Bret Stephens: Gail, I know you are as gutted as I am by the news that Sarah Huckabee Sanders will step down from her post as White House spokesman. How do you judge her contribution to our nation’s moral health and political well-being?
Gail Collins: I was going to say she brought us back to the bad old days when women were supposed to be seen and not heard, but lately she wasn’t seen all that much either. Who would want to go down in history as the press secretary who got rid of the press briefing?
My one confident prediction is that whoever comes next will be the same or worse. Do you think worse is possible? I guess he or she could flood the White House pressroom and add a supply of piranhas.
Bret: Worse is always possible in this administration. But Sanders set a benchmark for awfulness that was a thing to behold. It wasn’t simply that she spun the news or shaded the truth, which many people in her position have been known to do. It wasn’t even that she lied, though she did that with abandon.
It was that sneer of hers, the consciously curled lip, which seemed practiced before a mirror, that communicated bottomless contempt for individual journalists, for the profession of journalism itself and for the very idea of truth-as-such. She combined the sincerity of Elmer Gantry with the moral outlook of Raskolnikov. And there will be future spokesmen who will model themselves accordingly.
Then again, I sometimes felt that some of the White House correspondents made it easier for her with their own showboating. I often fear that the Trump administration has a way of bringing out the worst in us journalists — our self-importance, our belief that we are in sole possession of the truth, our habits of editorializing when we (pundits excluded) should be trying to tell the news straight.
How do you rate the performance of the press in the Trump era?
Gail: I’m kinda proud of us, in general. There are some great reporters out there, struggling to be evenhanded while covering an administration that tells lies around the clock.
Gail: This is a weird time, though. The media is in transition and nobody, wherever they work, is immune to the realization that the best way to get a lot of digital attention is to write something titled “Trump Is a Toad.” (Or, I guess in the other world, “The President Is Perfect.”) Our employer still abides by the theory that readers want a division between news reporting and opinion writing. But that’s not the rule for most websites.
Or, a lot of cable TV. The most worrisome thing to me is the way so much cable news has turned into a contest over who can shout loudest about Donald Trump. I’m happy to blame it all on Fox, but the syndrome has spread.
Bret: Agree again. Too much of the news media seems to be about giving audiences what they want — or think they want — rather than what editors and reporters think our audiences ought to know if they want to be well-informed. It’s demand driven. And most of the demand is to cover the same subjects again and again: Trump-Mueller-Trump-Putin-Trump-Pelosi-Trump-Stormy and so on. Try writing a column about China’s monstrous mistreatment of its Muslim minority, for instance, and see how much reader traffic that gets.
Too often we wind up just feeding the beast. The result is an impoverished news diet and far too much shouting.
Gail: Speaking of shouting, I don’t think we’ll be conversing again until Debate Week. How are the Democrats looking to you?
Bret: Well, I worry that Joe Biden might be reprising the self-immolation tactics he’s been honing all these years. There he was, presumptive front-runner, and then he opened his mouth. So unnecessary!
That’s good news for Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg and probably Kamala Harris, though I doubt it will move the needle much for Bernie Sanders. It’s a shame that Michael Bennet and Amy Klobuchar haven’t done better, because they are both thoughtful moderates and could be formidable contenders in a general election. I’m a bit surprised that Beto O’Rourke seems to have achieved so little traction, but his poll numbers are stuck in low digits along with Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand. Maybe it’s because they communicate little more than calculated ambition.
Gail: Well, it’s hard to have presidential prospects if you don’t calculate.
Bret: As for the other 13 or so candidates, I think we should amalgamate them into a single name: Hickenblasio. Or Swalbard.
The bottom line is that I’m not seeing a candidate who is anything like a slam-dunk for beating Trump. I realize a lot can and will happen over the next year, but the field seems to me as weak as it is wide. Where am I wrong?
Gail: You’re just traumatized by the Biden droop. I know you were sort of keen on him, but once we’re down to just three or four non-Joe possibilities I think the survivors’ images will perk up.
Bret: Survivor, Joe Biden Island Edition. I love it.
Gail: I’ve been thinking a lot about Biden. It’s not that he’s being rejected for wrong decisions back in the day. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have thought about them since. Take his support for the Hyde amendment back in the 1970s. At the time, many people of good will argued that Americans who thought abortion was murder shouldn’t be forced to pay their tax money to support it.
Bret: I’m pro-choice, but I also agree with the Hyde amendment. Go on.
Gail: I’ve evolved — poor women who are entitled to health care coverage should get the same support when it comes to ending a pregnancy. But about Biden: You want to hear him talk about how he felt and why he changed his mind. And all you get is him mouthing prepared statements from a staff spinner.
Bret: Well, that nails it. Biden wants to present himself as the Democratic version of John “Straight Talk Express” McCain. Instead he comes across as George “Message: I care” H.W. Bush from the 1992 campaign.
Gail: One thing we don’t have to worry about is seeing Joe Biden roll into town on the Straight Talk Express. Maybe the Friend Of Barack Local.
Gail: Speaking of issues, let’s talk about college debt. It’s a terrible problem — you can’t have a large chunk of the best-educated population saddled with big student loan payments just when they need to be building their careers and starting their families.
Some of the Democratic presidential candidates are calling for flat-out loan forgiveness. Others want free community college for the future. Lots of variations. But not much discussion of how you control the cost of higher education when the government is basically footing the bill.
The price of getting a degree keeps escalating, fueled by those government-backed loans. And the money doesn’t seem to be going to pay better faculty salaries. It’s in administration and cool facilities that will seduce visiting high school seniors.
Am I being too cynical? What I want to know is how we underwrite higher education without continuing to drive up the price.
Bret: Honestly, you aren’t being cynical enough. You put your finger on one of the major problems: government loans fuel tuition increases, meaning they aggravate the problem they are intended to address. And too many colleges are beginning to look like country clubs that happen to teach stuff, not educational institutions that happen to have a gym.
I think total loan forgiveness is a bad idea, both as a wealth transfer to better-off people and as a moral hazard for other types of unpopular debt. But investment in community colleges is a terrific idea, and we should also move away from the four-year college model. The English do it in three and don’t seem to suffer from any intellectual shortfalls. Quite the opposite.
I also think we should bring back apprenticeships. What about tax credits for companies that offer highly structured programs, along with a promise that apprentices will be given entry-level jobs as they open up? I can think of a lot of 18 year-olds who would take something like that at a tech start-up over, say, a degree in semiotics from Cannabis College or a phys-ed major at Drinkington U.
Gail: Or the Sarah Huckabee Sanders School of Journalism. Somebody’s bound to endow one.
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