MEH

Everything annoying about elections gets progressively worse with time. The cost increases exponentially, the TV spots get dumber and more numerous, and the media coverage is shallower and more shrill. Personally, I find fewer things about the process to be more annoying than the endless primary season debates. And even compared to 2008, the number of debates feels out of control this time around. The news networks understand that it's essentially impossible to criticize them for having too many debates – Having the candidates talk about issues and take positions is a Good Thing! – and the entire election is one big Sweeps Week for TV news. "Special" events like debates always provide a ratings boost, although having fifty of them tends to make each one a bit less special.

The fallacy, of course, is that viewers are getting anything of value out of debates in which the candidates rarely answer the questions, usually stick to well rehearsed, soundbite-style remarks, and generally act like a bunch of high schoolers vying for Homecoming Court. Despite that, debates reel in the viewers. For example, Saturday evening's ABC debate posted "solid ratings" of 6.3 million viewers even though it had to compete with NFL playoff games. It's a positive sign that people want to tune in and watch these circuses in an effort to learn something about the political process, I suppose.

Wait. Are those ratings actually encouraging? The media reports on that subject lack context. What does 6.3 million viewers (or even 7.6 million from the highest rated of all the debates, back in December) mean?

First of all, it's obviously not a big number in the context of the voting-eligible population as a whole. It's also not a very big number in terms of…anything else on TV, really. That NFL playoff game opposite the Saturday debate had an audience literally five times larger (31.8 million). Even that highest rated debate with its 7.6 million viewers pales in comparison to the most pedestrian primetime offerings on the networks. The weekly Nielsen Top 25 shows that the current 25th-ranked show on TV is something called "Rules of Engagement" on CBS. Last week this show – a rerun episode, no less – got 8.5 million viewers. The best debate ratings can't even post the kind of ratings that get network shows cancelled. It's hard to feel great about our prospects or the level of political efficacy among the electorate when interest in what is supposedly the biggest of all electoral contests is so dismal.

Pessimistically, we could look at this as yet another indicator of how dumb, immature, and uninterested the average American is. We'd rather watch a blowout football game or some lowest common denominator CBS series than to watch debates among presidential candidates. Then again, without defending the viewing habits of the American public it is reasonable to suspect that people are intentionally avoiding these debates because there is so little content. The GOP field is a clown car of full of knuckleheads and they're revealing almost nothing of substance during the debates. Even if I feel like I should be watching, my brain understands that I'm not going to learn anything useful from doing so. So we see misleading reports of "good ratings" suggesting enthusiasm for or at least attentiveness to the election. Debates might deliver higher ratings than the network's available alternatives, but that's hardly an impressive claim.

STATIC AGE

By now you've all seen the unofficial demise of the Rick Perry Express to the White House, a juggernaut of a campaign that met its end during the nationally televised GOP primary debate on November 9.

Two things about this are amazing. One is that in the pantheon of Texas governors, Perry will manage to be remembered as "the dumb one." The second is that I feel slightly bad for Rick Perry.

If there is a technical term for what happened to Perry during this debate, I don't know what it is. I do know that it happens to me all the damn time. I get paid to stand in front of large groups of people and talk every day, and then I do it again in the evening for fun. Regardless of my level of preparation, the use of notes, or experience with the material, I still encounter these Perry moments regularly. Sometimes you just…go blank. It happens. Unless you're lying or happen to be having such a moment right now, you'll admit that it happens to you too.

Yes, I got plenty of laughs out of seeing this and exploited it for more than its fair share of jokes over the past few days. That said, this is a better indicator of how poisonous the modern media environment has become than of Perry's lack of suitability for the presidency. There are dozens if not hundreds of reasons that Rick Perry should never enter the White House without a ticket for the sightseeing tour in his hand; this is not necessarily one of them. Yet it took this – something he forgot rather than any of the ridiculous shit he actually said – to knock him from the rank of Serious Candidate.

To understand what is happening to Perry is to make sense of the millions of dollars campaigns spend on image control. You can campaign on the most idiotic ideas on Earth and the Beltway media will take you seriously if you have enough money, but god forbid you do something that lands you in a viral video clip. Then you're radioactive. Ask George "Macaca" Allen or Howard Dean and they'll tell you how an entire campaign can be derailed by a 15 second YouTube clip. The key, as many campaigns have figured out, is to spout whatever brand of insanity most pleases one's targeted donors and to "look presidential" while doing it. Be crazy, be an idiot, or be downright scary. Just don't look silly while you're doing it.

I would love to look back at 2012 as the election in which Rick Perry was soundly rejected by voters because he has been a disaster as Governor of Texas, he seems to consider nullification and secession to be intriguing concepts, and he is the worst kind of right-wing populist loon. Instead we'll note that he was the updated version of Howard Dean, the guy whose campaign ended when he made himself look stupid for a moment on camera. It's a sad commentary on both our media and the electorate that Perry was taken seriously when he proposed eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency, and given the gong only after he forgot its name.

DELICATE SENSIBILITIES

Yesterday, the following link/headline appeared on the front page of CNN.com: "Bachmann's HPV claims disputed." Here is a screen cap:

I will spare you the video clip where her statement is discussed by Many Serious People, but here is what she said during the most recent debate regarding Rick Perry's executive order to have the HPV vaccine required in Texas:

"To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong," Bachmann said. "Little girls who have a potentially dangerous reaction to this drug don't get a mulligan," she said. "You don't get a do-over."

Afterward, she elaborated, explaining that "a mother" approached her after the debate:

She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection. And she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. The mother was crying when she came up to me last night. I didn't know who she was before the debate. This is the very real concern and people have to draw their own conclusions.

Let's briefly overlook the terrifying fact that the woman who wants to be president was repeating this story into a camera almost immediately after a complete stranger (or so she claims) said this to her in a chance encounter. Apparently that's the Bachmann mental vetting process – "Someone came up to me and told me vaccines made their daughter retarded. The best thing is for everyone to draw their own conclusions about the efficacy of vaccines based on anecdotal evidence." But I digress.

Having seen her statements, look again at CNN's link headline, "Bachmann's HPV claims disputed," in reference to the AMA and other medical organizations resoundingly rejecting her crackpot anti-vaccine statements. Only in a media environment in which Fox News and the cultural right have truly Won would this be summed up with such a headline.

"Claims disputed" might be an appropriate tag for candidates bickering over tax proposals – "Perry says cutting taxes would increase revenues, but Paul Krugman disagrees in today's column." Bachmann's statement, aside from being dangerously flippant and not thought-out, isn't "disputed." It's wrong. In an honest world the headline would read "Bachmann wrong about vaccines" or "Major GOP candidate does not understand basic science" or "Bachmann chooses anecdote from stranger over science."

But of course we don't live in that honest world. We live in one in which the media have been thoroughly cowed into "treating both sides fairly" – treating opposing viewpoints as equally valid regardless of whether the issue is objective or subjective – and are hyper-sensitive about offending their core daytime audience of stay-home moms with medical degrees from Parenting Message Board University.

For all the accusations of elitism on the part of the media, this is an instance in which a sense of superiority would come in handy. The media see their job as stenography, to quote people and then "let the reader decide" which viewpoint sounds better. What they should be doing is reporting facts. Michele Bachmann is wrong about the HPV vaccine, and she is wrong to repeat a story told by some random yahoo when its central claim has no factual basis. In fact the evidence is overwhelming that nothing like what this stranger told Bachmann can be caused by the HPV vaccine. But instead of reading a headline like, "Bachmann repeats debunked pseudoscience, offers inaccurate statement on vaccines" we see that her statement is "disputed," as though it is controversial, actively debated, and as-yet unresolved.

FREAKSHOW

I've always liked the story, despite the fact that it may be apocryphal, about the brief fascination among the media in the 1980s and early 1990s with groups like the KKK. Supposedly the KKK itself had declined – other white supremacist and neo-nationalist groups were siphoning off members – to the point that one annual Klan rally was attended by only around 100 souls…more than half of whom turned out to be either undercover law enforcement or undercover journalists hoping for a salacious story.

I don't know if that's true, but it isn't hard to believe. The media have a strong interest in crowds of freaks, and they remain interested in such groups long beyond the point at which anyone else does. To the public, even among racists, the Klan rated a strong "Who gives a rat's ass?" by the Eighties. But among the media the response remained the same: make sure you get a burning cross picture and a few good quotes about the Jews or something. Journalistic interest in the group persisted beyond its relevance to the point that reporters began outnumbering participants.

Last week in Naples, Florida a group of around 15 journalists showed up to cover a book signing by Witch/failed Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell. Exactly five members of the public attended the event, one of them apparently an odd teen who asked her to sign his book on demonology. Having five people in attendance doesn't even qualify something as an event. Basement punk shows can get 50 people to show up with little effort. The average PTA meeting has five times that many attendees. I could do a comedy show in Naples, Florida and get five people to show up.

I understand why the O'Donnell event is of interest to the media while events with larger crowds are not: they want to see the Tea Party Freaks in all their glory. They want misspelled signs, crackpots with guns, old people ranting about the gub'mint, flags aplenty, and some dipshit dressed as Paul Revere. Fox News aside, Teabaggers are entertainment for journalists and comedy relief in news broadcasts. The problem, of course, is that the continued obsession with the Tea Party ignores the fact that the Tea Party doesn't really exist anymore. For any number of plausible reasons the people showing up to events in 2009 and early 2010 aren't showing up these days. Tea Party USA is just another hacky activist group – as it always has been, arguably – fronted by dinosaur Beltway insiders like Ralph Reed and Dick Armey. It no longer even has the veneer of a populist uprising. Without the crowds of freaks it's neither entertaining nor a believable front group for a bunch of tycoons. It's just another fad entering its 15th minute of fame, a hollowed out orange peel from which the media are attempting to squeeze the last drop of ratings value. The unfortunate consequence is to further the false impression that the Tea Party continues to be politically relevant.

HORSE RACES

The media love elections. They are already in full saturation campaign coverage mode more than 14 months prior to the general election. In theory this should be a positive. After all, people like me are constantly complaining about the lack of political coverage and general substance in the news. And here it is: months and months of unrelenting attention paid to the presidential election. Great!

Unfortunately the media love elections because they are good for ratings, and they are good for ratings because the media have turned elections into a sporting event. Instead of Marv Albert telling us which team is leading and trailing throughout the basketball game, we have blow-dried anchors constantly reporting poll results to let us know "Who's ahead?" even though the answer is almost always "no one" once margin of error is taken into account. Instead of broken down, concussed ex-NFL players giving color commentary while scribbling on the Telestrator, we have washed up campaign consultants (Paul Begala, Bill Bennett, Alex Castellanos, etc.) letting us know What It All Means and What Voters Want. Academics call the excessive emphasis on day-to-day poll results "Horse Race coverage", a phenomenon that eliminates issues and reduces most coverage to reporting how various groups or individuals reacted to a campaign event. The latter – the instant big-picture analysis phenomenon – is just a lazy, stupid way of boiling the election down to a 25 word explanation for lazy, stupid viewers.

These phenomena have been affecting the way elections are covered for years. They are beginning to affect the election itself.

The Ames (aka Iowa) Straw Poll is the dumbest event in politics by a country mile, even compared to legendary shitshows like CNN/YouTube debates, the Thanksgiving sparing of a turkey, and the national conventions. Nothing says Scientific Poll quite like a $30 fee to participate. And nothing says Representative Sample quite like 15,000 non-randomly selected Iowans. This thing is so stupid that a candidate could dramatically alter the results by investing a pittance (in the context of modern campaigns) in a bunch of tour buses and admission tickets for the straw poll gathering. About $50,000 could easily bring 1000-1200 ringers to boost a candidate's showing, which is amazing when we realize how little distance in raw vote totals separates the candidates.

1. Michele Bachmann: 4,823
2. Ron Paul: 4,671
3. Tim Pawlenty: 2,293
4. Rick Santorum: 1,657
5. Herman Cain: 1,456
6. Rick Perry: 718
7. Mitt Romney: 567
8. Newt Gingrich: 385
9. Jon Huntsman: 69
10. Thad McCotter: 35

Yep, for a minimal investment, Herman Cain or Rick Santorum could have finished a strong third. Instead, the real third place finisher – Tim Pawlenty – quit. He quit the race because he finished third in this utterly ridiculous non-event. High school student council elections are more rigorous than this thing. The organizers auction off floor space to the highest-bidding campaign and candidates bribe attendees with barbecues and whatever else they feel like giving away.

I try not to watch much cable news these days, but what I have seen since the end of the debt ceiling "drama" has relentlessly hyped the Straw Poll. Tbe media have managed to turn this non-event – previously won by the likes of Pat Robertson – into a crucial barometer of candidate viability. Despite the silly rules that make this neither a real election nor a real poll. Despite the fact that Rick Perry was not on the ballot and Romney, who won the Poll in 2008, basically sat it out.

It is possible that there are behind-the-scenes issues that prompted T-Paw to quit the race. I'd like to think so, because the idea that hype could turn this organized silliness into a meaningful component of the selection process for the president of the United States is too depressing. If he had money trouble or simply didn't see himself being able to compete in the crowded field, why wait until the day after the Straw Poll to withdraw? Would another 1000 votes in this farce have made a difference?

The media have an agenda in our elections, and it is to fill airtime profitably. Election fever drives ratings and ad rates. The more mini-elections or "big events" they can create, the more they benefit. Something like the Straw Poll feeds into the pathology of 24-hour election coverage, providing a story that can be breathlessly anticipated, endlessly hyped, reported with numbers and rankings despite the fact that it is ultimately meaningless.

But hey, Bachmann's #1! How could 4,800 Iowans be wrong?

OBJECTIVELY SPEAKING

So Michele Bachmann, proud Christadictorian of her class at Regent University, apparently thought it was a good idea to sign on to some no-name Christian right group's anti-gay marriage manifesto. The Iowa-based organization, Family Leader, wants candidates to pledge to be faithful to their spouses, "vigorously defend" opposite marriage, and oppose a grab bag of other things (porn, the imposition of Sharia law in Iowa) just to remind everyone that they are nuttier than my shit after a day at the cashew farm.

Dozens of news networks, newspapers, and blogs have run this story; the link I provide above is from the ABC News website, a generic mainstream source of news if ever one was. It's very interesting that the ABC News item, like nearly every mainstream news report on this story, omits mention of the following part of the Family Leader manifesto:

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President.

I…see.

I've been expecting the Normalization of Deviance process to begin with Bachmann and it appears that her much-praised performance at the first GOP primary debate (inasmuch as "Wow, she doesn't sound nearly as bonkers as she is!" is praise) lit the fuse. Beaten into terrified submission by Fox News ratings and forty years of right wing pant-shitting over That Librul Media, the mainstream news industry treats Republican lunatics with kid gloves once it becomes clear that he or she is a "serious" – defined in this instance as financially and politically viable – candidate. If Michele Bachmann is a legit contender for the nomination then it's imperative to give her Fair, Balanced treatment, which is conservative for going out of their way to take her seriously and make her look respectable. Whatever needs to be overlooked in that process is acceptable collateral damage to reality.

It will be interesting to see going forward how often the Sunday Bobblehead crowd presses her on all of the truly, magnificently insane shit she has said and supported over the years. The Bachmann team is in overdrive trying to backtrack some of her previous statements and positions but in the internet age no candidate can effectively soften the kind of statements she has put out for public consumption…unless of course the Beltway media simply decide not to bring it up, instead letting her set the agenda out of desperate fear of being accused of Librul Bias. Or perhaps they honestly believe that any individual who can contend for a major party nomination is to be taken seriously by definition, which creates an environment wherein whatever brand of Crazy happens to have the GOP in its thrall at any given moment becomes the new normal.

CODE

Looks like our old pal Neal Boortz is in some hot water after letting his mask slip off for a few minutes on air the other day:

(Atlanta) is starting to look like a garbage heap. And we got too damn many urban thugs, yo, ruining the quality of life for everybody. And I'll tell you what it's gonna take. You people, you are – you need to have a gun. You need to have training. You need to know how to use that gun. You need to get a permit to carry that gun. And you do in fact need to carry that gun and we need to see some dead thugs littering the landscape in Atlanta. We need to see the next guy that tries to carjack you shot dead right where he stands. We need more dead thugs in this city.

And:

This city harbors an urban culture of violence. And I want you to look around. You drive into the city. The railroad overpass is on the downtown connector covered with graffiti. And that– That is just an advertisement for everybody coming into this town that we really don't give a damn about those who would screw up our quality of life around here. We really just don't care. We don't care enough to paint over graffiti on the overpasses that come into our city, advertising welcome to Atlanta, here's some of our finest graffiti, from some of our finest urban thugs and their little gang signs.

The technique of using coded language to make racial appeals only works if sufficiently subtle. Unfortunately Boortz isn't bright enough to pull that off, instead ham-fistedly using terms like "urban" and "thugs" in place of "black". On the plus side, he gets his point across very effectively: his listeners should shoot some black people next time they leave the suburbs and venture into Atlanta.

Unsubtle racism aside, note the argument he is making here. Big cities like Atlanta are hellholes because there is too much crime (implicitly read: too many black people). But if "crime" is a key determinant of quality of life in a given place, small town 'murica certainly isn't the answer; since the 1970s a number of social forces – the meth epidemic, deregulation, supply side economics, Evangelical political militancy – have conspired to make the average small, rural town as much of a pit of despair as any big city. Among the boarded up storefronts, randomly exploding meth labs, third world teen pregnancy rates, and elderly, deranged population of fundamentalists, I'd take my chances with "urban thugs" in Atlanta over Pigsknuckle, Georgia.

What kind of community isn't a hellhole, Neal? Implicitly – and unsurprisingly given his audience – he is arguing that The Big City is wicked in comparison to its suburbs. In other words, Atlanta should be more like East Cobb and Sandy Springs…you know, where everyone has tons of money.

So Atlanta should be more like its suburbs, where the high financial bar for entry creates some of the wealthiest communities in the nation (GA-06 is one of the 10 wealthiest districts).

But income inequality is not a problem and income redistribution is the great Satan.

My butt itches.

REPROGRAMMING

Highly observant long-time readers are probably beginning to notice that every time Ed has a doctor's appointment he ends up posting about Fox News. Well, I had an appointment Tuesday morning. Now guess what.

Like most of you (I assume) I don't watch much Fox News. In fairness I rarely watch TV news on any network, relying instead as so many Americans do on the self-selection offered by the internet. What little I see on the FNC comes from clips circulated on the internet, brief glimpses while I flip through channels, and maybe a few minutes here and there during election season. For the most part it is an alternate universe – I know it exists and I hear about it often, but our paths almost never cross. Except when I visit my doctor. He and his unironic "These Colors Don't Run" bumper sticker have FNC playing on multiple TVs throughout the office, so I usually catch about 15 minutes in the waiting room.

Today, through sundry intricacies of our remarkable system of managed care that I needn't recount here, I waited well over an hour before the good Doctor saw me. It would guess that it has been a decade since I sat and watched 80 or 90 minutes of Fox News, probably not since I last lived with my dad and thus was indirectly exposed to O'Reilly every evening after work. That DiMaggio-like streak ended today. The volume was up so loud (the old people need to be able to hear it, after all) I couldn't bury my nose far enough in Popular Mechanics to ignore it.

I am not an unbiased observer, obviously, and I watch Fox the same way most people watch circuses or episodes of Two and a Half Men. Despite these handicaps I am confident that the following is a valid conclusion: anyone who watches this channel for multiple hours daily would be categorically insane after a few months. Everything about public opinion and the Tea Party and oddities of the American electorate make perfect sense after watching this for an hour or two. If this was your only source of news, you would become one of them. Your relationship with reality would be tenuous at best, and more likely nonexistent.

You can actually feel the propaganda techniques start to numb you after a while. In small doses it has no effect, and we see it with a mixture of disdain and bemusement. It just seems kinda silly. Watching it all day, every day (as the staff at the office in question do) would be like the prison camp scenes in The Killing Fields – listening to Khmer Rouge propaganda blared over a loudspeaker until insanity becomes the new normal. Is Fox the Khmer Rouge? Of course not. They've just mastered the same methods of persuasion.

If my hypothesis seems implausible, I invite you to try it yourself sometime. Resolve to sit firmly on the couch and watch Fox News for two uninterrupted hours. Let us know how you feel afterward.

CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

CNN's Jack Cafferty asks the kind of question that only media people could ask in the wake of a human tragedy. Or during a human tragedy in progress. Why is there no looting in Japan? Despite the poor timing this question is worth asking, especially given that Americans and their media will almost certainly arrive at a horribly incorrect answer.

The scale of the disaster in Japan is unprecedented – they have basically been through most of the events of the apocalypse and, factoring in the radiation, the origin story for both Mothra and Godzilla. Yet there is no looting. Haiti had looting. So did New Orleans. And Chile. And Great Britain during the floods. And New York during the blackouts. Hell, Montreal got looted after Les Habitants made it to the Eastern Conference finals last year. Cairo was "engulfed in looting" during Mubarak's decline. Baghdad was badly looted (including archaeological artifacts from the national museum) when the Hussein regime collapsed. Tokyo? Osaka? Sendai? Either there is no looting or the media for some reason chooses not to report it.

The answer to this puzzle, as Cafferty's viewers illustrate, revolve around vague differences in "culture" and western stereotypes about Asians (zen-like calm, efficiency, ability to endure hardships, excellent math skills, and so on). Some of the answers are reflective of people clinging to 1910s-era theories of racial hierarchies, as I'm sure a disturbingly large number of Americans do. Maybe loosely defined cultural differences are the answer.

Maybe not. Looting (or doing anything, for that matter) is pretty difficult after a tsunami. Note that there was little looting in Indonesia in 2004. But the most persuasive answers are…political. The Japanese government is by all accounts remarkably well organized and prepared to respond to this kind of disaster. All of the failures in New Orleans, by comparison, have their origins in the crooked, incompetent crony politics of the local government and the non-existent Federal response. Japan is among the many non-American nations that recognize that government is not inherently useless and evil. If government takes its responsibilities seriously (which requires the preliminary step of recognizing that responding to an unthinkably large natural disaster is a government responsibility) it is possible to see that the animal-level needs of its people are met. Japan does have the advantage of being a small, dense country, but nonetheless its public sector has managed to shelter, feed, and rescue itself admirably. Why? Because its government is not devoted to the idea that government should be abolished.

Beyond that, Japan hasn't build its entire society on the principle of every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Their idea of disaster preparedness is not hoarding enough bullets to shoot their neighbors who run out of food. When America has a natural disaster, the private sector immediately focuses on profiteering and jacking up prices. In Japan the prices are lowered and in some cases basic necessities are even given away gratis. Japanese are more willing to look out for and help one another because unlike the U.S., their social dynamics focus on group harmony (critics say "conformity") rather than constant reminders that You are responsible for yourself and no one else. If your neighbor needs help, the American response is to lecture him about failing to better prepare himself for the crisis.

That, and Japan hasn't created a massive, impoverished underclass that interacts with government primarily at the end of a police baton.

This discussion unavoidably paints with a broad brush. Lots of Americans helped one another during Katrina and lots of Japanese are probably assholes who don't care about others. Japanese culture also has flaws that should not be painted over, particularly the collective willingness to shame individuals into conformity and occasionally work one another to death. But there is no denying the differences at the heart of Cafferty's ill-timed observation. There is no looting in Japan for a variety of reasons – cultural, social, practical, and especially political. If half of Sendai's police abandoned the city as the sad excuses for cops did in New Orleans, maybe there would be looting. If there was no plan in place to rapidly rescue, feed, and house people in flooded areas, maybe there would be looting. If people were encouraged to see one another as The Enemy and to see government emergency planning services as a conspiracy to round people up in detention camps, maybe there would be looting. If Japan socially and politically abandoned the idea that there can ever be a collective solution to anything, maybe there would be looting.

Oh, and Japan does not have many black people. The media do not count anything as "looting" unless black people do it.

JOURNALISM!

Following media, political, and cultural issues not only rapidly produces outrage fatigue – see 2000 through 2008, when merely treading water and keeping up with the barrage of scandals, graft, cronyism, corruption, maladministration, and disregard for the Constitution was nearly a full time job – but it also raises our outrage threshold over time. As the average teenage fan of violent videogames, Marilyn Manson, and horror movies can testify, something is shocking the first time it happens, somewhat novel once or twice more, and totally mundane thereafter. Making a career out of being "outrageous" means constantly having to up the ante to find new ways to shock people who have already seen, internalized, and normalized everything thrown at them so far.

It is not the intent of the media to shock us in most instances, and we may safely assume that they are not going out of their way to shock us with their raw incompetence. Nonetheless, over the past 30 years we have become numb to their complete inability to understand the basic tenets of journalism. It no longer shocks us to see basic spelling/grammar errors in major media outlets. Or press releases / product advertisements published unaltered as news items. Or water-carrying for corporate interests. Or victim-blaming crime stories. Or obsequious deference to elected officials. Or willful ignorance of social problems that should be major news stories. The media fails to do its job so regularly that nothing shocks us anymore. You can look at the final product and say "My god, this is ridiculous" but you cannot honestly say that it shocks you. It's just expected.

Somehow, despite the numbing repetition of embarrassing journalistic failure over the years, something comes along and shocks me every few months.

Tuesday's New York Times (and we could say "OMG! Even the NYT?" if not for, you know, Judith Miller and Jayson Blair and all that) ran this story entitled "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town". A brief summary of the underlying story:

(An explicit cellphone video) led the police to an abandoned trailer, more evidence and, eventually, to a roundup over the last month of 18 young men and teenage boys on charges of participating in the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in the abandoned trailer home, the authorities said.

Five suspects are students at Cleveland High School, including two members of the basketball team. Another is the 21-year-old son of a school board member. A few of the others have criminal records, from selling drugs to robbery and, in one case, manslaughter. The suspects range in age from middle schoolers to a 27-year-old.

Wow. The phrase "vicious assault" in the headline is actually an understatement. I should be glad to see a major newspaper covering this kind of story, right?

The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act? “It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.

Wait…what?

(T)he assault started after a 19-year-old boy invited the victim to ride around in his car. He took her to a house on Travis Street where one of the other men charged, also 19, lived. There the girl was ordered to disrobe and was sexually assaulted by several boys in the bedroom and bathroom. She was told she would be beaten if she did not comply, the affidavit said…they then went to the abandoned mobile home, where the assaults continued. Some of those present recorded the sexual acts on their telephones.

OK, I get that part, where the victim was gang raped by a dozen-plus males, but…

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said. "Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?" said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. "How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?"

Yeah, see, this is the part that isn't registering.

Now many of you are probably seeing this as run-of-the-mill Asking For It / Dressed Like a Whore / She Totally Wanted It argument. We have seen this enough times in newspapers and on TV that it should no longer surprise us. At this point I need to remind you, however, that this story is about an 11 year old girl who was gang raped on video by as many as 12 to 18 males.

As I reached the part of the story that describes how the 11 year old girl dressed (whorishly, of course) my mind raced to one of my favorite stand-up bits: Bill Hicks' description of Mark Fuhrman and Stacy Koon testifying at the Rodney King trial. "And the courtroom gasped…'Jesus! What balls!'" I don't suppose it helps to make light of this sad state of journalistic affairs, but the sheer balls required to play the "wanted it / dressed like a whore" angle on an 11 year old girl getting gang raped is, even by American mainstream media standards, pretty shocking. That this kind of crime could happen and the news story, particularly the comments of the interviewees, would focus on the plight of the perpetrators of the crime – Those poor boys! – is surprising enough. That this is only the second most fucked-up thing about the way this story is reported crosses the line from routine bad journalism to legitimately shocking.