The item was too delicious to resist: New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, he of the don’t-worry, be-happy approach to the federal deficit, had been forced to declare personal bankruptcy.
Except it wasn’t true. The tidbit was satire, from a Web site called the Daily Currant. The Currant’s “tell” was obvious to anyone who took introductory economics: Krugman, it said, had attempted, like a good Keynesian, to “spend his way out of debt,” after “racking up $84,000 in a single month . . . in pursuit of rare Portuguese wines and 19th-century English cloth” — a wink-wink reference to the classic examples of comparative advantage in international trade.
If a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on, imagine what bloggers in pajamas can do. We journalists used to joke about tips that were too good to check. Now it’s items too good not to repost. And so Breitbart.com, a conservative Web site, fell for the Krugman item, crowing about how this Keynesian “thing doesn’t really work on the micro level.”
This is in part a cautionary tale about modern journalism — the Currant piece made its way to Breitbart via an Austrian magazine translation that was picked up by a financial blog and reposted on the Boston Globe’s Web site.
The more important caution, though, is what this susceptibility to satire — and it is a susceptibility that knows no ideological boundaries — illustrates about our collective failure to understand those whose points of view differ from our own.
In a world of siloed, self-selected information flow and knee-jerk willingness to attribute irredeemable stupidity and bad motives to opponents, the inclination to assume the worst is no surprise. Information — or pseudo-information — is trusted when it clicks neatly into our jigsaw puzzle of preconceptions.
We laugh at Iran when its news agency reprints an Onion parody, “Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama.” We snicker when China’s official newspaper picks up the Onion’s report that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Eun has been selected its “sexiest man alive.” No rational person would fall for either.
But you don’t have to be an insular foreign government to suffer from premature posting syndrome. The Washington Post experienced its own embarrassing episode with the Currant recently, when a freelance blog contributor picked up a satirical report about Sarah Palin joining Al Jazeera America, a supposed illustration of Palin’s effort “to find ways to stay relevant while her 15 minutes fades into the political history books.”
Perhaps suspicion of the other is an inherent part of human nature. Perhaps it’s an essential element of success in politics.
Yet the phenomenon also underscores the importance of President Obama’s new charm offensive. No one should expect instant results — it’s a long way from dinner at the Jefferson to the dessert of a grand bargain — but this outreach is a useful start. It’s much harder to leap to unfounded assumptions about the other side, and much easier to credit good intentions, if you have spent some time hearing their point of view.
I spend a lot of time interviewing administration officials and congressional Republicans, and sometimes I think: What these people really need is a good marriage counselor, someone who can get them to stop long enough to understand the situation as the opposition sees it.
One fact, stunning to White House officials, is the degree to which many Republicans remain unaware of the substance of the administration’s offers on entitlement reform. This is symptomatic of a messaging failure on the part of the White House but also of the poisonous environment in which both sides live.
As do their constituents. Given Washington’s gridlocked condition, it’s hard to argue with Congress’s low approval ratings. But it’s also hard to square public contempt for Congress with the reality that most individual lawmakers of both parties are extraordinarily hardworking and serious about public policy.
A new survey from the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management reports that members of Congress put in an average 70-hour workweek when Congress is in session and 59 hours during recess.
When it comes to Congress, the parts are greater than the sum of the whole. When it comes to politics, the satire rings truest when distrust is at its peak. If we — public officials and voters alike — could remember the first point and get past the second, we would have a better chance of fixing this mess.