The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal.com’s “Best of the Web” written by the editor, James Taranto.
News of the Tautological
“Nurses Are Not Doctors”–headline, New York Times, April 30
Breaking News From 1906
“Va. Events Aim to Introduce Women to Aviation”–headline, Associated Press, April 29
Breaking News From 1913
“Women Candidates and Voters Could Decide Who Controls the Senate”–headline, Associated Press, April 29
Bottom Story of the Day
“Department of Fisheries Not Rushing to Help Newfoundland Town Clear Away Whale Carcass”–headline, Yahoo! News, April 29
If Data Were a Journalist
“Vox.com joins a crowded field of data-driven news sites,” USA Today reported earlier this month on Ezra Klein’s new venture. Maybe “Data” should have been capitalized.
A pair of articles the site published yesterday, one on John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and one on ObamaCare, demonstrate a glaring deficiency in Vox’s “explanatory” approach to journalism. Both reflect a determined detachment from reality–specifically, from the human element in human affairs.
Let’s start in the Mideast with Max Fisher, author of the story titled “Does It Matter That John Kerry Compared Israel to Apartheid?” The answer to that question seems to be self-evidently yes, but Fisher wants to argue that it shouldn’t matter. The whole kerfuffle, he insists, is a “distraction”: “We’re not debating . . . the substance of Kerry’s points or the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict.”
Instead, “pretty much the entire American discourse around Israel-Palestine has devolved into an endless stream of language-policing. . . . This is all discourse about discourse.” A horse is a horse, of course of course / And no one can have a discourse with a horse / That is, of course, except discourse with the Famous Mr. Ed. Or, as the New York Times once put it: ” ‘John Kerry walks into a bar,’ goes the Washington version of the old joke. ‘Bartender says, “Hey, Senator Kerry, why the long face?” ‘ ” (That’s an example of “humor,” a concept we’ll discuss further down in this column.)
Fisher defends the “substance” of Kerry’s argument, which is that a “two-state solution” is better than a “one-state” one. That’s a proposition with which, according to Fisher, “just about everyone but far-left and far-right groups agree [sic].” Perhaps that’s true in the abstract, though as we noted yesterday, it oversimplifies even the logic of the dispute by defining the status quo as a “problem” in need of a “solution,” ignoring the possibility that any proposed solution may be unfeasible or could make matters worse.
The deeper problem with Fisher’s lament, however, is that it fundamentally misunderstands the enterprise in which Kerry is supposed to be engaged, which is diplomacy. If Kerry wants to engage in discourse, he should tender his resignation and seek an academic appointment. (For that matter, if Fisher wants to write about the problem of “language-policing,” he should change his beat from foreign policy to academia.)
Diplomacy is not about the free exchange of ideas but about the establishment and maintenance of relationships. That requires not just logic but sensitivity. “The indelicateness of [Kerry’s] language aside, his actual point is one with which many of his critics agree,” Fisher writes. A good rejoinder comes from Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post: “The bottom line of nine months of talks is that nothing really moved, and nothing significant changed–except one thing: US Secretary of State John Kerry’s credibility with the Israeli public.”
Kerry’s “indelicateness” in employing an anti-Israeli slur with a long and notorious history–which history Fisher also ignores, evaluating the analogy as a purely abstract matter–is not a side issue. It is symptomatic of the secretary’s diplomatic failure–his failure, while attempting to negotiate an agreement, to earn the trust of both sides. Fisher voices his own exasperation with Israeli and Arab intransigence:
It’s a mutual persecution complex, by which both sides seem to believe that if only everyone saw “our” suffering, saw “our” righteousness and the other side’s deviousness, surely the world would come around to our side of things and would finally back us up. Then we could solve this without having to talk [with] those untrustworthy monsters on the other sides [sic].
Well, yes. Both sides are made up of human beings, with human sensitivities, attachments and antagonisms. That’s not a “distraction” from the diplomat’s challenge, it is the diplomat’s challenge.
Fisher’s (and Kerry’s) detachment from the human reality of diplomacy reminds us of Data, the humanoid robot played by Brent Spiner on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” A subplot in one 1988 episode, “The Outrageous Okona,” deals with Data’s difficulty in comprehending humor. “Data inquires about a series of comedic acts and performances to further his understanding of comedy,” the Trekkie site Memory-Alpha.org recounts in its episode summary.
The android engages in deep research, viewing comedy routines, including one from “20th century Jerry Lewis,” “at maximum speed.” He and another character then put on a comedy show in front of an “audience” consisting of lifelike holograms. “Unfortunately, Data discovers that the audience is programmed to laugh at anything he says or does, regardless of whether or not it’s actually humorous, and that his delivery is still flawed.”
John Kerry would be a great diplomat if only the Israelis and Palestinians could be replaced by holograms.
The second Vox piece, by Sarah Kliff, is titled “Despite the Facts, America Has Convinced ItselfObamacare Is a Disaster.” Kliff’s treatment of the “facts” is even more simplistic than Fisher’s of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict . It turns out she has in mind but one “fact”: that the White House claims more than eight million people have “signed up” for ObamaCare policies.
We could write a whole column–and have written more than one–as to why this “fact,” even if factual, is consistent with the view that ObamaCare is a disaster. A few reasons: The figure is inflated because not everyone who “signs up” actually ends up paying a premium. It’s silly to assume that ObamaCare customers are satisfied customers, given the elements of legal coercion applied against both buyer and seller. With only limited data available about the demographic profile of the insurance pool, and practically none about the health profile, there is no factual basis to counter doubts about its actuarial soundness.
Yet Kliff’s analysis has an even more fundamental flaw. She makes the same mistake Fisher does with respect to diplomacy–failing to comprehend the basic nature of politics as a human enterprise. She’s especially frustrated with a poll showing that a majority of respondents think there are “too many problems for the law to work.” For that, she blames the media:
Its [sic] likely that most Americans are gauging their understanding of how well–or poorly–Obamacare is going from the news coverage. Most Americans already have health insurance, and aren’t shopping on the exchanges for new policies. So even if the Obamacare experience improves, most people won’t necessarily notice.
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose Kliff is right: that ObamaCare is proving successful as a matter of policy and economics but still faces wide public resistance. It’s still a disaster–a political disaster. Congress enacted it, and the Obama administration has propagandized for it, with virtually no regard for public sentiment beyond the partisan Democratic base.
Why? One reason was because of the cult of personality that surrounded Barack Obama during his campaign and the early days of his presidency. His supporters, including many journalists, were the functional equivalent of Data’s virtual audience, cheering Obama no matter what he said or did. The virtual audience may be smaller now, but it’s heavily represented at Vox.com–although it must be acknowledged that Klein, Fisher, Kliff and the rest of the “data-driven journalists” are all too human.
For more “Best of the Web” click here and look for the “Best of the Web Today” link in the middle column below “Today’s Columnists.”