NYT writer mars paper, misinforms readers

As the editor of an opinions section for a newspaper, I find it endlessly interesting to study opinions sections in other newspapers. Take The New York Times, for example. Its editorial direction is accepted as center-left, but commentators spanning the ideological spectrum spill ink each day. In quality, the Times’ opinions range from the insipid to the sublime, with the average being readable and informative. Sometimes, though, a thread of historical contradiction makes itself known. I’m not talking about a conflict of ideas—that’s to be expected and encouraged—but a deeper and more hidden conflict between authors and their abilities; one that, when noticed, diminishes the credibility of at least one, and hurts those who read his or her columns. This is what happened to David Brooks last Monday.

Our story begins 11 months ago on March 31, 2012, when Rick Santorum was still an angry, sweater-vested thorn in Mitt Romney’s side during the Republican primaries. Talking about a Romney aide’s can-you-believe-he-said-that-out-loud assertion that his candidate could reset his positions like an Etch-a-Sketch, comedy writer David Javerbaum penned a classic satirical take-down of Romney that shrewdly glued the former Massachusetts governor’s ever-shifting platform the to vagaries of quantum physics. Javerbaum outlined an internally coherent theory of Romney’s beliefs, policy shifts, and public appearances. “In much the same way that light is both a particle and a wave, Mitt Romney is both a moderate and a conservative”; “While some views are…less likely than others, no view can be thought of as absolutely impossible”; a gem Javerbaum calls the “principle uncertainty principle”; you get the idea. Javerbaum’s column captured the emerging mood of frustration with fact-shredding seen at the GOP debates and did so in a way that subtly commented on politics, which often seems random but is in fact a product of calculation, within the framework of physics, which is often viewed as mechanical but is also deeply chaotic.

The observer effect in quantum mechanics states that, when one observes an object, one necessarily changes it. This is not only true of electrons, but also of elections and the policy debates that unfold in their wake—hence the duty that columnists should observe by fact-checking politicians and not merely accepting talking points as they are delivered. Or, for that matter, of not using their column space to deliberately paint a skewed picture of the truth. As the fight over the $1.2 trillion in sequestration cuts set to take place over the next decade comes to a head this week, David Brooks shows us what happens when observation turns into obfuscation.

Brooks, unlike Javerbaum, writes regularly for the Times and feeds off false equivalency, assigning blame in equal proportions to Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as President Obama, for D.C.’s political paralysis. Brooks often falls victim to the problem of looking for evidence to support one’s point of view, which is a forgivable (and supremely human) lapse in opinion-journalistic responsibility. There’s probably no one (myself included) who doesn’t do it, whether in the Times, The Miscellany News, or at a dinner-table debate. Anything to stake a claim on “QED.”

But on February 21, Brooks described the political dance around the sequester taking place in D.C.—in an attempt at extended metaphor that seems to strive for Javerbaum’s heights but plunges into the abyss of clumsiness—as a “DC Dubstep.” Brooks accused Democrats of doing the “Permanent Campaign Shimmy”: defining a problem, passing the buck on finding a solution, and casting blame; he then blamed Republicans for doing the “Suicide Stage Dive,” which involves glorifying unpopular policy stances as examples of responsibility. Together, Brooks writes, these not-at-all-dubstep-themed moves “are beautifully guaranteed to cause maximum damage to the country” by extending economic uncertainty and eroding confidence in government. Specifically, he criticized Obama for not offering a sequester alternative or proposing specific policy fixes, such as means-testing Medicare. Both of these charges were patently untrue, as Brooks noted in an addendum. The White House website has long listed Medicare means-testing—a way of ensuring that the wealthy do not draw on healthcare benefits they do not need—as a possible means of deficit reduction. Obama has made informal offers to Congress that contain higher taxes and cuts in spending, which are part and parcel of any fiscal negotiating process.

Brooks’s oversights came, he said, from “a mood of justified frustration.” Of course, we should all ask, even if Brooks’s frustrations were justified, how does he manage to pollute the pages of a respected newspaper with his foul mood and get away with a slap on the wrist, tasked with nothing more than a half-apology?

Thankfully, there are people who jump on columns like these and correct falsehoods before they can do much damage. Jonathan Chait, writing for New York magazine, published a blog post on February 22, updated at multiple intervals throughout the day, that now serves as a sort of Bayeux tapestry depicting only the latest of many wonk-waged battles against Brooks’ intellectual laziness and political hackery. But we should not have to rely on columnists from rival publications to police each other in order to be supplied with reasoned opinions. “[Brooks is] trying to be fair-minded and reasonable,” Chait wrote charitably, but Brooks’ radical moderation “[led him] badly astray.” It not only led Brooks astray, but also anyone who read him and took him at his word. It’s easy to see how such misinformation can flow into the political system as wasted energy. “Dear Mr. President,” a letter-writer might begin, “Why won’t you act like the adult in the room you so often claim to be?” when that person might do better to write, “Dear Speaker Boehner, please bring a bill to the floor to repeal sequestration in full.” Something like that—anything that asks a politician to do something he or she is not already doing.

Brooks seems to care little about this, and I find that just a little offensive. As critical consumers of media, enjoined by our professors to be skeptical of our sources, we should all be offended by acts like these. We should remember that papers like the Times, especially their opinion writers, are far from absolutely reliable. We should read them closely and hold them accountable. As we’ve just seen, the observer effect is a profoundly powerful force.

 

—Lane Kisonak ‘13 is a Political Science major. He is Opinions Editor for The Miscellany News.

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