Return of vile Taliban analogies (6/4)

By Brendan Nyhan

Post-Sept. 11 political debate has been marred by frequent comparisons of political opponents to hated figures such as Saddam Hussein, terrorists or the Taliban.

One such accusation comes from Democrats and liberals who denounce the so-called "Taliban wing of the Republican Party," an attack that smears a wide swath of conservatives as analogous to the barbarous regime that previously ruled Afghanistan. This catchphrase has come into wide use since the terrorist attacks.

On May 23, Senator Tim Johnson, D-SD, deployed the term during a rally for Democratic Congressional candidate Stephanie Herseth (who won a special election Tuesday). "When Stephanie Herseth fills this seat, we are going to have a rising star in the House of Representatives," he said. "And how sweet it's going to be on June 2 when the Taliban wing of the Republican Party finds out what's happened in South Dakota." Johnson eventually issued a partial apology, claiming he was referring to Republican leaders who attacked him during his 2002 campaign.

Then, NAACP chairman Julian Bond denounced conservatives Wednesday using the same slur in a speech to the Take Back America conference, which is hosted by the liberal Campaign for America's Future. According to CAF's tape of the speech, Bond said that the right draws its "most rabid supporters from the Taliban wing of American politics." Sadly, this is only the latest example from Bond's long history of using this phrase to attack Republicans.

In an election season, the nastiness apparently knows no bounds.

Update 6/9 4:13 PM EST: A transcript of Bond's remarks is now available from CAF (Microsoft Word document).

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Related links:
-Spinsanity on terrorist labels and Taliban/Iraq comparison
-Spinsanity on Julian Bond

6/4/2004 07:38:02 AM EST |

Washington Times quote-butchering continues (6/4)

By Brendan Nyhan

The Washington Times distorted a series of quotes in a news story published Wednesday on Democratic criticism of President Bush. This practice echoes its highly deceptive usage of quotations in reporting about a speech former President Bill Clinton gave at Georgetown in 2001 and coverage of a supposed National Education Association lesson plan for teaching about Sept. 11, both of which spawned media myths.

James G. Lakely's story, "Bush foes extend bounds of rhetoric," claims that "many observers say the level of invective lobbed at President Bush has escalated to a new and dangerous level." But many of these "dangerous" quotations have been ripped out of context by Lakely and portrayed in incredibly misleading ways.

For instance, he claims Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, attacked "Mr. Bush as a man who 'didn't learn the lessons of our generation in Vietnam' and is 'putting our troops at greater risk.'" The second quote, however, was far more innocuous. Kerry actually said, "I believe I can lead us out of Iraq effectively by accomplishing goals we need to accomplish but without putting our troops at greater risk." This phrasing is hardly the direct attack on Bush that Lakely purports to describe.

The reporter later claims that former Vice President Al Gore accused Bush "of having 'betrayed' his country, of being guilty of 'war crimes,' and setting up an 'American gulag' in Iraq" during a speech sponsored by PAC last week. But Gore's first statement was far more indirect - he said "I want to speak on behalf of those Americans who feel that President Bush has betrayed our nation's trust." Betraying people's trust is very different from betraying "his country," phrasing which comes close to an accusation of treason.

Gore's discussion of war crimes was also far more carefully phrased:

The abhorrent acts in the prison were a direct consequence of the culture of impunity encouraged, authorized and instituted by Bush and Rumsfeld in their statements that the Geneva Conventions did not apply. The apparent war crimes that took place were the logical, inevitable outcome of policies and statements from the administration.

The former Vice President clearly held the administration responsible for the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison outside Baghdad, but he did not say Bush himself was "guilty" of "war crimes" in a legal sense. Gore called them "apparent war crimes" and later reserved judgment as to the guilt of the prison guards who have been charged.

Finally, Lakely quotes House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as having "called the war in Iraq 'unwinnable'" in the past month. Pelosi actually said "There is a consensus that under the present plan the war is unwinnable ... and that it will not be possible to prevail until there are more troops on the ground.'' (ellipsis in original) Pelosi said the war is "unwinnable" in the absence of policy changes -- she did not say that it cannot be won under any circumstances. Indeed, when asked during a May 20 press conference about earlier comments along the same lines by Rep. John Murtha, D-PA, she said "It's not unwinnable with a better plan. And it certainly could have been won sooner with a better plan." (Murtha's comments were taken out of context in the same way as Pelosi's by conservative critics.)

The Washington Times staff should start acting more like reporters and less like quote doctors.

Update 6/5 8:56 AM EST: Several readers have pointed out that Gore did say that Bush "betrayed this country" in a February 2004 speech to Tennessee Democrats. However, Lakely was referring specifically to Gore's PAC speech:

Former Vice President Al Gore, in a speech last week before the liberal activist group, went further, accusing Mr. Bush of having "betrayed" his country, of being guilty of "war crimes," and setting up an "American gulag" in Iraq.

The post above has been updated to make this point clear.

Correction 6/9 4:04 PM EST: This post has been edited to specify the correct date of Lakely's article - June 2. We regret the error.

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Related links:
-GOP intimidation of war criticism / Democrats' empty gas assertions (Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan, 5/27/04)
-The big NEA-Sept. 11 lie, cont'd. (Brendan Nyhan, 9/18/02)
-The big NEA-Sept. 11 lie (Brendan Nyhan, 9/5/02)
-Clinton Speaks, Pundits Spin: The Washington Times and the Spread of a Media Myth (Bryan Keefer, 11/19/01)

6/4/2004 07:27:28 AM EST |

Bad info on gas prices / Sanity attacks on Gore a poor diagnosis (6/3)

By Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan

John Kerry's campaign, Democratic supporters, and credulous journalists are inaccurately reporting that gas prices are the highest ever. Meanwhile, some conservatives responded to Al Gore's PAC speech with questions about his mental health. (Read the whole column.)

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6/3/2004 01:57:13 AM EST |

Bush statement about amputee misconstrued (6/2)

By Brendan Nyhan

A statement made by President Bush during a May 25 event is being unfairly taken out of context.

The event featured seven men who have each been given a prosthetic hand to replace one cut off by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Bush shook the prosthetic hand of a victim, and then said "I'm honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein." Taken out of context, Bush's statement may appear to be unclear or garbled. But as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh first pointed out, it was actually perfectly reasonable -- the man has been given a new hand, and Bush shook it.

However, Slate's Jacob Weisberg ridiculed the quotation in his Bushisms column the next day, providing no link or context for readers, who were left to assume that the statement was a verbal stumble rather than a reference to a prosthetic hand.

In a Notebook item in the June 7 issue released on May 27, The New Republic ran the quote with no context other than the headline "The attached one, we hope," an obviously misleading joke that betrays no understanding of what actually happened.

And yesterday, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank poked fun at the President, running the statement under the headline "The Quotable Bush" while again failing to provide sufficient context for readers (Milbank only noted that the President was "meeting Iraqi amputees").

Mocking Bush's verbal stumbles is one thing, but misconstruing his statements is another.

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Related links:
-The spread of a phony "Bushism" (Brendan Nyhan, 3/11/03)

6/2/2004 01:07:19 PM EST |

Democrats and journalists spout myth gas prices are the highest ever (6/1)

By Ben Fritz

With gas prices reaching over $2 per gallon in much of the country, Democrats are eagerly seeking to pin the blame on President Bush.

As we've previously noted, however, many such attacks have failed to present any evidence supporting the accusation. But their spin has gone ever further. Presumptive presidential candidate Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and others in his party have repeatedly claimed that gas prices are at their highest ever. They've been helped by a legion of journalists repeating the same point.

But examined fairly, it's simply not true. This myth is based on a misunderstanding of one of the most basic of economic concepts: inflation. As the general price level of products rise, a dollar today is worth less than it was in the past. The only fair way to compare the price of a good over time is to use the inflation-adjusted price.

And while today's average gas price is the highest ever in absolute dollars, it doesn't come close in inflation-adjusted dollars. Citing data from the American Automobile Association, numerous journalists have reported that the current average gas price, at $2.05 per gallon last week, was the highest ever. But as Reuters noted, data from the Energy Information Administration shows that in 2004 dollars, gas actually cost $2.99 in 1981. Today's "high" isn't even close.

That hasn't stopped a number of credulous journalists from repeating the suggestion that gas prices have never been as high as they are today. CBS reporter Bob McNamara said on "The Early Show" on May 29 that Americans are paying "the highest gas prices ever." The same day, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution referred to "Gas prices of $2-a-gallon -- the highest in U.S. history." An Associated Press article on May 26 stated, "The national average is $2.05 per gallon of regular unleaded, also the highest ever." And reporters have been getting the story wrong for months. On March 24, the Dallas Morning-News led an article with the statement, "Americans are paying the highest gas prices ever, and John Kerry's camp wants President Bush to pay a higher price, too a political one." (It should be noted that some in the media, such as the aforementioned Reuters piece and a recent editorial in The New Republic, have corrected the record.)

The Dallas paper was right about one thing: Senator Kerry and many other Democrats have been hammering Bush on the gas issue. And they keep repeating the myth about gas prices being their highest ever. Fox News Sunday ran a clip of Kerry on May 18 saying, "The gas prices are the highest prices they've been on average in this country." On May 25, the Kerry campaign released a press release that stated, "Gas and diesel prices have reached record highs under the Bush administration." And a May 23 article in the Los Angeles Times informed us that, "A Kerry campaign spokeswoman, Laura Capps, retorted, 'Until George Bush actually does something about the highest gas prices in history, we all might be looking for cheap footwear.'"

Other Democrats have gotten in on the game as well. In a May 18 speech, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said, "With gas prices breaking record high after record high, the American people are starting to wonder why this is happening." And a press release the same day from New Jersey Democratic Senator Jon Corzine was headlined, "Facing Highest Gas Prices Ever, Senators Push President To Release Oil Reserves & Drop Gas Prices."

These attacks mirror deceptive attacks by Democrats claiming that the federal budget deficit under President Bush is the highest ever. While this is true in absolute dollars, measured as a percentage of gross domestic product (which economists generally consider a fairer measure), it's not. On that issue as well, many journalists repeated the spin rather than explaining the truth.

Whether out of laziness or partisan motives, journalists and politicians keep deceiving Americans about gas prices. They owe it to the public to get the basic concept of inflation right.

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6/1/2004 12:07:34 AM EST |

Gore speech generates pseudo-psychology (5/31)

By Brendan Nyhan

On Wednesday, former Vice President Al Gore denounced the Bush administration's foreign policy in an aggressive speech calling for the resignations of a number of senior administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and CIA director George Tenet.

Unsurprisingly, reactions to Gore's speech divided along ideological lines. But rather than respond to the substance of his arguments or even simply dismissing them as misguided or foolish, many conservative commentators suggested that Gore was mentally ill - a tactic that has recently become all too common among commentators of the right and left, who use them to summarily dismiss and ridicule their opponents.

Gore's opponents have previously suggested he was mentally ill on several occasions: during the 2000 campaign, when he criticized the conservative media in 2002, and a third time earlier this year when he gave a speech to the Tennessee Democratic Party.

In a return to this playbook, New York Post columnist John Podhoretz explicitly called Gore "insane" Thursday:

[I]t is now clear that Al Gore is insane.
I don't mean that his policy ideas are insane, though many of them are. I mean that based on his behavior, conduct, mien and tone over the past two days, there is every reason to believe that Albert Gore Jr., desperately needs help. I think he needs medication, and I think that if he is already on medication, his doctors need to adjust it or change it entirely.
I am not kidding or trying to score a cheap rhetorical shot when I say that watching Gore rant and rave and scream and yell and lose all connection with reality, common sense and even proper comportment at this moment of great stress for the Republic, even his most passionate supporters should thank God that he was not the one whose hand was on the Bible on Jan. 20, 2001.

He later added:

A man who was very, very nearly president of the United States has been reduced to sounding like one of those people in Times Square with a megaphone screaming about God's justice. It is almost impossible to believe that this man was once vice president of the United States.
As a stalwart supporter of the war, I would naturally be inclined to find Gore's line of attack discomfiting and upsetting, even enraging. Instead, I feel an intense sadness and a great sense of relief. The sadness comes from the sight of a man losing his sanity in public. The relief comes from the fact that he is not, and never will be, the president of the United States.

National Review Online columnist David Frum seconded Podhoretz's approach, writing of Gore's "emotional deterioration" and suggesting that he "ought to seek out for his own good a cool and quiet darkened room." Former Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock called Gore "unhinged" in another National Review Online column. And "Best of the Web Today" columnist James Taranto raised the possibility that Gore has post-traumatic stress disorder based on a sentence in an Associated Press report citing his service in Vietnam. Taranto also wrote that the former Vice President had "cracked" and described him as spouting "paranoid nonsense."

But the most disturbing of these accusations came from Charles Krauthammer, a columnist for the Washington Post and psychiatrist with a history of inappropriately trading on his expertise for political ends. During an appearance on Fox News Channel's "Special Report" last week, Krauthammer said "it looks as if Al Gore has gone off his lithium again," citing a drug used to treat bipolar disorder.

This was not the first time Krauthammer has offered a phony diagnosis of a political antagonist. In 2003, he suggested former Vermont governor Howard Dean was mentally ill based on a quotation the columnist had heavily altered using ellipses. And the year before, Krauthammer also attacked Gore for his criticism of the conservative media, saying, "I'm a psychiatrist. I don't usually practice on camera. But this is the edge of looniness, this idea that there's a vast conspiracy, it sits in a building, it emanates, it has these tentacles, is really at the edge. He could use a little help."

When a psychiatrist is encouraging this corrosive and unfair practice rather than denouncing it, we truly have a problem.

Update 5/31 2:35 PM EST: The liberal group Media Matters for America has posted an article that documents several other references to Gore as mentally ill.

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Related links:
-As election season heats up, pseudo-psychology and "anti-American" rhetoric bring debate down (Ben Fritz, 1/22/04)
-Gore and pundits race to the bottom (Ben Fritz, 12/4/02)
-"Cornbelt Cromwell" and "Senator Depends": The Return of the Politics of Personal Demonization (Brendan Nyhan, 12/03/01)
-The discourse of mental illness (Brendan Nyhan, 10/16/01)
-Dowd's ad hoc psychologizing (Bryan Keefer, 9/6/01)

5/31/2004 07:14:35 AM EST |