Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
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Posts - August 13-19

8/18 - Bryan: Pounding the "moral equivalency" straw man (permanent link)
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Here's a recipe for dissembling: take a complex issue, oversimplify, add a catchy, deceptive tag line and bake for 750 words. Michael Kelly, George Will and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal followed the recipe to the letter last week on the issue of how Israel should respond to the recent series of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants. Their identical attacks provide an example of how jargon emerges from the media echo chamber.

Michael Kelly led off last Wednesday with an op-ed in the Washington Post. He begins by twisting the complex issue of Palestinian-Israeli relations into a simple formulation:

For decades, the European left has maintained that the Palestinians held a morally superior position to the Israelis . . . The claim of Palestinian moral superiority ended when the world saw Palestinians cheer in the street a young man holding up hands red with the blood of an Israeli soldier . . .
What remained - the left's feeble final resort - was a claim of moral equivalency . . .
After the Sbarro bombing, Secretary of State Colin Powell, astonishingly, lectured the Israelis in the literally exploded idea of moral equivalency. "I hope that both sides will act with restraint," Powell said. "They both have to do everything they can to restrain the violence, restrain the provocation and the counter-response to the provocation."

Kelley manages to distill fifty years of conflict into a straw-man version of the situation he claims is held by "the left." Then he proceeds to pummel the intellectual tackling dummy he's created, which he labels the "idea of moral equivalency," using only a single example. Of course, Powell's statement, as quoted by Kelly, is asking for restraint from both sides, not equating the violence from both sides. But Kelly has never been one to let facts stand in the way of a good catch phrase.

What is most striking about Kelly's column, however, is that its analysis and variations on the phrase "claims of moral equivalence" were picked up two days later by both George Will and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Here's George Will in his weekly column last Friday:

The State Department, that brackish and bottomless lagoon of obtuseness, where Secretary Powell has gone native with disgusting speed, will respond with the rhetoric of moral equivalence - "both sides" must stop "the cycle of violence" - to whatever Israel does in self-defense.

In a single sentence, Will frames the State Department as inherently stupid, claims Powell has "gone native," frames Israel's actions as self-defense and, most strikingly, borrows Kelly's catch phrase to dismiss the views of the State Department. Far less sophisticated was an editorial on OpinionJournal.com on Friday:

Secretary of State Colin Powell took time Tuesday to speak to graduates of a summer camp in Maine known as Seeds of Peace. . . the Secretary gave a speech reeking with moral equivalency. Call it seeds of war.

In fact, Powell's speech makes no such claim - the closest he comes is "peace is possible . . . [i]f only we can end this violence, if only we can break down the barriers that exist, the barriers of hatred and distrust." Perhaps this is why it was "reeking" of moral equivalence, as the Journal has it, rather than "endorsing" or "claiming." The Journal simply twists Powell's words to fit the straw man.

Kelly, Will and the Journal certainly have the right to disagree with America's foreign policy. Instead, they choose to dumb down the level of debate, reducing it to caricatures of the views of those involved and oversimplifying one of the most complex international political problems of the last fifty years.

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Related links:
-Barbarism, Perversity and Ex-Trotskyites: Conservative Pundits Introduce Americans to Europe (Ben Fritz, 6/18)

8/16 - Ben: OpinionJournal's convenient quoting (permanent link)
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What a difference a sentence can make.

Selectively leaving out words, or an entire sentence, is one of the simplest and most effective ways to spin someone in the media. For instance, think of the fun we could have with a recent statement by President Bush: "We look forward to ... in equalities through ... education. Americans ... are depending on it."

The editors of the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com use a similar trick in today's posting on their "Best of the Web" (BOTW) column. It concerns a lawsuit recently filed by the Florida ACLU over provisions in a new election reform law that calls for "a list of voter rights and responsibilities to be posted at all polling places." BOTW interprets the ACLU's position as belief that "even encouraging [their emphasis] voters to act responsibly is, well, racist" and quotes its press release on the matter as such:

The suit, titled Major v. Sawyer, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. It challenges the posting in all polling places of a list of "Voter Responsibilities" which lists, among other requirements, that a voter "study and know candidates and issues," "bring proper identification to the polling station" and "know how to operate voting equipment properly."
The plaintiffs claim that these provisions, and their prominent display as required by the new Florida law, are a throwback to the days of literacy tests, and may disproportionately impact race and language minorities in exercising the right to vote.

With this excerpt, BOTW then accuses the ACLU of Florida of "trying to keep black Americans ignorant" by opposing a provision meant simply to "inform Florida voters of their responsibilities." Of course, while most of us would agree that voters should study candidates and issues beforehand, making it a requirement may, in fact, be in violation of the law, as the next sentence of the ACLU of Florida's press release, which BOTW chose not to run, spells out:

The lawsuit is brought under the literacy test ban of the Voting Rights Act, which explicitly outlaws any requirement that a voter be able to demonstrate the "ability to read, write, understand or interpret any matter," or demonstrate "knowledge of any particular subject."

Sounds much more reasonable now, doesn't it? BOTW may not like the Florida ACLU's interpretation of the law, but there's clearly more going on than vague references to Jim Crow laws and racism. There's a specific charge under a specific law.

Giving fair context to a quote, though, makes it so much harder to spin.

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Related Links:
-ACLU Fund Raising Letter Crosses the Line (Bryan Keefer, 7/12)

8/15 - Brendan: Pruden takes his dissembling straight up (permanent link)
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With both major newspapers in Rep. Gary Condit's district calling for his resignation, Washington Times editor Wes Pruden swung into action yesterday to continue the dissembling about Condit and parallels with former President Clinton.

In his column, Pruden continues the strategy Bryan Keefer first documented here of associating Condit with Clinton, actually going so far as to say that Condit is "the test of whether Bill Clinton can be successfully cloned."

Pruden uses the all-too-common technique of making vague but damning references to supposed facts that are actually unproven or even disproven. Eventually, if repeated enough, this drumbeat of manufactured "facts" can take on the patina of truth.

Here Pruden pauses in his assocation campaign to compare Clinton and Condit for the purpose of smearing both:

There are differences, of course. Bill Clinton has never personally been a suspect, even an honorary suspect, in a murder case, and Gary Condit has never been convicted of lying to the federal courts, caught robbing a bank, or credibly accused of raping a constituent.

Let's unravel this:

"Bill Clinton has never personally been a suspect, even an honorary suspect, in a murder case"

-Condit has never been named as a suspect by the Washington, DC police. That's why Pruden uses the slippery term "honorary suspect", a deliberately vague (and contradictory) term that he invented. His purpose is to claim that Condit is somehow considered to be a suspect without making a verifiable claim that he actually is one.

"Gary Condit has never been convicted of lying to the federal courts"

-Clinton was never convicted of lying to the federal courts. Pruden appears to be referring to the contempt of court finding against Clinton by Judge Susan Wright Webber for misleading testimony in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, but Webber's civil finding was not a criminal conviction.

"Gary Condit has never been ... caught robbing a bank."

-Clinton was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by independent counsel Robert Ray in the Whitewater scandal, which included an allegation of an improper loan from an Arkansas bank. The absurd framing of Clinton "robbing a bank" is set up to make the disproved allegations sound especially criminal, as if there is evidence Clinton held up a bank with a gun.

"Gary Condit has never been ... credibly accused of raping a constituent."

-Pruden is right that the accusation of rape by Juanita Broaddrick against President Clinton is credible, but this does not mean it is true, as Bob Somerby pointed out in the Daily Howler.

Pruden's strategically deceptive and misleading accusations are a cynical attempt to advance his political beliefs through rhetorical trickery. His readers deserve better.

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Related links:
-Continuing the Condit spin (Bryan Keefer, 7/31)
-Spinning Chandra: Making the Condit Affair Partisan (Bryan Keefer, 7/23)

8/14 - Ben: Complex issue, simple spin - Sullivan on welfare reform (permanent link)
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The seemingly distant battle over welfare reform is back in the news, bringing forth some spin from conservative me-zine pundit Andrew Sullivan.

Thanks to an article in Sunday's New York Times, Sullivan took a chance to crow about some of the apparent successes of the 1996 welfare reform act in a post on his web page, AndrewSullivan.com, entitled "The Biggest Story of the Year."

By way of "background," however, Sullivan takes special care to frame the passage of welfare reform in 1996 in as negative a light for liberals and Democrats as possible. It took a "white-knuckled battle ... to prise real welfare reform from the Clinton presidency," Sullivan writes, blaming "ceaseless arguments from left-liberals who fought any real change to the end." Notice how Sullivan twice used the word "real," which implies that alternatives proposed by President Clinton and other Democrats just don't count. Of course, in a brief post on his own site, Sullivan may be engaging in a form of shorthand for readers familiar with his views on the issue. Given that President Clinton was a long-time supporter of work requirements, however, and that many liberal Democrats voted for the final bill, such a casual dismissal is not a fair representation.

The framing continues when Sullivan summarizes the Times article: "When the New York Times is forced to run a front page story on the clear revival of the poor black family following reform, you know the debate is over." Once again, Sullivan frames the issue as dramatically as possible. The Times didn't just run the story on its front page. It was "forced to," conjuring images of this damning story valiantly fighting its way through hordes of liberal Times editors until it forces its way onto the front page.

Finally, Sullivan misrepresents a complex article which finds that two-parent families are on the rise amongst the poor, but also that many of these families lack the stability that social scientists have claimed is their greatest asset for children. The article also notes that while welfare reform deserves "considerable credit," lower crime and the booming economy have also played an important role in the trend. To Sullivan, however, it's simply "the clear revival of the poor black family following reform." And his explanation for the other facts in the story that complicate it is "the Times does its best to minimize the news." Apparently, putting the article on the front page with the headline "Two-Parent Families Rise After Change in Welfare" counts as "minimizing" news.

Poverty, single-parent families and welfare reform are very complex issues. For pundits like Andrew Sullivan, however, spinning those issues seems to be very simple.

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Related links:
-Sullivan slammed unfairly (Brendan Nyhan, 6/19)
-Sullivan says deceive the public (Brendan Nyhan, 5/7)

8/13 - Bryan: Bush "agonizes," Washington press corps feeds on own spin (permanent link)
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A Newsweek story from the August 20 print edition of the magazine sheds some interesting light on President Bush's recent decision regarding stem cell research. In it, the authors report that Bush actually decided to allow limited funding for work on existing stem cell lines back on July 9, and spent the subsequent month gathering political and scientific support for his decision.

The Newsweek report contradicts both an assertion from Bush spokesperson Karen Hughes that Bush did not inform her of his final decision until the day before his announcement (the article notes that she started writing his speech in early August), and the Bush team's assertion that the President was struggling over the decision until just before his August 9 speech. Yet more unsettling than how the White House used the stem cell issue to make the President seem thoughtful and sensitive to the nuances of the issue (which he may well be) is that a lazy Washington press corps went right along with the Bush team talking points.

Judy Keen of USA Today was one of the earlier victims. Writing on July 18 with William Welch, she noted that "Bush advisers say he's agonizing over the decision and considering several options" - a date more than a week after the Newsweek story has Bush finalizing his decision.

Those writing after Bush's speech were equally credulous. Eddie Chen of the Los Angeles Times wrote on August 10 that "According to aides, Bush reached his final decision Wednesday afternoon [August 9], hours after helping put up a wall at a Habitat for Humanity house in nearby Waco and lunching at a Crawford restaurant."

Even Katharine Seelye and Frank Bruni of the New York Times didn't bother to dig too deeply, writing on August 11 that "[Bush's] thinking crystallized on Aug. 2, aides said, when he talked to scientists at the National Institutes of Health and was told that there were perhaps more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already in existence, far more than anyone had known" - though, to their credit, they note the Bush PR effort later in their piece.

Especially sad, however, is that Seelye and Bruni failed to throughly investigate the timeline appended at the end of the print version of their own article on the August 11. The timeline shows that the key meetings took place in July and early August - yet they report that Bush's mind was made up only after the final meeting on August 2.

The press, in this case, has helped manufacture an image of Bush agonizing over the moral dilemmas of stem cell research, then announcing his decision as soon as it was made. As the Newsweek story shows, however, Bush's policy was all but settled by early July. The stem cell debate provides yet another illustration of how an uncritical press corps can be manipulated by a sophisticated media operation - and how lucky we are in those few moments when journalists manage to extract themselves from the Washington spin cycle.

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