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Scheer Deception: The Lies and Jargon of Robert Scheer

By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
October 8, 2001

Many pundits sling jargon or make blithely irrational arguments. Some, however, seem to specialize in twisting the facts to fit their ideology, continually making assertions that are at best unsupported and at worst blatantly false until they--and presumably their readers--come to accept these false tropes as truth. Robert Scheer, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has established himself as the leader of this breed, with some of his worst spin coming since the September 11 attack. Sadly, this is only the latest iteration of a trend that can be seen in Scheer's columns throughout the year.

A brief history

Scheer has had an interesting career in journalism. He started at the radical left publication Ramparts in the 60s, then become a national correspondent for the L.A. Times for 17 years. For the past eight, he has been a columnist whose work appears weekly in the Times and papers across the country. He also co-hosts a radio show on an affiliate of National Public Radio in Los Angeles and writes for publications like The Nation. Throughout his career, Scheer has been one of America's leading liberal pundits, reliably bashing Republicans and many conservative Democrats.

Dissemble, spin, repeat

An overview of Scheer's writing reveals that one of his favorite tactics is to create a politically potent trope and repeat it over and over until it seems true. When faced with criticism, Scheer simply dismisses his critics without addressing their arguments and continues to repeat his idea, as if the more he says it, the truer it becomes.

An excellent example of this tactic can be found in what my co-editor Brendan Nyhan has labeled the "Taliban aid trope." Scheer created this trope in May, when he attacked a "gift of $43 million to the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan," saying it "makes the U.S. the main sponsor of the Taliban and rewards that 'rogue regime' for declaring that opium growing is against the will of God."

Drawing on work by Bryan Carnell of Leftwatch, Brendan pointed out that the $43 million was not aid to the Taliban government. Instead, the money was a gift of wheat, food commodities, and food security programs distributed to the Afghan people by agencies of the United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Secretary of State Colin Powell specifically stated, in fact, that the aid "bypasses the Taliban, who have done little to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people, and indeed have done much to exacerbate it."

Since the US began focusing on the Taliban for harboring Osama Bin Laden, whose Al-Qaeda network is the primary suspect in the September 11 attacks, Scheer has repeated this false assertion about U.S. aid to Afghanistan, and in fact twisted it even further. In a September 17 column, he says that the aid was a tacit endorsement of Bin Laden:

This is typical of the mixed signals we've been sending. Call it what you will, even humanitarian aid, and funnel it through the United Nations, but the effect is the same: to send to the Taliban a signal that its support of Bin Laden has been somehow acceptable.

Note how Scheer takes note of his critics' points by prefacing them with "Call it what you will," as if these points were arbitrary labels and not facts. They are facts, however, and Scheer is simply trying to avoid them.

Scheer wasn't done spreading this trope, or with his irrational dismissal of critics, however. Two weeks later, on October 1, he spun humanitarian aid for the Afghan people as some sort of a fairy tale:

Believe that [the Taliban convinced farmers to stop growing opium through religious appeals rather than by force], and you can believe that the $43 million in aid that Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that same week--to help the Afghans, "including those farmers who have felt the impact of the ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the Taliban that we welcome"--was simply humanitarian aid and not really a reward to the Taliban for helping the U.S. in its drug war.

Again, Scheer does not explain to readers how humanitarian aid funneled through the U.N and NGOs can be considered a gift to a government that never receives funds or controls any food aid. Notice also how he selectively quotes Powell, avoiding the statement mentioned earlier in which Powell explicitly notes that the aid will bypass the Taliban. Even more disturbing, however, is a fact brought to our attention by Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix in an email: Powell's statement was made in response to a question about future aid and had nothing to do with the $43 million aid already provided. Once again, Scheer is twisting the truth to fit his argument.

Although Scheer's use of the Taliban aid trope has been the most disturbing this year, it is not the only falsity he has repeated. In another instance, Scheer has twice tried to frame the current economic slump as a recession caused by President Bush and Congressional Republicans. This started in July, when Scheer argued that Al Gore should criticize the Bush Administration and Republicans for economic policy:

The job market was never better than under Bill Clinton and it's not too much to expect Gore to hold the Republicans, who have controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, responsible for the loss of 300,000 jobs in the last three months alone.

The truth that Scheer is avoiding here, however, is that the current downturn began while Bill Clinton was still President. Furthermore, in the three months prior to July, Bush's economic policy had barely begun to take effect. There is no logical reason to hold the economic policy of Bush and Republicans in Congress responsible for a downturn that began before Bush's inauguration.

Earlier in that column, Scheer also dissembles when he refers to a "recession" that at the time had not been established (although it is now quite likely that we are in one). Blaming Bush for the weak economy, regardless of the facts, is a favorite tactic of Scheer's, however. He did so again just a month later, as my co-editor Brendan Nyhan pointed out, when he succinctly referred to "a recession [Bush] helped create." At this point, however, there was still no evidence that the U.S. was in a recession, nor was there evidence that the slow economy was caused by President Bush.

Such facts seem to matter little to Scheer as he creates his false tropes. The truth is merely an obstacle to be illogically dismissed.

Labels and frames

Another favored tactic of Scheer's, and one that can be seen in his false tropes as well, is to bash President Bush and other Republicans whenever possible. There is nothing wrong, of course, with criticizing political opponents. What is troublesome, however, is that Scheer often does so not with reasoned criticism, but irrational broadsides and unsupported allegations.

When it comes to President Bush, Scheer seems to have two insights that he repeats endlessly: the President is rich and he is dumb. From global warming to economic policy, Scheer seems to always find a way to return to these two points.

During a discussion of the importance of Social Security and Medicare, for instance, Scheer sees fit to state that many benefit from these programs, "[u]nless your family happens to be super rich like the president's." In a column on global warming, Scheer again takes an unnecessary swipe at the Bush family's wealth, making ridiculous generalizations about young people in the process:

Here's a guy born with credit cards in his cradle, enough to take him anywhere in the world, first class, who nevertheless pointedly refused to go. Even kids without any money manage to scrape up a few bucks and go see the world, but not young George, who satiated his curiosity about foreign lands with a few beer busts down in Mexico.

Scheer's ostensible point here is that Bush "never seemed to think that there was a world out there worth visiting, let alone saving," as if a vacation in Europe would necessarily make him more competent in foreign policy. Notice also the irrelevant assertion that Bush went on "beer busts down in Mexico," which is, again, hardly relevant to his current foreign policy. Also notable here is Scheer revealing his own class bias, as he absurdly asserts that even the poorest of young people manage to travel around the world.

The broadsides don't stop there, though. Another one of Scheer's insights into Bush's foreign policy is that it "can more charitably be viewed as the confused performance of a struggling C student." In the same column, Scheer's conclusion about the Bush's administration's rejection of many foreign treaties is, again, that the President is dumb: "[I]t is therefore unfair for critics to hold his proposals to too high a standard of logic and sophistication," he writes. "After all, this is George W. Bush we're talking about."

Scheer also plays on a common and again unsupported liberal trope: that Bush is merely a front man and Vice-President Cheney is running the country. "It's a sad measure of the president's need for adult supervision," Scheer wrote in July, "that Cheney has become the first vice president in modern U.S. history to seize control of the White House and render the president himself a public relations front man sent around the country to do photo ops." Once again, Scheer presents no evidence to support his attack, simply asserting that "[e]veryone knows that Cheney, not Bush, runs the show."

To be fair, however, Scheer doesn't exclusively pick on President Bush. Vice President Cheney himself came under attack in a column on environmental policy that labels him "an oil-guzzling, intellectually irresponsible, anti-environmental oaf."

Best of breed

At a time when all too many pundits engage in their share of lies, spin, and jargon, Robert Scheer stands out in a class by himself. In column after column, his favored tactics have been irrational criticism, distortion, and spin. At his worst, Scheer's false tropes spread and become part of the commonly accepted discourse. Since September 11, for instance, as Dan Kennedy noted in the Boston Phoenix, the Taliban aid trope has been repeated in The Nation, The New Yorker, The Denver Post and Salon. For those concerned about the rise of irrational discourse in American politics, Robert Scheer stands out as one of the worst offenders.

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Related links:
-Scheer propaganda on a claimed recession (Brendan Nyhan, 8/28)
-Scheer propaganda (Brendan Nyhan, 6/12)

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This website is copyright (c) 2001-2002 by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan. Please send letters to the editor for publication to letters@spinsanity.org and private questions or comments to feedback@spinsanity.org.