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Balancing Acts


More scandalous behavior by debate judges and their “style” points

OK, enough with the facts and figures. Why did The Washington Post and The New York Times, two excellent newspapers, run such drivel about the CheneyEdwards debate’s facts? I’m not sure why that happens, and I’ve written drivel for newspapers for almost 30 years. Some people, particularly paranoids and European pointy-heads, disdainfully talk about “consensus media.”

FAIR, the leftist watchdog that does some righteous fact-checking of its own, has another name for it. Check out FAIR’s “Finding Fault on Both Sides Can Be False Balance”. Here’s an excerpt:

While fact-checking is an essential media function, particularly during an election year, it’s a hollow exercise if journalists start with the assumption that both sides must be found equally guilty of falsehoods.

It is, in fact, not always the case that both campaigns are responsible for deceptive claims to the same degree; coverage that insists on a false even-handedness, while pretending to expose political mendacity, actually gives cover for it by neutralizing criticism with the “they all do it” defense. Such coverage may protect news outlets from charges of bias, but it does a disservice to voters.

FAIR went on to point out, among several examples, a Washington Post piece on the first debate between John Kerry and George W. Bush. Here’s FAIR’s assessment:

The Post took issue, for example, with the Kerry statement, “The [Bush] administration misled America, the United Nations, and the world,” saying, “There is little evidence the Bush administration purposely tried to deceive Americans and other world leaders about the threat posed by the alleged weapons.”

While whether or not the administration “misled” is surely a matter of opinion, there’s plenty of evidence to support the claim that it did so. To cite just one example, Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his speech to the U.N. (2/5/03), prominently cited Iraqi defector Hussein Kamal‘s figures on chemical weapons produced by Iraq—without mentioning that Kamal had told U.S. and international authorities that these stockpiles had all been destroyed (Newsweek, 3/3/03).

FAIR took the Post to task for taking Edwards to task for using the figure $200 billion for the cost of the Iraq war. Kerry had scored the same point in his debate with Bush, but upon further review, the Post disallowed it. FAIR took yet another look and summed up the ruckus this way:

The Washington Post also complained that “in a recent line of attack, Kerry has said the cost of Bush’s ‘go-it-alone policy in Iraq is now $200 billion.’ This is an exaggeration, because it combines the amount already spent—about $120 billion—with money that is expected to be spent in the coming year or requested by the administration.” Surely, though, the “cost” of something is the total amount of money that one has to pay for it; no one would describe the down payment on a car as the “cost” of the car.

It’s so risky fact-checking the fact-checkers, because everybody makes mistakes. I’ve pointed out before, and I’ll say it again, I’ve made my share, and I’ll continue to make them. It’s the human condition, and that applies to journalists, too. But this striving for a false balance is a matter of judgment, not a matter of the facts themselves, for the most part. Where it comes from, I don’t exactly know. But one of the best things to do is simply to get more facts and more analysis. For that, I’d strongly suggest reading Michael Massing, whose critiques of the press’s performance before the invasion of Iraq are harsh, staggering, and sobering.

For Massing’s work, go to The New York Review of Books, which has been leading the press in coverage of the Bush regime, anyway. You can also read the magazine’s first part of Massing’s monumental “Now They Tell Us” here.

In the meantime, you can get a peek at a good journalist’s thought processes by reading Bob Kaiser‘s veep-debate blog in The Washington Post. Kaiser, a veteran reporter who’s now an associate managing editor, engaged in a colloquy with readers. Here’s what he had to say online, in part, the morning after Tuesday night’s debate:

Edwards had the tougher assignment going in, I thought. As a man whose entire experience in public life consists of one term in the Senate, he was at risk of looking less informed than Cheney, or lighter-weight. His task was to convince voters he knew the issues, and was a plausible VP or, if needed, president. Personally I thought he met that requirement, but that’s only my opinion. Everyone is entitled to his/her own conclusion about that.

Cheney has, by my lights, long been a persuasive and impressive figure. He oozes gravitas. He has a winning manner that was perhaps better displayed against Sen. Lieberman four years ago, but which I again saw last night. I’m not sure how he defined his assignment last night. Part of him I’m sure wanted to counter the impression that he is an eminence grise behind the throne, or some kind of dark force in the administration. Part of him wanted to convince voters of what has emerged, really, as the dominant theme of the Bush-Cheney campaign: that Kerry is ill-equipped and/or ill-suited to be president. Part of him, I sensed throughout, just wanted it over with. On my report card, he too got good grades.

And Kaiser added:

Finally I’d say that both men performed a public service by demonstrating to the millions who were watching that politicians running for the second-highest office can be smart, serious, and purposeful. Of course, both also engaged in some of the demagoguery that is so entrenched in our politics, but frankly, I was pleased that the amount of this seemed limited.

A little later, a reader from Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, wrote back to Kaiser:

Your comment that Cheney “oozes gravitas” proves John Kerry’s point at the first debate—that one can sound and be certain, but also be wrong. Cheney sounded convincing with his assertions about progress in Iraq, yet they are blatantly untrue, as any well-informed person realizes. The same can be said of Cheney’s assertion that he did not try to link Saddam to 9/11. He sounded convincing saying he didn’t—but he actually mentioned the two closely together many times. He also made the false assertion that Iraqi agents met with Mohammed Atta in Prague.

My point is: The way someone sounds does not really show how whether they are credible or not. Bush was so unimpressive at the first debate not mainly because he sounded unconvincing, but because he had nothing substantive to offer, and because his arguments were effectively rebutted by Kerry. He just repeated the same old, discredited platitudes about a “Free Iraq,” progress in Iraq, etc.

Kaiser replied this way:

Thanks for posting. I’m not sure substance overrides appearances always. And of course, your sense of what constitutes substance may not be the same as your neighbor’s.

Aside from the fact that I must have missed Edwards’s “demagoguery,” is Kaiser saying that “substance” is less important than “appearances”? In terms of the impact politicians might have on voters, I could understand Kaiser’s saying that. But in terms of anything other than that, it’s an absurd point. What counts when determining credibility—not impact on others, but credibility—is the substance. Journalists are the people who we count on to see through style and into the heart of the matter and then interpret both style and substance—juggling them, mixing them, analyzing them, and ultimately separating them.

One more thing: The “dominant theme” of a campaign isn’t what the politicians themselves say. It’s fine to say that a particular pol is trying to make such-and-such into a “dominant theme.” But there’s a difference. Just because the Bush-Cheney camp says Bush is a war leader doesn’t make it so. Reporting on a campaign’s strategy is one thing; swallowing it whole and regurgitating it for the populace is something else.

Finally, the Stewartstown person’s point about Kaiser’s “gravitas” statement concerning Cheney is right on the mark.

Who had more gravitas (sometimes) than Ezra Pound? And who was nuttier (sometimes) than a March hare? Ezra Pound. And who talked insane shit during World War II about Jews, economics, the West, and other topics? Ezra Pound. Smart people have to separate and weigh style and substance if they’re to appreciate the wonderful things Pound did for poets, poetry, and communication in general, because the naked truth is that he was sometimes stark raving starkers.

Actually, in Dick Cheney’s case, it’s his style that one might say has “gravitas.” The substance that Cheney “oozes” is something that we’ve already discussed.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 7, 2004

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