Posts Tagged ‘Steny Hoyer’

How the Media Undermines Civility

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Civility in political discourse is a difficult thing to maintain – as people engage in politics often because they believe strongly in what they are advocating. One of the ways to maintain this is to politely refrain from accusing your opponents of dastardly deeds – and instead, be circumspect and try to make uncontroversial points of agreement that undermine your opponents. For example, when debating the recent Supreme Court decision on corporate political spending, you might plausibly say in the course of argument that, “Without free speech, we would live in tyranny,” or “Attacking the First Amendment is un-American.” While the thrust of your argument may be that your opponents are – given the rest of what you’re saying – undermining the First Amendment, you don’t claim that they are advocating tyranny or are un-American. You don’t call them names, in other words. You criticize their actions as you perceive them. It’s a fine line – but an important one.

However, the news is 24/7, right?

And every minute needs to be filled up with some new scandal, some new story-of-the-day. This is how uncontroversial statements become provocative headlines – specifically provocative headlines that tap into a narrative the public already knows. These provocative headlines then quickly become talking points for someone as they attempt to use the news to push their message. So, for example, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer publish an op-ed in USA Today which – rather uncontroversially – claims:

Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.

Suddenly, the right wing begins complaining of the McCarthyite push for health care. (Pelosi called the Tea Party crowd “un-American”!!!!)

Now, again, John Brennan, Deputy National Security Advisor, writes in an op-ed for USA Today:

Politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda. Terrorists are not 100-feet tall. Nor do they deserve the abject fear they seek to instill.

Relatively uncontroversial, you would think. But for those lacking the time to read this short piece, Jake Tapper summarizes it:

WH: Some Critics ‘Serving the Goals of al Qaeda’

Matt Drudge though saw the need to remove a few qualifiers in his big headline of the day:

WHITE HOUSE: OBAMA CRITICS HELPING AL QAEDA

The common thread here is this: in the midst of making an argument, an uncontroversial point is made. News reporters, eager to make their quota of new scandals for the day, remove all qualifiers from the sentence, take only a word or two, and recast the entire argument as pure demonization of the overall target of the piece.

This is one of the essential aspects of the Freak Show that is our Washington news.

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Of course, some politicians seem to deliberately cross over these lines to make their points. Perhaps I’m biased here – and if so, tell me. But I think there’s a difference in how Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin often talk. At one point, for example, Cheney claimed that:

I think [the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Muhammad as a civilian is] likely to give encouragement — aid and comfort — to the enemy.

By rather directly describing the Obama administration’s actions as meeting the legal standard of treason, Cheney seems to be crossing a line. And of course, Sarah Palin famously “asked”:

Our opponent though, is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country?

I wonder – is it just my bias that makes me see the distinction between these two sets of statements? Or are they clearly of a different sort?

[Image by me and sysop licensed under Creative Commons.]

Shame on You, Mr. Hentoff

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Mr. Hentoff,

I have been following you for years – ever since my father suggested I read your column because you were honest and independent-minded and liberal. I have admired your steadfast positions, including on abortion and right to life issues. But your last column was truly shameful.

Given your career and the reputation you have built and maintained, you should be embarrassed to have such poorly sourced journalism attributed to your name. It reads like something an overeager Cato intern might have thrown together – with the sloppy reference to Pelosi condemning the “furor” as “un-American” and the casual defamation of Ezekial Emanuel. It’s hard to tell if you made these points out of laziness – not taking the time to investigate the standard right wing talking points on health care – or if you chose to use your stature to lie.

If you had chosen to read the op-ed published by Speaker Pelosi and Representative Steny Hoyer (conveniently linked to here) you would have noticed that they never called the protestors or the furor “un-American” as many right wingers have claimed. Instead, they made a statement which you doubtless agree with:

Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.

Which means your statement – misidentifying the co-author of the piece as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – calling them “blind to truly participatory democracy” began with a faulty premise.

Regarding your next point: If you had chosen to read the article you quote by Dr. Ezekial Emanuel (among others) instead of simply quoting the Washington Times editorial quoting the article – or if you had even done some sort of search beyond that single right wing editorial – you would have found that Dr. Emanual was not describing how he believes medical resources should be allocated – but considering what should be done in times or situations of extreme scarcity, such as during a pandemic or with extremely scarce resources such as organs to be donated. The article describes 8 systems for distributing extremely scare resources/services – and recommends 6 of them be incorporated into any decision-making process. The quote you push here is cribbed from the description of one system. It is a blatant falsehood to claim it represents Dr. Emanuel’s overall thought on the subject. And I know you are an old man, but would you seriously put forward the moral proposition that if your kidney is failing – and so is a 12-year old girl’s – you should get priority to that kidney?

To state that this quote means that Dr. Emanuel is in favor of medical rationing is a lie. To state that it means Dr. Emanuel is in favor of euthanasia is a lie. (In fact, one of the articles you link to clearly states that Dr. Emanual is and has been opposed to euthanasia.). To  insinuate that the plans currently under consideration are pushing such rationing or euthanasia or death panels is finally a lie too far.

You clearly know little about the bills under consideration – as you conflate the subsidies for voluntary end of life counseling and the Independent Medicare Advisory Board – as Sarah Palin in her ignorance did – into a “life-decider” panel that decides whether you merit “government-controlled funds to keep you alive.” You also make this ominous point:

The members of that ultimate federal board will themselves not have examined or seen the patient in question.

Of course, it is unclear what panel it is you are trying to describe here. As mentioned above, it seems a conflation of one panel in the proposed legislation – and a provision to subsidize end of life counseling – with both fearfully conflated and confused into one panel that has a quite different purpose. The closest thing to what you’re describing in the bill would be the Independent Medicare Advisory Board – which is an amended version of the current MedPAC which sets Medicare reimbursement rates. It would be checked by Congress and the President – either of whom would be able to reject any untoward recommendations by the board. In addition, either the IMAC or another advisory board would collect and distribute research on “best practices” in medicine – comparing the comparative effectiveness of different treatments for the same or similar diseases.

Of course, none of these boards would be making decision about individual patients – as you claim. But clearly, you didn’t take the time to look into any of this.

Shame on you, Nat Hentoff. This was a poor piece of journalism that only succeeds in spreading lies about health reform even further.

If you value your journalistic integrity, you should issue a retraction and apologize to Dr. Emanuel – or double down and explain what primary sources you have for your rather frightening conclusions. Until then, your opinion must clearly be dismissed as the shoddy piece of right wing talking points that it has become.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Stopping the Democrats from Descending to Sarah Palin’s Level

Monday, August 10th, 2009

By using the phrase “un-American,” Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer are undermining the Democratic brand – threatening to bringing themselves down to the level of Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, George W. Bush, and Ann Coulter.

If you read the op-ed currently being misrepresented/hyped by Matt Drudge – “Pelosi/Hoyer op-ed in Monday USATODAY calls townhall protesters ‘un-American’…” he says – you can see they only use the phrase “un-American” once. They write:

Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.

This statement is uncontroversial. Yet it also is clearly designed to generate attention and it is making news because Democrats so rarely engage in this type of demagoguery – and because Drudge and his allies are trying to create an impression of a thuggish White House pushing its agenda using tactics adopted from the worst Republican politicians (identifying opponents as “un-American,” compiling an “enemies list,” declaring things justified by “national security” when they are really power grabs.) Democrats, liberals, and progressives have largely refained though from calling their opponents “un-American” or “terrorists” – even as matters grow extremely heated. Political attacks and populism are part of politics. Accusing the other side of representing the entrenched interests who their side’s agenda benefits (organized labor, environmental groups, abortion rights groups, etcetera for Democrats; big corporations, the wealthy, pro-life groups, the NRA, etcetera for Republicans) will always be part of the game.

But there are clear lines – and Democrats have largely respected them. John Kerry could have accused George W. Bush of negligently being responsible for September 11 – and he would have won had he done so. But it would have damaged the country. Karl Rove, knowing this is what he would have done, saw this vulnerability and did what he could to counteract it – but he still saw it was Bush’s weakness. Democrats could have made a concerted push to demagogue every policy Bush instituted after September 11 as “un-American” and “giving in to the terrorists.” But instead, they did not cross this line – despite the fact that Karl Rove and George W. Bush and those Republicans running against them equated the Democrats with “therapy for terrorists” and sympathy for the terrorists’ aims. Sarah Palin infamously inflamed crowds talking about Obama’s sympathy for terrorists and asserted that there were anti-American parts of America that wouldn’t vote for her. There are some who claim that these demagogic tactics are equaled by the Democrats who have claimed that Republicans are representing the rich at the expense of the poor and similar claims – but there is a clear difference between the approaches.

But as Democrats are becoming increasingly frustrated with the hardball politics of the opponents of health care reform, they are clearly tempted to try to tap into the Rovian playbook. For example, even mild-mannered Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote (in what was overall an extraordinarly good column) that:

[Republicans have] become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.

The level of frustration on the part of the Democrats – aware that what they are actually proposing is popular – but seeing the public debate beginning to turn against their attempts to put into law these popular measures is growing exponentially. Neither Pelosi nor Hoyer nor Pearlstein have descended to the level of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, or Ann Coulter.  But by pushing the line – they threaten to undermine the Democratic Party.

Hardball politics is one thing. Calling your opponents “terrorists” or “un-American” is another.