Necessary but Not Sufficient

Adolescents have a finely tuned sense of what’s just not fair at all. Every teacher knows this, when the kid protests that his essay was flawless, and the required three pages, with footnotes showing actual research – and those were properly formatted too – and the paper was shallow nonsense and deserved that low grade. Yeah, yeah – the kid put some real work into that paper, and it was flawless, but it’s then time to once again introduce the concept of necessary versus sufficient conditions. The careful work and real effort are necessary conditions for an excellent essay, but having something to say – anything at all – is the sufficient condition. In that case any teacher would overlook spelling and formatting mistakes, shaving just a little off a top grade on the paper. The kid will protest that that’s just not fair at all – look at all the hard work he or she put into the thing – but sooner or later they’ll get it. It’s kind of a life-lesson. Form is not substance. Likely-sounding words carefully arranged in pleasant patterns can still be nonsense. It’s best to actually know what you’re talking about and to have something to say about it.

Perhaps the kids who never see that grow up to be Republican politicians. These days those folks are assembling likely-sounding words carefully arranged in pleasant patterns, at present about immigration and our brown brothers and sisters, and about those good black folks who somehow just won’t vote for them, while they work hard in state after state to make it damned hard for any of those folks to vote at all. They too will say it’s just not fair that Latinos and blacks – and Asians and lots of women and young folks, and folks with college degrees and folks who live in cities or on the coasts – don’t vote for them, but form really isn’t substance. Nice words are important – say the right things – but meeting a necessary condition is not the same thing as achieving any sort of sufficient condition. Republican politicians probably had a hard time in high school English.

To be fair the same thing happens with teachers. Those of us who have supervised student teachers – fresh out of their graduate programs with all those methods classes, with their exceedingly clever detailed minute-by-minute daily lesson plans – have dealt with folks who just don’t know the actual subject matter, and who don’t really like kids very much and would really rather not listen to what they have to say about anything. They too are all form and no substance. It’s all shut-up-and-learn. Any deviation from the lesson plan will be dealt with harshly, after the young teacher’s panic subsides. You can see that panic in their eyes when a student actually thinks that teacher’s question was a real question, not a tell-me-what-I-want-you-to-tell-me guessing game. No real questions should ever come up.

Unfortunately, in many schools, those are the folks who go on to long and successful teaching careers. In essence, American education had decided that form is more important than substance – teach to the test, as that’s the only thing that matters. The precisely correct answer, delivered efficiently at just the right time, is what matters, no matter what the student does or does not actually understand.

Heck, you’ve got to measure something, and the cultural implications are obvious. We have come to believe that the likely-sounding answer is the right answer, to all questions. Don’t get curious and inventive and all innovative. This too explains all lot of our politics – it’s all likely-sounding words carefully arranged in pleasant patterns from both sides, or coming up with the precisely correct answer, delivered efficiently at just the right time, even if you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Getting elected and then staying in office is thus like acing a multiple-choice test every few years. Use a number-two lead pencil and fill in the little circle – sometimes guessing when two of the five choices both seem right – and you’ll be fine. It’s rather depressing, but this was inevitable. The distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions is now moot.

Don’t blame the schools, however, as how we get the news of what’s going on in the world plays a part in this. The likely-sounding explanation of what just happened here or there varies, whether you get your news from CNN or Fox News or MSNBC or PBS, or the broadcast news or newspapers or from Rush Limbaugh on the radio, or from Comedy Central. Some of the problem here is structural as mentioned previously in a different context – over time network news operations became profit centers for the networks, and then for cable. Profit became just as important as prestige, and profits come from showing advertisers that you have lots of viewers who don’t switch channels, and that your mix of viewers contains just the right demographic – moderately insecure folks with plenty of disposable income. Those advertisers will buy lots of thirty-second spots at a premium to reach those folks – but then the task became how to hook those valuable viewers and keep them, which had little to do with news but had to be done under the rubric of news, which is difficult. There’s no way to depend on natural disasters or juicy scandals, or on someone famous dying or this international crisis or that – news of that sort happens when it will, all on its own, not when you need to sell the available thirty-second open slots.

Everyone knows how Fox News solved this problem – develop an ongoing narrative that underpins each and every story, a narrative about the bad guys out to destroy America and take all your stuff, aided by a liberal media in on the crime, which they will fight by being fair and balanced. This is news and not news, but it hooks their viewers. MSNBC just recently figured this out and is now thriving, having reversed the narrative. CNN hasn’t yet chosen a compelling narrative. They’re still suggesting that they’re the most trusted name in news, simply because laying a this-explains-everything narrative over the news is cheating – that’s not offering the news at all. CNN is, in fact, the most trusted name in news, when there’s a national disaster or any kind of crises, for just that reason, but of course at random. What it all comes down to, however, is a search for the likely-sounding words carefully arranged in pleasant patterns, to turn a profit. That’s the new sufficient condition for the news. It’s enough to make a former English teacher weep. There’s no escaping shallow nonsense, even if presented flawlessly.

This may be changing just a bit. For the fourth straight year, Fox News scored the lowest ratings in Public Policy Polling’s poll of media institutions, but then people’s opinions about media organizations are as polarized as their opinions about everything else:

PPP’s annual poll on TV news finds that there’s only one source more Americans trust than distrust: PBS. 52% of voters say they trust PBS to only 29% who don’t trust it. The other seven outlets we polled on are all distrusted by a plurality of voters.

Just like its actual ratings, Fox News has hit a record low in the four years that we’ve been doing this poll. 41% of voters trust it to 46% who do not. To put those numbers into some perspective the first time we did this poll, in 2010, 49% of voters trusted it to 37% who did not. Fox has maintained most of its credibility with Republicans, dropping just from 74/15 to 70/15 over that period of time. But it’s been losing what standing it had with Democrats (from 30/52 to 22/66) and independents (from 41/44 to 32/56).

What it comes down to is that Democrats trust everything except Fox News and Republicans don’t trust anything other than Fox News:

Democrats put the most faith in PBS (+61 at 72/11), followed by NBC (+45 at 61/16), MSNBC (+39 at 58/19), CBS (+38 at 54/16), CNN (+36 at 57/21), ABC (+35 at 51/16), and Comedy Central (+10 at 38/28). Out of the non-Fox channels Republicans have the most faith in PBS at -21 (27/48), followed by NBC (-48 at 18/66), CNN (-49 at 17/66), ABC (-56 at 14/70), MSNBC (-56 at 12/68), CBS (-57 at 15/72), and Comedy Central (-58 at 8/66).

People on the left and the right each have their own media from which they get their own versions of reality, but everyone kind of trusts PBS, which is odd, and Andrew Sullivan adds this:

It’s the independent number that matters – as in the election. Guess which network is the only one a majority trusts? PBS! That alleged bastion of liberal bias – which Mitt Romney wanted to defund – is now trusted more than any other media source. Congrats, Roger Ailes. You’re doing for the liberal media what Karl Rove did for the Democratic Party.

Yeah, forty-one percent of independents trusted Fox News last year. Now that’s thirty-two percent and dropping. Something is up there, and emergency action has been taken:

Dick Morris will no longer be serving as a contributor at Fox News, a spokesperson for the network told The Wrap. Morris’ contract had recently expired, and Fox will not be renewing it, the spokesperson said. Morris, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who later turned into a harsh critic for the Clintons, had been a longtime contributor to Fox, but has not appeared on the cable network in recent months.

This was one week after Sarah Palin and Fox News split – so there may be a way to escape shallow nonsense, and Slate’s David Weigel explains the dynamics here:

No single human made as many wrong, botched, bogus, and stupid predictions about the 2012 election as Dick Morris. Making fun of them, by campaign’s end, hardly seemed fair. The once-relevant strategist predicted a Romney landslide and a Republican Senate for reasons that seemed ludicrous at the time. My personal favorite Morris “analysis” was that Tom Smith, the already-forgotten energy company magnate who ran against Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, had “powered to a small lead,” when no credible poll ever, ever gave a lead to Smith.

The ballots came in and Morris immediately realized his mistake. He was going on Fox News, mea culpa-ing all over the place; he was telling visitors to his website “I thought Obama would be buried in a landslide; instead I’ve been in a bit of a mudslide on my face.” It seemed extreme at the time. Everybody knows that punditry is an accountability-free zone. Morris had been good for Fox News, and Fox News had been good for Morris.

He’s not good for them anymore, as he’s no longer an exclusive paid contributor, and Weigel cites Erik Wemple with this:

Morris was a partisan player in the 2012 election who made frequent references to his work on the campaign trail; the Associated Press even noted that he was “criticized for accepting paid advertisements on his website from candidates that he discussed on the air at Fox.” And Morris’s front-and-center predictions of a Romney landslide reflected a partisan desperation on the part of Fox News leading up to the campaign.

Weigel:

Wemple sees this as a return to realism at Fox, of a piece with the end of Fox’s most famous contract – the one it had with for Sarah Palin. Fox News is also joining the Wall Street Journal as a News Corp enterprise, where immigration reform gets a fair hearing. You can’t separate any of this from the ongoing, post-election rethink of conservatives and the GOP.

But Weigel thinks there’s more to Fox News dumping Morris:

He wasn’t merely an inaccurate pundit. He was a con artist. He used his Fox News hits and Hill columns (he still has the columns!) to pitch candidates that he would concurrently schlep to people who signed up on his mailing list. Hey, did you listen to me on TV and hear about my website? Great! Donate to the Super PAC for America, which will plow money back into list-building and completely fail to elect any of these candidates.

Fox News elevated Morris from a pundit to a Republican activist, a speaker at Tea Party rallies and Republican events. Eleven months ago – i.e., with plenty of time to go before the election – Morris spoke at a Lake County, Florida GOP meeting and tried to auction off a visit to the Fox News studios. Fox News suspended him, briefly, but the scandal should have been even more embarrassing than that. Morris was presenting his employer not as a news organization, but as a helpful part of the struggle. At the same time, he was undermining the news organization’s utility to conservatives by using it as a forum to profitably, baselessly promise that everything was gonna work out.

There are limits to shallow self-serving nonsense, but maybe Morris didn’t have the right high school English teacher. Someone should have explained insufficient crap to him long ago, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

At most he was an overzealous believer in the creed of self-confident spin actually affecting the results, a delusion that seemed to seize most conservatives at some point in 2012. But more likely he just figured he’d tell his viewers and readers exactly what they wanted to hear, and thought there would be no consequences.

Expect to hear some blather about Fox “moving to the center” because it’s gotten rid of Morris and Sarah Palin. Truth is, both of them are just eminently replaceable. You don’t need the kind of money Fox was paying Palin (and probably Morris) to get someone to spit venom at the president and/or predict total victory for The Cause.

Paul Waldman expands on that:

So what does this show? It doesn’t, alas, indicate that real accountability is coming to the pundit industry. I’ve always thought it’s too simplistic to view Fox News as nothing more than a partisan organization, as many people on the left do. Since he started the network in 1996, Roger Ailes’ genius has lied in a careful melding of business and ideology, in which neither one ever moves too far ahead of the other and each serves the other’s needs. Fox is extremely valuable to the Republican Party and the conservative movement, and it’s also a huge money-maker for Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. Anyone who appears on the channel has to satisfy both strands of that ideological/financial double helix.

And as Morris shows, satisfying the ideological needs of Fox’s viewers is more complicated than just telling them what you think they want to hear. Morris was so laughably wrong in almost everything he said that even many die-hard conservatives no doubt found him to be a buffoon. When he tells you over and over again that there’s no way your side can lose, and then they do, his credibility suffers even with people who want to believe him. But what really did him in, I think, was when it came out in December that he was, in all probability, running a scam on the Fox News viewers whom he implored to contribute to his super PAC to defeat Barack Obama. None of the money went to that cause, instead probably finding its way back into Morris’s pocket. It’s one thing to treat Fox viewers like fools – most of the network’s personalities do that every day. But it’s quite another to treat them like marks. If you do it as blatantly as Morris did, the entire brand is threatened.

Thus Morris had to go:

In the end, it became too obvious that Dick Morris wasn’t working for the betterment of the conservative movement, or the Republican Party, or Fox News. He was working for the betterment of Dick Morris. Once that became all too obvious, I’m sure Ailes had no qualms about showing him the door. After all, there’s plenty more where he came from.

Things won’t get better, at least at Fox News, but the Republican Party is now searching for someone who isn’t a buffoon, spouting shallow nonsense, which hasn’t been going well – Karl Rove has a new SuperPAC to keep the Tea Parry crazies from getting nominated and then losing by a mile to Democrats again and again and again – and the base of the party is mad as hell at him. See Karl Rove Is NOT a Conservative and so forth. Rove is like that English teacher who just wants someone to turn in a term paper that isn’t likely-sounding nonsense, as making sense is the real sufficient condition for any successful political candidate, or that seems to be the case now. No discussions of legitimate rape, please. Avoid talk of forcing America into default and crashing the world’s economy unless Obama agrees to undo all social programs and regulations from the first day FDR rolled into the White House in his wheelchair, and don’t even talk about something like shutting down the government and plunging the nation into chaos, just to prove you can. Have something useful to say. Propose something useful. That’s Rove’s pitch. The base hates it.

Still the forces of substance, not form, may be winning out:

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida will give the Republican response to the State of the Union address next week, House Speaker John Boehner’s office announced Wednesday. The speech will be delivered by the first-term senator and potential presidential candidate in both English and Spanish, as the GOP works to draw more Hispanics into its column.

“Marco Rubio is one of our party’s most dynamic and inspiring leaders. He carries our party’s banner of freedom, opportunity and prosperity in a way few others can. His family’s story is a testament to the promise and greatness of America,” Boehner said in a statement. “He’ll deliver a GOP address that speaks from the heart to the hopes and dreams of the middle class; to our party’s commitment to life and liberty; and to the unlimited potential of America when government is limited and effective.”

He’s a nice calm fellow, and the Tea Party crowd tolerates him, for the moment. It’s just that Jonathan Bernstein asks an interesting question:

Marco Rubio is going to give the Republican response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address this year. My only question: Why? Why would he want to do that?

The SOTU response is, basically, a no-win proposition. It’s very difficult to give it well. After all, the president of the United States has such a huge advantage, speaking in the House chamber with a cheering audience, usually for an extended time. Out parties have tried a variety of formats, but none of them comes close to matching the democratic pageant of the SOTU – and by the time the response is given, no one really wants to sit still for another speech, anyway.

Kevin Drum says there’s more to it than that:

I’m curious to see what Rubio comes up with. As near as I can tell, he’s lately decided that his niche is to be a smart, non-crazy brand of Republican. During the Benghazi hearings, he asked actual substantive questions, rather than joining the conspiracy theory fever swamp with the rest of the panel. On immigration, he’s making the rounds of talk shows trying to build support for a compromise with Democrats. He seems to believe – rightly or wrongly, I’m not sure – that he’s enough of a conservative darling that he can get away with this.

The SOTU response would be an ideal forum to push ahead with this program. It’ll be a little hard to tell if he takes advantage of it, since SOTU responses tend not to be too fire-breathing in the first place, but there should be hints. Does he judiciously agree with a few of Obama’s proposals? Does he go out of his way to propose compromises? Does he offer any hints of heterodoxy on a national stage? Reading the tea leaves on this should be interesting.

The question is whether Rubio dares to be that smart, non-crazy brand of Republican. It kind of like deciding which kind of paper he’ll turn in to his English teacher – likely-sounding shallow nonsense, well-assembled with footnotes and no errors in spelling or grammar, or something where he seems to know what he’s talking about and actually has something to say. He’s not Dick Morris after all. He can choose substance, not form. He could show that he knows the difference between the necessary conditions for leadership – sounding reasonable and open – and the sufficient conditions – thoroughly understanding what’s going on and having something useful to say about it. That’s possible, but that’s not likely. Ask any English teacher, or former English teacher – student papers worth reading are few and far between. Everyone wants to do only what’s necessary to get a reasonable grade and move on. That’ll do. That’s sufficient, as least these days.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Necessary but Not Sufficient

  1. Madman says:

    OUCH! The first part of today’s column spoke to me. Armed with a great vocabulary, I had gotten away with those well-constructed pleasant-sounding bits of fluff throughout high school and in a few college courses. What could go wrong? Well, a Humanities professor in my sophomore year was having none of this nonsense. I turned in what I firmly believed to be an “A” essay, and was HORRIFIED at what she wrote at the end: “Inadequate. You have only begun.” I went to her office, to explain the extent of her error and raise the grade. Sigh. You can imagine the outcome — she was like Alan with lipstick. I was left TOTALLY humbled, but not angry nor cynical — because she was disappointed I hadn’t done better. She led me to unconceal my own BS — actually saw how full of it I was. Subsequent papers for her, and others, were vastly better. I relate this tale to show that teachers who do not suffer fools gladly can make a HUGE difference — at least, for some.

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