Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with 

Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

Forty pages of sloppiness:
The factual errors of Lewis Lapham's Gag Rule

By Brendan Nyhan
July 15, 2004

Sloppy political tracts are nothing new, but this election year has seen an explosion of them. Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham's Gag Rule stands out as an especially noteworthy example, packing a number of factual errors into a forty page opening chapter on attacks on dissent in the period from Sept. 11, 2001 through the war in Iraq. Disturbingly, many of these recapitulate previous errors from columns in Harper's that were recycled in the book. [Note: The chapter is available in full (but without footnotes) as an online excerpt.]

For instance, he writes about the six weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, stating, "The Pentagon issued a much-strengthened National Security Strategy, replacing the cold war theories of deterrence and containment with the strategies of 'preemptive strike' and 'anticipatory self-defense'" (p. 4 in book). But the National Security Strategy he refers to was not released until September 2002, a year after the attacks (360K PDF).

Lapham also misquotes former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, claiming that, when asked on September 26, 2001 for comment "on a possibly seditious opinion overheard on network television," he said, "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do."(p. 5). When Fleischer was asked about the comment (by comedian Bill Maher), he actually criticized two different statements -- Maher's claim that the Sept. 11 terrorists were not cowards and a comment by Rep. John Cooksey about the need for interrogation of Sikh Americans wearing turbans:

I'm aware of the press reports about what he [Maher] said. I have not seen the actual transcript of the show itself. But assuming the press reports are right, it's a terrible thing to say, and it unfortunate. And that's why -- there was an earlier question about has the President said anything to people in his own party [Cooksey] -- they're reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do.

By changing "They're" to "There," Lapham obscures the fact that Fleischer was referring to Cooksey, a fellow Republican, as well as Maher.

Later, Lapham distorts quotations from Newsweek, saying the newsweekly "discovered in President Bush the character of 'a warrior king ... comfortable in ermine'" (p. 31). This actually combines incorrect quotations from two different articles. A November 27, 2001 online article by Howard Fineman stated that Bush is "a Boomer product of the '60s--but doesn't mind ermine robes." Lapham rams this together with a March 11, 2002 print article by Fineman that ran under the tagline "Before [Bush] became warrior king, he was a clown-prince candidate" (also misquoted). The suggestion that these two quotes came from the same article exaggerates the significance of either.

Bizarrely, in a March 2003 speech available online, Lapham first wrote about the quotes as separate, attributing "warrior king" to Time and the incorrect "leader comfortable in ermine" quote to Newsweek. In the book, the writer managed to get the attribution of "warrior king" right, but presented the two quotes separated by an ellipsis as if they were from the same article -- a remarkable error given that he first attributed them to different magazines.

In a footnote not available in the online excerpt, Lapham writes, "The president knows himself allied with the thrones of Christian virtue, and if left to his own or to his speechwriters' devices in front of an open microphone, he seldom misses a chance to restate the good news in the language of the Bible" (p. 34). He then goes on to list three relatively innocuous quotes, followed by this -- "We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation" -- which is implicitly attributed to Bush. However, contrary to many such claims, this statement was actually made by a CIA agent in Afghanistan in Bob Woodward's book Bush at War. And again, Lapham previously made the same error in a similar passage from a May 2003 column.

Finally, at the end of the chapter, Lapham writes of the aftermath of the war in Iraq:

Michael Ledeen, resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, placed the great victory in geopolitical perspective: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

But Ledeen did not say this after the war in Iraq (he actually supported focusing on Iran as "the logical first target in our response to the Axis of Evil"). It actually originates in an admittedly shaky recollection by another journalist of a speech from more than ten years earlier. The presumable source is an April 2002 column by Jonah Goldberg on National Review Online describing a statement he heard Ledeen make in the early 1990s:

Well, I've long been an admirer of, if not a full-fledged subscriber to, what I call the "Ledeen Doctrine." I'm not sure my friend Michael Ledeen will thank me for ascribing authorship to him and he may have only been semi-serious when he crafted it, but here is the bedrock tenet of the Ledeen Doctrine in more or less his own words: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." That's at least how I remember Michael phrasing it at a speech at the American Enterprise Institute about a decade ago (Ledeen is one of the most entertaining public speakers I've ever heard, by the way). [italics ours]

Lapham's wildly inaccurate characterization recapitulates a previous error - in this case, from a column he wrote for Harper's in June 2003.

Sadly, these are not the only mistakes Lapham makes - he also garbles a quotation from Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), incorrectly claiming he said "we have no need to create dissent while we need unity" during Senate debate in September 2001 (p. 6 - Levin actually said "But in cases of other differences, we put them off for another day, where the effort or attempt to resolve them now would create dissent where we need unity") and misattributes a statement by Dan Rather as having taken place on the "CBS Evening News" rather than "The Late Show with David Letterman" (p. 9).

In the end, whether making new mistakes or repeating old ones, the Harper's editor betrays a carelessness that reflects very poorly on his work.

Update 7/16 5:07 PM EST: A typo that confused Lapham and Fineman has been corrected. The column has also been updated to clarify Ledeen's position on the war in Iraq.

[Email this to a friend]     [Subscribe to our email list]

Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

This website is copyright (c) 2001-2003 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.