O Brother, Whose Art Thou?

The “Morning Joe” hosts: (from left) Joe, Mika, and Willie

In my household, “appointment television” refers to the the hour of the morning when my wife, Gigi, having returned from the gym and walked the dog, sits down to watch the DVRed first half-hour of Morning Joe before heading off to work. When the MSNBC political chat-fest yields anything notable, she’ll relay it to me. That was what happened one day last week, when Gigi told me that, during a discussion of Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense, it emerged that during a Vietnam War battle, Hagel had saved from death the brother of one of his chief Senate antagonists, Mitch McConnell. Moreover, she said, the show also featured a heated exchange about grammar, specifically pronouns and antecedents.

That got my interest. Helpfully, a couple of days later, the Web site Mediaite posted an article about the segment (which started with the words, “Grammar rocked the set of MSNBC’s Morning Joe Monday morning”), as well as the video highlights (which I’ve embedded at the end of this post). Here’s how it went down:

Contributor John Heilemann says that the White House has been “sending around” a Politico article “with quotes from McConnell’s farewell speech to Hagel where he points out that Hagel saved McConnell’s brother in Vietnam.” The exact quote from the Politico piece refers to McConnell having “praised Hagel’s heroism in Vietnam, noting how Hagel saved his brother—with whom he also served—by dragging him out of an armored personnel carrier that exploded after hitting a landmine.”

Host Joe Scarborough greets this with the first of several cackling laughs he emits during the segment. “So Mitch McConnell’s brother’s life was saved by Chuck Hagel?” he asks.

“Dragged out of an armored personnel carrier that exploded after hitting a land mine,” Heilemann says. “Hagel pulled McConnell’s brother out.”

The panel collectively greets this news with astonishment—not skepticism as to its truth, mind you, but amazement that McConnell would have the gall to oppose his brother’s savior. Co-host Mika Brzezinski argues that the incident proves it is ridiculous for Republicans to complain that President Obama is standoffish and aloof; the real heartless meanie is their own McConnell.

A weather report follows. Scarborough returns to say that yet another co-host, Willie Geist, will make a “small correction.” “Chuck Hagel saved the life of his own brother,” Geist says. “He served side by side with his younger brother in Vietnam.” He adds of the initial story, “It sounded a little strange to me.”

There is much hilarity and Scarborough-cackling. Time magazine’s Mark Halperin points out that even saving your brother “ain’t bad.” After a commercial break, the Politico correspondent Mike Allen turns up via video remote for a pre-arranged segment. Naturally, the focus is on the Hagel-McConnell passage. Heilemann, having made the initial mistake, a bit defensively says that Politico has “gotta work on copy-editing.” He suggests that all the problems would have been solved if the phrase “his own brother” had been used. Allen demurs and offers “a quick grammar lesson,” namely, “A pronoun refers to the proper noun or the noun before it.”

More hilarity. Joe says to Allen, “So you were the guy who listened in English class.” As we go to commercial, someone shouts off-camera, “What’s a gerund?”

I have three main reactions. The first is how weird it is that all these folks think that talking about grammar is weird. In my mind, for journalists and TV talkers not to be thinking about and sometimes talking about grammar is the weird thing.

Second, in the dispute between Heilemann and Allen, Heilemann is technically correct, but (in this instance) dumb, and Allen is wrong. It is not the case that a pronoun always refers to the proper noun or the noun directly before it. Consider: “McConnell told Hagel to bring him a cup of coffee.” Or “McConnell gave Hagel his chauffeur for the day.” In those cases and innumerable others, it’s clear from the context that the pronoun refers to the subject of the sentence and not the noun that immediately precedes it the pronoun.

However, Heilemann comes off even worse. Look at the passage again: “McConnell praised Hagel’s heroism in Vietnam, noting how Hagel saved his brother—with whom he also served—by dragging him out of an armored personnel carrier that exploded after hitting a landmine.” On Morning Joe, Heilemann suggested that the problem could have been fixed by replacing inserting a word: “Hagel saved his own brother.” But that’s not how we use own: He might sue his own brother, or ignore his own brother, but he wouldn’t save his own brother. The key thing here is that if Hagel had saved McConnell’s brother, it would have been a huge, huge deal. It would have been all over all the papers, and it wouldn’t have been buried in the middle of a Politico article. Grammar is a matter of reading as well as writing. Heilemann read poorly.

That brings up my third and biggest takeaway, which is how quick every single person on the panel was to believe this “fact.” When Geist learned it wasn’t true, he averred that “it seemed a little strange.” I would go beyond that: For the reasons mentioned in the paragraph above, it seems inconceivable. Why did they initially credit it? It was reported to them in good faith by a colleague, they had no direct reason to think it wasn’t true, and—and this is the takeaway—human beings are inherently gullible, or at the least, credulous.

It is open to debate whether this is one of our best qualities or one of our worst. However, anyone who denies or ignores it does so at his or her own peril.

Morning Joe’s grammar-gate:


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