Saturday, March 29, 2008

How The Media Distorts Facts

Speaking in North Carolina last Friday, Bill Clinton talked about a potential general election matchup between Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Bill Clinton's comments were quickly distorted by several news reports; here's what he actually said:
BILL CLINTON: I believe those are the three reasons you ought to be for her: She'd be the best for the veterans, she'd be the best commander in chief, and she would certainly be the best at managing this economy. And finally, according to the evidence today, she's also the most electable. She's running ahead of Senator McCain in Ohio; her opponent's running behind. She is ahead in Florida and Arkansas, a state that voted for me twice, 'cause I was the governor -- they sort of had to, I guess -- and voted for President Carter once. They haven't voted for another Democrat in 44 years. This week's survey in Arkansas: Senator McCain is leading Hillary's opponent by 16 points; Hillary's leading him by 15 points. So she can win this election. And, and, we need to change the direction of this country.
But it won't be an easy race. John McCain is an honorable man, and as all of you know, he has paid the highest price you can pay for the United States, short of giving your life. And he and Hillary are friends; they like and respect each other. They have big disagreements on foreign policy and economic policy, they have taken reluctant Republican senators all over the world to prove that global warming is real but there is a way to deal with it that grows the economy and doesn't shrink it. And we now have a bipartisan majority in the Senate to do something about this. That's the kind of leadership this country needs.
And I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who love this country and were devoted to the interests of the country, and people could actually ask themselves, who's right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics. So that's my argument for her. She'd be the best for veterans, the best commander in chief, the best for the economy, and is the most electable.
You can watch video of Clinton's comments here.
Clinton's comments were quite clear: The former president simply said that his wife is the best candidate on the issues, and that it would be "a great thing" to have an election about those issues rather than one about "all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics."
Those last comments -- about how great it would be to have an election about issues rather than "all this other stuff" -- are most easily read as a critique of the news media for obsessing over candidates' haircuts and houses and earth tones and sighing and middle names and how many buttons are on their suits and whether they'd be fun to have a beer with. That's the nonsense that has defined our politics for the past decade thanks to the news media, and Clinton seemed to be making what should be the obvious point that it would be better to focus on candidates' foreign policy views and economic policies than on what they like on their cheesesteaks or whether they "look French."
If, as seems obvious, Clinton was tweaking the news media for focusing on trivia and nonsensical phony controversies rather than on important issues, many journalists quickly -- and unwittingly -- proved his point.
MSNBC's Alex Witt, for example, described Clinton as having "raised the issue of patriotism" in his comments, instructing viewers to "[l]isten carefully to what he says here." MSNBC then played a short excerpt of Clinton's comments, while an on-screen graphic read: "RACE & THE RACE."
Now, go back and read Clinton's comments. Watch them again. He didn't say anything about "race." Nothing at all. Not a word. In portraying Clinton's comments as having something to do with race, MSNBC was inventing a controversy where none existed -- and, in doing so, grossly misleading its audience. Nor was Witt right to say Clinton "raised the issue of patriotism." He hadn't done so -- he hadn't suggested that anyone lacks patriotism, or that anyone is more patriotic than anyone else. It just didn't happen.
But that quickly became conventional wisdom among the news media.
Maureen Dowd, displaying a stunning lack of self-awareness, wrote:
On Friday in Charlotte, N.C., Bill Clinton, the man who once thanked an R.O.T.C. recruiter "for saving me from the draft" during Vietnam, sounded like Sean Hannity without the finesse.
Extolling John McCain as "an honorable man," and talking about McCain's friendship with his wife, the former president told veterans: "I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country. And people could actually ask themselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics."
Some people consider the Clintons to be the "stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics."
Yeah, and others think Maureen Dowd is the stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics. Those people are right. As Bob Somerby explained in March 2007:
In Dowd's work, John Edwards is routinely "the Breck Girl" (five times so far -- and counting), and Gore is "so feminized that he's practically lactating." Indeed, two days before we voted in November 2000, Dowd devoted her entire column, for the sixth time, to an imaginary conversation between Gore and his bald spot. "I feel pretty," her headline said (pretending to quote Gore's inner thoughts).That was the image this idiot wanted you carrying off to the voting booth with you! Such is the state of Maureen Dowd's broken soul. And such is the state of her cohort [Ann Coulter].
And now, in the spirit of fair play and brotherhood, she is extending this type of "analysis" to Barack Obama. In the past few weeks, she has described Obama as "legally blonde" (in her headline); as "Scarlett O'Hara" (in her next column); as a "Dreamboy," as "Obambi," and now, in her latest absurd piece, as a "schoolboy" (text below). Do you get the feeling that Dowd may have a few race-and-gender issues floating around in her inane, tortured mind?
The New Republic's Marty Peretz jumped in, agreeing with Dowd's interpretation of Clintons' comments:
What Bill Clinton was saying in full consciousness is that yes, John McCain loves America and that, yes, so does Hillary. And that Barack Obama does not. What else could he possibly have meant? And that nasty little line about that other kind of politics (Obama's) intruding on our lives! None of this is a slip. It is deliberate. It is also ugly, very ugly. If Clinton gets nominated and gets elected, we will rue the day we ever met her ... and him.
Chris Matthews agreed that there was only one possible interpretation of Clinton's comments:
MATTHEWS: There's only one way to read that. He's saying that if you pick these two people, you get two people that love their country. If you don't, you don't get two people that love your country. You get this other guy, Obama, who has all this other stuff, as if that other stuff is Obama's problem. He's getting pretty tough here, isn't he, in these last efforts to hold onto reality or something like a Clinton reality?
I'm not sure which is more troubling: the possibility that Peretz and Matthews are so slow they really cannot imagine any other possible interpretation of Clinton's comments? Or the possibility that they know perfectly well that other interpretations exist, but are dishonest enough to pretend they don't?
Whatever the reason behind Matthews' comments, Jill Zuckman of the Chicago Tribune disagreed with him: "I don't believe that he's trying to suggest that Senator Obama is not a patriot. I think what he's saying is Senator Clinton and Senator McCain like each other and they have policy disagreements."
Freelance writer and political consultant Steve Benen agreed with Zuckman and wrote in a post on his blog, The Carpetbagger Report:
There's just nothing striking about the comments. He said Clinton and McCain are patriotic Americans who can face off in a campaign about issues. It wasn't a shot at Obama; it wasn't about Obama at all. I suppose one, if they were really anxious to parse the words and raise a fuss, could make a variety of inferences, but there's really no rational need to do so. At face value, his comments were harmless.
And syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, in a post on National Review Online's blog, The Corner, wrote that she was present for Clinton's comments and "[i]n no way did I interpret Clinton's remarks as questioning Obama's patriotism." Parker elaborated:
Clinton was making the case for his wife's electability against McCain, who last time I checked is the presumptive Republican nominee and her challenger should she win the Democratic nomination. He may have intentionally bypassed Obama in his leap to match Hillary against McCain, but he didn't say anything that could be construed as questioning Obama's patriotism. The sequence went as follows: He noted that Hillary polls ahead of McCain in Ohio and Florida and also that McCain leads "Hillary's opponent" (I quit typing here and don't recall exactly which states he mentioned in that part of his comment.) His point, obviously, was that Hillary should be the nominee and, in that case, she and McCain would face each other in the final contest.
Slate's John Dickerson likewise saw that Clinton's comments were innocuous:
Clinton appears to be imagining a post-nomination world and characterizing the debate among two senators (Hillary and McCain) as respectful because -- as he had just finished explaining to the crowd -- his wife and McCain had traveled the world together working on the issues like global warming. When he refers to "the other stuff that always seems to intrude," it's plausible to assume -- if you strip him of the horns and pitchfork for just a moment -- that what Clinton was talking about was the "stuff" that intrudes in general-election fights -- swift-boat ads and Republican claims that Democrats aren't patriots.
Still, major news outlets persisted in portraying Clinton's comments as controversial -- some by misleadingly cropping Clinton's statement. NBC's Today, for example, played a clip of Clinton saying only: "And I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who love this country and were devoted to the interests of the country." They carefully clipped Clinton's comments to hide the fact that he was talking about the importance of having an election about issues rather than "other stuff" -- clipped it so viewers would have no idea what he was really talking about.
Days of media obsession about Bill Clinton's comments -- featuring reporters ignoring the plain meaning of what he said and reading into his remarks things that he plainly didn't say -- perversely prove Clinton's point. This is exactly the kind of "other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics." This is the kind of nonsense the media want to talk about instead of meaningful issues.
And some of them, deep down inside, know this is a problem.
Here's Chris Matthews, for example, earlier this week:
MATTHEWS: It's not important what the politics of the Clinton family is now; it's what [sic] important to the country. And I really think we got to stop talking about this as if this were a sitcom. We had eight years of this sitcom: What are the Clintons up to? How do they relate to each other? What do they feel today? Mika, it's a sitcom -- and it's gotta end. We gotta focus on America. We're stuck in Iraq; 4,000 people are dead now because of decisions made by politicians like the Clintons. We've gotta focus on what matters and stop this sitcom approach to politics. It doesn't matter what happened on the phone between Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson. What matters is what Bill Richardson has to say about the future of the country. Bill -- Governor, why is it important to have Barack Obama our next president? That's a question.
That was on the March 24 edition of Morning Joe. Matthews didn't seem to understand that he and his colleagues are the ones responsible for the "sitcom approach to politics." But at least he understood that this approach is hurting America. Then, on that evening's broadcast of his own show, Matthews devoted a six-minute segment to speculation about Hillary Clinton's motivations and preferred outcomes in the event that she loses the Democratic nomination for president.
This is hardly the first time Matthews has lambasted the media for behaving like ... well, like Chris Matthews.
In September 2006, Matthews declared: "The news media ... sucks lately in covering the Iraq war ... We don't cover a war our guys are fighting? ... I watch the news and I don't see the war anymore. It's been taken off television. And Bush must love it, because certainly Karl Rove loves the fact that the Iraq war has gotten boring for the American people. ... I have been a voice out there against this bullshit war from the beginning."
In January 2007, Matthews followed up by saying media coverage of the war is "all about vague heroism and the medals people win. But there's nothing about what is going on in our military hospitals now. Why don't we focus on the cost of this damn thing?"
But Matthews wasn't using his own television shows -- he hosts two -- to give viewers regular, detailed, thoughtful segments about the costs of the Iraq war. Instead, he was calling Al Gore fat and leading inane segments in which he and his guests imagined poodle-skirt-wearing presidential candidates in high school.
And yet it doesn't even cross Chris Matthews' mind that when Bill Clinton talked about "other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics," maybe -- just maybe -- he was referring to the mindless chatter and sophomoric insults that Matthews and his colleagues inflict on the nation on a daily basis.


  
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