Journalists and Bullshit



In a New York Times column
Wednesday, David
Brooks
nicely (albeit unintentionally) summed up much of what’s wrong
with the mainstream media. In the course of awarding George
Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson an “A” for Tuesday night’s execrable
debate moderation
, Brooks argued, “The journalist’s job is to
make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and
vulnerabilities.”



Huh?



Brooks’ confident assertion is odd
first on a grammatical level. Is Brooks arguing that “The
journalist’s job is: (1) to make politicians uncomfortable; and (2) to
explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities”? Or is he
saying that “The journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable by
exploring evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities”?



Regardless, on a substantive level,
Brooks clearly believes the primary mission of journalists is to make
politicians uncomfortable. If this bizarre assertion is true, I assume
Brooks was disappointed that Gibson and Stephanopoulos failed to ask the
candidates about their sexual experiences and bathroom habits. After all,
those subjects would have made the candidates absolutely squirm. Brooks
could have raised his A rating to an A+.



(James
Fallows
suggests that it would be simpler to just put the candidates
on Fear Factor and have them eat pails full of maggots. And really, if
we’re to take Brooks’ argument seriously, why not?)



But if Brooks doesn’t think
candidates should be grilled about their sexual experiences and bathroom habits
(and if he doesn’t think they ought to be contestants on Fear Factor), he must
not really believe the journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable.
Discomfort might be a side-effect, but it couldn’t be the primary mission.



Maybe, then, Brooks sentence was
just inexpertly constructed, and what he really meant to say was that “The
journalist’s job is to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities,
regardless of whether doing so makes politicians uncomfortable.”
This is the most charitable interpretation to which Brooks’ argument is
susceptible, but even if this is what Brooks meant — and the balance of his
column indicates it isn’t — his formulation is still at best incomplete
because it excludes any mention of relevance — of any
responsibility to prioritize, to assign weight to issues that matter.



Actually, elsewhere Brooks does
include some implicit notion of relevance. He claims, “We may not
like it, but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport
will be important in the fall.”



When someone issues a subjectless,
overgeneralized, evidence-free argument such as “Issue X will be
important,” there’s a good chance you’re being bullshitted (or that the
writer is bullshitting himself). Pause as you read Brooks’ column and ask
yourself the question Brooks never bothers to ask (or try to answer)
himself: “Important to whom?” Who is Brooks speaking for
here, besides himself? How did Brooks, how does anyone claiming to be a
journalist, determine what’s “important?” When someone who
writes for the Times claims something is important, is the columnist’s
pronouncement itself expected to make it so?



Maybe that’s it. But it’s been
my experience that when someone tries to persuade you more by his position or
title or resume than by the merits of his argument, you are being bullshitted.



Scroll through the transcript
of the debate
. The moderators don’t even mention the word
“Iraq” until the halfway point. At about two thirds,
Stephanopoulos, in an act of monumental blindness to irony, introduces the
first question about the economy by saying, “Let me turn to the economy.
That is the number one issue on Americans’ minds right now.”



Yes, by all means, let’s start the
debate with a question about why the candidates won’t run together, then move
on to how well Obama knows someone who was part of the Weather Underground when
Obama was eight years old, and then ask about whether Obama is elitist, and
whether Obama thinks his former pastor is patriotic, and whether voters think
Clinton is trustworthy because of her story about coming under fire in Tuzla,
and why Obama doesn’t routinely wear a flag lapel pin, and then back to the
Weather Underground, and then, finally, after an hour wallowing in such
excrescence, we can talk about Iraq and even, eventually, the economy, which
the moderators claim are the really important issues and were presumably just
saving for later after they got all that other stuff out of the way.
Makes sense to me.



I’ve thought about it, and the only
way I can make sense of Brooks’ notion of what’s “important” is to
understand the debate this way:

“Senator Obama, America is
mired in a war in Iraq that has so far cost over 4000 American lives and about
three trillion dollars. Can you explain how your position on lapel pins
will end the war?”



“Senator Clinton, America is
now either in or on the verge of a recession. Can you tell us how your
inaccurate description of coming under fire in Tuzla will restore America’s
economic strength?”



“Senator Obama, during the Bush
administration North Korea became a nuclear power. Iran is on the verge
of becoming a nuclear power. Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden remains at
large, faces a growing Islamic insurgency that could lead to the country’s
nuclear weapons falling into jihadists’ hands. Can you tell us how
accusations that you are elitist (whatever that means) will affect your ability
to prevent further nuclear proliferation and resulting danger to America?”



In his op-ed
column today
, Brooks actually lamented Obama’s bowling scores (!) as
something that will cause voters to “wonder if he’s one of
them.” So let’s include another question to make it all make sense:



“Senator Obama, the current
administration has arrogated to itself tyrannical
powers of torture
, suspended
habeus corpus
, and suspended
the fourth amendment
. Congress is supine, the mainstream media
an active enabler. In the face of this unprecedented threat to the
Constitution, can you tell us what it means that you’re not a good
bowler?”



Brooks argues that Obama’s debate
responses on taxes and the war in Iraq would put him in an untenable position
as president. Maybe yes, maybe no… but wouldn’t it have been useful to
use the debate to publicly grill the candidate on precisely these points?
The moderators didn’t, and they didn’t because they don’t really care about a
candidate’s policies on taxes and war (nor, despite his protestations, does
Brooks — otherwise he would actually write about such matters instead of just
mentioning them in a column devoted to bowling skills and the like). If
they cared, they wouldn’t have chosen to use their time asking about lapel pins
and the rest instead.



Brooks claims that Hillary has
“ground Obama down.” Actually, polls
in Pennsylvania and nationally indicate the opposite
, once again
raising the question of the basis of Brooks’ opinion, which, again, he doesn’t
provide. Nor does he offer any recognition, let alone a mea culpa, of his
own roll in any such grinding.



Here’s the best part. The same
guy who in two columns in two days suggests that Obama is out of touch for
calling people “bitter” concludes by saying, “Welcome to
2008. Everybody’s miserable.”



Yes, that’s right. When Obama
says some people are bitter, he’s out of touch. When Brooks says
everybody’s miserable, he’s got his finger right on the national pulse.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the
solipistic, self-important, supremely irony-blind… mainstream media.
Remember, whatever happens, it isn’t their fault.



P.S. For much, much more on
how the media works (or, more accurately, doesn’t work), including an amazingly
accurate prediction of the garbage Stephanopoulos and Gibson served up in
Tuesday’s debate, read Glenn Greenwald’s new book, Great
American Hypocrites
. It’s an indispensable guide to politics
and the media, and a gripping read, as well.