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Daily Howler: Frank Rich tortured the relevant facts to serve you a 'Desperate denouement'
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RICH GETS DESPERATE! Frank Rich tortured the relevant facts to serve you a “Desperate” denouement: // link // print // previous // next //

CLASS TELLS: We got lucky twice this weekend when it came to our movie selection. Friday morning, we pondered a notice about Michael Cimino’s mega-panned Heaven’s Gate (1980):
DESSON THOMSON, WASHINGTON POST (11/26/04): The fact remains that "Heaven's Gate," a gorgeously photographed (by Vilmos Zsigmond) melodrama starring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and Isabelle Huppert, never deserved this rep. In fact, many critics (of the European persuasion) have dubbed it a masterpiece. The original three-hour 45-minute version, now restored, is back. You can see it for yourself at the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre. It screens Friday at 1 and Saturday at 1 and 7:30.
Huh! Intrigued, we arrived at the theater at 1 P.M. Saturday, planning to stay for a couple of hours. But hold on! By the time intermission arrived, there was no way on earth we were leaving, and Heaven’s Gate turned out to be one of the most interesting movies we’ve ever seen. Indeed, until that very day, we’d never known its actual sin; Heaven’s Gate is one of the “leftiest” of Hollywood movies, a steely-eyed look at a war on the poor conducted by the leering rich. Yes, it has its narrative problems, but David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago (which we watched on cable this weekend) is chuck-a-block full of narrative foolishness, which hasn’t kept critics from letting us know that it’s one of history’s greatest films. Of course, Lean had enough sense to tell his tale of the Russian revolution without examining the experiences of the Russian underclass. One can’t help but wonder: Did the “liberal press corps” find Heaven’s Gate so dull because of its appalling class sentiments?

But we also got lucky on Friday afternoon when we taped Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) on TCM. We had wanted to see it ever since the Baltimore Sun’s Michael Sragow included praise for the Bolger sisters in his review of In America:

SRAGOW (12/19/03): The sisters playing sisters are extraordinary. Emma Bolger, as Ariel, has the ability to blurt out spontaneities on cue (there hasn't been anything quite like her since Margaret O'Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis). Sarah Bolger, as Christy, is luminously prescient. She suggests depths that she's barely able to articulate.
Say what? We had never seen Meet Me in St. Louis, or O’Brien either. But when we watched the film Friday night, we were amazed by one of the funniest performances we can recall, served up by its six-year-old star, then at the height of her powers. Our host, Robert Osborne, said the film will air again on Christmas Eve. To see a portrait of family life from a less fearful era—one that was willing to let its children run wild—we suggest you fire up your VCRs at that juncture.

WARNING: Warning! What follows may provoke extreme reactions in those who prefer to maintain belief in the moral superiority of off-the-shelf “liberals.” In it, we review a revealing denouement to the whole Desperate Housewives fandango.

RICH GETS DESPERATE: In yesterday’s Times, Frank Rich offered an intriguing denouement to the Desperate Housewives scandal. An e-mailer wrote in praise of the pundit:

E-MAIL: Frank Rich’s piece in the Sunday Times on Terrell-gate was pretty insightful, I thought (“The Great Indecency Hoax”). He details the various forms of hypocrisy, but he really avoids attacking the Red-state viewers themselves, going after the various opportunists on both sides instead.
But we couldn’t completely agree with the mailer. In fact, one part of Rich’s piece challenged the good faith of the “mob” which complained about the Monday Night promo—and provided instruction in Slick Pundit Ways, the mores we’ve always examined.

According to Rich, no one really complained about the Housewives promo until conservative interest groups got the cattle stampeding. Rush Limbaugh didn’t complain until Wednesday, Rich notes. But then, no one else really complained in real time. Here’s how he lays out his case:

RICH (11/28/04): Though seen nationwide, and as early as 6 p.m. on the West Coast, the spot initially caused so little stir that the next morning only two newspapers in the country, both in Philadelphia, reported on it. ABC's switchboards were not swamped by shocked viewers on Monday night. A spokesman for ABC Sports told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he hadn't received a single phone call or e-mail in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast.

Even the stunned Mr. Limbaugh, curiously enough, didn't get around to mounting his own diatribe until Wednesday. Mr. Owens's agent, David Joseph, says that the flood of complaints at his office and Mr. Owens's Web site also didn't start until more than 24 hours after the incident—late Tuesday and early Wednesday. Were any of these complainants actual victims (or even viewers) of “Monday Night Football” or were they just a mob assembled after the fact by “family” groups, emboldened by their triumph in smiting “Saving Private Ryan” from 66 ABC stations the week before? Though the F.C.C. said on Wednesday that it had received 50,000 complaints about the N.F.L. affair, it couldn't determine how many of them were duplicates—the kind generated by e-mail campaigns run by political organizations posting form letters ready to be clicked into cyberspace ad infinitum by anyone who has an index finger and two seconds of idle time.

In real time, the promo “caused little stir,” Rich says. ABC’s switchboards “were not swamped;” indeed, an ABC spokesman told a Philly newspaper that “he hadn't received a single phone call.” According to Rich, this suggests that the complaints were generated by interest groups, who assembled “a mob” after the fact. But alas! In keeping with Established Pundit Corps Practice, Rich has tortured and selected his facts in a way that calls clearly: Hey, rubes!

How selective is Rich’s presentation? He suggests that complaints didn’t start until Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. But he forgets to include a major contradictory fact; ABC apologized for the promo on Tuesday afternoon, citing a volume of viewer complaints. (“We have heard from many of our viewers about last night's Monday Night Football opening segment and we agree that the placement was inappropriate.”) But you know Rich! Instead of providing this relevant information, he provides two bits of absurd misdirection, in accordance with Approved Pundit Practice. Terrell Owens didn’t get instant complaints, he says—and he suggests that ABC didn’t get any either! He achieves this impression by including slick nonsense about that “spokesman for ABC sports.”

But how absurd is Rich’s item about that ABC spokesman? Rich refers to a report about the promo in Tuesday morning’s Philly Inquirer. The piece was written by Ira Joseph. Here is the relevant section about that ABC spokesman:

JOSEPH (Tuesday, 11/16/04): Reached by telephone at home during the game, Mark Mandel, vice president of media relations for ABC Sports, said he hadn’t heard any reaction to the segment.

“I'm sitting at home watching the game and nobody called or e-mailed me,” Mandel said. "Before every Monday Night Football we do something entertaining to get the viewer to watch the game. We have traditionally looked for all kind of hooks to do these kind of segments, if there is an ABC show doing particularly well.”

Mandel was asked if the segment was considered risque, especially considering the national backlash that occurred when Janet Jackson's breast was inadvertently exposed during last season's Super Bowl halftime show on CBS.

"This is the first time I've seen it and I don't know the background," Mandel said.

In short, Mandel, the ABC spokesman, hadn’t received any phone calls at his home. But of course, no viewer would have known how to call him there, making this piece of information completely irrelevant to the matter at hand. By the way, Mandel did receive one phone call at home—he received a phone call from Ira Joseph, who had instantly realized, during the game, that the promo raised an issue of taste.

How many viewers called Monday night, before the interest groups got active? Rich shows no sign of knowing, and no, it doesn’t hugely matter. But how hard will Big Pundits work to fill your heads with absolute nonsense—with pointless facts slickly selected to lead you to a pleasing but bogus conclusion? Who among us doesn’t know that Rich plays this silly game all the time, as when he invented the Love Story flap—the bogus flap that would later help decide a crucial election. But because he normally plays these games in support of “liberal” causes, our readers rarely complain about Rich.

It’s amazing to think that Big Major Pundits are willing to treat you like absolute rubes. But understand this for what it is—a chapter in what Wittgenstein called “the natural history of the human race.” How do humans really behave? How do humans actually reason? Watch Frank Rich to grasp the mores of the gang long described as “the rational animal.” How do humans behave in the wild? Once again, Rich wants to show you.