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Post 'Fact-Checking': Fecklessness Squared | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Post 'Fact-Checking': Fecklessness Squared

My new "Think Again" column is called “The Mistaken Bias of The New York Times’s Public Editor” and it’s here.

My Nation column is called “The Washington Post's Feckless 'Fact-Check'” and it’s here.

Reed is on the case, as well.

The Post’s Pitiful Post-Truth Punditry
by Reed Richardson

As far as media criticism goes, one can usually count on election years to provide an embarrassment of riches. And certainly, the Washington press corps’ behavior during the 2012 presidential campaign has not disappointed. But if you wanted to drill down into substrata of the political media to get a purer reading of its foundational problems right now, one really need look no further than the Washington Post.

There, you’ll find two of the most egregious examples of media malpractice currently drawing a paycheck—Glenn Kessler and Jen Rubin. The former acts as the Post’s purported “Fact Checker,” charged with sluicing out nuggets of truth from a steady torrent of political rhetoric; the latter occupies a kind of token right-wing spot within the Post’s opinion-page lineup, which has a dubious and troubled history of predecessors. And while the two of them have distinctly different editorial roles at the Post, they routinely betray a similar intellectual deceitfulness, one that should both anger the news organization’s readers and shame its editors and publishers.

Rubin’s punditry, faithful readers of this blog know, has previously received scrutiny from both me and, in a much more detailed takedown, Eric. Late last year, I also examined the structural flaws among fact-checkers that plagues Kessler and his ilk. So, how would the pair react to the Democratic convention in Charlotte this past week? Well, a quick tour through their work suggests a perilous distillation is occurring—the crucible of the campaign’s home stretch seemingly having served to only amplify Kessler’s journalistic equivocating and purify Rubin’s already gauzy Republican cheerleading.

As for the former, take a look at Eric’s piece in The Nation this week (see above), where he has trained his rhetorical fire directly on Kessler’s feeble coverage of late. Regarding Rubin, well, when Bill Clinton invoked the phrase “alternative universe” in his speech Wednesday night to describe the worldview in which many conservatives inhabit, the first person that came to my mind was not a right-wing politician like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan or even a conservative movement leader like Grover Norquist or the Koch Brothers—but her. Truly, to peruse Rubin's online columns is like peering into a parallel, cartoon-like universe, one where a constantly bumbling or—alternately—mendacious Obama campaign is continually foiled by the smarter, heroic Romney campaign. Indeed, if Obama is reelected November 6th, I would not be startled to read a subsequent post by Rubin, explaining her giddy anticipation of attending the inaugural speech of Bizarro President Romney.

Now, I accept and understand that a pundit’s job is to put the best spin on their ideology/argument for the public’s consumption, which routinely requires glossing over inconvenient facts or offering a stirring counter-narrative. Rubin’s columns, however, are nearly devoid of any intellectual candor or rhetorical finesse whatsoever. They shamelessly brandish hypocrisy and hyperbole at Democrats like a flaming broadsword. (When Israel is involved, she’s even less subtle.) The pattern is unmistakable—she can not abide anycracks in the “all-is-well-for-the-GOP, Obama-is-doomed” façade no matter what the circumstances. Simply put, Rubin practices propaganda, not punditry.

To wit: here’s an excerpt of a column from this past week teeing up the second night of the Democratic convention:

Clinton vs. the GOP: Will it work?
“So what does Obama do? Well for starters he is bringing in the big dog in the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton. There is no one better at telling Democrats that Democrats are better than Republicans. So Clinton will, I suspect, talk not so much about Obama but about Democratic Party ideals. The danger here for the Democrats is four-fold.”

Keeping that question in mind, here’s what she churned out on Wednesday night, after Clinton’s masterful answer—a speech that was chock full of insightful detail about Obama and his policies, and which, even other Republican pundits agreed, made for an eviscerating case against Mitt Romney:

Horror show: Wednesday night at the DNC

Huhsaywhatnow?

Well, the “horror show” she’s referring to involved an internal DNC debate about the word “God” and a policy point about Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Note, this procedural to-do occurred hours before any primetime TV coverage would be seen by the public, and likely wouldn’t outrage any voters who weren’t already going to vote against Obama anyway. What’s more, those independents tuning into the convention that same night looking for a reason to back Obama were far more likely to be treated to one of the most persuasive Democratic public policy speeches in years. Yet, the evening’s events nonetheless spelled major trouble for the Democrats according to Rubin. And then, in moment of trademark disingenuousness, she actually wrote this of the Dems’ procedural set-to over God and Jerusalem:

“It was a remarkable, actual newsmaking episode, something we rarely get at conventions. Moreover, it was the worst blunder in a scripted TV event in recent memory.”

That right there is whiplash-inducing, knock-the-wind-out-of-you phoniness. I guess “recent memory” for Rubin conveniently stops after a mere five days, before any recall of Clint Eastwood’s bizarre, unscripted, and unvetted primetime TV harangue of an empty chair at the Republican convention last Thursday. You know, that crude faux dialogue that prominent Republicans cringed at and that ended up being more memorable than the real speech given by the Republican standard bearer? I mean, even Romney’s own campaign team didn’t try to achieve this level of willful obliviousness in their response to the events at the DNC on Wednesday.

(As an aside, one would think that any Post editor worth his or her salt would have removed or at least strongly suggested massaging this ridiculous assertion, but the fact that it still ran highlights another, apparently systemic problem with Rubin’s punditry. By my estimation, her columns get little to no editing before publication, as it’s not uncommon to encounter typos and grammatical mistakes alongside the usual Romney cheerleading and factual contortions. For example, here’s an exact quote from the post alluded to above, which features a “,;” punctuation heretofore unfamiliar to me: “If Michelle Obama was inclusive and positive,; these folks were negative, accusatory and predictable.” Then there’s this sentence from her very next post, which is clearly missing a preposition before the word entitlements: “The Obama record is so obviously at odds with that sentiment (unilateral action on immigration and on welfare and the refusal to make a deal entitlements or address the fiscal cliff) that Clinton’s argument seemed unserious.")

Now, to be fair, she does churn out posts at a prodigious clip, no doubt taxing the Post's diminished editing corps. As proof of her prolific nature, a mere half-hour after her “horror show” post, Rubin appears to have recognized the desert-island loneliness of her position and turned out another long column, this one damning Clinton with faint praise. His “long, long speech” was good, you see, only because everyone else was “atrocious,” and even then, the delegates “seemed to tire” of it, despite the energized Democrats I saw on the convention floor on my screen. And even though Clinton’s speech was roundly acknowledged afterward by those on the left and the right as being a substantive and bombast-free dismantling of GOP policies, Rubin couched it as being little more than “unserious,” “incoherent” schoolyard whining about “meanie Republicans.”

Then, to add insult to inquiry, Rubin kept on spinning, trying to outflank Obama by posing a rhetorical question about how he and the Democrats are intentionally overlooking an uncomfortable reality while in Charlotte:

Poverty? Not a word at the Democratic convention

Such a simple, textual claim would seem to invite a quick and easy numerical tally to support it. Alas, Rubin doesn’t bother with even what amounts to lifting two-pound barbells in terms of intellectual heft. If she’s talking about the featured speakers at each convention, though, she’s dead wrong. In fact, in Bill Clinton’s speech alone he referenced “poverty” or the “poor” as many times (10) as Marco Rubio (4), Mitt Romney (3), Ann Romney (1), Paul Ryan (1), Chris Christie (1), Mike Huckabee (0), Jeb Bush (0), and John Boehner (0) put together. Those hapless Democrats, they can’t even ignore poverty as well as Republicans, I guess, is the takeaway?

Of course, counting words is shallow analysis at best, so when Rubin fails at even that it's worth noting. And if you look at something more substantinal, like the respective party platforms, you’ll find her premise is even more flawed—with lip service about the issue in one, and actual discussion about the problem in the other.

The GOP’s party language, for instance, throws mere platitudes at a few token mentions of poverty. And rather than talk about solutions, the GOP's platform mostly uses the topic as an opportunity for some full-throated bashing of government programs like food stamps and Obamacare. On the other hand, the Democratic Party platform actually spells out specific policy proposals for addressing poverty and its impact. But to Rubin, an explicit policy pledge by the president to, say, bolster the food stamp program gets haughtily dismissed simply because it runs afoul of her hardcore laissez-faire attitude. Like many in the extreme fringe of the Republican Party, she's adopted a rigid, intransigent mindset that views competing proposals not as contiguous points along a left-right policy spectrum—where a compromise solution can be found by meeting somewhere in the middle—but more like matter and anti-matter, the combination of which destroys both in a zero sum equation. It's a nihilistic philosophy that, in its tone, delegitimizes the very notion of dialogue:

“The Obama solution, if you can call it that, is to spend more on food stamps. Is a massive increase in government dependency the solution to poverty?” [my emphasis]

In the end, it seems to me a similarly structured question should be posed to the Post’s editorial leadership about Rubin’s punditry, if you can call it that, and Kessler's fact-checking as well. If they spend all of their energy, respectively, pushing obtuse judgments and parroting GOP talking points or parsing non sequiturs and ignoring basic facts, is the resulting diminution in the news organization’s reputation really the worth their poverty of intellectual honesty?

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

The Mail
Bernard Kirzner, M.D.
Los Angeles, CA
There is a massive distortion of logic in the way Republicans frame issues when they plea for 1st Ammendment right to equal time for all points of view. It's only fair to hear all sides to a dispute, they say. Progressives like Bill Maher are vicious so why blame Fox News?

But this does not mean that all arguments are of equal value. That's the part that journalists are missing, and society suffers for it.

School Boards repeatedly try to put creationism or Intelligent Design ideas into high school biology courses so that the kids can hear both sides and decide for themselves. See, they are mixing up equal time and equal right to speak and be heard, with the scientific value of the ideas presented.

You don't want Flat Earth ideas taught as equal to regular physics and geography.You don't want Earth centered physics to be taught along with the Earth going around the Sun physics, yet both can be stated with equal 1st Ammendment right to speak.

The same is done with Climate change when the overwhelming consensis is that it is so, and humans contribute to it. But we hear that Republicans have heard counter arguments that should be given equal time to be heard, never mind that they are incorrect theories and conclusions from the evidence. The poor value of the counter-arguements isn't being pointed out by our media, because they think that presenting both sides of the story they have done their job. They haven't.

Tom Linde
Seattle
Hey Doc,
I suspect you may already be cooking up a column on the Dem platform "debacle" - ie. (No God, Jerusalem Capital tweaks) but I have a question for you, as a practicing Jew and American.

Why is it that we even have to include ANY reference to Israel in a party platform? Why does the question of the state of the Jews and Palestinians get raised to this level of discourse? I truly don't mean this to be a slight but it seems to me the influence of Israel on our political system is significantly out of proportion. Did the platform take a stand on Taiwanese nationalism?

Can you share your feelings on this? My fear is that even raising the question automatically labels me as pro-Palestinian at best and an anti-Semite at worst. I'm just trying to ask what seems like an obvious question.

Color me perplexed,
Tom

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