complex. If we accept only simple stories, the description will necessarily be distorted. When advances are subtle or complicated, scientists should be willing to go the extra distance to give proper explanations and the public should be more patient about the truth.
We’ve spoken here, year after year, about the press corps’ love for the dumb, simple story. Our analysts had a brief bounce in their step after a truth-telling Harvard professor echoed our (completely pointless) cry.

CONSTANT AS THE SPEED OF LIGHT: And speaking of inane, simple stories, we had the parson, Newsweek’s Jon Meacham, reciting a new script on Imus this morning. Evan Thomas had typed it last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/16/05) and Meacham couldn’t wait to recite it. The scribe was discussing how much more brilliant Bush’s father had been. (“Like you, I’m a big fan of 41,” Meacham said.) Then, he obediently said this:

MEACHAM (9/19/05): I don’t think this is the usual spit-balling of the press because anyone who had a television in the first 48 hours of the hurricane knew that things were awful. And we reported last week that Bush wasn’t watching the news, of course, and so Dan Bartlett had to make him a DVD of the news, and then when he saw it, he said, hey, maybe this is worse than he thought.
But Newsweek didn’t “report” the part of the story we’ve highlighted; as we noted on Friday, Evan Thomas simply made that part up, taking the edge off a puzzling story. What actually happened after Bartlett made that DVD on the first Thursday night? Bush showed up in Mississippi and New Orleans the next day, telling “Brownie” how well he was doing, jesting about fixing up Trent Lott’s house, and joking about how he used to get wasted when he would go to New Orleans to party. This odd conduct was apparently too much for Thomas, so he simply invented a new story element; he simply pretended that Bush had been “shocked” when he watched the news Thursday night. And this morning, Meacham couldn’t wait to repeat the simplified tale.

No, Newsweek wasn’t willing to go where the facts of this story took them. But then, simple stories abounded in last week’s edition. For example, here was Jonathan Alter, doing what he so rarely does—reciting a simple, dumb tale:

ALTER (9/19/05): Racism was clearly present in the aftermath of Katrina. Readers of Yahoo News noticed it when a pair of waterlogged whites were described in a caption as "carrying" food while another picture (from a different wire service) of blacks holding food described them as "looters."
Racism was “clearly present” in that first photo caption? As we’ve noted, you couldn’t get a stupider story—and Alter couldn’t wait to recite it, long after its problems became evident.

Give it up, professor! You’re wasting your time! As constant as the speed of light is the press corps’ commitment to dumb, simple stories. Only those who actually care reject them—and very few of our powdered press elite can be placed in that dwindling class.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE: Needless to say, Frank Rich was also keeping it simple on Sunday. Here’s the way he told a preferred tale—and a way he could have typed it:

RICH (9/19/05): The Knight Ridder newspapers found last week that it was the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, not [Michael] Brown, who had the greater authority to order federal agencies into service without any request from state or local officials... Like Mr. Brown, he was oblivious to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the convention center, confessing his ignorance of conditions there to NPR on the same day that the FEMA chief famously did so to Ted Koppel.

RICH REVISED: The Knight Ridder newspapers found last week that it was the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, not [Michael] Brown, who had the greater authority to order federal agencies into service without any request from state or local officials...Like Mr. Brown [and all reporters for major newspapers, including those of the New York Times], he was unaware of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the convention center, confessing his ignorance of conditions there to NPR on the same day that the FEMA chief learned of it.

As usual, Rich played his readers for fools, handing them a simple story that made them feel good but rearranged basic facts. How pleasing it felt to type “oblivious to” instead of the more precise “unaware of”—and how pleasing it was to omit the fact that very few people (including the New York Times’ own reporters) were aware of the Convention Center before Thursday morning. (The Times didn’t report the situation until its Friday edition. Neither did the Washington Post.) Meanwhile, did Brown “famously confess his ignorance of conditions there” to Koppel on Thursday night? From Rich’s artful construction, a reader might think that Brown was still ignorant Thursday night. That, of course, is plainly untrue—but when Chris Wallace made a similar (bogus) claim on Fox News Sunday, the tape was played all over the press. By the way, who bungled the facts when Koppel met Brownie? Oh that’s right—Koppel did! He falsely claimed that ABC had been reporting the story for days.

But then, this is precisely the way your lazy pundits hand you those pleasing, simple stories. Give it up, professor! Asking Rich to abandon such tales is like asking a dark star to shine.

TARGET ONE: And then, there’s Target One, Bill Clinton, always the source of a good simple tale! In this morning’s Times, Philip Shenon goes to great lengths to hype and pimp the troubling way Clinton went after Bush on This Week. (Headline: “Clinton Levels Sharp Criticism At the President's Relief Effort.”) At one point, for example, Shenon types this:

SHENON (9/19/05): The White House has been under siege from critics, assailed first for the effectiveness of its response to the storm, and challenged more recently by questions about the long-term fiscal implications of its plans for rebuilding in the Gulf states.

Mr. Clinton argued that lower-income Americans had done better under the economic policies of his administration than they are doing now, saying the storm highlighted class divisions in the country that often played out along racial lines.

''It's like when they issued the evacuation order,'' he said. ''That affects poor people differently. A lot of them in New Orleans didn't have cars. A lot of them who had cars had kinfolk they had to take care of. They didn't have cars, so they couldn't take them out.''

From the larger context of the article, anyone would think that Clinton was targeting Bush in that troubling quotation. But here is the actual passage. Everyone got blamed except Bush:
CLINTON (9/18/05): In Louisiana, if what you do affects poor people disproportionately, then it will disproportionately affect black people. Now, there were a lot of poor people in St. Bernard Parish who were white, who were also were hurt. But I think the fundamental problem there was, it's like when they issued the evacuation order, that affects poor people differently. A lot of them in New Orleans didn't have cars. A lot of them who had cars had kinfolks they had to take care of, they didn't have cars and they couldn't take them out.

STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn't have cash.

CLINTON: And they couldn't get gas. Then you had, another thing that nobody's talked about, a lot of these people never had any home insurance, didn't have any flood insurance, everything they own was in their little home, and if we really wanted to do it right we would have had lots of buses lined up to take them out, and also lots of empty vans, so that everybody with no kind of home or flood insurance could have been given a little bit—

STEPHANOPOULOS: The mayor probably—the mayor probably should have had those buses.

CLINTON: —a little bit of it. Maybe the mayor, maybe the governor. But if, all I can tell you is that what, when James Lee Witt ran FEMA, because he had been both a local official and a Federal official, he was always there early and we always thought about that, but we, both of us came out of environments with a disproportionate number of poor people. I think that we were sensitive to the racial issue but I think we were sensitive to the economic issue and it, you, you can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle class people up, and when you tell people to go do something they don't have the means to do, you're going to leave the poor out.

“Maybe the mayor, maybe the governor,” Clinton said. By morning, Shenon had turned that into “the White House”—and the half-witted Imus, and his guest Meacham, were telling dick-jokes about Clinton’s vile statements. (Text of their comments tomorrow.) These gentlemen luvv a simple story. And they luvv to get back to the smut.

Professor, you need to give it up! You need to get back to your ivory tower! Perhaps in that place you can find some smart people—trainable people you can teach to reject simple stories. But the Meachams, the Riches, the Shenons, the Imuses? They’re simply committed to dumb, silly stories. They’re paid good dough to play that dumb game—and it well suits their slumbering intellects.