Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Couple of Items in the News

There are a couple of items going around in the news, right now, and I thought I’d give my take on them.

Note: I wrote this during, and between, various conference calls today. I’m hoping that it’s coherent, but by the time I finished, I’d read it over too many times, and wasn’t able to pay attention anymore…

Chávez at the UN

First off, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called President Bush the devil at the United Nations last week. This is all over the media right now, and, in a certain sense, they’re blowing it out of proportion. Yes, it’s true that he called Bush the devil, and no, I don’t believe that President Bush is actually the devil. And neither does Mr. Chávez. And neither does anyone who heard him speak. To quote an article I read—one of the few that was written fairly reasonably:

Maybe Chávez did himself, his larger alternative agenda and his country a disservice by treating the UN podium as the set of his weekly TV show at home. His “The Devil is Mr. Bush” riff—an obviously allegorical one if you ask me—delivered with an actor’s dramatic flair and a good deal of humor risked drowning out other important messages he did deliver. For example, how many know that he laid out an innovative four-point program to renew and reform the UN—and spoke eloquently about how and why this “era is giving birth to a heart”?

For sure, the speech was far from a model of diplomatic rhetoric. But that didn’t seem to bother the scores of experienced delegate-diplomats in the hall, who greeted Chávez’s speech with wild applause. (When Bush spoke the day before, the General Assembly’s hall sounded like a morgue.) That reaction, as an incisive Washington Post article points out, shows that Chávez’s words, while “harsh…in many ways…merely expressed in bolder terms what a number of other world leaders and foreign diplomats believe.” Moreover, to be fair, how much diplomatic tact does Chávez owe to a President whose administration supported a coup against him?

Personally, when we saw part of Chávez’ speech (on The Daily Show), both Andrea and myself burst out laughing. Here’s a taste:

And the devil came here yesterday. Yesterday the devil came here. Right here. [crosses himself] And it smells of sulfur still today.

Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world. Truly. As the owner of the world.

I think we could call a psychiatrist to analyze yesterday’s statement made by the president of the United States. As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums, to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world.

When he said that he could still smell the sulfur, that’s when Andrea and I started laughing. Oh Chávez…

Look, I fully realize that Chávez is a bit over the top when he speaks. (It’s probably part of the reason that he’s so incredibly popular with the people of Venezuela.) But, as the Nation article above pointed out, the media is so concerned with the word “devil” that they’re not even thinking about the rest of Chávez’ speech. (Which is Conservative Tactic #1: Smear the person, and ignore the arguments.)

I mentioned that I saw this on The Daily Show, but I was disappointed by Stewart’s reaction, because he took the same line as everyone else. “Really, Mr. Chávez? The devil? I may not agree with the president on a lot of things, but he’s not the devil…” (not an actual quote, as far as I remember, just a paraphrase). I just rolled my eyes at this. How many times has Stewart called someone “a douchebag”—are we really to assume that Jon Stewart thinks these people are life-sized walking douchebags? No, of course not. But for some reason, when Chávez calls Bush the devil, we’re supposed to think that he was being literal. (Stewart, of course, is a comedian, not a journalist, so he gets a bit more leeway. It’s even possible that he was making the same point I am, and was trying to lampoon the media, in his segment—although, if that’s the case, it didn’t come across. The rest of the media, however, does not get any leeway.)

Clinton on FOX News

The other item in the media involves President Clinton. Now, Clinton was an extremely popular president, and his popularity is still very high. There is no comparison between a man like Clinton, who knows all of the issues and can speak intelligently about them, and Bush, who never speaks about anything with anyone, because that would be a security breach. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a big fan of Clinton; in terms of foreign policy, Clinton was a lot more like the conservatives than the liberals would like to admit. He helped to push through NAFTA, which liberals really don’t like. In short, Clinton wasn’t a liberal, he was a neo-liberal.

(But if I go on too much in this vein, I’ll start to talk about the Democratic party in the States, and the fact that they’re not really liberals either, but call themselves liberals, and other liberals—like The Nation magazine—will also call them liberals, simply because they’re so deeply entrenched in the “two party system” mentality that it’s “us vs. them”, and “if the Republicans are conservatives, than the Democrats must be liberals”, etc. etc.)

Clinton was on FOX News on Sunday, being interviewed by Chris Wallace, who tried to take Clinton to task for not capturing Osama Bin Laden when he had the chance. This has been a standard talking point with the Republicans since 9/11: “It’s not our fault, it’s Clinton’s fault!” A quote from another Nation article:

Clinton used an appearance with “Fox News Sunday’s” Chris Wallace to challenge the lies of the Bush administration and its media acolytes. The interview, which was broadcast over the weekend, got to the heart of what’s wrong not with the Bush presidency but with a media that covers that presidency from the on-bended-knee position.

Clinton recognized that Wallace, one of the more competent members of the Fox team, was under pressure to mouth the Republican talking points that the network uses as its reference points. And the former president pounced on that vulnerability.

When Wallace started in on the “Why didn’t you do more to put Bin Laden and al Qaeda out of business when you were President?” line of questioning, Clinton leapt.

“Okay, let’s talk about it,” the former president began. “I will answer all of those things on the merits, but I want to talk about the context (in) which this (discussion) arises. I’m being asked this on the FOX network… ABC just had a right-wing conservative (program) on “The Path to 9/11” falsely claim that it was… based on the 911 Commission Report with three things asserted against me that are directly contradicted by the 9/11 Commission Report. I think it’s very interesting that all the conservative Republicans who now say that I didn’t do enough claimed (in the 1990s) that I was obsessed with Bin Laden. All of President Bush’s neocons claimed that I was too obsessed with finding Bin Laden when they didn’t have a single meeting about Bin Laden for the nine months after I left office. All the right-wingers who now say that I didn’t do enough said (then) that I did too much. Same people.”

And later:

Wallace finally asked: “Do you think you did enough, sir?”

Clinton replied: “No, because I didn’t get him.”

Wallace chirped, “Right.”

Clinton countered, “But at least I tried. That’s the difference in me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try and they didn’t. I tried. So I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country: Dick Clarke. So you did FOX’s bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me. But what I want to know…”

Stung, Wallace was again interrupting. But Clinton held firm. “I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you’ve asked this question of. I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked ‘Why didn’t you do anything about the Cole?’ I want to know how many you asked ‘Why did you fire Dick Clarke?’ I want to know…”

“We ask plenty of questions of…” sputtered Wallace.

“Tell the truth…” Clinton shot back, before revealing that he had Wallace’s number.

“You set this meeting up because you were going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers because (Fox owner) Rupert Murdoch is going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers for supporting my work on Climate Change. And you came here under false pretenses and said that you’d spend half the time talking about (climate change.) You said you’d spend half the time talking about what we did out there to raise $7 billion plus over three days from 215 different commitments. And you don’t care.”

Nice. Regardless of my feelings about Clinton on other issues, when it comes to Osama Bin Laden, I don’t have any blame to lay on his doorstep. He did try to do the right thing, and treat Osama as a threat, and it all fell on the floor when Bush took over. (I’ve been thinking about picking up Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies, but haven’t done so, yet.)

I mostly bring this up because the media will do what the media always does, and treat it like a “he said / she said” type of argument. And when this happens, part of the truth gets lost; when the media does this, it makes it sound like “both the Republicans and the Democrats”—because it’s always reduced to Republican vs. Democrat—“have valid points, and we’re just being un-biased, and reporting both sides.” Even though, in this case, Clinton is correct, that will get lost—because it’s no longer about “correct vs. incorrect” in the media, it’s about “Republican vs. Democrat”.

Just because there are two sides to a story, it doesn’t mean that both of those sides are valid positions. In this case, the Republicans claim that Clinton didn’t do enough to capture Bin Laden, and therefore, it’s his fault that 9/11 happened. That’s demonstrably false. But when the media reports on it—and it’s not just FOX News, even if they are the biggest culprits—they’ll say “the Republicans say ‘it’s Clinton’s fault’, and Clinton says ‘no it’s not’”, and this is all the context the viewers will ever get. They’ll claim that what they’re doing is being “un-biased”, but in effect, what they’re actually doing is making an invalid position seem valid—in other words, they’re being biased toward the conservatives.

And it’s so predominantly the case that the few lone voices who try and raise these points seem like conspiracy theorists, or are simply dismissed as “liberal right-wingers”. It’s part of the reason that I recommend Chomsky’s book Necessary Illusions so strongly; it helps the reader to be more critical of the media, and ask the right questions, instead of falling under the “he said / she said” sway.

A final passage from the article:

When a beaten Wallace tried to cover for himself—“…all I can say is, I’m asking you in good faith because it’s on people’s minds, sir. And I wasn’t…”—Clinton nailed him: “There’s a reason it’s on people’s minds. That’s the point I’m trying to make. There’s a reason it’s on people’s minds because they’ve done a serious disinformation campaign to create that impression.”

Love Bill Clinton or hate him, but understand that his appearance on Fox New Sunday was one of those rare moments in recent American history when a target of our drive-by media shot back.


Anonymous said...

"they’ll say “the Republicans say ‘it’s Clinton’s fault’, and Clinton says ‘no it’s not’”, "
This reminds me of the "Argument Clinic sketch" from Monty Python

Anonymous said...

I hope you don't think I'm harassing you, but I just felt I had to write something about this. As I've mentioned before we recently had general elections here in Sweden and the conservative-liberal-christian democratic-center-coalition won. We have seven parties in the parliament here in Sweden but they tend to work together in two big coalitions: the right coalition (that now won power) and the left coalition that is the social democrats (still the biggest party with 35% of the votes) and two rahter small parties: the left party (former communists) and the green party (environmentalists) with both around 5% of the votes. I must say that I'm very content with our system, that we have more than two parties to vote for, but in real life since they work together in two coalitions whatever party you vote for it falls in to either one of the two alternatives any way. But still, politics is more flexible this way. (Notice that "liberals" in Sweden are far out on the right, even though it's the same ideology as US-liberals)
Anyway, what I have thought much about lately is the role of the media in politics. In Sweden practically all media are owned by rich people with a conservative or liberal agenda. We have public service radio and TV too but the public service TV is also very conservative, probably due to a general trend and journalists in television earning rather much money (money tends to "buy" you new values). Anyway, what you can notice here is a great frustration in the media. Even though they push their conservative/neo-liberal agenda until they're blue in the face, people still like their high taxes and well-vowen safetynet. And I felt that during this year's election campain they kind of let go of all decency. The conservative coalition had a strong start in the beginning of the year and it felt like the media wasn't to let this opportunity slip away. Never have they dug up so much dirt on the socialdemocrats, and at the same time talked to nicely about the conservative leaders. And even things that wasn't dirt, they made sound dirty - our prime minister had bought himself a house (!) How could he!!!! When he's a socialdemocrat!!! He's betraying his values! (They thought his house was too big).
But the most disgraceful media-storytelling came when one week before the election the liberal party was caught having trespassed into the socialdemocrats' computer network, having had access to their campain strategy throughout the whole campain!!! This was treated very nicely by the media! I couldn't believe what I saw, heard or read! This was a criminal act that had done terrible damage to the socialdemocrats and the media treated it as a small issue! It was more or less the same as our prime minister's new house. And the real scandal seemed to come when the socialdemocrats' partysecretary said that she felt that the leader of the liberal party acted like a rapist in that sense that he tried to blame the victims for his crime. (It was not, according to him, their fault that it had happened, to be fair, but he thought it was lousy of the socialdemocrats to accuse the liberals of this crime, to bring it up during the campain, that was his oppinion!!! So he did try to point a blaming finger right back at them. Being outraged for being victimised by crime is a bigger crime than the actual crime. And that is close to how rapists work, they usually get very angry for being caught, and the media bought this logic.) So the REAL scandal was that Marita Ulvskog called Lars Lejonborg a rapist!!! I mean, is there NO reason?
So yes, Hugo Chaves and the devil also follows this pattern. No matter what you mean and how obvious this meaning really is, if you use certain words the media-machinery will melt down by the word itself. I come to think of the Groucho Marx-quote: "This is so simple a five-year-old can understand it. Could anyone get a five-year-old?" Maybe they should employ more five-year-olds in the media-world. Certain things seem to easy for journalists to understand.