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Monday, July 05, 2004

And the Libby goes to...

If there were ever a beautiful example of the way contemporary punditry is skewed in thousands of papers around the country, it was provided by two columns on Fahrenheit 9/11 that appeared Saturday in my local paper, the Louisville Courier-Journal. The Courier, a Gannett paper, occasionally uses USA Today's "pro-con" debate format, but this weekend the debate had to be renamed "a liberal and a conservative view" because the liberal, Ellen Goodman, was more critical of Michael Moore's film than was Mona Charen, the conservative. (In her column Charen also discussed one of Rodger's favorite neo-cons, Michael Ledeen.)

Maybe this is just an indicator of my own political orientation -- the "political compass" puts me pretty far out toward the southwest -- but it seems to me that the Courier has one standard for "liberals" and another for "conservatives." The "liberals" are mostly centrist, judicious, and careful -- participants in what they take to be a genuine national political discourse. The "conservatives" tend to argue poorly and call names rather than engage; they seem to regard themselves as partisans first and participants in a dialogue second, if at all. (Thomas Friedman, who shares these latter traits, is hard to categorize -- a shill for corporate globalization if ever there was one, he is nonetheless somehow regarded as a hero by many who consider themselves liberals.) And arguably what irks the right so much about Al Franken, Michael Moore, and others is that the liberal polemicists are mirror images of the conservative public intellectuals. Consider this table of syndicated columnists carried regularly by the Courier:

Hard to categorize
Paul Krugman
Thomas Sowell
Norman Lockman
E.J. Dionne
Cal Thomas
Thomas Friedman
David Broder
Mona Charen

Ellen Goodman
Kathleen Parker

Matthew Miller
George Will

Maureen Dowd
William Safire

Ronald Brownstein

The categories are my own; feel free to leave a comment if you think someone is miscategorized here, or if I've forgotten someone who is a regular. Now look me in the eyes and swear that you genuinely believe that the "conservatives" are on the whole as responsible, honest, careful, and civil as the "liberals." I bet you can't do it. I should emphasize that I usually agree with very few of the people in any column -- this isn't about correctness, it's about a certain kind of discursive virtue.

What to make of this? If I were a liberal I would say that the media have a double standard -- a common criticism from both sides, recently rehashed in this exchange on Crooked Timber. On this view, the media require liberals to be judicious to the point of timidity, while conservatives are rewarded in proportion to their temerity. It's talk radio brought to the printed page.

But a better interpretation might be that the two sets of columnists are simply engaged in different projects, and either the editors who juxtapose them are unaware of this -- because the shallow culture of contemporary journalism leads them to think all you have to do is put some lefty next to some righty, and presto! objectivity! -- or the editors are fully aware and perpetrating a kind of con game on us. What would the con be? That we have a political culture where dialogue matters, when in fact what we have is a pair of echo chambers with an alienated populace on the outside? That politics really isn't about what we all think it's about? I'm inclined toward these latter readings. But now the question becomes, what is politics really about, then? Follow the money.

At any rate, what got me thinking about all this was the howler of the weekend: Mona Charen lecturing Paul Krugman on economics. Charen writes,

It turns out that Krugman objects to capitalism. Yes, Krugman is appalled to learn that Paul Bremer was intent upon "privatizing government-run factories." Good heavens, these Bush administration people really are zealots! Later, Krugman calls them "right-wing economic theorists." Hello? Was Krugman asleep when we won the Cold War? Note: Free markets work; state-run economies flounder. But this news may not yet have filtered down to the New York Times.

I propose a new fake award: the Liberty Bell award (short name: the Libbys), for someone who says something that, though they are free to say it (because this is a free country, after all), is the remark of a Ding-Dong. And I hereby award the first Libby for Economic Commentary to Mona Charen.

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