Thursday, May 07, 2009

A tale of three columns

Gene Lyons was the first person to my knowledge who got into print with a documented account of how the Establishment press had gone off a cliff with the Whitewater scandal beginning in 1992. It was in his reporting for Harper's, later distilled into his book 2007 Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater (1996). Others had been highly critical of aspects of the American media before, Robert Perry of not least among them. But Lyons laid out vividly how supposedly sophisticated journalists from the New York Times and other major "quality" news organizations let themselves be led around by the nose by a small bunch of lying Arkansas segregationist sleaze-mongers.

It is still an astounding story. And our "quality" press still seems to be in freefall. Getting a solid investigative story not burdened down by questionable grants of anonymity or warped pre-scripted assumptions is becoming so rare that it seems almost a miracle when it still occasionally happens.

In Keep on whining, Republicans Salon 05/07/09, Gene takes a look at the Republicans' non-stop set of hissy-fits since President Obama took office. And manages to come up with some memorable prose in the process:

Every time you turn on the television, some Republican is ranting like the kind of barstool know-it-all who gives booze a bad name.

The average American could no more concisely define "socialism" than explain the infield fly rule in Sanskrit. But if Rush Limbaugh calls Obama a socialist, maybe [they think] a socialist's not such a terrible thing to be.
I seriously doubt it will happen. But it would be ironic if the Republicans' mindless babble about Obama's "socialism" actually did make the word more respectable in American politics, where now it is pretty much a synonym for "bad".

Despite his cynical framing of it, Gene is making an important point here. The Republican noise machine has been attacking Obama has being a socialist, a Communist, a fascist and even a Nazi as though there was effectively no difference among those concepts. And that's pretty sad. After decades of idolizing the Good War (Second World War), you might hope that virtually every American literate enough to follow Glenn Beck's train of thought (and actual literacy is probably more of a hindrance than a help there) would be able to make elementary distinctions like that.

Every time I hear that socialistcommiefasconazi business from the Republicans, I wonder how someone who can't make those elementary distinctions could process the history of Germany in the 20th century. What would they make of 1918, when democratic revolution meant the Kaiser abdicating so that the military dictatorship could install a Socialist government which then fought back a Communist revolution with the aid of democracy-hating militarists who eventually became key supporters of the Nazis who then brutally suppressed the Communists and Socialists?

The answer is, you couldn't process it coherently with such a bizarre set of assumptions. No wonder so many people think that runaway inflation in 1924 was what made Hitler's percentage of the vote shoot up suddenly - in 1930, long after that episode of inflation had been overcome and the Great Depression had set in.

Gene Lyons' column was the good one among the three I have in mind. The other two are from the Grey Lady, the New York Times, still nostalgically called "the paper of record". And, despite all its painfully evident quality problems, the Times is still widely considered the flagship of American print journalism.

The culprits are Maureen Dowd (big suprise there!) and Gail Collins, longtime editor of the Times editorial page 2001-2007, meaning that she presided over some of the worst atrocities on that paper's editorial pages.

MoDo lives for stories about politics-and-sex and for opportunities to go postal over someone acting outside of MoDo's own narrow conceptions of what proper gender roles are. So in A Complicated Question 05/06/08 (online date), she takes on Elizabeth Edwards' sad tell-all campaign about her husband John's now-famous affair. And, of course, MoDo can't write about such a thing without bringing up Monica, which she dutifully does. But despite his stereotypical male indiscretion, MoDo's gender-nut mind can't let go of her obsessions about his insufficient virility (by MoDo's insane standards): "The Edwardses reminded me of the Quayles — smooth, pretty boys married to tough, smart women they’d met at law school."

Collins also writes about sex in Bristol Palin's New Gig 05/06/08 (online date). The best thing you can say about her column is that the word "Monica" doesn't appear in it. There's nothing inherently bad in writing about Bristol Palin. But her column is pretty much on the tabloid-gossip level. Plus, she manages to gratuitously trash Britney Spears in the fourth paragraph.

If there's any substance worth discussing about the fact that Bristol Palin is out promoting abstinence for teenagers, it would be the kind of "scarlet letter" aspect to it, which goes right by the great Gail Collins. Sarah Palin is one of the leading spokespeople now for a Christian Right movement, and in her case more specifically for the Third Wave Pentecostal movement, which promotes authoritarian notions of family (and not just family!) and opposes sex outside of marriage. In practice, the notion of sending a pregnant teenager off to "live with her sister" for few months to have the baby and put it up for adoption and pretend it never happened isn't so popular any more even among fundamentalists. And, faced with the reality of a baby coming into the world with a teenaged mother, both of whom will need lots of support, even devout fundamentalists often choose love and family over woman-hating moralism.

But Bristol going around as a public advocate for abstinence looks uncomfortably like a public shaming to me. And Collins essentially gives that aspect of it a green light: "Her mom ought to know by now that the only way to protect your family from becoming tabloid fodder is to make it clear to the media that the kids are absolutely, totally off limits." Notice she seems to think it's only the tabloids who would report sensationally about the families of public figures. In other words: Collins is declaring Bristol Palin fair game for "quality" journalists like herself to use her as "fodder" along with the tabloids.

But, if you ask yourself, how did we ever end up in Iraq? How did a blatantly criminal torture program go on for years at the orders of the President? How could a failure like the federal response to Katrina happen? A significant part of how that stuff happened is that people like MoDo and Collins saw to it that a large part of the valuable journalistic real estate of the New York Times editorial pages was taken up with drivel, reported at levels often inferior to the tabloids. And with MoDo's endless trashing of Democrats for their awful, scary, contemptible failures to fit her own warped and narrow vision of what Real Men and Proper Women should be like.

They are the cream of a crop of an industry that's dying. Or, better put, because they are industry's cream of the crop, their industry is dying.

The Times must have thought their opinion pages were under-sexed lately. In yet another column for the May 7 edition, Nicholas Kristof writes about under-age prostitutes in Girls on Our Streets. The fact that the Oldest Profession is still practiced and involves terrible exploitation of women and young girls is scarcely new. But at least Kristof's column was on a public-policy issue. Kinda-sorta. He opens it with a thinly-sourced salacious tale about a policeman and a 14-year-old prostitute.

So I guess that makes this a tale of four columns.

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