Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

10 January 2018

Effete Media



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    Effete: (1) “(of a person) affected, overrefined, and ineffectual”; (2) “no longer capable of effective action” — Google’s online definition
Last Monday night a strange and unwelcome rage overcame me while watching, of all things, PBS. It was the Newshour’s “Politics Monday” segment. Judy Woodruff, the anchor, Amy Walter and her co-correspondent Tamara Keith were discussing Oprah Winfrey’s rousing speech accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globe ceremonies.

Keith’s symmetrical and blandly attractive face glowed with the light of an enchanted school girl. Her reverence for Winfrey was obvious. So was her apparently uncritical adoration at the thought that Winfrey might run for president in 2020.

Now I yield to no one in my admiration for Winfrey. She’s undoubtedly the most successful black business woman in American history. And unlike our president she pretty much made it all on her own—all the way up through the white- and male-dominated entertainment industry that, as we all now know, is a minefield of predation and exploitation for even the smartest and most talented females, let alone females of color.

But that’s where Oprah’s fame and fortune stop. She’s an actress, entertainer, business woman and celebrity. Period. She’s excellent at what she does. Her character and methods are infinitely better than Trump’s: what he does with arrogance and hatred Winfrey does with empathy and compassion.

But does that make her presidential? Do we really need another chief executive with no directly relevant experience whatsoever? Isn’t that basic logical error precisely how we fell into the abyss with Donald Trump?

Are our media making too much of Winfrey’s Golden-Globe acceptance speech to atone for paying too little attention, over far too many years, to serious pols like Ruben Gallego, Kamala Harris, and Stacey Abrams?

This was hardly the first time I’ve had doubts about Tamara Keith. In all the weeks I’ve watched her on “Politics Monday,” I’ve never learned anything from her. I’ve never heard her coin a single original turn of phrase. I’ve never seen her reveal a single fact or statistic that I didn’t know beforehand or soon re-learn from multiple independent sources.

For all Tamara Keith has done to edify or enlighten me personally, she might as well be part of the furniture on the set. Every time I see her face on screen, I wonder whom she knows or is related to who got her her job. (In contrast, her colleague on “Politics Monday,” Amy Walter, is ever on the spot with the latest poll statistics and insights, although she seems to be spreading herself a bit thin lately. Thus does celebrity corrupt everything, including good basic reporting.)

But last Monday night was different. In an instant, largely unbidden, my previous mild disdain for Keith suddenly morphed into something resembling rage.

I was staring, my unconscious mind told me, directly into the face of white privilege. My soul desperately wanted to see her bland, white, quintessentially innocent face morph into a darker, less attractive, pock-marked one that knows pain not just from writing about it, but from wretched experience. I wanted a political reporter from the ghettos of Jersey or Baltimore, or from the barrios of East L.A. I and every old white guy like me need that perspective.

When talked turned to Trump abandoning the Salvadorans to their deported fates, my discomfort only got worse. I didn’t want to hear abstract discussion how Trump, who had demagogued the Salvadoran M.I.S. gang to bash Hispanics of all stripes, was now sending Salvadorans who had made homes here back to face that vicious gang on its home turf. I wanted to hear from reporters who would understand the visceral fear and agony that follows splintering of flimsy wooden doors in Salvadoran homes and the explosion of bullets and blood in victims’ own and loved ones’ flesh.

I don’t mean to pick unduly on Tamara Keith. There are many—for too many—like her in our media today.

Take the New York Times, for example. It’s still far too effete. Its writers’ pools still coddle far too many frustrated poets who can find a thousand euphemisms for “Trump lied.”

For every reporter like Peter Baker or David Sanger, who can probe to the essence of a complex matter with a few well-chosen words, there are dozens who lose the thread in a maze of details, with weak and indirect verbiage and self-confidence whose tenuousness is palpable. For every David Leonhardt or Paul Krugman, who can limn the harsh effect of economic policy on real people in a few verbal strokes, there are dozens who can, and do, pen perfect, grammatical English prose that buries it. For every reporter who can clarify the intent and effect of policy with a few well-sourced sentences, there are five frustrated literary writers who can fuzz them up with short stories masquerading as reporting.

There is no excuse for this any more. You can’t blame it all on the Internet. The Times’ and Post’s subscription models are wild successes. Both newsrooms are awash in money. And even if that weren’t the case, Jess Bezos’ deep pockets are still as much a guarantee that The Post will have the same independence that brought Nixon down as they were when Bezos first bought it over four years ago.

The same goes for PBS. The Trump phenomenon has opened the pockets of millions, like me, who fear the demise of democracy and a free press. Our media, including PBS, have enjoyed the benefits of that largesse.

Now it’s payback time. This nation deserves old-fashioned, hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners reporting, especially on line. Our major national media have the money now and must provide it.

That’s the message of Steven Spielberg’s latest cinematic masterpiece, The Post, which opens nationwide on Friday. We Yanks are indeed fighting a war of civilizations. But it’s not a war between Christianity and Islam. It’s a war between truth and lies, real news and fake news, democracy and demagoguery, real and manufactured reality.

That’s also what Michael Wolff is trying to tell us with his new book. That’s what his sources were trying to tell us with the revelations they gave him, from which many are even now cravenly backing away.

It’s a cyber war with the Russians, whose surreptitious and subversive use of our own media helped put Trump in the White House. It’s war with the pols and operatives who—against all the advice of our own spooks—want us to believe this never happened. Most of all, it’s war with Fox, Murdoch and their media empire, which have spent a generation and ungodly sums to put us Americans collectively in this foggy place from which we can barely see the Sun.

In peacetime, non-entities like Tamara Keith can stay afloat by sinking into the woodwork, staying bland, and offending no one. But in a war you have to fight. What’s more, you’ve got to have the competence and sheer guts to win.

In that kind of fight, Keith and her ilk are not even good cannon fodder. The time for euphemisms, timidity, blend-into-the-woodwork smiling blandness, and effeteness is over. Then next decade will answer decisively Ben Franklin’s challenge to the matron who asked him what kind of government our Constitutional Convention had designed: “A Republic, Ma’am, if you can keep it.”

Journalism and the media are on the front lines of this new war, just as they were under Nixon’s twisted rule. If we, the people, are to win it, we will need leaders like Woodward, Bernstein and uncompromising Katharine Graham.

We will need writers for whom “lies” and “truth” have clear and invariable meanings, and who are not afraid to use those words when called for. Most of all, we will need writers who understand the difference between the second-oldest profession and the first.

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