Some Columnists Can't Be Saved
America's editorial writers and pundits need to do some reporting. They need to start picking up the phone.
Don't get me wrong -- I love that the digital revolution has birthed an age where any jackass with a computer can plug in and start a blog. It's truly thrilling to know that any fool or genius out there can reveal to the masses his startling perspicacity or blunt idiocy.
Still, it seems too many are getting into positions of journalistic power, and the fact that they haven't had to do much reporting has imbued them with a repulsive mix of arrogance and laziness. Even if you're just getting paid to give your opinion, there should be some grounding in fact-finding and research. When was the last time Jonathan Capehart, Maureen Dowd or Chris Matthews did any research?
Jonathan Capehart is on the editorial board of the Washington Post. Prior to that, he was an editorial writer for the New York Daily News. Before that he was a columnist for Bloomberg News, and before that he was an editorial writer, again, for the New York Daily News.
Was Jonathan Capehart ever a reporter? As a journalist, was he ever required to do any research? Has he ever picked up the phone to milk a source? Has he ever had to attend a social function or political rally that represents a political view he disagrees with?
Jack Shafer, a celebrated media critic for Reuters, recently published a column condemning a Cass Sunstein, a former government official, who had complained about having to answer too many dumb questions from the media. "Heaven forbid journalists ask questions!" Shafer mocked.
Yet Shafer himself wasn't keen to answer questions in 2007, during the final chapter of the famous "monkeyfishing" episode. In 2001, Shafer, then an editor at Slate, published an article called "Monkeyfishing" by a man named Jay Forman. The piece reported on the practice in the Florida Keys of "monkeyfishing," wherein sportsmen would fish for monkeys by attaching fruit to a reel and casting it from a boat onto the island. The piece was immediately destroyed by bloggers, commenters, and the Wall Street Journal. Shafer and Michael Kinsley, then the head editor at Slate, stood by Jay Forman. The Journal described Kinsley as "somewhat unworldly...the sort of guy who has a lot of book learning but is short on street smarts."
So how did it finally come out that "Monkeyfishing" was a complete fabrication, a total hoax? In 2007 two Columbia University students had a radical idea. They were interested in the monkeyfishing story and called Jay Forman, the author of the original piece. Forman admitted to them that the entire piece was fiction. When this got back to Mr. Shafer in the form of a call from a reporter the New York Times, Shafer was defiant: "Wary of describing lessons learned from the episode, Mr. Shafer noted that 'any publication can be duped by a writer who is prepared to lie in a suicidal fashion and commit career suicide.'"
Is that true? Could "any publication" be duped by a man who appears with a crazy story about fishing for monkeys? Shafer, like Jonathan Capehart, has been an editorialist for his entire career. There is no record of him breaking a story, or even producing any memorable reporting. If he had spent a few years on the streets, instead of being surrounded by the like-minded and failing upwards -- Shafer graduated from monkeyfishing to a column at Reuters -- he might have a decent BS detector.
H.L. Mencken, one of Shafer's heroes and one the greatest opinion journalist of all time, certainly did. Mencken was famous for his opinions, but he was also one of America's greatest reporters, which is where he started. When the Baltimore Evening Sun sent him to cover the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925, Mencken was told by a newspaper woman that if he really wanted to see the old-time religion, he'd have to go into the hills outside of Dayton. "This newspaper woman," wrote Mencken, "whose kindness covered city infidels as well as Alpine Christians, offered to take me back in the hills to a place where the old-time religion was genuinely on tap. The Scopes jury, she explained, was composed mainly of its customers, with a few Dayton sophisticates added to leaven the mass. It would thus be instructive to climb the heights and observe the former at their ceremonies."
Mencken emerged from the hills and produced one of greatest pieces, "The Hills of Zion." It was a direct result of Mencken separating himself from the media pack, of having curiosity, of asking questions, of literally walking in a new direction for a story.
Would Jonathan Capehart, Jack Shafer or their colleagues do such footwork today? When you consider that the ones stationed in Washington can't travel three miles from their offices to the annual March for Life, it's not hard to answer the question.
Secure in their self-imposed elite cocoon and supported by lazy editors, today's elite media are free to write anything, about anybody, and none of it has to be much more accurate than "Monekyfishing." As is her inclination, Maureen Dowd recently wrote a piece slamming the Catholic Church. She was specifically annoyed with Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. According to Dowd, Muller "upbraided the officers of the largest group of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious [LCWR], which has been investigated and reprimanded by Rome. He objected to their plan to honor Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a Fordham theology professor who has written that women are uncomfortable with 'the dominant images of God as father, lord, and king' and would prefer 'non-authoritarian" female language for God.'"
But Elizabeth Johnson was only part of the focus of Cardinal Muller's critique. His main point was about Barbara Marx Hubbard, the LCWR's guest speaker at their 2012 convention. Hubbard, a Jewish agnostic, is a proponent of "conscious evolution," a New Age theology that completely contradicts Christianity. As Cardinal Muller noted, Hubbard's work has appeared regular in LCWR publications, and even been written into the directional statements of some religious institutes.
We could be upset or irritated that Dowd left out this crucial piece of information, but after so many years of her deceptions and omissions, a certain numbness sets in. Dowd is like the six year-old cousin who comes to visit for the summer, and begins to flip the checker board every week. The first few times it's annoying, and you tell her to stop. But it continues through June, and then July. By August you've been worn down. You just conclude you're dealing with a psychological problem that can't be fixed short of professional or spiritual intervention.