Posts Tagged ‘USA Today’

How the Media Undermines Civility

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]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.]

Stopping the Democrats from Descending to Sarah Palin’s Level

Monday, August 10th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]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.

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