2016 elections, Bernie Sanders, Charles Lane, Charles M. Blow, Donald Trump, Im-Politic, Immigration, Mainstream Media, middle class, punditocracy, pundits, The New York Times, Trade, Washington Post, working class
If Charles Lane wasn’t a stalwart of the Mainstream Media, and indeed the punditocracy, it wouldn’t matter that he’s a acting like a sick puppy. But because he’s both a columnist for the Washington Post and a contributor to the paper’s belligerently dogmatic unsigned editorials on trade policy (and other economic and business issues), it matters considerably and is worth reporting in some detail. For it speaks volumes about why the Big Media’s finances and credibility are increasingly on the ropes.
You’ve all encountered sick puppies at some point. They’re the folks who can dish it out, but can’t take it, no matter how serious or light-hearted the debate or exchange – who believe they embody special virtue and deserve special status and treatment; who wind up fleeing the scene with their tails between their legs when they can’t take the heat; and who, after the old French proverb, bitterly condemn as wicked those who defend themselves when attacked.
I first ran into a Mainstream Media puppy sick enough to write about earlier this year, when I reported that New York Times columnist Charles Blow had blocked me on Twitter even though I had had no direct social media contact with him, and had only even mentioned him critically (but entirely respectfully) on two occasions.
Lane at least decided he’d had enough after direct contact on Twitter. But it was so minimal, and my tweets so entirely appropriate (albeit not reverential), that he belongs in this doghouse, too.
It all began with a column Lane had written about Thanksgiving and what it should be teaching Americans nowadays. As he saw it, Americans are living in “the most prosperous and secure nation in human history,” but demagogic presidential candidates are “encouraging voters to think of themselves as victims of a ‘rigged‘ system — or demonizing everyone and everything, from the incumbent president, to Congress, to their Muslim neighbors, to the media, to ‘the billionaire class.’” And worse, these (presumably imagined) grievances have taken hold among the public, producing a season of unusually sharp “political discontent” and overshadowing “the big things [Americans] all have in common” – and (again, presumably) should be thankful for.
At many other times in American history, Lane would have had a reasonable – and indeed important – point. Moreover, however hard times are – and especially at Thanksgiving – it’s always good to step back, get some perspective, and try focusing on whatever blessings we have. Therefore, Lane would have had an especially good argument had he not so explicitly used it to condemn presidential candidates he doesn’t like, specifically Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump.
But he did make this connection. And in my view, it was particularly and revealingly tone deaf at best and clueless at worst because two major economists (including the latest Nobel Prize-winner) have just reported that the trade and immigration policies that these candidates have attacked – and which Lane and the Post have consistently championed – are not only killing jobs and wages for the American middle and working classes. They’re literally killing middle and working class whites themselves.
So this year, it seems to me, the candidates who Lane charges are “inflaming and exploiting mutually exclusive grievances,” and the voters responding to them, are on to something legitimate, and might be cut some slack by their Lane-like political opponents in the Mainstream Media. As a resulted, I tweeted, “Elite #journo @ChuckLane1: US #politics not rigged 4 #billionaire class, & too many Americans too darned unthankful.”
To my surprise, Lane “Liked” this tweet – though it’s hard to tell whether he took the point or was being snarky.
A little while later, though, he did something much more surprising – he responded to a previous tweet I had sent about trade issues. A news report had revealed that South Korea had decided to fine Volkswagen for its widespread practice of rigging the software in its vehicles to fool government emissions tests. Since South Korea has all but hermetically sealed itself to auto imports for decades, I tweeted, “Kinda surprised that protectionist #SouthKorea has let in enough #Volkswagens to fine!”
This comment elicited the following reaction from Lane: “Has it occurred to you that you didn’t know how protectionist they really are? #No.” In all honesty, I had no idea what he was trying to say, though I suspect it was something critical of my position. That’s of course fair enough. But genuine puzzlement was – and remains – foremost on my mind. (Feel free to let me know your own interpretation.)
So I tweeted back “Happy Thanksgiving, but please practice your #tweeting. Yours was painfully muddled.”
Snide? Sure. Over-the-top contemptuous or hostile or insulting? Obscene? Outside the bounds of respectable discourse? Not even close, in my opinion. But this is in fact what set Lane off. A few moments later, he shot back, “Where is that ‘block’ button? There we go!” And he thereby set the Twitter controls to ensure that he would not hear anything from me unless he changed his mind, and that I could see none of his tweets (unless someone I follow re-tweets or otherwise mentions him).
What’s bizarre about Lane’s actions is that he wasn’t following me, and therefore could only see tweets of mine if he was expressly looking for them, if I responded to one of his, or if I mentioned his name in one of my own tweets. Just as weird – Lane felt the need to let me know that he was blocking me. That wasn’t necessary at all. Did he think I cared? Did he feel the consequent need to gloat or flaunt his power? He couldn’t have thought that he’d prevent me from seeing any of his material, since it’s easily available at the Post, and his views can be heard on the Fox News talk shows where he appears as a contributor. Therefore, I am just as free to attack or praise him on Twitter (and I have complimented one or two of his columns) as I ever was.
Again, feel free to send me your interpretations. But here’s mine: Lane makes his living with words. My tweet called attention to an instance of his ineptitude with them – and in turn implicitly (and credibly) called into question his qualifications and position as a premier American thought leader (as these folks are now called). This observation stung because although journalism tends to views itself as a profession, it’s nothing of the kind. There’s no important body of knowledge to master, and therefore no objective basis for evaluating performance or even competence.
So it’s reasonable to suppose that those near or at the top of this trade, like Lane, don’t owe their prominence solely, or perhaps even mainly, to merit. Hence, challenging the expertise or the word-smithing skills of the Big Media’s members is like revealing that these emperors have no clothes – and that their opinions deserve no special regard.
Lane’s touchiness therefore is understandable. But is it a recipe for “winning friends and influencing people” (Google it!) – not to mention the better revenues essential for the Big Media’s survival in its current form? Not, as they say, so much.