The Political Animal

Niall Ferguson, (C)Rock Star


Crop of Niall Ferguson
Crop of Niall Ferguson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Niall Ferguson’s cover story for Newsweek was a journalistic and intellectual fiasco, for him and for Newsweek and Daily Beast editor Tina Brown. It was a journalistic fiasco for read-the-multitude-of-responses-online-and-on-paper. Ferguson now has no credibility as an opining voice in the public square. His intellectual credibility, established as an academic historian and teacher, is significantly tarnished. Tina Brown has only confirmed, if confirmation was at this point required by anyone, the worst that has been thought of her. She plays for ratings – how they are measured in print sales and cyber eyeballs – and upholds no standard of journalistic quality beyond the volume of buzz. Newsweek even felt defensively compelled to offer the embarrassing admission that it did not fact-check Ferguson’s article. Brown may have gotten her buzz, her eyeballs,and her copies off the stands, but the damage to Newsweek’s reputation and future sales may be incalculable until it is visible.

Ferguson, however, may have a different calculation. Ah the lure of the limelight and the lime daiquiri.  Stephen Marche tells us:

The real issue isn’t the substance of Ferguson’s argument, though, which is shallow and basically exploded by this point in time. It isn’t even the question of how such garbage managed to be written and published. It is, rather, why did Ferguson write it? The answer is simple but has profound implications for American intellectual life generally: public speaking.

Ferguson’s critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent’s Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. That number means that the entire economics of Ferguson’s writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.

That number means that Ferguson doesn’t have to please his publishers; he doesn’t have to please his editors; he sure as hell doesn’t have to please scholars. He has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk. That incredibly sloppy article was a way of communicating to them: I am one of you. I can give a great rousing talk about Obama’s failures at any event you want to have me at.

Adds Ta-Nehisi Coates:

But if you have opportunity, if you don’t mind flying, if writing is secondary to you, then you might have what it takes to live the high life. From what I can tell, a large number of America’s more prominent pundits fit into that category. These are people who have realized that there is more money in talking than there is in listening.  For this class of “writers” writing isn’t the point, so much as having a platform for their headshots, and their ideas. You can imagine the effect this dynamic could have on an opinion class.


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The Political Animal

The Daily Beast Begins to Bottom Feed


The Daily Beast provides some thoughtful journalism and opinion, but increasingly it and its editor, Tina Brown, offer sensational nonsense. Newsweek isn’t making money yet – better draw more eyeballs. So we get the crudely philistine “The 13 Most Useless Majors, From Philosophy to Journalism” or the sucker punch at controversy of Newsweek’s “The First Gay President,” the reaction to which the Beast is happy to tally in perpetuation of its own manufactured story. And since the assembly line is running, why wait for an actual Bush-Gore II? Six months before the votes are counted is not too early for Michael Medved’s “How Another Electoral Split Decision Could Divide America.”

On that subject of manufactured stories, the Beast’s own Michael Tomasky, one of its thoughtful writers, just railed against “the Media’s Foolish Elizabeth Warren Witch Hunt,” in which only the meme-producing and feeding media and the campaign of Scott Brown share any interest. The same day, fellow Beast Lloyd Grove, who said once of his time as a gossip columnist, “Yeah, it turns out I had a knack for writing superficial items with scurrilous intent,” authored “Obama Has a Mean Streak and He Turned It on Romney This Week.

But there was something darker and sharper lurking just below the surface, in Obama’s facial expressions, body language, and mocking tone of voice: Not to put too fine a point on it, but the president has a mean streak.

“He does have a very biting side to him, which he inherited from his mother,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David Maraniss, whose much-anticipated Barack Obama: The Story will be published next month. The late Ann Dunham “could be very sarcastic, but she never addressed it to people who were vulnerable,” Maraniss continued. “Obama has got that style that comes out when he’s in combat or competitive.”

Did you get that? Obama can be “biting.” Ouch. You so mean. Sarcastic? Oh, how cruel. (Maranis says the mater meanness never turned it on the vulnerable, which presumably excepts Romney, but never mind.) Returning to one of his prime pieces of evidence Grove offers,

Let’s return to the “prairie fire” moment, around 28 minutes into the videotape of Obama’s speech. The president’s tone drips with sarcasm, especially when he shouts the phrase “prairie fire!,” raising his left arm in mock-alarm, and punctuates the gesture with a suppressed giggle.

Obama is sarcastic again, raising his arm in “mock-alarm” and – brace yourselves – suppressing a “giggle.”

Will the nation survive this assault on its sensibilities? Mock alarm and suppressed giggles? The President is a role model to children, you know.

Grove presents several other such feeble illustrations, punctuated with journalistic-like resort to “expert opinion.” Said political scientist Larry Sabato, the “pundit with an opinion for every reporter’s phone call” (“need a quote/do not tarry/call UVA and ask for Larry”), drawing, in opining on Obama’s vicious eye rolling, on his deepest political scientese,

In Iowa, Obama “was on an eye-roll—which is what the cool kids always do,” Sabato went on. “They eye-rolled at me a lot when I was in Catholic school and it still hurts after all these decades.”

And you thought bullying is a recent phenomenon. The literature on the damage mean, mean eye rolling can do is extensive. Imagine if Sabato – who might otherwise have gone on to some order of success – had once been tackled to the ground by a gang of homophobic boys and had his hair cut off.

Come to think of it, it’s really the eye rolling and the mock alarm that bite. So deeply.

Grove even resorts to psychiatrist Justin A. Frank, who analyzes the debate moment when Obama “bared his fangs” at Hilary Clinton by stating coyly that she was “likable enough.”

I’m sorry to have to have reported that to you. Perhaps I should have forewarned. Are you all right, dear reader? I don’t recall if that psychic body slam came before or after Clinton, on Sixty Minutes, questioned by Steve Croft about Obama’s Christianity, replied (with shifting eyes – far crueler, according to my psychiatrist, than rolling ones), “As far as I know.”

That is pretty much Lloyd Grove’s case for the story of mean-streak Obama. I do not know what level of output he might be contracted for. I do know – we can see it Daily – that the Beast has diminishing standards for what it is passing off as journalism. For Grove’s piece is simply garbage, the political equivalent of Charlie Sheen carrying Brienne of Tarth‘s love child on the cover of the National Enquirer.

Widely reported in the Obama years have been FDR’s words in announcing the Second New Deal,

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.

That was mean. No account of whether Roosevelt rolled his eyes, feigned mock alarm or- I still cant’ get over it – suppressed a giggle.

Obama killing Osama bin Laden – that was really mean.

More mean, please.

Why, I’m probably being mean to Lloyd Grove right now.

He’ll get over it. (Even if Larry Sabato won’t.)



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