Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
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April posts

4/30 - Bryan: The Rhetoric of Uncertainty (permanent link)
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Column: "The Rhetoric of Uncertainty: Science, global warming, and shaping a political debate"

Some ugly tactics are at work on the science of climate change. First and foremost is a disingenuous attack on the scientific consensus that climate change is happening, is caused at least partly by humans, and will potentially have drastic consequences for the planet. President Bush paid homage to this school of thought when he reversed a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions in March, claiming that "the incomplete nature of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change" precipitated his about-face.

Opponents of the Kyoto Protocol, which imposes international caps on carbon emissions, have a second weapon: the manipulative association. Tying global warming and the Kyoto treaty to everything from Clinton and Gore to Communism, they play on readers' subconscious feelings instead of engaging in rational debate. The result is policy paralysis on an issue of tremendous international importance.

4/30 - Brendan: Language in politics (permanent link)
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The New York Times ran a fantastic story Friday about how sophisticated the use of language has become in American politics. But it doesn't provide much context on how political language became so politicized and poll-tested.

Back in 1990, Newt Gingrich's political action committee pioneered the tactic of circulating a list of poll-tested "contrast" words to "define" opponents and "optimistic" and "positive" words to "define your vision of public service". Recommended contrast words included "destroy", "sick", "pathetic", "liberal", "waste", "corruption" and "greed". Positive contrast words included "opportunity", "moral", "courage", "principle", "dream" and "freedom". A memo from the committee said that "language is a key mechanism of control used by a majority party."

With Gingrich's backing, pollster Frank Luntz began circulating widely influential memos advising Congressional Republicans on word choice, including one advising them to use terms like "group home" instead of "orphanage" when talking about welfare reform. This culminated in the current campaigns against the "death tax" and "marriage penalty".

Unfortunately, at this point, Democrats are just as bad. President Clinton relied heavily and openly on polling from Stanley Greenberg and Mark Penn. And Democrats are constantly repeating poll-tested phrases like their support for a "patient's bill of rights" and their opposition to "vouchers". It's depressing stuff.

(source: David Dahl, "In Washington, they pick words carefully". St. Petersburg Times, February 6, 1995)

4/30 - Brendan: Democrats are wrong on arsenic (permanent link)
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Although it's hyperbolic, Michael Kinsley's recent piece on Slate points out that President Bush's decision on arsenic was right. But you wouldn't know it from new Democratic ads released last week that feature children talking about arsenic in water (see this AP story). This is a great example of politicians and the media creating a label that sticks despite major factual discrepancies. If you don't believe me, see the articles Kinsley cites: Sebastian Mallaby in the Washington Post and a study from the AEI-Brookings Joint Center finding the rule will actually cost about ten lives annually by reducing money available for things like health care expenses. And both Rush Limbaugh and Rich Lowry of the National Review Online attacked Tom Daschle, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, for voting to delay implementation of the arsenic rules last year.

4/30 - Brendan: Limbaugh on the warpath (permanent link)
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How you really know President Bush's honeymoon is over and the Democrats are drawing blood: Rush Limbaugh is on the warpath against the Democratic leadership. Check out his villification of "'Puff' Daschle" and "'Little Dick' Gephardt" (also see Limbaugh's diatribe against Daschle over arsenic permanent linked above). Rush's basic logic is that Daschle and Gephardt are out to destroy Bush's presidency. Bush, as President, should get more or less whatever he wants. Therefore, Daschle and Gephardt's opposition is not just wrong but illegitimate. Of course, this is totally different than Rush's eight year crusade against Clinton.

4/23 - Brendan: Race and "Racial McCarthyism" (permanent link)
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Column: Race and "Racial McCarthyism"

The battle over John Ashcroft's nomination to be Attorney General early this year set in motion an important debate over the boundaries for discussion of racial issues. The issue: whether it's legitimate to criticize public figures on the basis of their statements and actions related to race. Many of Ashcroft's defenders used slippery logic in the debate over his nomination to argue that it is not legitimate to do so if there is not extremely strong evidence of racial bias. Additionally, the debate over Ashcroft helped launch a general right-wing counteroffensive based on accusations of so-called "racial McCarthyism".

4/17 - Ben: Recount Reconsiderations (permanent link)
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Column: Recount Reconsiderations

A study of some of the ballots left uncounted in Florida from the Presidential election found a mixed bag of results. Under the scenario pursued by Democratic lawyers and supported by the Florida Supreme Court, George W. Bush would have won. However, under the procedures Republican lawyers pushed for, Al Gore would have won. In addition, numerous ballots with obvious intent were uncounted or discarded. Instead of recognizing this complexity, however, both the Miami Herald and USA Today ran headlines and leads claiming that the study proved that Bush won in Florida. Wire stories in Knight-Ridder and the Associated Press picked up on this biased angle. The next day, an editorial in The Wall Street Journal took these stories as fact and ran an editorial charging that the Gore team's legal strategy was "desperate" and the litigators a "scorched earth corps".

4/9 - Bryan: Jargon 101 (permanent link)
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Column: Jargon 101: Pardons and Punditry

Our intrepid correspondent reviews the tactics of the new jargon: reasoning by association, deniable presuppositions, imputing motivations, and plain old-fashioned personal insults. Evaluating a column by the National Review's Jonah Goldberg in exquisite and gory detail, our reporter reveals how PR tactics beat down our rational faculties and harm our political dialogue.

4/9 - Webmaster: Spinsanity launch (permanent link)
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