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WHAT REALLY INTERESTED REPORTERS! Fifteen years later, Thomas is truthful about the press corps’ real interest: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 6, 2009

David Brooks, wrong about crackpots: We’d have to say that David Brooks was pretty much wrong in last Friday’s column. Beck/Limbaugh/Hannity don’t have real-world power, he said. Here’s his trio of proofs:

In 2008, crackpot talkers opposed McCain for the GOP nomination. McCain got nominated any way.

In 2006, crackpot talkers “threatened to build a new majority on anti-immigration fervor.” But two Republicans (Hayward and Graf) lost House campaigns that year, despite running “under that banner.”

In 2008, Limbaugh “commanded his followers to vote in the [late] Democratic primaries for Hillary Clinton,” hoping to weaken Obama, the likely nominee. But a recent study “could find no strong evidence that significant numbers of people actually did what Limbaugh commanded.” (Note the words “strong” and “significant.”)

Sorry. That’s very weak evidence for a weak thesis. The “vote for Hillary Clinton” gambit was always highly quixotic. In part, McCain got nominated by threading the needle as several more conservative candidates split the conservative vote in South Carolina, a crucial primary Brooks specifically cites.

And by the way: How have President Bush’s immigration reforms worked out in the past two years? Oh, that’s right—the reforms were dead before arrival! Hayward and Graf may have lost their House races, but strong conservative sentiment helped doom Bush’s proposal. Did that happen because of crackpot talkers’ opposition? Such things are hard to measure. But Brooks presents very limited, very weak evidence for his theory of crackpot impotence.

In fact, crackpot talkers have helped define the agenda of the national discourse for the past several decades. (Two words: Death panels!) They don’t get every outcome they want, but they get a good many. (By the late 1990s, it was often hard to distinguish their claims from those of the “mainstream press.” So too in the run to Iraq.) In this passage, Brooks explains one part of the reason:

BROOKS (10/2/09): So the myth returns. Just months after the election and the humiliation, everyone is again convinced that Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the rest possess real power. And the saddest thing is that even Republican politicians come to believe it. They mistake media for reality. They pre-emptively surrender to armies that don’t exist.

Duh. If Republican politicians believe the crackpot talkers have power, then by definition it’s true. (Just a guess: Republican pols may know where the votes are better than Brooks does.) And it isn’t just Republican pols who get influenced by these talkers:

BROOKS: [T]his is not merely a story of weakness. It is a story of resilience. For no matter how often their hollowness is exposed, the jocks still reweave the myth of their own power. They still ride the airwaves claiming to speak for millions. They still confuse listeners with voters. And they are aided in this endeavor by their enablers. They are enabled by cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P. They are enabled by lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge. They are enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.

In our view, crackpot talkers do have real power. Repeatedly, they have shown that they really do have the power to convince millions of people of things which aren’t true. (Death panels! And: We have the best health system in the world! Liberal talkers still work from their bollixed frameworks in many discussions of the run to Iraq.)

But put that judgment to the side: If “lazy pundits”—“the slightly educated snobs”—believe that Beck is the voice of Middle America, then there too Beck does have real power. Brooks may feel this belief is mistaken; on balance, we’d tend to disagree. But this belief has helped drive our discourse for decades. Until liberals find ways to address this problem that don’t involve insulting those voters (our favorite pastime), that belief will continue to drive our discourse. And it will often be right.

That is to say: In the real world, these talkers have influenced pundits for decades. In our view, they do have the power to drive the views of large numbers of voters. But they clearly influence the press. In that alone, they’ve had massive power.

Brooks presents weak evidence for a lofty claim. Crackpot talkers have no real power, he says, newly returned from Mars.

Special report: Recovering history!

PART 2—WHAT REALLY INTERESTED REPORTERS: It’s amazing how much we can learn from our “journalists”—if we’re willing to wait long enough.

Last Wednesday, Thomas Friedman informed the world that Whitewater was a “bogus ‘scandal.’” He even put “scandal” inside scare-quotes, letting us see how fake it was. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/30/09.

It had only been seventeen years since Friedman’s own paper, the New York Times, got the “bogus ‘scandal’” started. And uh-oh! Friedman had never told readers that this “scandal” was “bogus” until that very day.

Friedman at least continued pretending that Whitewater was a tool of “the right.” On Sunday, Evan Thomas told a little bit more of the truth. Thomas told the truth in the Washington Post. Try to believe that he said it!

THOMAS (10/4/09): Today, when the mainstream media seems so weakened, we forget how powerful—and arrogant—the New York Times and The Washington Post, along with the networks and news magazines, seemed to be in the early and mid-1990s. They were part of a giant scandal machine that dominated official Washington in the first few years after the Cold War. The endless string of special prosecutors and the media's obsession with Whitewater seem excessive in retrospect.

Roughly fifteen years after the fact, Thomas told us, very much in passing, that Whitewater was an “obsession” of the media, not of “the right.” And there was more! During the era which took its name from this “scandal,” the New York Times and the Washington Post “were part of a giant scandal machine,” Thomas said—a giant scandal machine which “dominated Washington.” But then, so were the TV networks, he said; so were the news magazines, presumably including Newsweek, the magazine for which Thomas works.

“In retrospect, “the media's obsession with Whitewater seem excessive,” Thomas clownishly said, dissembling baldly as he told you the truth—fifteen years after the fact.

Can we talk? World history would likely be different if Friedman and Thomas—and others just like them—had remembered to tell you the truth in real time. In all likelihood, George Bush would not have gone to the White House; the U.S. army would not have gone to Iraq. But Friedman and Thomas kept their pretty traps shut when telling the truth might have served the national interest. They’ve started to tell you the truth today—about fifteen years too late.

Friedman’s decision to tell the truth came from God knows where. Dissembling Thomas got into the act because of Taylor Branch’s new book, The Clinton Tapes, a book in which we hear Bill Clinton discussing this crap in real time. The Clinton Tapes has started to give us our history back, in the new admissions of major figures like Friedman and Thomas. It has also tended to bring out the inner clown in the Big Pundits who touch it. Here’s part of what Thomas said in the Post. The gent continues to play the fool in this extended passage:

THOMAS: It is possible to sympathize with Clinton. Today, when the mainstream media seems so weakened, we forget how powerful—and arrogant—the New York Times and The Washington Post, along with the networks and news magazines, seemed to be in the early and mid-1990s. They were part of a giant scandal machine that dominated official Washington in the first few years after the Cold War. The endless string of special prosecutors and the media's obsession with Whitewater seem excessive in retrospect.

Clinton was not wrong to be frustrated or to believe that the single greatest mistake of his administration (against the advice of the first lady) was to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Whitewater. He also had the canny insight that Whitewater served as a proxy for what really interested reporters: those rumors of "bimbo eruptions" floated by political enemies and less-than-reliable state troopers.

Thomas continues to play the fool in this extended passage.

In that second paragraph, Thomas can’t force himself to say the obvious—to say that Clinton was perfectly right in his fury about the press. (Earlier, Thomas has turned this fury into something different—into “Clinton’s capacity for self-pity.”) Instead, he chokes out a lesser claim: Clinton “was not wrong”—was not wrong to be “frustrated” by the media’s obsession with Whitewater. But then, Thomas couldn’t make himself say the obvious in the previous paragraph either—couldn’t make himself say that anyone who understands what happened will automatically sympathize with Clinton. (It’s possible to do that, he says, willing to go no further.) But then, Thomas also plays the fool when he strategically panders to Clinton—when he says that Clinton’s “canny insight” allowed him to see the basic truth of this era’s disappeared history. Here is that truth—let’s peruse it again:

THOMAS: Whitewater served as a proxy for what really interested reporters: those rumors of "bimbo eruptions" floated by political enemies and less-than-reliable state troopers.

Fifteen years later, Thomas states this blatantly obvious truth, pretending it took “canny insight” on Clinton’s part to make it out in real time. In fact, it was abundantly plain in real time: “What really interested reporters” was “those rumors of ‘bimbo eruptions!’” Whitewater was just a proxy for this juvenile interest, Thomas says—fifteen years later.

And please note: Those rumors were being floated by people who were unreliable—who were Clinton’s enemies. Despite that, those rumors were the press corps’ real interest. So we’re at last told, this week!

In this passage, Thomas is finally discussing the actual history of the Clinton/Gore era—and what followed. Putting his statements together with Friedman’s, we can start to see our real history in print, about fifteen years after the fact. To wit:

Whitewater was a bogus scandal. It was driven by the Washington Post and the New York Times—and by the networks and news magazines. These entities drove this bogus scandal as a proxy for their real interest. Their real interest was rumors about sex—rumors which were driven by people who were “less than reliable.”

There’s the real history of the past decade, delivered fifteen years later. This history explains how and why Clinton was “hounded” (Friedman’s term); it explains the subsequent war against Candidate Gore, the war which sent Bush to the White House. This history has rarely been told by the mainstream press—and “intellectual leaders” of the “career liberal” world have agree to stifle it too. Dionne? Marshall? Rich? O’Donnell/Olbermann/ Huffington/Corn? All have kept their pretty traps shut. Darlings! When it comes to the last decade’s actual history, True Statement just isn’t done!

Ezra Klein told the truth one time—then stifled. Today, he works for the Post.

Branch’s book has already teased a bit of true history onto the market. But the clowning never ceases within the simpering social class which houses both Friedman and Thomas. As Thomas notes, some fifteen years later, “Whitewater served as a proxy for what really interested reporters: those rumors of ‘bimbo eruptions.’” Tomorrow, we’ll return to Chris Matthews’ session with Branch from last Thursday’s Hardball. As we do, we’ll see that the “real interests” of this simpleton class haven’t changed when it comes to the Clinton/Gore era. And we’ll see again how our recent, life-changing history has remained so deeply disappeared.

On Thursday, Digby’s fine post.

Tomorrow: Clinton’s crosswords.