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RIGHT OFF THE SHIP! Matt Miller’s puzzling piece in the Post raises a cosmic question: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, OCTOBER 11, 2010

In defense of the novel, a great pretender: Everything that follows is old hat. But Howard Kurtz’s piece in this morning’s Post cries for memorialization.

As we’ve long told you, the “news” we get from our mainstream press corps is often more like a collection of novels. This morning, Kurtz describes one familiar part of this process, while pretending to be puzzled by the way the process works.

Through disingenuous pieces like this, the men and women of the press corps hide their knowledge of their group culture. Through such pieces, they actually seek to disguise the way that they tend to churn novels, not news.

Kurtz starts with a claim that is probably true: Former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is a more complex person than you would think from reading the press. Soon, Kurtz stated his own view of this matter—and he pretends to ask himself a series of questions:

KURTZ (10/11/10): My periodic dealings with Rahm, dating back to the Clinton White House, suggest a more complicated fellow than the public persona. But that makes me wonder: Do we do this to people all the time? Do we paint everyone, from politicians to athletes to movie stars, in overly broad strokes? To what extent does our coverage oversimplify public figures?

Obviously, Kurtz knows the answer to these questions—and he knows a great deal about the culture which lies behind the practice he describes. But in this piece, Kurtz works hard to hide his knowledge of the press corps’ conduct and culture. Early on, he offers this portrait of the practice at issue. As he does, he pretends to explain the press corps’ secret motives:

KURTZ: Most journalists, to some degree, are caricaturists. We may be interested in nuance and context, but the compression of reporting often reduces people to a couple of attributes at best. You know the shorthand: "tough-talking" and "aggressive," or "soft-spoken" and "mild-mannered."

Guess which sells better at the box office? When you read an account of a closed-door meeting, isn't it more vivid if a politician "demanded" an answer, "shot back" a response or, better yet, banged his fist on the table?

That's why the recently departed White House chief of staff has been such a media favorite (in addition to the fact that he constantly calls reporters, sometimes to spin, sometimes to carp). He is, to trot out another cliche, a larger-than-life character, suitably satirized on "Saturday Night Live."

In this passage, Kurtz hides his actual knowledge of a familiar practice. In particular, he hides his knowledge of the motives which lie behind this familiar practice. We journalists “often reduce people to a couple of attributes at best,” he sadly confesses. But the motive he ascribes to the corps is pretty much totally false.

According to Kurtz, journalists reduce public figures to caricatures because it makes better copy—because it “sells better at the box office.” In some cases, this may explain the behavior in question. But in the most significant cases of the past twenty years, that plainly wasn’t the press corps’ motive—and Kurtz understands this quite well.

Kurtz understands how the press corps works—but he’s sworn not to tattle. To misdirect readers, he turns to a leading hack—Julie Mason, currently of the Washington Examiner. Mason is a grinning hack off the press corps D-list—a pundit who is typically willing to curry favor by reciting the scripted notions which form the world view of her tribe’s opinion leaders. Quoting Mason, Kurtz soon offerS a thoroughly harmless example of the conduct in question:

KURTZ: Even accessible politicians have had the media crowd brand them with clownish labels. "I'm guilty of it," Mason says. "Look at the way we write about Joe Biden: the backslapping, glad-handing, gaffe-prone goofball. That doesn't define him at all.”

In this passage, Mason plays a role which is quite standard when the press corps pretends to discuss its own conduct. She “confesses” to the conduct in question, but restricts her admission of misconduct to a thoroughly harmless case. Kurtz, meanwhile, suggests that the press corps most often engages in this conduct with politicians who aren’t accessible.

That, of course, is total nonsense, as Kurtz knows perfectly well.

Has the press corps created a “clownish” stereotype of Joe Biden? Possibly, but that hardly matters. In recent history, the most consequential examples of this conduct all arose out of Campaign 2000. In that campaign, the press corps created clownish stereotypes of all four major contenders; this list included one of the most accessible pols of modern times. (In March 2000, Post ombudsman E. R. Shipp described this process rather clearly. Presumably in part for that reason, Shipp hasn’t been heard from since.) During that campaign, the press corps defined Candidate McCain as a straight-talking maverick; they defined Candidate Bradley as a man of Olympian moral values. They defined Candidate Bush as “a different kind of Republican”—as a man who typically says what he thinks.

And they defined Candidate Gore as the world’s biggest known liar.

These were all clownish stereotypes. But unlike the simplified portrait of Biden, the silly portraits of Gore/Bush/McCain have changed the shape of world history. And, as Kurtz understands full well, these portraits were largely created for reasons of politics and personal preference, not for reason of “box office.” But from that day right up to this, the press corps has agreed to pretend that this misconduct didn’t occur; they have often sustained this pretense with massive help from the “career liberal” world. And to this day, people like Kurtz pretend that they don’t understand the process behind this phenomenon.

In today’s piece, Kurtz does a great deal of pretending. He pretends to be semi-puzzled by this extremely familiar phenomenon. He pretends that this practice occurs for one reason—because it sells more papers. He uses Mason’s example for misdirection, pretending that this sort of thing is silly, but really quite harmless.

He pretends that the more significant cases—those involving Bush, Gore and McCain—really didn’t enter his head as he pondered the topic.

He pretends he doesn’t know how vicious this gets. “You know the shorthand,” he says in the passage above—and he proceeds to list four examples which are all quite mild. (According to Kurtz, politicians get stereotyped as “tough-talking," "aggressive," "soft-spoken," "mild-mannered.”)

In many ways, the “press corps” is really an inbred social elite—a group which can be compared to a small, corrupt mafia. They reserve the right to novelize news—to invent clownish portraits of the public figures they prefer or oppose. D-listers tend to recite the scripts of their social superiors (i.e., their employers). But they don’t want the public to understand this. In the process of hiding their actual conduct, they often do what Kurtz and Mason do here—they confess to lesser offenses, thereby hiding their larger misconduct, which has sometimes transformed the world.

As we said, the “liberal” world has played a major role in this process of mystification. But Kurtz’s piece today is a classic. Confessing to lesser offenses, he and Mason disguise the size of their cohort’s real misconduct.

Normally, this role falls to Cokie Roberts. This morning, Kurtz stands in.

No nonsense too vast: When the press corps defends its own, no nonsense is too vast:

KURTZ: In the case of Christine O'Donnell, those Bill Maher videos, in which she talks about witchcraft, masturbation and evolution, are certainly fair game in her Senate race. There must be more to the Delaware Republican than some wacky things she said a decade ago. But by walling herself off from the media, O'Donnell made it impossible for journalists to cast her in a fuller light.

O'Donnell has now relented, talking briefly to CNN and to the Times' Mark Leibovich for a profile in which her family described how her father had once played Bozo the Clown. Unfortunately, this claim came into question, and Leibovich wrote in a follow-up blog post that "I was mortified to have possibly played a small role in perpetrating such a falsehood." Daniel O'Donnell later told the reporter he had been a part-time clown but not an official Bozo.

Is Leibovich mortified by any of this? The notion is absurd on its face—unless it falls to you, as it fell to Kurtz, to airbrush a mafia’s image.

Meanwhile, who was the actual bozo in the inane discussion described by Kurtz? Must the question be asked?

Special report: Miller’s tale!

PART 1—RIGHT OFF THE SHIP (permalink): UFOs aren’t just for kooks any more—though they’re still taboo in the news.

Not just for kooks? On Sunday, October 4, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku spent three hours being interviewed on C-Span’s monthly “In Depth” program. (To watch the full three hours, click this.) Kaku is “co-founder of the string field theory, a branch of the string theory,” to quote C-Span’s biographical sketch. In the past decade, he has frequently been seen discussing physics on PBS and cable programs.

For our money, Kaku is the clearest and best of the major “TV physicists.” In his 2008 book, Physics of the Impossible, Kaku devoted a polite six-page section to the possibility that we have already been visited by extra-terrestrials (pages 147-153). Dirty little secret: The more you know about contemporary physics, the less implausible this hypothesis seems, as best we understand it.

Not just for kooks any more? This summer, former NPR reporter Leslie Kean published a fascinating book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. The foreword is written by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, who has been calling for the release of government files on UFOs since at least 2002.

Kean and Podesta aren’t kooks.

The respectability surrounding this topic has even reached network TV! A hot new NBC show, The Event, is built around the thesis that we have been visited—and infiltrated. In this program, the US government has been holding a group of extra-terrestrials prisoner in Alaska since 1944. In episode 2, the president learns that other members of the imprisoned group have been living freely among us over that period of years.

Forget about The Event, an apparent work of fiction. With Kaku and Podesta and Kean on the beat, UFOs aren’t for kooks any more! On the other hand, UFOs are still almost wholly taboo within the news business. As best we can tell, not a single newspaper has reviewed Kean’s fascinating book, despite the attempted assist from Podesta—though USA Today did publish this short Q-and-A with the author.

If you read Kean’s book, you may come to understand two contradictory facts about UFOs:

On the one hand: By our culture’s conventional standards of evidence, it is clear that we have been visited.

On the other hand: By conventional norms of our culture, it remains taboo to imagine that such a thing could be true.

What is the truth? We have no idea. (Nor do we understand the multiverse theory, which seems to make visitation more plausible.) But discussing this subject remains taboo. This may explain Sunday’s piece by Matt Miller in the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section (just click here).

Miller is a familiar figure in American public discourse. He has long presented as a sensible centrist, a person seeking intelligent, non-partisan solutions to society’s major problems. In the past year or so, he has become a regular columnist at the Post. Please note: Miller has often done good work in the past. But tell us: Could such a sensible person have written Sunday’s puzzling piece—a piece which focuses on the need for hiring smarter teachers?

Tell the truth: Could Sunday’s piece really have been written by a “person” at all? As the week proceeds, we’ll also question this companion piece from yesterday’s “Outlook.” It’s a “manifesto” by a daring band of education reformers, including the two leading specimens of this breed, Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee.

Do we all have something to fear? In The Event, the planet hasn’t simply been visited; the planet has been been infiltrated. The president learns that members of the extraterrestrial group in question are actually living among us. Over the years, we at THE HOWLER have sometimes asked if such a notion might explain the work produced by our mainstream press. We’ve frequently asked an obvious question: Could actual humans reason and think the way these life-forms do?

Such questions tormented us again as we read Miller’s “Outlook” piece—especially when we reached his closing paragraph, which we regard as a bit of a tip-off.

We wouldn’t say Miller is “right off the boat”—he’s too bright. But could he be right off the spaceship?

We know, we know! Elites may become so wed to tribal ideas that they will behave quite irrationally in their promulgation. We know that this might explain Miller’s piece.

And yet, nagging questions remain.

Tomorrow—part 2: Miller’s peculiar tale

Miller got help: The co-author of Miller’s piece is “Paul Kihn.” According to the Post’s author sketch, Kihn is “an associate principal in McKinsey & Company’s education practice.”

Our question: Does that somewhat unusual jumble of words seem to describe a human function? One key tip-off to infiltration: Minor mistakes with the language.