Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
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Posts - July 9-15

7/13 - Ben: It's never too early to go over the top (permanent link)
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In an article that shames a media outlet just as much as its source, the Washington Times ran an interview yesterday with Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-VA), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, that quotes numerous instances of over-the-top rhetoric from Davis without providing any context for the arguments made.

Davis is quoted as calling the Democratic Party "an organized conspiracy to seize power," in an apparent reference to their takeover of the Senate leadership since Sen. Jim Jeffords left the Republican party. It goes on to paraphrase Davis as saying that "the Senate Democratic leadership is deliberately trying to slow action on the president's agenda for their own political gain."

"The Senate is delaying work on the supplemental [military spending bill]," Davis says. "They know what they are doing. They don't want the tax cuts. They want to delay it. They want to slow it down. A bad economy works to put them back in office so they can go ahead with their agenda."

Calling the Democrats "an organized conspiracy to seize power," is, of course, blatant and obvious spin. Framing Democratic opposition to tax cuts and supplemental military spending as an attempt to slow the economy, however, is a more subtle attempt to frame the Democrats as partisans only interested in their own political gain. Also, without explanation, Davis equates Bush's tax cuts and military spending with economic growth.

Many economists have expressed doubt as to whether Bush's tax cuts are indeed going to help the economy, however. And there are any number of reasons why Democrats could legitimately oppose supplemental military spending, from concerns over pork to different spending priorities. This is nothing more than a clear attempt by Davis, sixteen months ahead of the next Congressional election, to begin painting Democrats as exploiters of the weak economy and the Republican agenda they have been partially blocking as the solution.

Davis's comments aren't worthy of a Congressman. And the Washington Times running them with absolutely no context or response isn't worthy of a supposedly objective newspaper.

Related links:
-Legitimacy attacks intensify on Senate Dems (Brendan Nyhan, 6/5)
-The illegitimacy attack (Brendan Nyhan, 5/25)

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7/12 - Bryan: ACLU fund-raising letter crosses the line (permanent link)
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In a recent direct-mail solicitation, the American Civil Liberties Union uses carefully designed rhetoric to solicit contributions (pages: 1 , 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). The letter, a marriage of political and business PR, shows how interest groups attempt to frame their opponents and define themselves in opposition in order to advance their causes.

The letter, on letterhead bearing the name of ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser, is dated "Wednesday morning." It cuts right to the point, saying that "a growing struggle between two competing visions of morality is now taking place in America." It continues:

Individual freedom vs. government authoritarianism. That's what the struggle over competing visions of morality is all about.
And now, with a religiously-motivated authoritarian in charge of the Justice Department, many of his friends still in control of Congress, and a President who's given them the green light to act, this struggle is about to heat up more than ever.

Note the subtle good guy/bad guy framing: the repetition of the word "struggle," the black/white freedom vs. authoritarian distinction, then the tie to the "religiously motivated" Ashcroft. And that's just the first page. The letter continues the war theme and good guy/bad guy trope on the next page, stating that the ACLU's "goal is to enlist those Americans we believe will help make the difference between winning and losing the national debate over freedom vs. authoritarianism." It makes another reference to Ashcroft as "one of the nation's most polarizing extremists," than claims "the outcome is going to rest on how much liberty-loving Americans like you are willing to resist these anti-liberty initiatives."

Having begun to frame the opposition with little more than rhetoric, the letter continues with an extended attempt to associate Bush and Ashcroft with the 1950s, then attacks that decade as backwards. This is a classic straw man argument, made doubly bad by its associationistic reasoning. The letter informs us:

Because in spite of the claims of today's zealots, I believe - for reasons I'll explain in a minute - that we are fundamentally a more moral nation than we were in the 1950s, the era so revered by the Bush/Ashcroft type of reactionaries...
They are willing to punish people and force them, by law, to observe only personal behavior they approve. And they are willing to use the police power of the state to achieve their harsh and narrow goals.

Those two paragraphs serve to associate Bush and Ashcroft with the 1950s, then attach the threat of a police state. This is simply an appeal to the emotions of potential donors rather than a rational argument. And it sets up the straw man the next part of the letter seeks to knock down:

When you measure morality by civic virtue, the 1950s -- the opposition's gold standard for "goodness and morality" -- were in reality, a time of moral depravity.
Think about it.
In the 1950s, racial segregation and subjugation prevailed, cemented into law and enforced by the state...
During the 1950s, women basically were limited to the kitchen and the bedroom. They were not allowed, for the most part, equal opportunity in educations and jobs...
Was that a moral time? ...
And yet, the reactionaries who control the levers of power in Washington in 2001 say they loved the 50s. But I for one am not about to go back to those "good old days." And I don't believe you are either.
The true reason why these reactionaries are trying to recreate the so-called "morality" of the 50s is because of the many gains made on behalf of individual rights in the 60s and 70s.

In the space of two pages, the letter associates Bush and Ashcroft with racism and sexism by reference to an oversimplified picture of a decade during which neither were in power. It accuses them of being "reactionaries" because of some alleged love of that decade. And it accuses them, indirectly, of wanting to take away "individual rights." This isn't a rational argument. This is rhetoric bordering on propaganda.

The next part of the letter is more rational, detailing a series of policies the ACLU supports. But is closes in a postscript with one last reference to the war metaphor established earlier: "I know that it's easy to get discouraged at what seems to be the constant battle against the forces of reaction... But it is important to remember that all the movements that have prevailed - civil rights, women's rights, civil liberties - have never had power on their side."

While the ACLU letter doesn't quite approach the infamous National Rifle Associaiton fundraising appeal that called federal agents "jackbooted thugs," it works on the same emotional level. The ACLU should be ashamed of itself.

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7/11 - Ben: Tauzin asks for a little consideration (permanent link)
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As reported on NPR today (streaming audio - requires Real Player) , Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has an interesting take on President Bush's efforts to open up part of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. Tauzin said environmentalist opposition is unfair given how little of the Refuge would be affected:

You would think we could have an honest and open debate about that and whether or not it's valuable for America to consider. Our answer is it is valuable to consider it, we intend to have it considered and let the votes fall where they may.

The President is not seeking congressional approval to "consider" the issue, however, Tauzin uses this word in an attempt to frame his opponents as being closed-minded. Who, after all, would be opposed to simply considering an issue? Of course, the issue is already up for consideration - Interior Secretary Gale Norton was actually on Capitol Hill today pressing Congress to support the proposal.

The real issue is whether the benefits of finding enough oil to meet the U.S.'s energy needs for six months - as proponents claim - outweigh the risks of harming one of our nation's last remaining undeveloped spaces. Surely we can have a debate on those merits without pretending that the argument is simply about being open to considering it.

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7/10 - Brendan: Julian Bond crosses the line again (permanent link)
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Why can't NAACP Chairman Julian Bond refrain from using inflammatory rhetoric? On Sunday, Bond repeated a line at the annual NAACP convention that he first used in February:

"[President Bush] has selected nominees from the Taliban wing of American politics, appeased the wretched appetites of the extreme right wing, and chosen Cabinet officials whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection.

This rhetoric is irresponsible, especially the dehumanizing canine metaphor. Remember that Bond came under sharp criticism for saying almost exactly the same thing in February. This isn't a slip-up - it's intentional provocation.

Bond's remarks didn't receive significant coverage this time around until they were criticized yesterday as "unfortunate" by Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesperson. Indeed. Bond deserves rebuke.

However, Fleischer also said Bond's comments were "another reminder why it's so important for people in this town to change the tone". Here's an example of how some/all distinctions get erased in public relations. What one person said was used to tar everyone in Washington for not adhering to Bush's "new tone" sufficiently. Moreover, this continues the new administration's efforts to use the new tone/changing the tone concept to suppress criticism. Fleischer should have just let Bond's remarks speak for themselves.

Related links:
-Race and "Racial McCarthyism" (Brendan Nyhan, 4/23)
-Using "Changing the Tone" to Suppress Criticism (Brendan Nyhan, 6/4)
-Scheer propaganda (Brendan Nyhan, 6/12)

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7/10 - Brendan: Limbaugh deceptive on Social Security (permanent link)
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Yesterday, Rush Limbaugh engaged in a lengthy monologue on the Democrats setting the agenda in Congress. His discussion of Social Security is representative of the strategic inaccuracies that he constantly employs.

In this particular part of his monologue, Limbaugh tried to knock down the notion of the Social Security trust fund. The reason is that Democrats are criticizing President Bush for looming revenue shortfalls. Estimates from the respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show that expected spending increases and tax extensions on top of the Bush tax cut will force the government to dip into the Social Security and Medicare surpluses. Hence Limbaugh's attack on the concept of the trust fund (which parallels similar arguments this week from Robert Novak, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and OMB Director Mitch Daniels):

If the Democrats insist that Social Security is not part of the general operating budget - and they do - but instead is funded by a distinct trust fund, then cuts in the federal income tax rate should have absolutely no effect on the Social Security trust fund, none. But as those of us who care about fiscal responsibility and truth know, there is no Social Security trust fund. All of this is funded out of general revenues, and that's why the panic. They have commingled (sic) the funds. There is no Social Security trust fund. There is no account with your name on it. It's been spent. And future tax receipts are needed to pay future retirees.

This is a mass of confused logic. Let's make sense of it. Limbaugh first tries to knock down the concept of a trust fund, saying that if Social Security was a "distinct trust fund", cuts in federal taxes should have "no effect". This is totally disingenous. The Democrats making the criticism know that the trust fund is an non-enforceable accounting measure, and have endorsed a "lockbox" to prevent Congress from spending surplus Social Security revenues. They additionally believe that, regardless of the way the accounting is done, Social Security surplus revenues should be saved to help meet the government's obligations to the future wave of Baby Boom retirees.

Moreover, contrary to Limbaugh's claims, we do know how much surplus Social Security revenue is projected - $2.5 trillion from 2002-2011 - and that those funds have not yet "been spent" (although previous surpluses were spent in whole or in part). We also know that it is a budgetary reality that at least some of the Social Security surplus is likely to be spent in the next decade, exacerbating the projected shortfall in the system.

Limbaugh's purpose is to obscure all this. Literally sentences after denying the existence of the trust fund, he said that the surplus is $5.6 trillion and then rejected criticism that revenues taken away by the tax cut are needed to shore up Social Security and Medicare. His reason: "They're separately funded." This is self-contradictory in two ways. First, even as he said that Social Security and Medicare are separately funded, he used a surplus figure of $5.6 trillion that includes the Social Security and Medicare surpluses. In addition, if Social Security and Medicare revenues are being spent on other programs by Congress, as Limbaugh argued they are, then claiming that they are separately funded is clearly not logical.

One more whopper: Limbaugh also asks how "there's enough money in the Medicare system to pay for a massive new entitlement like free prescription drugs" but not enough for "a minuscule reduction in income tax rates [that] somehow drains money from Medicare?" Actually, the Congressional budget already allocates $300 billion over ten years for a prescription drug plan (under which drugs will not be "free"). This is likely to not provide a politically adequate benefit, causing Congress to increase benefits over time. However, it is unlikely to approach the estimated $1.8 trillion cost of Bush's tax cut over that period.

Related links:
-Krugman predicts shortfalls, Bush spin (Bryan Keefer, 7/7)
-Limbaugh takes on Mooney (Brendan Nyhan, 7/6)
-Bush tax cut costs $1.35 trillion . . . no, $1.8 trillion (Ben Fritz, 6/21)
-Recycling rhetoric: Media coverage of the Bush tax cut (Ben Fritz, 5/29)
-The illegitimacy attack / Daschle-bashing (Brendan Nyhan, 5/25)
-The Olson Reversal (Brendan Nyhan, 5/14)
-Where's the outrage? (Brendan Nyhan, 5/11)
-Andrew Sullivan says deceive the public (Brendan Nyhan, 5/7)
-Limbaugh on the warpath (Brendan Nyhan, 4/30)

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7/9 - Bryan: John Stossel and the "liberal media orthodoxy" (permanent link)
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In an OpinionJournal.com column today, John Fund makes a bizarre defense of John Stossel's recent controversial report on environmental education. The main thrust of Fund's argument is an assertion of liberal media bias: "Last month, left-wing groups ganged up on two dissenters from the liberal media orthodoxy: ABC's contrarian reporter John Stossel and . . . Brit Hume."

Stossel came under fire last week for a controversial report on environmentalism and environmental education. Fund defends Stossel by making a straw man out of environmentalists and praising Stossel for knocking it down:

Ever since [an incident in which test results claimed by Stossel were shown to have not been performed], every one of Mr. Stossel's broadcasts has been subjected to microscopic analysis by advocates who hope to discredit his work. . . .
Watching the Stossel special, it became clear why environmental groups are so afraid. Mr Stossel puts people on camera who almost never get interviewed . . .

Even more troubling is Fund's defense of Stossel's relatively obvious political agenda. "Left-wing pressure groups will continue to attack ABC for giving Mr. Stossel a platform," Fund writes, "but he really represents a limited form of equal time for a network whose coverage usually tilts to the left."

Read closely, Fund is actually admitting Stossel's political bias, then justifying it in relation to what he self-evidently asserts is a "tilt to the left" in ABC's coverage. Using this line of reasoning, Fund is essentially defending Stossel by tossing the notion of journalistic objectivity out the window. Stossel, then, is justified because of some political agenda on the part of ABC, not on the merits of his argument. The subtle repetition of the "liberal bias" throughout the piece serves to frame the debate and justify Stossel's controversial report and Fund's conclusions without any explicit rational argument.

Related links:
-Stossel resorts to rhetoric (Ben Fritz, 6/30)
-The voluntary use of reason (Ben Fritz, 5/9)
-The rhetoric of uncertainty (Bryan Keefer, 4/30)

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