As print publications are squeezed by economic pressures to “do more with less,” I’d like to propose a radical revision of that time-honored cliche: instead of “more,” how about “better”?
Barely an hour goes by when I do not come across a violation of fundamental laws of common sense in the dozens of publications I read regularly. These violations occur even in the most privileged precincts of the press and eat away at its credibility. A revealing example occurred on May 5 in a front-page New York Times story on Obama’s proposal to tax offshore havens. The piece quoted the president, naturally–and who else? Well, for twenty-one of its twenty-four paragraphs the single response came from one John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, a big-business trade association, who complained, “This plan will reduce the ability of U.S. companies to compete in foreign markets, which will not only reduce jobs, but will also cripple economic growth here in the United States. It couldn’t come at a worse time.” Now, how is it possible that standard journalistic operating procedure is to relay a quote from a person whose job description demands that he say the idea stinks? The spokesman for the wealthy, globalized corporate elite thinks it’s not such a hot idea for them to pay taxes, and this is somehow news? (And I’ve not even addressed the fact that the piece quoted exactly no one in favor of the president’s proposal but three sources critical of it.)
Another curious practice–albeit one that has become almost mandatory in our Oprahfied culture–is the journalistic use of the word “we” when the writer really means “me.” This can be harmless, as in USA Today‘s ubiquitous “We love peanut butter”-style headlines. But sometimes the intent is more worrisome, as when a particular author seeks to implicate the rest of us in his (or her) own ideological assumptions. Newsweek‘s Jacob Weisberg provided a textbook example of this linguistic sleight-of-hand when, on May 1, he wrote a piece about what he deemed to be the nation’s implicit approval of the Bush/Cheney torture policies. Weisberg insists that “by 2003, if you didn’t understand that the United States was inflicting torture on those deemed enemy combatants, you weren’t paying much attention.” The only evidence he can cite, however, is a single December 2002 Washington Post story employing the phrase “stress and duress.” Later in the piece, he points to spring 2004 stories on Abu Ghraib in The New Yorker–reports that were alternately attacked and denied by the Bush administration–and stories on waterboarding published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and Newsweek shortly thereafter. Leaving aside that these came long after Weisberg’s deadline for the country’s “collective complicity” in the Bush administration’s criminal behavior abroad, these citations would support his argument only if one also accepted that (a) the entire country takes to heart every story that appears in these publications, and (b) we all agreed and understood that waterboarding constituted “torture.” In the real world, if you added up their circulations, subtracted for overlap and again for skimmers who do not read every word and again for disagreements on terminology and tactics, you could probably pack everyone who “knew” and approved into Yankee Stadium and still leave the fancy seats behind home plate entirely empty.
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That Weisberg would wish to implicate so many people in this supersecret practice would be bizarre were his aims less transparent. In August 2004–long after he says “we” were well aware of “our” torture policies–Weisberg took to the pages of The New York Times Book Review to criticize “Bush-haters” like Graydon Carter, James Wolcott, Joe Conason, Sidney Blumenthal and yours truly on behalf of “shrewder commentators” like Bush war cheerleaders Thomas Friedman and Andrew Sullivan. The apparent intention of the attack–which included an implicit defense of Bush/Cheney as innocent of “intentional deception” and deserving of kudos for increasing AIDS funding and deposing the Taliban, among other achievements–was to set the parameters of “responsible” dissent in territory no further to the left than Weisberg, an Iraq War supporter, felt comfortable. For even though almost everybody “knew,” Weisberg could not find room within his 2,224 words on Bush’s presidency for a single mention of the practice of “waterboarding,” much less the word “torture.”
A final problem is the tolerance of big-name pundits who simply make up “facts” to suit their ideological predispositions. This happens far more frequently than is widely understood but usually comes to light only when a controversy erupts. George Will, for instance, enjoyed the honor of being raked over the coals by the news staff of his own newspaper, its weather blog, even its cartoonist, for what the Post‘s Andrew Freedman called “a very troubling pattern of misrepresentation of climate science.” And yet Will not only received no sanction from his newspaper, his dishonesty was defended by Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who, naturally, attacked Will’s critics for trying to “silence” him. Sadly, President Obama himself was apparently tripped up by Sullivan’s penchant for ideologically motivated fabrications. Somehow Sullivan’s false assertion that Winston Churchill had refused to embrace torture during World War II made it into Obama’s response to a question during his April 29 press conference. In fact, as Andrew Roberts, author of Master and Commander, pointed out on The Daily Beast, it’s pretty much a certainty that German POWs were tortured to clear the path to D-Day. By making his case so carelessly, Sullivan–and by extension Obama–strengthened the hand of the torturers by tossing them an easy rhetorical victory.
Now it turns out that, in response to ref-working right-wingers complaining of an alleged “knee-jerk liberal” orientation of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the paper has hired John Yoo as a regular columnist. His speciality? Tortured arguments…