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THE WAYS THEY WERE! In the Post, reporters recalled The Great Condit Chase—and they protected the guild: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 1, 2010

Tom Friedman knows what you think: Your major pundits love their freedom! That said, we marveled at the corners Tom Friedman cut in Sunday’s New York Times column.

Friedman started with a “disturbing trend.” In all honesty, the trend in question may be disturbing—but it ain’t real surprising:

FRIEDMAN (11/29/10): On Nov. 19, Rasmussen Reports published results from a national telephone poll that showed that 47 percent of America’s likely voters said the nation’s “best days are in the past,” 37 percent said they are in the future. Sixteen percent were undecided. Just before President Obama was inaugurated, 48 percent said our best days were still ahead and 35 percent said they had come and gone. This is a disturbing trend.

We’ve had a very rough two years in this country. It’s hardly surprising if that gloomy number has jumped twelve points in that time. But having spotted this gloomy trend, Friedman decided he had to explain it. As he did, he engaged in some common pundit conduct—he simply imagined what a hundred million people must be thinking.

In a word, what follows is awful. This is just gruesomely bad:

FRIEDMAN (continuing directly): What’s driving it? Let me say what’s not driving it. It is not that millions of Americans suddenly started worrying about the national debt. Seriously, do you know anyone who says: “I couldn’t sleep last night. I was tossing and turning until dawn worrying that the national debt was now $14 trillion.” Sorry, that only happens in contrived campaign ads.

I think what is driving people’s pessimism today are two intersecting concerns. The long-term concern is that people intuitively understand that what we need most now is nation-building in America. They understand it by just looking around at our crumbling infrastructure, our sputtering job-creation engines and the latest international education test results that show our peers out-educating us, which means they will eventually out-compete us. Many people understand that we are slipping as a country and what they saw in Barack Obama, or what they projected onto him, was that he had both the vision and capability to pull America together behind a plan for nation-building at home.

But I think they understand something else: that we are facing a really serious moment. We have to get this plan for nation-building right because we are driving without a spare tire or a bumper. The bailouts and stimulus that we have administered to ourselves have left us without much cushion. There may be room, and even necessity, for a little more stimulus. But we have to get this moment right. We don’t get a do-over. If we fail to come together and invest, spend and cut really wisely, we’re heading for a fall—and if America becomes weak, your kids won’t just grow up in a different country, they will grow up in a different world.

That “47 percent of likely voters” represents a very large number of people. Effortlessly, Friedman explained what all those people are thinking. As it turned out, that ginormous number of people are basically thinking two things.

(In part, they’re concerned about “our crumbling infrastructure,” Friedman said. But how does he know that? No clue.)

Big Pundits do this all the time, but we thought this case was especially awful. Given the miseries of the past two years, it’s hardly surprising if that figure has jumped twelve points. But Friedman quickly swung into action, explaining what all those people are thinking. He never explained how he knows what they’re thinking. And to him, it made sense to imagine that all those people are thinking the same few things.

Big Pundits constantly say what the public is thinking, without citing any real evidence. In reality, these giants are explaining what they themselves think—and they’re palming their thoughts off on us.

We the people are thinking two things—the same two things Tom Friedman thinks.

Special report: Newsroom culture!

PART 3—THE WAYS THEY WERE (permalink): Newsroom culture was on full display in Sunday’s Washington Post.

In his weekly report, ombudsman Andrew Alexander made a strange but revealing suggestion; the Post should provide “remedial math” to its journalists, he straight-facedly said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/10). The analysts cried and shook their heads as Alexander described the way the corps does its work. The press is frightened by numbers, he said—and they find their cluelessness charming. According to Alexander, our major journalists like to laugh about how hapless they are.

We thought that piece was quite revealing. But so was the lead story in Sunday’s Outlook section—this big fat report by two Post scribes about the Gary Condit affair.

Gary Condit? Why was he back? Earlier in the week, a DC jury had convicted “a Salvadoran illegal immigrant named Ingmar Guandique” in the 2001 killing of Chandra Levy—a killing the press corps had mightily tried to pin on Condit. Within the corps, the logic was clear; this conviction required another long story about Condit, who wasn’t involved in the killing. Result? Scott Higham and Sari Horowitz recalled the glorious days when the press corps chased Condit all around town, trying to convict him of murder and poking around in his thrilling love life. The analysts chuckled when the energized scribes closed their long piece by announcing that Condit would always be linked to Levy:

HIGHAM AND HORWITZ (11/28/10): With the guilty verdicts against Guandique secure, the case of the congressman and the intern is all but over. There is some measure of justice for Levy and her family, but no closure, a word Susan Levy loathes. Condit can try to win back his name with his book, but as long as people remember the name Chandra Levy, they will connect it with his.

When Condit's obituary is written, it won't focus on the former congressman's legislative accomplishments or the adoration voters had for him in the swath of the Central Valley of California once known as "Condit Country." Instead, it will be about his relationship with Levy, and how the pursuit of him as a suspect helped delay justice for nearly a decade.

In the long, sad story of Chandra Levy, Gary Condit will forever be a person of interest.

As long as “people” remember Levy, they’ll always connect her to Condit! So wrote the scribes, blaming “people” for their own disordered focus. Playfully imagining Condit’s obituary, the scribes announced that the lover boy “will forever be a person of interest.” On-line, their piece sits beneath this clownish headline: “Even after Ingmar Guandique's conviction, the Chandra Levy saga is all about Gary Condit.”

Never mind the guy who killed her! This saga is “all about” the other guy—all about the hot steamy sex!

Outlook’s front-page piece ran 2100 words, with two large photos –both of Gary Condit. According to the on-line headline, the tale is still “all about” him. The scribes didn’t focus on the DC police—on their very belated pursuit of Guandique. Instead, they chose to revisit Condit, “forever a person of interest.”

Our analysts mordantly chuckled. Even now, as the nation slides into the sea, Outlook relived the good old days, the days before financial collapse, before 9/11, when journalists got to spend their time chasing sex stories all around town. These people may be frightened by math, but they’ve never been frightened by garbage like this. Once again, in a “way we were” moment, the press corps’ preference for lip-smacking sex was put on full-frontal display.

The modern press is frightened by math—but it loves a good sex chase! But another part of newsroom culture was put on display in this long Outlook piece. That is the way the modern scribe will always protect the guild.

If Outlook felt forced to review this case, it could have focused on the police, who came to the actual killer quite late. (We’re assuming Guandique is the killer, although the evidence is imperfect.) Another possibility: It could have focused on the seamy conduct of the press corps itself. Back in “The Summer of 01,” the press corps covered itself with shame in its pursuit of the Levy case. But Higham and Horwitz couldn’t seem to recall the depth of their cohort’s rolling misconduct. When they briefly mentioned their guild’s approach, this was the best they could manage:

HIGHAM AND HORWITZ: In public, D.C. police officials—mindful of how Richard Jewell was wrongfully accused of setting off a bomb during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta—were careful to emphasize that Condit was not a suspect. But behind the scenes, he was very much their prime target.

Police searched the woods behind his Adams Morgan condominium with cadaver dogs. They bathed his apartment in ultraviolet lights, looking for evidence of foul play. They searched the car of a staff member for fibers, hair and blood, anything that might connect Condit to the crime. Each time, law enforcement sources alerted members of the media, who put the developments on their front pages and at the top of their newscasts.

During the summer of 2001, years before YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, the story went viral. Cable news shows updated the tale of the intern and the congressman every 10 minutes or so, even if there was nothing new to report. Rumors masqueraded as facts, and parades of law enforcement experts who knew nothing about the case appeared on television to theorize about how Condit might have been responsible.

The case captivated the nation; about two-thirds of Americans followed it closely. The scandal became the talk of the summer—and the story couldn't have been more wrong.

We’ll assume that account of the press corps’ conduct is technically accurate. Newspapers did put police reports on their front pages, as was perhaps appropriate. Beyond that, we’ll assume that “cable news shows” did “update the tale of the intern and the congressman every 10 minutes or so, even if there was nothing new to report.” But that’s an account of daytime cable. At night, when many more people were watching, you didn’t have to wait ten minutes for the latest breathless report. At night, cable programs devoted full hours to the thrilling tale, night after night, all through a long summer. Did “rumors masquerade as facts?” Yes they did; most specifically, cable pundits pimped two pieces of bogus evidence, designed to paint Condit as the (presumptive) killer. In time, it became fairly clear that the pundits had always known that these bits of “evidence” were bogus. Incredibly, they just kept repeating the bogus points, week after week, for two months.

The conduct was disgraceful. It continued through the night of September 10; the cable pursuit of this novelized case didn’t end until the World Trade Center fell. At that point, the story ended completely, because it had been a tabloid fraud from beginning to end.

What bogus evidence did pundits accept? To see Mona Charen summarize our work on those two matters, click here. Meanwhile, to see the late Barbara Olsen inventing bogus train and plane schedules to make Condit seem even more guilty, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/23/01. These months of misconduct get airbrushed away in Higham and Horwitz’s bowdlerized passage, which vastly understates the cable world’s devotion to this story. And things got worse in 2003, when Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped in Utah. In that case, cable pundits (especially Nancy Grace) insisted that a man named Richard Ricci must have kidnapped Smart, then presumably killed her. (Thankfully, Smart is alive today.) Result? Ricci died in prison, where he had landed in the swirl of the full-blown cable lunacy. After it became clear that Ricci had played no role in this crime whatsoever, Grace insisted that she’d never painted him as a killer, lying through her teeth as she did. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/15/09, with links to real-time work. In those days, Grace was reigning queen of a major mainstream cable show—CNN’s Larry King Live.)

That said, let’s return to the glory days of The Glorious Condit Chase. On Sunday, Outlook relived those glory days, chasing after Condit again. Never mind the actual killer—Outlook chose to revisit the boy friend! Elsewhere in that morning’s Post, we learned that these people are frightened by math. But in this sprawling Outlook report, we recalled the press corps’ love of sex—and the way they’ll airbrush their own misconduct, protecting their pitiful guild.

They laugh about their problems with math—but endlessly chase after hot steamy sex! But most of all, they protect the guild. These basic values have driven the corps as the nation sinks into decline. On Sunday, in the Washington Post, you got to recall the ways they were—the ways they are. The ways they may always be—until we’re a province of China.