For years, the pundit Thomas L. Friedman has been the butt of jokes, rightly mocked for his pompously trivial writing. From his op-eds in The New York Times to his books with silly/catchy titles (The World is Flat, The Lexus and the Olive Tree), his prose and his empty arguments have amounted to a relentless demonstration that middlebrow musings can pass for highbrow insights among far too many readers in this country. That he has actually won multiple Pulitzer Prizes should make anyone who has won that award reconsider what matters in life.
There are plenty of writers who are as bad as Friedman, but none combine the overweening sense of knowing how the world works based on no real expertise -- but on a lot of conversations with taxi drivers in exotic places -- with an overbearing moral superiority that would embarrass any person with an ounce of introspection. Although Friedman remains an anti-Trumper, that appears to be based on Friedman's unshakable commitment to globalism. And while Trump's mindless rejection of globalism is clearly worse than Friedman's mindless embrace of it, Friedman truly does represent the mindset that convinced plenty of voters (even including many who voted for Hillary Clinton) that American elites do not care about the consequences of their policies for the non-wealthy.
Friedman's bad writing is so bad that it inspired a clever guy to create the "Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Generator." That website allows readers to click a big green "Generate!" button, which produces what appears to be an authentic Friedman op-ed. I randomly generated faux op-eds with the headlines, "Swaziland: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way," "Backlash to the Backlash," and "The Fear Factor in Benin," the latter of which included this paragraph:
"When thinking about the ongoing troubles, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like car salesmen, so attempts to treat them as such are a waste of time. Car salesmen never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, Benin has spent decades being batted back and forth between colonial powers, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, hope is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Benin's curtain rod, then hope is certainly its faucet."As amusingly spot-on as that is, I continue to find it difficult to laugh at Friedman's self-satisfied buffoonery. As I wrote in a column early in 2013, his role in promoting the Iraq War was not merely misguided but morally repugnant, including a disgusting rant on Charlie Rose's show (a name that now carries its own moral repugnance) explaining the "real" reason that the U.S. invaded Iraq:
"And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, 'Which part of this sentence don't you understand? You don't think we care about our open society? You think this bubble fantasy -- we're just gonna let it grow? Well suck on this!' OK? That, Charlie, was what this war was about. "Please take a moment to consider the profound immorality of what Friedman said.
But this column is not actually about Friedman. I honestly just wanted to mention the Op-Ed Generator, but once Friedman's name is involved, it is far too easy to find oneself on a 500-word digression.
The reason I thought about the Op-Ed generator is that I have recently begun to suspect that there is such a generator that supplies political stories to The Times and The Washington Post (as well as Politico and other prominent sources). Importantly, I am talking here about what are supposed to be straight news stories, not op-ed columns. As bad a Friedman's work is, at least it is clearly labeled as opinion, and readers who take his writing seriously have only themselves to blame.
The political reporting from the top newspapers, however, has taken on a similarly eerie sense of being the product of a (rather dim) news-bot. I do not have the time (or, I confess, the talent) to create a generator of such stories, but I can at least offer an example here.
With the midterms coming up in less than six months, Republicans are heartened by the recent rise in Donald Trump's poll numbers, which bottomed out at about 40 percent and are now averaging 42 percent. The party's moderates are allowing themselves to believe that maybe things will not be so bad in November after all.
Interviews with Trump supporters in Ohio and Iowa confirm that his support remains strong, with large numbers talking about 'fake news' and saying that they are certain that he is innocent. Political observers now say that attacking Trump might not always work, and they note that the economy remains strong enough that the Republicans could weather recent storms if Trump can avoid further scandals.
The Democrats are now openly worrying about their prospects, and the party still has not settled on a single message for the mid-terms. Some party operatives hope that localized messages will help, but others disagree, arguing that they must find a coherent narrative that will allow Democrats to get past Hillary Clinton's 'deplorables' comment from 2016.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, have freed their candidates to run away from Trump as needed, and they believe that distancing themselves from what some have called racially-tinged comments by Trump is helping. They also believe that the growth effects that will flow from their signature tax cut bill will begin to be seen soon enough to turn the tide in their favor, with one House Republican reminding his colleagues: 'Our middle-class tax cuts are going to save the day.'
Democrats have said that those growth effects are invisible thus far, and there is no guarantee that they will arrive before election day. They are hopeful that their extremely liberal primary voters have not doomed them to lose winnable seats, and they are calling on former Vice President Joe Biden to appeal to blue-collar Trump supporters to come back to their roots.This is a parody, but rest assured that it is not intended to be funny. (For those who crave brilliantly satirical imagined news reports, Andy Borowitz is for you.) It is, by design, written to sound familiar and comfortable, inducing readers to nod their heads as if something important is being conveyed, even though there is no actual content.
My point is that something like the five paragraphs above can be found in the major papers several times a week, written by (supposedly) different (supposedly) human reporters but all hitting the same themes, parroting the conventional wisdom that they read in the op-ed pages.
Elevation of blue-collar (read: white) voters as a political Holy Grail? Check. Gratuitous repetition of the out-of-context "deplorables" comment as if that attack line were not a cynical lie about Hillary Clinton? Check. Uncritical acceptance of Republican assertions about the salutary effects of regressive tax cuts, and allowing Republicans to call those cuts "middle-class" without challenge? Check.
Carelessly using the term "moderate" to describe Republicans who have accepted Trumpian outrage after Trumpian outrage with barely a peep, who have voted to confirm patently unfit cabinet nominees and judges, who have voted en masse to take health care away from twenty million Americans, who think that Paul Ryan is an "ideas guy," and who have engaged in aggressive efforts to suppress voting by poor and nonwhite people? Check.
Oh, and don't forget about acting as if the Democrats are somehow in trouble because they have not unanimously agreed on a "message" -- as if the narrative would not suddenly be turned on its head if the Democrats were to settle on a single campaign theme, with snarky comments (again, in news articles, not op-eds) about Democrats enforcing a monolithic ideology on their members. (This is already the press's meme about abortion, dutifully repeating Republicans' attack lines.)
Perhaps most importantly, articles like these are the manifestation of the takeover of journalism by horse race politics at all times and in all places. There is no room for discussion of policies, because it is all about updating a dreary story line about who is winning and who is losing. Yet somehow, even though Trump's poll numbers move within a narrow and very low range, the horse race is rarely presented as looking like a Democratic win, because one of the accepted memes is that Democrats are always losing. (Admittedly, one can always find a random Democrat who is wringing her or his hands, but that does not prove anything.)
This is all a shame, because these news sources have done some amazing work in exposing what we know about Trump's connections with Russia and nearly everything else that is now common knowledge. That is why Trump continues to attack those sources. But there is something sad, and even tragic, about an independent press that can be counted on to write useless tripe day after day and pass it off as political reporting.