GATEKEEPERS GONE: Lawrence O’Donnell in watchdog role!

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 21, 2014

Part 2—Competence gone:
Was there ever a time when the theory was accurate?

On balance, we’d say there was. At one time, we had a pair of powerful gatekeepers—Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley.

Neither man was crazy or dumb. If you or your message was crazy or dumb, it wasn’t likely that you could get it on the air.

Today, that gatekeeper system is gone. What Dr. Keith Ablow did last week is, by now, completely the norm.

What did Ablow do last week? He aired twelve minutes of manifest lunacy on John Gibson’s mid-day show on Fox News Radio.

For yesterday's post, click this.

Ablow played the shrink all through the hideous segment. With manifest lunacy, he described the America-hating thoughts which have been running through Barack Obama’s America-hating head.

Anyone can gin up stories like that. But when such stories are ginned up by a fairly well-known commentator on a major radio network—by a man who once had his own syndicated TV show!—many citizens won’t understand that they are hearing The Crazy.

In the days of Cronkite and Brinkley, people like Ablow weren’t allowed on the air. Performances like his weren’t broadcast by the nation’s major news organs.

Today, heinous work of this kind is completely the norm. For better or worse, our gatekeepers are manifestly gone.

Work like this is completely the norm. Salon pushed back against Ablow and Gibson, but major news organs did not.

Our biggest news organs can no longer keep such craziness out of the discourse. Nor are they inclined to challenge such conduct—to cast themselves in the secondary role of the vigilant watchdog.

For years, we’ve argued that our biggest news organs should treat such events as news. It’s news when major figures like Ablow toy with the public in such ways. It ought to be reported as news—but organs like the New York Times shrink from providing that watchdog service.

In one way, it may be just as well. It isn’t just that the New York Times lacks the will to play that role.

On balance, the newspaper also lacks the smarts. But then, so do the liberal watchdogs who are now part of our sprawling, incompetent corporate media.

What happens when major liberal stars cast themselves as watchdogs? Consider Lawrence O’Donnell’s attempt to challenge the Times last night.

Lawrence challenged a front-page report in Saturday’s New York Times. In that report, Michael Schmidt described some of what Officer Darren Wilson has reportedly told “investigators” about the killing of Michael Brown.

Schmidt cited anonymous government sources. This is the way he started:
SCHMIDT (10/18/14): The police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., two months ago has told investigators that he was pinned in his vehicle and in fear for his life as he struggled over his gun with Mr. Brown, according to government officials briefed on the federal civil rights investigation into the matter.

The officer, Darren Wilson, has told the authorities that during the scuffle, Mr. Brown reached for the gun. It was fired twice in the car, according to forensics tests performed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The first bullet struck Mr. Brown in the arm; the second bullet missed.

The forensics tests showed Mr. Brown's blood on the gun, as well as on the interior door panel and on Officer Wilson's uniform. Officer Wilson told the authorities that Mr. Brown had punched and scratched him repeatedly, leaving swelling on his face and cuts on his neck.

This is the first public account of Officer Wilson's testimony to investigators, but it does not explain why, after he emerged from his vehicle, he fired at Mr. Brown multiple times. It contradicts some witness accounts, and it will not calm those who have been demanding to know why an unarmed man was shot a total of six times. Mr. Brown's death continues to fuel anger and sometimes-violent protests.
Schmidt sourced his information to unnamed government officials. He later said that his account of Wilson's statements did not “come from the Ferguson Police Department or from officials whose activities are being investigated as part of the [federal] civil rights inquiry.”

If it’s accurate, Schmidt’s report seems to include some new forensic information. Meanwhile, the reporter stated an important point in his fourth paragraph:

Wilson’s account of the struggle at the car does not explain why he fired at Brown multiple times after he left his car. That remains the major question in a potential criminal case. Wilson’s account of the fight at the car doesn’t resolve that question.

On last night’s program, O’Donnell cast himself in the role of watchdog concerning the Times report. In the course of a ten-minute monologue, he even made some accurate statements about various questions surrounding this case.

To watch the whole segment, click here.


That said, it didn’t take long for Watchdog O’Donnell to go substantially wrong. Instantly, he battered the Times for “pretend[ing] it had a scoop” in its front-page report.

Now that our gatekeepers are gone, how competent are our watchdogs? Barely two minutes into his segment, this would-be watchdog said this:
O’DONNELL (10/20/14): The useful information in the New York Times article is the circumstantial evidence leaked by the government officials who told the Times that the FBI forensics tests show that the officer’s gun was fired twice inside the car, with the first bullet hitting Michael Brown in the arm and the second bullet himself him completely...

The Times then gets very confused about what those forensic findings mean. The article says it “contradicts” some witness accounts, but then fails to point out any contradictions, because the New York Times and its reporters do not seem to understand what an actual contradiction is in eyewitness testimony.
How competent are today’s high-profile corporate media stars? With our gatekeepers dead and gone, just how competent are our potential watchdogs?

Lawrence O’Donnell is very well-paid. He likes to say that he went to Harvard. He has been a major media figure for more than fifteen years.

But alas! Less than three minutes into his watchdog report, O’Donnell was flatly wrong:

In the passage quoted above, he mocked the Times for getting “very confused” about those forensic findings. More specifically, he said the Times “failed to point out any contradictions” in its report.

He said that the Times doesn’t seem to know what an actual contradiction looks like!

Gack! The Times report does specify at least one “direct contradiction” between Officer Wilson’s reported account and an eyewitness account. That contradiction is specified in the passage below. Did Lawrence read this report?
SCHMIDT: Few witnesses had perfect vantage points for the fight in the car, which occurred just after noon on Aug. 9. Mr. Brown was walking down the middle of the street with a friend, Dorian Johnson, when Officer Wilson stopped his S.U.V., a Chevy Tahoe, to order them to the sidewalk.

Within seconds, the encounter turned into a physical struggle, as the officer and Mr. Brown became entangled through the open driver's-side window.

[...]

Mr. Johnson's description of the scuffle is detailed and specific, and directly contradicts what Officer Wilson has told the authorities.

Mr. Johnson has said that Officer Wilson was the aggressor, backing up his vehicle and opening the door, which hit Mr. Johnson and Mr. Brown and then bounced back.

''He just reached his arm out the window and grabbed my friend around his neck, and he was trying to choke my friend,'' Mr. Johnson told reporters after the shooting. ''He was trying to get away, and the officer then reached out and grabbed his arm to pull him inside the car.''

Officer Wilson then drew his weapon, Mr. Johnson said, and threatened to shoot.

''In the same moment, the first shot went off,'' he said. ''We looked at him. He was shot. There was blood coming from him. And we took off running.''

Never, Mr. Johnson said, did Mr. Brown reach for the officer's weapon.
We don’t know what happened at the car, but that sounds like a fairly direct “contradiction” to us! But as he continued last night, O’Donnell acted as if the Times was only claiming contradictions concerning the number of shots which Officer Wilson fired.

On and on the watchdog went, explaining that witnesses are often wrong about the number of gunshots which get fired. He acted as if he hadn’t read the actual Times report.

O’Donnell has been a high-ranking media figure for fifteen years. Did we mention the fact that he went to Harvard?

Despite serial proclamations of greatness, Lawrence bungled quickly last night. In our world, the gatekeepers are gone—and the watchdogs are often incompetent or heavily biased.

Having said that, let us also say this: There was plenty to clarify about that Times report.

The Times report focused heavily on the struggle at the car. After the initial disclaimer shown above, it largely abandoned the central question which remains in this case—the question of why Wilson fired a large number of gunshots, killing Brown, after the struggle at the car was over.

There was a great deal to clarify in that report. But when he tried, our liberal watchdog was almost instantly wrong.

Cronkite and Brinkley are gone, long gone. For better or worse, no one can play the gatekeeper role at this time.

Our gatekeepers are gone, and even worse, our watchdogs just aren’t very sharp! That’s certainly true of the New York Times, a point we’ll examine tomorrow.

Tomorrow: Horrible front-page reporting

The Way We Are: We’re in Week 3 of our current award-winning series, The Way We Are. The series examines the way our discourse actually works, as opposed to the way we might hear it described by major media figures.

To us, The Way We Are seems grim. For all previous posts, click here.


Links to all posts: The Way We Are!

MONDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2014

Read each thrilling installment:
In our award-winning series, The Way We Are, we explore the way our national discourse actually works, as opposed to what schoolchildren read in their civics books.

Be sure to read each thrilling installment! We’ll post all links below:

Week One—The Way We Are
Part 1: Bill Clinton discussed those “storylines,” like Krugman and Shipp before him
Part 2: When Cillizza failed to respond, it was classic press behavior
Part 3: Breaking (almost) all the rules, the New York Times discussed the sexist trashing of Hillary Clinton
Part 4: Storyline ahoy! Maureen Dowd is still upset about 1994!
Part 5: Cokie pretended to name the scripts which drove Campaign 2000

Week Two—The Way We Argue
Part 1: Bombs away! Ben Affleck and Bill Maher staged a televised fight
Part 2: Affleck’s trio of bombs proved listening can be hard
Part 3: Affleck kept repeating his script, the way fundamentalists do
Part 4: Kristof agreed with Harris and Maher. And yet the bombs still fell
Part 5: Increasingly, our liberal world leans toward the dogma rules

Week Three—Gatekeepers Gone
Part 1: The doctor was IN—and was out of his mind. No dimwit need not apply!

Supplemental: Concerning a powerful photograph!

MONDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2014

Post reader gets it right:
Each Saturday, the hard-copy Washington Post includes a full page of letters from its readers.

The page is called Free for All. This Saturday, a Post reader from suburban Gaithersburg, Maryland got something very right.

She had written in praise of a photograph which ran ten days before. This is what she wrote:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (10/18/14): Michel du Cille’s photo of Esther Tokpah, the 11-year-old Liberian whose parents died of Ebola [“A new generation of orphans,” front page, Oct. 8], deserves the highest award possible. It told a story of haunting bewilderment and grief in the face of tragic reality. The courageous presence of physician Jerry Brown, offering words of comfort, added poignancy to this extraordinary window into one of our world’s unspeakable nightmares. I am humbled, heartbroken and grateful.

K— J—, Gaithersburg
“I am humbled, heartbroken and grateful.“ Those are unusual things to say about a photograph. But there the photo in question was, published again by the Post.

Especially in black and white, it’s an astonishing photo. On-line, the Post presents the photo in color, in which it loses some of its remarkable power.

On Saturday morning, we looked at the photograph in question in black and white:

It shows the 11-year-old girl who had lost her parents. Tears are streaming from her eyes. Her lips are pursed extremely hard against her grief.

We’ve looked at that photograph quite a few times since we first saw it Saturday morning. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen a more penetrating photo. It’s the kind of photo which makes you wonder why any of us ever do any of the things we do.

We can’t show you the photo in black and white. In color, we think it shows us much less.

Still, we’ll suggest that you give it a look. In our view, the reader from Gaithersburg had a good eye.

The photo does deserve the highest commendation, if we’re still able to think that commendations matter. It may also make a person want to look away. Especially in black and white, its power explains the unusual set of reactions the reader described.

Why do we do the things we do? That very unusual photograph left us asking that.


GATEKEEPERS GONE: The doctor was IN—and was out of his mind!

MONDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2014

Part 1—No dimwit need not apply:
At one time, it couldn’t have happened.

Or so the theory goes.

At one point, the theory says, we had competent gatekeepers. They kept our discourse on track.

They kept The Crazy out of the discourse—The Crazy and The Big Dumb.

They restricted the things we the people could hear—the ideas we were allowed to ponder. It was hard to hear crazy shit at that time, thanks to the work of our gatekeepers. It was highly unlikely that you would get scripted by people who were well-intentioned but basically dumb.

Did such a golden age ever exist? There’s no easy way to answer that question. But when you hear this theory advanced, you’ll typically hear two gatekeepers named:

Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley.

There were lots of newspaper back in that day; some of them left a great deal to be desired. But there were only two, or possibly three, TV networks doing news. And TV had perhaps become the major medium guiding the American discourse.

Cronkite and Brinkley were different people, but neither man was crazy or dumb. They restricted the things we the people could hear. They sifted out the crazy and the dumb.

It couldn’t have happened, the theory says, when they were sifting the things we got to hear. Americans couldn’t have heard last week’s radio interview with the heinous Keith Ablow.

We’ll grant you this—Dr. Keith Ablow isn’t a giant figure in the American discourse. He isn’t Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly. He isn’t as significant as Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes.

That said, Ablow is a regular contributor on the Fox News Channel. Last week, he was interviewed on John Gibson’s Fox News Radio program.

Gibson once hosted the 5 P.M. program on the Fox News Channel. Last Tuesday, he spent twelve minutes letting Ablow discuss Ebola in much the way Luke Brinker described at the new Salon:
BRINKER (10/15/14): Psychiatrist Keith Ablow, a member of Fox News’ Medical A Team, embarked on an unhinged racial rant against President Obama this week, charging that Obama wants Ebola to spread in the U.S. because his “affinities, his affiliations are with” Africa, “not us.”

Speaking with Fox News Radio host John Gibson yesterday, Ablow discussed his conspiracy theory at length. Attempting to channel Obama’s inner thoughts, Ablow imagined that the president opposes sealing America’s borders to travelers from Ebola-stricken countries because Obama believes, “if only unconsciously,” that the U.S. has inflicted a “plague of colonialism” on the world and that travel restrictions would therefore be unfair.

“You miserable people have destroyed so much in the world in terms of good things, and now you’re going to build a wall?,” Ablow pictured Obama saying.
“Really? To insulate yourself from things that are devastating other nations when your gains are ill-gotten? And the very fact that you can build a wall—you’re using wealth that you never should have had to build it. This is just another manifestation of you didn’t build that, business.”

Ablow’s armchair psychiatry grew particularly disturbing when he speculated that Obama hasn’t implemented a travel ban for west African countries because the president’s “affinities, his affiliations are with them. Not us. That’s what people seem unwilling to accept. He’s their leader...we don’t have a president.”
If you click here, you can listen to Gibson’s twelve-minute discussion with Ablow. As his source, Brinker cited this earlier report by Eric Hananoki of Media Matters.

At one time, the theory goes, that interview couldn’t have happened on major radio stations. There were gatekeepers in the media who didn’t allow such lunacy on major broadcast outlets.

Is Keith Ablow really that crazy? Or does he just play a crazy doctor on TV?

We can’t answer that question, though it’s fairly clear that Gibson knew that Ablow’s presentation was nuts. That said, there was a time when such ludicrous presentations would not have been allowed on major media outlets.

Those days ceased to exist a long time ago. Today, we live in an age of The Crazy and The Dumb—in an age with the gatekeepers gone.

All around the countryside, you can see and hear the effects of having our gatekeepers gone. You can certainly hear the effects of their absence if you listen to Ablow’s twelve-minute discussion with Gibson.

Here’s the problem:

Many people who listened that day couldn’t tell that Ablow’s presentation was basically crazy. They may have thought the heinous Ablow was basically making sense.

In an earlier age, those people wouldn’t have been misled that way. Ablow’s lunacy wouldn’t have been allowed on a major radio outlet.

When we listened to that tape, we heard the effects of having our gatekeepers gone. But then, we see and hear the absence of competent gatekeepers all across our broken American discourse.

It’s easy for liberals to sense their absence when we hear the lunacy broadcast by Fox. It may be harder for us to sense the gatekeepers’ absence when we watch MSNBC, or when we read the work at the new Salon, or when we read the New York Times.

That said, competent gatekeepers are generally gone from all those sites. All too often, they’ve been replaced by men in suits—by corporate producers eager to sell us The Crazy and The Dumb.

This morning, Salon was selling The Dumb in this, its featured report. (Some commenters could tell how dumb it was.) Chuck Todd and Willie Geist were selling The Dumb on yesterday’s Meet the Press.

MSNBC was selling The Dumb on several of last Friday night’s shows. And all around the emerging liberal world, highly passionate, young liberal writers keep selling versions of The Dumb—well-intentioned but clueless theoretics which are destined to make laughing-stocks out of the liberal world.

We have an important secret to tell you—we the people aren’t always tremendously sharp. This is very much part of The Way We Are—and, with our gatekeepers gone, no one can protect us from our credulous reactions to waves of dumb ideas.

Ablow was selling The Crazy last week. The Crazy is a big industry now. Unfortunately, so is The Dumb.

Tomorrow: We’re sorry, but this was just dumb

Coming later today: Links to all previous posts in our current award-winning series, The Way We Are

Supplemental: The New York Times loses consciousness!

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 18, 2014

The paper’s essential culture:
In last weekend’s Sunday Review, the New York Times published a very peculiar piece.

In our view, this peculiar piece captured the famous newspaper’s peculiar essential culture.

We refer to this peculiar essay by Michael S. A. Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton.

Despite his pair of middle initials, Graziano is an American. According to the leading authority, he was born in Bridgeport and raised in Buffalo.

According to the Times identity tag, he’s also the author of “Consciousness and the Social Brain.”

Graziano’s piece last Sunday bore this headline: “Are We Really Conscious?” Such headlines signal Times readers—they're in for some very deep thoughts.

Snark to the side, are we really conscious? Speaking for ourselves, we’d pretty much have to say yes.

That said, it’s always possible to imagine that everybody else is not. And as we’ve noted down through the years, we sometimes wonder about the life-forms found in the upper-end press corps.

Let’s return to the piece in question.

In our view, this was a very peculiar essay to run in a general newspaper, even in as lofty a paper as the Sunday Times. As Graziano started, he said this:

“Of the three most fundamental scientific questions about the human condition, two have been answered.”

Two of those questions have been answered. But, according to Graziano, the third question hasn’t:
GRAZIANO (10/12/14): Third, what is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? Here, we don’t have a settled answer. We know something about the body and brain, but what about the subjective life inside? Consider that a computer, if hooked up to a camera, can process information about the wavelength of light and determine that grass is green. But we humans also experience the greenness. We have an awareness of information we process. What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?

Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster.
According to Graziano, we humans experience the greenness of grass (his italics). From that, he derives an extremely murky question:

“What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?”

Does Graziano’s question make sense? We’d say his question is murky, hard to paraphrase, just extremely unclear. But when it comes from our top professors, the Times loves work of that type. In that sense, we’d say this piece captures one part of the paper’s essential culture.

Moving right along, what is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? As Graziano proceeds, he pens a murky thought:
GRAZIANO (continuing directly): Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster. I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do.
“We don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do?” That statement is loaded with qualifiers, possibly even with a “weasel word” or two.

Graziano isn’t saying we don’t (actually) have (inner) feelings. He’s just saying we don’t have (inner) feelings in the way we think we do!

That said, as Graziano proceeds, he seems to make a stronger claim. Citing the work of Professor Dennett, he is soon saying this:
GRAZIANO: The brain builds models (or complex bundles of information) about items in the world, and those models are often not accurate. From that realization, a new perspective on consciousness has emerged in the work of philosophers like Patricia S. Churchland and Daniel C. Dennett. Here’s my way of putting it:

How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t.
There’s more. But in that passage, Graziano seems to say that the brain doesn’t “become subjectively aware of information.”

Do you have any idea what that means? Neither do we! Neither does anyone who obtained and attempted to read last Sunday’s New York Times!

(We do know this. In normal parlance, we don’t say that “the brain” becomes aware of some piece of information. We say that some person becomes aware. Just that quickly, Graziano has wandered off the normal pathways of our language. Can such initial steps actually matter? You can bet your sweet bippy they can!)

Trust us! Of the millions of people who saw last Sunday’s New York Times, no one has the slightest idea what Graziano is talking about. No one could paraphrase his remarks in a way which could survive simple scrutiny.

In fairness, many people may have said each word in his piece to themselves as their eye moved down the page. As they did, they may have had the subjective sense that they were tracking the expression of some sort of deep thought.

That doesn’t mean they had any idea what, if anything, was being said. It doesn’t mean that Graziano himself could explain his various statements if exposed to competent questioning.

People inclined to defer to authority may recoil at that last proffer. Of course Graziano understands what he’s saying, such folk may reflexively think.

Don’t be so sure, Times subscribers. Wittgenstein’s later work was all about dismantling the kinds of murky statements found in Sunday’s peculiar piece. However much academic authority may stand behind such statements, Wittgenstein kept saying that they’re incoherent—that they just don’t stand up.

This doesn’t mean that Graziano isn’t doing highly useful research of some kind. It may mean that he gets tangled up, in the ways Wittgenstein described, when he starts “philosophizing” about his own work.

However one wants to judge those questions, we’ll confidently return to our basic premise. As you can easily see for yourselves, no one who purchased the Times last Sunday had the slightest idea what Graziano was talking about.

This leads us to a basic question: Why was this peculiar piece in the Sunday Review?

Here’s our answer:

On the upper end, the New York Times simply loves this kind of fuzzy, high academic work. On the lower end, its editors also love the low-brow inanities of Maureen Dowd, the pabulum of a Nicholas Kristof, the fifty references to Mitt Romney’s dog penned by the high lady Collins.

Dowd’s inanities make no sense, except as crude political insults. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, no one has the slightest idea what certain professors are saying.

At the Times, top-ranking editors can’t seem to discern either fact.

“Are we humans really conscious?” Thanks to the work of the New York Times, we’re not quite sure what to say!

The professor’s prior appearance: Professor Dennett was also cited in the Sunday Times of September 28.

(Full disclosure: His sister, little Charlotte Dennett, was our grade school pal!)

In our view, Dennett’s work is very murky. At a paper like the Times, that qualifies him as a star.