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YOU MAY LIVE IN AN IDIOCRACY IF! Paul Krugman is insufficiently shrill in today’s (accurate) column: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2009

Asleep at the switch—for decades: Was the Washington Post “tardy” in its coverage of the recent ACORN matters? Andrew Alexander, the Post’s ombudsman, said so in last Sunday’s column (click here).

Was the the New York Times “too late” in reporting the story? Clark Hoyt, the Times’ public editor, offered that judgment yesterday (click this).

For what it’s worth, there’s more to recommend Hoyt’s judgment—though not a great deal more. And Hoyt himself is rather selective when it comes to complaints of this type.

The current story got started on September 10. That evening, Brett Baier introduced a segment on Fox News Channel’s Special Report:

BAIER (9/10/09): The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, has been repeatedly accused by critics of voter registration fraud and has been under fire for its planned participation in next year's census. But a new video shows that those concerns may just be the tip of the iceberg. Senior correspondent Eric Shawn explains.

Emphasis on the word new video. Shawn presented the “shocking [new] undercover video of ACORN, made by film-maker James O'Keefe” at ACORN’s Baltimore office. Glenn Beck had aired the same video one hour earlier, engaging in typical hysteria—and asking a typically ludicrous question:

BECK (9/10/09): It is getting more and more difficult to tell you the truth. I have been told that there are three private eyes currently looking into my life. These two people that I'm going to introduce you to here at this hour are risking their life. They're exposed. There are billions if not trillions of dollars at stake.

Please, America, I ask you to look past the politics and look to the principles. This is an ACORN office in Baltimore, Maryland. They are taking your tax dollars.

I don't care who you voted for. Demand that this is looked into. Why is Congress covering the tracks for ACORN? Why has the media not reported on a story that broke today?

Here's an ACORN office where two people come in looking for—looking for a house. I'm going to introduce them to you, because I want you to understand who these people are.

With shrieking paranoia and classic illogic, Beck helped define the broken intellectual parameters of your floundering culture. “Why has the media not reported on a story that broke today?” he asked. Beck’s question answered itself, of course; indeed, his question explained why Beck himself hadn’t reported on the story before that day’s broadcast. But inside your nation’s broken culture, such illogic has ruled us for decades.

At any rate, the current story began September 10. The AP filed its first brief report (142 words), stating that ACORN had fired the two workers seen on the Baltimore tape. Later in Special Report, Baier cited that newly-released AP report when he reported the firings.

Judging from the Nexis record, we’d have to say this: The Washington Post wasn’t massively slower than the Washington Times in reporting this story, if it was really slower at all. The New York Times was slower. In yesterday’s Times, the headline of Hoyt’s column criticized the paper for “tuning in too late.”

That judgment has some merit. But why was the New York Times slow off the mark? We were struck by this highlighted passage from Hoyt’s piece, in which Hoyt starts explaining the reason for the newspaper’s tardiness:

HOYT (9/27/09): [F]or days, as more videos were posted and government authorities rushed to distance themselves from Acorn, The Times stood still. Its slow reflexes—closely following its slow response to a controversy that forced the resignation of Van Jones, a White House adviser—suggested that it has trouble dealing with stories arising from the polemical world of talk radio, cable television and partisan blogs. Some stories, lacking facts, never catch fire. But others do, and a newspaper like The Times needs to be alert to them or wind up looking clueless or, worse, partisan itself.

Some editors told me they were not immediately aware of the Acorn videos on Fox, YouTube and a new conservative Web site called BigGovernment.com. When the Senate voted to cut off all federal funds to Acorn, there was not a word in the newspaper or on its Web site. When the New York City Council froze all its funding for Acorn and the Brooklyn district attorney opened a criminal investigation, there was still nothing.

Why was the New York Times slow on this story? “Some editors told me they were not immediately aware of the Acorn videos on Fox,” Hoyt reported—and we’re not surprised to hear that. For decades, big newspapers like the Times have seemed to play “head in the sand” on such matters. They almost seem to pride themselves on their ignorance of the public discourse—specifically, on their ignorance of the part of the discourse being driven by outlets like Fox.

We agree with Hoyt on one point. The New York Times does “have trouble dealing with stories arising from the polemical world of talk radio.” For years, the Times has “had trouble” telling readers about the giant mountains of bullsh*t emitting from these swamps. For decades, they have run and hid from the ugliest, stupidest stories which have “arisen from this world.” They ran and hid when this fetid world accused the Clintons of serial murders. When the Times reviewed Ann Coulter’s first major book, it ran and hid from all the nonsense found inside its covers. During that same era, the Times actively invented the Whitewater pseudo-controversy, and the fake phony “lies” of Al Gore, of course. Sometimes, the Times has promoted this world’s phony claims. But when it doesn’t promote such claims, it turns a blind eye to the nonsense.

Tens of millions of American citizens get disinformed in the process.

In this current instance, the ACORN tapes turned into real news. It was news when the Senate cut off funds. It was news when the New York City council froze all its funding.

But part of the news was the utter silliness driving a part of this story. Some ACORN employees reacted very poorly to the sting in question. (Other employees showed better judgment.) But how much have we actually learned when such a sting produces such results? What kinds of reactions might we get if we tried to sting employees at a range of other organizations? If a news org chose to report on this story, an examination of the story’s logic would be important. But the Times has found it safer and easier, down through the years, to simply ignore such stories. When Grade A Bullsh*t has “arisen from the polemical world of talk radio and cable television,” the Times has endlessly run off and hid. We weren’t surprised to read that this newspaper’s editors “were not immediately aware of the Acorn videos on Fox.” This newspaper’s editors have been systematically unaware of what happens in such venues for the past several decades.

The New York Times has run and hid from the world of pseudo-conservative talk—when it wasn’t actively involved in actively pimping that world’s frameworks, of course. This big newspaper has simply refused to address the world of pseudo-conservative disinformation and hysteria. Seeing no evil and hearing no evil has long been this paper’s MO.

When complete bullsh*t about national health care “arises from the polemical world of talk radio and cable television,” the Times ignores that too. Tens of millions of people get disinformed—and the Times types blithely along. But Hoyt doesn’t scold the Times for that. Letting Fox disinform the rubes is now part of our national culture.

It’s our greatest newspaper—and its editors didn’t know what was happening on Fox! But why should we be surprised about that? This is precisely the process which has led to our current know-nothing culture. “The polemical world of talk radio and cable television” can say and do anything. Neither the Times, nor Hoyt, will notice, or care, or respond.

Special report: You may live in an idiocracy if!

PART 1—INSUFFICIENTLY SHRILL: Paul Krugman is insufficiently shrill in this morning’s (accurate) column.

Krugman writes about impending climate disaster—and everything he says is perfectly accurate. “Every once in a while I feel despair over the fate of the planet,” he says as he starts. At that point, rubber meets road:

KRUGMAN (9/28/09): If you’ve been following climate science, you know what I mean: the sense that we’re hurtling toward catastrophe but nobody wants to hear about it or do anything to avert it.

And here’s the thing: I’m not engaging in hyperbole. These days, dire warnings aren’t the delusional raving of cranks. They’re what come out of the most widely respected climate models, devised by the leading researchers. The prognosis for the planet has gotten much, much worse in just the last few years.

Picking nits, we’d prefer that Krugman hadn’t felt the need to say that this isn’t the raving of cranks. But his basic assessment is perfectly accurate: In the past few years, “climate scientists have, en masse, become Cassandras—gifted with the ability to prophesy future disasters, but cursed with the inability to get anyone to believe them.” And while the biggest “disasters” (Krugman’s word) won’t likely hit till the second half of this century, “there will be plenty of damage long before then.”

It’s hard to believe that someone could print such a column and be insufficiently shrill. But at this point in his piece, Krugman asks an important question—and we think the answer which follows is soft:

KRUGMAN: In a rational world, then, the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern. But it manifestly isn’t. Why not?

Why aren’t we dealing with climate change? Krugman asks a very good question. But when he answers this basic question, we’d say he’s insufficiently shrill.

First, let’s state the blindingly obvious: The United States isn’t going to deal with climate change in a serious way. In part for that reason, there won’t be major, coordinated global action over the next several decades. Whatever is already in the cards—or in the atmosphere—will come to pass. Children being born today will have the chance to see how accurate today’s climate models will turn out to be. As Krugman suggests, today’s newborns may learn that current predictions of climate disaster were in fact insufficiently gloomy.

Most likely, children being born today will live to see global climate disasters. They won’t see major world action in the next few decades. Why not?

For our money, Krugman’s insufficiently shrill when he addresses this problem. That said, he makes three basic points—and all his points are accurate. “Part of the answer is that it’s hard to keep peoples’ attention focused,” he says—and that’s accurate. Beyond that, “powerful vested interests...have armies of lobbyists in place.” (Quite true.) This is his third reason:

KRUGMAN: Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.

Also true—but insufficient. Everything Krugman says is true. But we think his explanation for our looming inaction is insufficiently shrill.

Why is it hard to keep people focused? Why will your nation fail to act? Our answer would be a bit “tougher”—and we’ll start to lay it out tomorrow. Just a hint: Krugman’s language suggests what is true: You don’t live in “a rational world.” But the reality is a bit worse than that:

In fact, you now live in an idiocracy—a society which is no longer able to discuss any serious question.

What is the proof that you live in that world? A world where no serious discussion is possible? We’ll consider proofs of this point all week. But tomorrow, just for starters, we’ll consider what David Corn did.

You may live in an idiocracy if: The Corns start resembling the Dowds.

Tomorrow—part 2: Mussolini in Neverland!

What’s an idiocracy? People! Just click here!