Woe unto the denizens of the Washington press corps when the rest of the world discovers Bob Somerby’s Web site, The Daily Howler (www.dailyhowler.com). A professional comedian by trade, living in Baltimore and only barely computer-literate, Somerby has set himself up as the Diogenes of the Washington Press Corps: the only media critic who, day in and day out, sets out to expose the “astonishing combination of dishonesty and foolishness” that characterizes the groupthink of the daily coverage of American politics.
Somerby, who apparently has quite a bit of time on his hands, watches pundit TV and reads pundit analyses in his living room for no pay. This masochism, he says, is driven by his infuriation with “the technical incompetence of democracy’s gatekeepers.” But once you realize that “guys like Chris Matthews don’t really change things–they merely dramatize conventional wisdom, no matter how mindless–watching them can be lots of fun.”
Somerby’s great talent as a press critic is his relentlessness. He will tease out the unstated assumptions that underlie dozens of news stories and pundit chats and demonstrate just how sketchy are their alleged foundations in terms of evidence. Somerby is not discouraged by the issue’s inanity or lack of apparent relevance to anything that might sensibly be called politics. He is willing to descend directly into the sandbox with reporters, if that’s what it takes to expose them.
Take, for instance, his deconstruction of the coverage of Al Gore’s childhood. In a lengthy biographical essay published by David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima on the front page of the Washington Post–likely to become the ur-text on Gore, given Maraniss’s deservedly sterling reputation as Clinton’s biographer–the authors write that the future Tin Man was “prone to tattling.” Prone to tattling? asks Somerby. A 7-year-old boy is “prone to tattling,” and this is somehow relevant to his qualifications to be President? Never mind that. What is the evidence? It turns out to be “one silly anecdote” told to the reporters by Barbara Howar, who happened to be friends with Gore’s older sister sometime in the mid-fifties. The authors continue: “His compulsion to adhere to the expected order extended beyond the common practice of snitching on an older sibling.” Somerby asks us to “marvel” at the psychiatric language–[the reporters’] belief that they are equipped to make such a statement, forty years later…. The notion that young Gore has a “compulsion to adhere to the expected order” is a judgment no psychiatrist would make on this evidence. But the judgment does express the press corps’ conventional wisdom, robotically asserted all through the past year, that there is something unnatural about our stiff, cautious veep.
Here are some more examples of the young tyke’s compulsive anal-retentiveness. According to Maraniss/Nakashima, young Al left for school “at precisely the same time each morning.” (Did the school’s starting time change?) He engaged in after-school athletics that “could end as late as 6.” Somerby wonders, “As late as 6! Imagine that! Is there any high school in this country where after-school sports may not last that late? But to the writers, the desire to paint Gore as an under-age robot turns this into a major surprise.”
It gets worse: “If there was uneasiness among the St. Albans faculty about the senator’s son,” note Maraniss/Nakashima, “it was that perhaps he was too constrained by circumstances.” This is, Somerby notes, quite a construction. Was there “uneasiness among the St. Albans faculty about the senator’s son” at the time? The authors do not say.
Somerby says he is not a Gore man, and neither, for goodness’ sake, am I. But when you watch unsupported evidence snake its way through conventional wisdom to become unchallenged fact–even on so apparently nonsensical a point as young Al’s “compulsions” as a 7-year-old–you cannot help wondering how much of what we think we know about our political candidates and media celebrities is more a reflection of the free-floating biases of profile writers and the pundits who read them than it is of anything we might call “truth.”
In the months to come, the level of nonsense we will be asked to believe about the various candidates will undoubtedly reach plague proportions. We should all be grateful that we have in Somerby’s almost insanely detailed Daily Howler a partial antidote.
Stealing Blurbs and Other Progressive Causes
Pity poor David Horowitz. First, Time called him a “real, live bigot” and refused to take it back, despite Horowitz’s call to his minions to bombard Walter Isaacson’s e-mail box with complaints. Next, he could find no mainstream publisher willing to publish his new book, Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes. This forced him to pay for all those advertisements–the ones in which he looks as if he is staring at you from behind a barbed-wire concentration camp fence–from the millions he raises for his tax-exempt foundation. Next, the Michigan Daily, a college newspaper, refused to publish the advertisement, fearing that Horowitz was “promoting a conflict within races.”
Now Horowitz is being forced to relive yet another painful event in his recent past: the disowning of a blurb he featured in his self-promotion campaign. Readers may recall an earlier column where I noted that Horowitz had taken a quote of Paul Berman’s and, without permission, used it as a purposely misleading blurb for one of his countless autobiographies. Berman responded that Horowitz was “a demented lunatic” and opined that “a worse book has never been written.” Two years later it’s déjà vu all over again. This time Horowitz apparently misused a blurb by Camille Paglia for Hating Whitey. Once again, he’s been forced to retract and to “apologize for the distress this has caused Camille.” We eagerly await the next chapter in the adventures of the world’s first serial blurb thief.