Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —

[Apologies in advance for some ranting.]

Last year I started listening to Rush Limbaugh's radio show a couple of times a week. Although I try to get my news from a variety of sources, I do sometimes feel like I live in a San Francisco bubble and don't get many opportunities to hear the concerns of the right. Even though I don't listen to the full three-hour show, end to end, and even though Limbaugh often makes me pace furiously in the kitchen — it's always the kitchen, for some reason, oh yeah, that's where my radio is — I have to admit that it helps, somehow. Ignorance about what a large percentage of the populace is talking about can't be good, and Limbaugh does occasionally make a clever argument that tickles my brain. The irksome aspect of the show is that he has at least two standards for every action. One for him, one for others. One for conservatives, one for "libs". In short, although the answers he supplies aren't always right, the questions are sometimes worth asking.

But TV, I can' t do. I've tried. I know that the guys on Fox — Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, et. al. — may have even more followers than Limbaugh, nowadays, but I just can't spend part of my day with them or the other talking heads on cable TV. It's a seething cauldron of false dilemmas and crosstalk, sound effects and time limits, and it makes my blood boil.

Thanks to a friend, I now have a Tivo. I know, welcome to 1999, Rob. My friend upgraded and was kind enough to let me try his old machine, which had been sitting in his garage, just long enough for me to get hooked. So with this new (to me) tool at my fingertips I've tried again to get a small, regular dose of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. But to paraphrase Al Franken, the more you watch this stuff, the stupider you get.

For example, if you watch cable advocacy shows in isolation...

  •'d think that Kerry and Edwards are the first and fourth most liberal members of the Senate. People who say such things are quoting the National Journal which ranks senators but also admits that those 1st and 4th rankings are for a small subset of the past year's Senate votes. When the same magazine ranked the entire careers of Kerry and Edwards, Kerry wasn't in the top ten and Edwards wasn't in the top twenty-five, to the right of the median Democrat. Nevertheless, you hear the claim over and over again, and not just from TV commentators. Dick Cheney recently told a bunch of rally-attenders in Minnesota that Kerry and Edwards are 1st and 4th, and knowing that some people may have heard that the rankings are for an unrepresentative subset of votes, he added, "And it's not based on one vote, or one year, it's based on 20 years of service in the United States Senate." You see, that additional sentence gave his argument that extra umph, albeit at the expense of making his claims completely false. Nevermind, the phrase "1st and 4th" continues to be spit out, rapid-fire, high volume, by TV gunslingers who leave no time to respond. Thanks for being here, now on to the latest news in the Laci Peterson case.

    (Who on TV debunks this claim? Let's thank Jon Stewart of The Daily Show for hammering one of his guests on this point. Here's the video, and if that doesn't work for you, here's a transcript that someone typed up. Yes, you have to rely on the comedy shows to get the facts right, I guess. Did you see David Letterman doing his "I'm a dumb guy" act last week while asking Bob Woodward some pretty tough questions?)

  •'d think that Kerry doesn't support the troops because he voted against the infamous $87B, $67B of which was for the war, the rest for reconstruction. In reality, Kerry supported a plan which financed the same $67B differently (more responsibly, you could argue) and asked the President to provide a specific reconstruction plan for the rest. Six days after Kerry voted no, Bush himself threatened to veto the bill if the financing weren't to his liking (loans vs. grants). I guess that means Bush doesn't support the troops. Or he felt like playing politics. Or maybe he was lying about that veto threat. Most likely, he was just negotiating the financial details, as was Kerry. To date, by the way, one year later, only 1% of that reconstruction money has been spent. It sure was urgent. It sure has been put to good use. It sure was ridiculous to ask for a more specific plan. Boy, that Kerry sure is a flip-flopper.
  •'d think that Kerry tried to gut the intelligence agencies by slashing their budget by $1.5B. Bush said so! Sean Hannity said so, and this week he reiterated that it was wrong for Kerry to do that! In reality, Kerry wanted to reclaim $1.5B (which is 1% of the intelligence budget) that had been allocated but unspent, and he wanted to spread it out over 5 years. He failed in this endeavor, but, not to worry, the Republican Congress successfully passed a bill that cut 3% out of the same National Reconnaissance Office. It's weird that Hannity forgot to mention this in his fair and balanced, rapid-fire comments this week. (This is when he was talking to Ben Fritz of Spinsanity, a web site that I often enjoy as an equal-opportunity spin watcher. Hannity can't get his head around the idea of someone really aiming for fair and equal treatment of media spin, and so the conversation between him and Fritz sounded like people speaking two different languages. Don't bother going on that show, man.)
  •'d think that two weeks ago, Kerry said that knowing what he knows now he, too, would have invaded Iraq, just like Bush! In reality, he didn't say that. He said he'd have requested the authority for military action from Congress and used it to apply pressure to Hussein. The threats that Bush made did get the UN inspectors back into Iraq. But then the inspectors had to leave again because of an invasion. (The misperception of Kerry's remarks — which are wholly consistent with his voting record, since he voted for giving Bush military authority — has been exacerbated by an article in the Washington Post on August 8 that quotes Kerry's national security adviser Jamie Rubin saying that "in all probability" Kerry would have launched a military attack by now. The problem here is that, as hard as I've tried, I can't find the sentence that the quote comes from, let alone the paragraph, line of thought, or conversation, and in fact the Washington Post, whom everyone else is quoting on this, doesn't even say who conducted the interview, where, and for what. Perhaps Rubin was predicting that Hussein would have continued his belligerence and would have forced military action, but only after Kerry had followed a more measured process. Who knows? It's only three words. Clarification would be nice, but certainly three out-of-context words aren't much to build an argument out of, but that's the nature of public discourse today. In fact, if it's more than a dozen words, it gets lost or ridiculed as nuance, eyes rolling.)

Etc etc etc. Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager repeated most of the above claims on Meet the Press this morning, and Tim Russert didn't respond to any of them, probably because he didn't want to stray from the topic of Swift boat veterans. Hey, that's not even cable. That's plain ol' NBC.

And how is so much misinformation introduced into the national debate? Well, here's a textbook example from an episode of Hardball this week. Michelle Malkin was on Chris Matthews' show to talk about her book and — what else — the Swift boat hubbub, and she accidentally said that "some people" have accused Kerry of shooting himself on purpose in Vietnam. Now, of course, no one, not even the Swift boat dudes who are the most pissed off at Kerry have made such a claim, and it's not worth refuting. But what's interesting is how she came to say such a thing on national TV by accident.

Well, it happened like this: first she used the term "self-inflicted wounds" in reference to one of Kerry's Purple Hearts, and Matthews jumped on the phrase, asking if she was implying that he deliberately shot himself. He asked her repeatedly, and repeatedly she avoided clarifying what she meant, which you'd think could have been done with a simple, "No."

On her web site she says that Matthews put words in her mouth and that by the end of the exchange it seemed as if she had made the ridiculous claim that Kerry shot himself, but "only someone who had not read Unfit for Command [the book documenting the claims of the Swift boat vets who oppose Kerry] would interpret what I was saying the way Matthews did".

Ah, now her strategy is clear. She intended to imply that Kerry intentionally wounded himself, knowing that people who had read the book would see her words as technically factual but that others would pick up a negative, wussy/crazy vibe about Kerry. If she didn't mean to imply this, she could easily have responded to any of Matthews dozen questions by saying, "No, I'm not saying that. No one is saying that" (which is essentially what John O'Neill, the author of Unfit for Command, told Jim Lehrer this week when the same phrase "self-inflicted" arose and Lehrer questioned it; O'Neill quickly said no, Kerry certainly didn't intentionally hurt himself). But when Matthews asked Malkin, "Are you saying he intentionally shot himself?" Malkin replied, "Have you read the book?" which is a deflective way of implying "Yes, the people in the book say that" while still maintaining plausible deniability for your weblog. Another time she answered with a nod, saying, "Self-inflicted wounds!" OK, is that a Yes or a No?

Unfortunately for her, she then went a bit too far and at one point actually did say, "Yes, some people say that," then gave the names of two people who say that (actually, of course, they don't). Oops. In other words, she intended to be merely misleading but when cornered, she broke down and simply lied.

Here's the video footage and a transcript.

As for Matthews, he may not be the most prepared host in in the world, and his show is a stinking pile of shouting and yelling that hasn't added much to the public debate (based on my limited viewing), but in this case his ignorance was a substitute for many viewers' own hazy understanding of the allegations, which actually helped expose the whack rhetorical machinery at work here. When Malkin said "self-inflicted," Matthews naively assumed she meant that Kerry shot himself, when really he was probably supposed to see it as a factual statement so that it would slip under the radar and into the ears of the unsuspecting who are free to misinterpret the statement, to Kerry's detriment.

The lie itself is silly, but the machinery, the idea of walking into a debate with the apparent intent to be misleading-without-actually-lying is fascinating, not least because it's the norm for today's national debate.

My grandfather received a Silver Star and Purple Heart in World War II. My parents told me how it happened, but my grandpa didn't talk about it much. Once, though, he told me about the time he was called into the office of the guy who was filling out the report for his medals, and the officer asked my grandpa how many hits he took. His wounds were the kind that are very difficult to count. (I knew the word "shrapnel" at a young age, because the fragments of metal that my grandpa carried near his heart were the source of many health problems.) So when the officer asked how many wounds he'd sustained and said he'd give him a medal for each one, my grandpa said, Well if they're that easy to get, just give me one and that'll be that.

He got one. So did Bob Dole when his grenade bounced off of a tree and he got a mild wound. (Later, of course, he got another for a much more severe wound.) So did John Kerry when he and Jim Rassmann (the Green Beret who he later fished out of the water) blew up a stockpile of rice and Kerry caught some fragments in his butt. War is dangerous and messy, and that's why there's a Purple Heart. Whether it came from your own grenade, a buddy's, or an enemy's, a wound received when you were in the service of your country is eligible for a Purple Heart, as I understand it, and rightfully so. Repeating this phrase "self-inflicted wounds" does nothing to change that fact and only seeks to discredit Kerry, although really the most that such an accusation should be able to do is paint him as an exaggerator.

A few years ago I lied to a co-worker. This is unpleasant for me to mention, but... I was supposed to be working on a sort of secret project, news of which leaked out, and when my co-worker asked me about it, like a deer in headlights, I denied it. It was a relatively benign lie, but I lost some sleep over it because I felt like the whole event said something about me. Under pressure, my true self came out. I like to think I learned something. I'm steeling myself against this in the future, because I don't want to be that. It made me think of HAL the computer in 2001, who also didn't deal properly with conflicting rules, but luckily in my case no one was ejected into space.

But the things people are saying on cable TV aren't benign. They're not investigative or truth-seeking. They have none of the qualities that we might hope for in a national debate. They're never corrected, and people don't stop saying them. It's ok for people to disagree. It's not ok for people to twist and mislead.

All of this is a symptom — I know, I say it all the time — of information overload. We've built systems to bring information to our feet. Piles of it. Now what? Well, we don't have the slightest idea how to deal with it, so as children in the information age, we listen to the loudest item in the pile, the one that, like a good movie thriller, makes us root for someone or makes us angry when that someone gets beaten down. The cable channels encourage us to take sides first and ask questions later, widening the rift that runs up the middle of the false dilemma.

What's lost in the process is truth and reason. As much as I disagree with William F. Buckley, Jr, on a number of issues, his appearance on Charlie Rose last week was a breath of fresh air, a quiet, thoughtful discussion in which people actually pause a moment before giving an answer and then give that answer in complete sentences. When Rose brought up the sorry state of discourse in Washington these days, Buckley noted that many commentators seem to feel the need to "assert and reassert." I hadn't thought of it that way, but it's true. Hammer home the talking points, folks. They need to be heard over the noise and need to fit within a 10-second window.

It just makes me jittery.

Wow, so much TV this week. I'm glad to have a Tivo, but I'm going to have to dial it back to the usual level for our house. I don't mind to sample the cable news channels from time to time, but I can't do it regularly. You get more nuanced arguments on the funny pages.

[Sorry for the political tangent.]

Posted by davis | Link
Reader Comments
August 23, 2004, 12:51 PM

Great posting, Rob! It scares me that we're becoming a more and more complex society but our political decision making process is more and more broken. There is a feedback loop that goes from us, normal people back to the political representatives we elect. And it is a continuous loop, not just every 4 years at election time. If we let ourselves be influenced by bad information and don't give back quality feedback then we're in trouble as a society. Quality feedback can only come from a public discourse in a format that lets many opinions be heard that shed light on many aspects of the point of discussion. Unfortunately most news formats these days (TV in particular) don't have these formats anymore (Charlie Rose is pleasant exception exception).

August 23, 2004, 10:59 PM

Yeah, a feedback loop — that's an excellent way to put it. You know, when I'm feeling less cynical I think, well, the system is more broken and people are able to game the system more than ever before, but at the same time we as citizens are more equpped than ever to look into the claims our politicians make, because of our access to information. So maybe it's a wash.

I hope. I really think that how we deal with the information glut will define this era in history.

August 26, 2004, 08:20 PM

Great post! Amazing how wicked these media flacks are.

I don't find this to be ranting at all. Rather, I think you've brought your critical eye for film to bear on the ways in which politics are presented to the electorate. I wish more artists and critics would use their considerable talents to analyze dishonest arguments and ideas rather than simply regurgitating their own received wisdom.

August 31, 2004, 01:23 AM

Thanks very much Jim.

You know I was frustrated again to hear Giuliani relate a number of these tall tales during his speech at the Republican National Convention. He seemed to think he was the first person ever to quote Kerry saying, "I voted for it before I voted against it." Nice find, Rudy! He musta been burning the midnight oil trolling through obscure video archives to unearth that nugget. (McCain, on the other hand, now there's a guy with integrity. Chris Matthews in his post-rally interview tried to stir up a fued between McCain and Michael Moore over Fahrenheit 9/11, and McCain refused to take the bait, sticking only to his one criticism, that Moore made pre-war Iraq look idyllic.)

You'd need a full time staff to keep track of this crap. Some of these political bloggers are doing us all a service for keeping track of whatever they can.

I have to think that part of the blame lies with Kerry himself as a poor communicator. Jon Stewart threw him one softball after another on his show last week, and Kerry missed every one. He asked him if he was the most liberal senator. "No." Kerry replied, and that's about all he said. He asked him if he had flip-flopped, and Kerry said, "I've flip-flopped, and flop-flipped, ha ha ha." OK. "Refute if you will," Stewart prompted, but he got nothin'.

Kerry didn't seem to notice that this was an opportunity to respond to some of that spin. Sheesh.