It will not become a fortnightly event for me to ride like the Seventh Cavalry to the assistance of News Corporation or its leader, and it is only a coincidence that I take up on what is apparently an effort at satire at the expense of Fox News. It was widely reported on December 9 that a study revealed that Fox News viewers had an IQ 20 points below that of habitual viewers of the offerings of other news networks. While the word “satire” in minuscule type appears on the Internet piece, what follows is plausibly written in the portentous, pseudoscientific prose of breathless discovery affected by most physical and social scientists as they reveal their usually trivial and sometimes mistaken findings.
This spoof is fairly well done, with the study attributed to “The Intelligence Institute, a conservative non-profit group,” which supposedly toiled for four years, assembling data from 5,000 people and determining the surge in pulse and other vital signs when people encountered “complex or shocking images.” (“The image that caused the most stress was a poorly edited picture of President Obama standing next to a ‘ghostly’ image of a child holding a tarantula.”) It’s a reasonable attempt at amusing political comment and particularly welcome after such a dismal electoral season of misplaced righteousness, unfathomable cynicism, and unrelieved philistinism, which has now trailed into this demeaning posturing and synchronized, bipartisan humbug about the Fiscal Cliff. Since the cliff is itself cantilevered over a much larger cliff, as was discussed here last week, it would almost be a merciful thing if we dealt with the country’s innumeracy-induced vertigo in one mighty leap.
Of course, it is nonsense that the tabloid-news addicts on the right are any less intelligent than those on the left. I challenge to a duel with non-lethal weapons anyone who claims that Bill O’Reilly is more mindless, predictable, or acoustically irritating than Paul Begala, to name only two. I accept that Rachel Maddow is comparatively entertaining, as Gail Collins was until her shtick became just too predictable: Mitt Romney’s hair and dog, and preemptive apologia for anything President Obama might do. She was like the Washington Post endorsing the Democratic nominee against President Nixon in 1971, 18 months before the election (and before such considerable events as the visit to China, the completion of SALT I, and the complete withdrawal of ground-combat forces from Vietnam), when George McGovern wasn’t even a gleam in Ben Bradlee’s eye. But other peppy and attractive women make cable news even better than Rachel Maddow does: Laura Ingraham, courteous, informed, and not extreme, though unabashedly conservative and Roman Catholic; and Ann Coulter, a great showman and personality, not all of whose expressed opinions she intends to be engraved on marble tablets around the Lincoln Memorial. Those two are terrific, but they don’t claim to do anything except examine the news in novel ways and inspirit their philosophical kinfolk and entertain the rest.
We must not romanticize the era when the pundits, such as Walter Lippmann and the Alsops, exercised mighty influence, much less the era when Walter Cronkite, in battle fatigues and an army helmet, walked through the dining room of the Majestic Hotel in Saigon after the Tet Offensive in 1968 (a great American and South Vietnamese victory) and declared the war to be hopeless. Walter Lippmann downplayed the pogroms of the Third Reich, urged the immediate departure of all American forces from Europe at the end of the World War II, and called Winston Churchill’s speech at Fulton, Mo., in 1946, in which Churchill coined the phrase “Iron Curtain,” a “disaster.” Those men all had their moments, and they didn’t shout, and when Walter Cronkite read the news, it was with a country-doctor manner. (He was also one of the last people in the world to have a reassuring moustache, like Marshal Pétain’s. Since then, moustaches have been either sinister or rakish.) But they didn’t know a fraction of what they claimed and were frequently quite wrong. Lippmann, who had been friendly with “Frank” Roosevelt, as he had called him, for 15 years, wrote in 1932 that he was an amiable man who had no aptitude to be president.
These people, though very fallible, separated news from comment most of the time, generally qualified their opinions with at least a pro forma recognition that they didn’t know everything, and observed normal courtesies. One of the contributors to a Commentary magazine symposium on the future of America last year declared that the American people had been dumbed down to monosyllabic name-calling and were being guided through public events and personalities by a sound-alike corps of screaming, unmannered idiots. (This is an approximation of what was written, but a fair one.) This is the real problem. While Walter Lippmann and Eric Sevareid and their ilk were frequently mistaken and always pompous, they weren’t rude, weren’t in our faces all day, every day, and generally formulated their views with a fluency that lent them plausibility.
Now we have a confected Hegelian dialectic, a constant shouting match between obnoxious idiots, from Juan Williams to, dipping into the Hall of Fame of those whom the system retired, Eliot Spitzer. William Kristol stretches credulity at times with his residual notion of the inexhaustible potential for good works of the United States, the more aggressively projected the better. He seems to start again each year on July 4 with his multi-family incantation of the Declaration of Independence, not just the uplifting top-and-tail, but the Nuremberg indictment of poor old Farmer George (III) and the blood libel against the American Indian, and the amnesiac hyperbole of the slave-owner of Monticello. And he propels himself through the coming year with a new series of universalist American goals and a fast-moving kaleidoscope of potential chief executants. But he is a learned and civilized man and deserves to be taken seriously. So does the consistent, rigorous, and laconically amusing Charles Krauthammer. But, for failure to tuck their tails between their legs and join the Great Trek to neo-isolationism and orchestrated national self-criticism constantly trumpeted from the minarets of the Left, they are disparaged as “the bomber boys.”
Instead of a public dialogue, we have an infelicitous combination of blowhards in conflict, all-day television in search of controversy, where a Sherlock Holmes of information is required to discern much that is worthwhile. As I have written before, I believe it all started to deteriorate when the mainstream media destroyed the Nixon administration on a flimsy pretext, ensured the defeat of the United States and the obliteration of an independent South Vietnam and the triumph of Pol Pot in Cambodia, and then engaged in a 40-year collective self-canonization for their heroism and nobility, driving much of the American public into the arms of media contrarians and dissenters of varying levels of intellectual respectability. In this process, standards of public information have been coarsened and commendable variety has been reduced to mere cacophony. In public affairs, the media faithfully reflect society: All is dysfunction. Fox News may not have raised a banner of highbrow insight, but at least it has helped to balance the ideological noise level. As for the allegation of imbecility, it is a condition that transcends ideology, and those who pass out before noisy glass screens each day should not throw stones.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, recently published, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].