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Newtonian Statistics/Always Right/News Bites


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Newtonian Statistics

Truth may be the first casualty of war, but peacetime can be just as dangerous. It dies whenever misrepresentation is lazily accepted as politically meaningful, as the view of the new order held by some strutting personage too daunting to be called a liar.

Such as Newt Gingrich. Last month the Saturday Sun-Times Forum page carried an article by Daniel John Sobieski, identified as a "computer analyst and free-lance writer" but known to us as someone who for decades has entertained himself writing reactionary letters to newspaper editors. His nominal subject, school prayer, led Sobieski to our "moral vacuum" and to "left-wing, anti-religious social engineering," and then to Gingrich, the antidote to these evils.

"As Gingrich recently observed about the society these social engineers have bestowed upon us: 'It is impossible to maintain civilization with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds killing each other, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS or 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can't read.'"

At some point rhetoric this ripe has to be taken literally. That point is now. And to the credit of his profession, William Woo, editor of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, noting that Gingrich had been repeating the above litany for more than a year, wrote an op-ed column of his own that questioned it.

Examining Missouri Department of Health figures covering 1990 to '93, Woo calculated that 12-year-olds had had .00005 of the babies born in that period--16, to be exact--and surmised that incest or rape probably was responsible for those. "The idea of sexually promiscuous 12-year-olds threatening American civilization is absurd," Woo wrote.

He observed that across the nation 1 percent of homicide victims were 15 years old in 1991, the most recent year for which he could get figures, and 2 percent of the suspects arrested for murder or manslaughter were that age. "Even so," Woo acknowledged, "the violence among the young is appalling." He generously deemed Gingrich's "exaggeration acceptable."

What of AIDS patients? "Of the 314,325 cases of AIDS reported through 1993, 1,675--or .005 of the total--were among people who were between age 5 and 19 at the time of diagnosis." Woo observed that a 17-year-old boy dying of AIDS would have been infected years earlier, probably by tainted blood.

As for high school graduates who can't read their diplomas, Woo made two points trimming Gingrich's hyperbole. The first is that the place to find illiteracy is among dropouts, not graduates. The second is that surveys find Americans to be pretty good readers. "According to the Department of Education, American students rank near the top internationally in reading proficiency. We may lag in math but not in reading."

(Could this explain why Gingrich can market bogus numbers today, and tomorrow a couple of books a publisher has offered him $4.5 million to write?)

Woo wondered: "Why is the press frequently content to leave issues unexamined?" Lack of time, lack of space, lack of energy, and lack of conviction were among his answers. "Whatever the reason," he concluded, "it leaves Americans vulnerable to demagoguery from any quarter."

Always Right

We happened to read Woo's column because it was carried in the Daily Southtown, which until its sale last month to the American Publishing Company was owned, like the Post-Dispatch, by the Pulitzer Publishing Company. It was sent to us by our favorite correspondent, David Peterson of Evergreen Park, another of that tribe of readers who follow what newspapers say with grim intensity.

Peterson offered his own answer to Woo's question. "In my opinion, the answer is crystal clear," he wrote us. "Institutionally speaking, the media belong to the establishment as much as corporate capital or the Republican and Democratic parties do. . . . Just as one shouldn't expect a hammer to be able to criticize its fitness as a tool (as Nietzsche once observed), one shouldn't expect a tool of the establishment to criticize the fitness of the establishment. Should one?"

There are clear and conscious echoes here of that notable hair shirt of the mass media, Noam Chomsky. Peterson's own light does not shine as widely. He writes frequently for Z magazine's "negligible" audience--"by the time you get to Z you're really dealing with committed dissident readers," he acknowledges. And he writes a lot of letters.

We hear from him all the time. "Criticism of the media is nothing if the critic doesn't understand his work as a critique of power and ideology," he lectured us the other day. "What you're in fact criticizing ultimately, if you're good, is the sort of systematic way in which the media presents a picture of the world that the dominant institutions need you to see."

Peterson's recent letters to us have chronicled the "innate rightwingedness" he sees emerging from Sun-Times columnist Dennis Byrne. "I can recall speaking to Dennis Byrne years ago on more than one occasion," said Peterson. "He was actually writing about topics such as U.S. foreign policy quite reasonably and competently. If you think about it, the U.S. still exists and still has a foreign policy. If six years ago he can write critically about U.S. policy in the Middle East and today he's writing about how people who masturbate are the equivalent of a dog licking itself in the alley, something's gone wrong."

Not that Peterson's happy with any of the local op-ed crew. "To get onto the op-ed pages you have to pull your punches. If you're not a lunatic, you have to pull your punches."

If you're not a right-wing lunatic, we offered.

"Exactly. Here's the way it seems to work, in my opinion. If you're to the right and you want to defend the interests of privilege and power, you can be a raving lunatic and get away with it. On the other hand, if you're capable of producing a good left, or even liberal critique of a topic, you can't be sloppy. You can't get your facts wrong.

"In fact, you almost can't do it at all, because you have to bring in so much supporting evidence. It's impossible to do it in 800 or 1,000 words. You can't do it without supporting your assertions, and by the time you've supported your first assertion you've used up your thousand words."

Peterson reminded us that Thomas Jefferson in his old age divided "men" into two classes. Jefferson wrote a friend that there were: "(1) Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. (2) Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests."

With an eye to (2), Peterson said, "That's a left sort of perspective, and that's my politics." But not every journalist embraces (2). And some who do play fast and loose with the people anyway. Some journalists believe that the people, more like a mailbox than an honest depository, will swallow whatever bulk-mail nonsense is shoved in. Peterson sent us a recent Dennis Byrne column about a black female law professor who'd been refused a position at Northwestern University. The preposterous grounds, Byrne wrote, were that "by being half-Cuban black, half-Australian Irish, she fails some sort of black litmus test that presumes only American blacks 'in the U.S. context' can 'validate' African-American students."

Here was a tale that in our mind (we won't speak for Peterson) deserved whatever scorn Byrne could heap on it. Whatever scorn, that is, up to but not including Byrne's conclusion that "this is, to put it bluntly, the same kind of McCarthyism and blacklisting that infected the '50s."

Noted Peterson, "Were there any symmetry, any symmetry at all, between (A) high McCarthyism and (B) Prof. Hylton's fate, not only would Prof. Hylton have been denied tenure; she'd have been unable to find a university teaching job anywhere, and would be out driving a cab or slinging burgers at McDonalds instead.

"What's more, opposition to Hylton's tenure wouldn't have emerged from 'some faculty members and some black, Latino and female organizations,' as Byrne puts it. The opposition would have involved the government itself--the use of state power against her, that is. FBI wiretaps. Covert dossiers. COINTELPRO-type subterfuge. And the like."

Unlike Pete Seeger, let's say, who was forbidden by the political correctness of his day from appearing on television for 17 years, Professor Maria Hylton simply took a tenured job teaching law at Boston University.

News Bites

The depths:

The inquisition of the New York Times's David Margolick on the Today show. Margolick was called to account for sullying his paper and his profession by quoting the National Enquirer. (The Tribune's Vincent J. Schodolski did the same thing, but when the Tribune stoops the nation doesn't gasp.)

The deeper depths:

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz arguing on Today that if O.J. Simpson truly told Roosevelt Grier, "I did it" (as Margolick reported that the Enquirer reported), that revelation "should be on the top of the front page." (It wasn't. Margolick buried it in his story.) And Margolick conceding, "I think it's a good point."

No it isn't. It's a terrible point. The charm of a newspaper is that the important stuff can turn up at any time in any article on any page. The architecture of a given edition is barely related to ultimate significance, which is something the reporters and editors who create the edition can barely guess at. The Enquirer material was secondhand and a little unreliable and was placed right where it belonged.

Nevertheless, the Enquirer, as Margolick argued and Schodolski wrote, "has reported extensively on the Simpson case and frequently has been first with accurate news." It's far from unimpeachable, but since when has the press limited itself to unimpeachable sources? The critics pecking Margolick to death cared only that the Enquirer pays for information. They seem to hold that purchased truth is worse than no truth at all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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