Thursday, June 07, 2007

our dysfunctional media

Here's a great little TPMCafe piece burning Joke Line for his favorite journalistic strategy, specifically mendacity covering up lack of thoroughness. It's actually a pretty funny episode, or at least it would be if Joe Klein didn't write for Time f*&king Magazine. Sorta like how a lot of W's screwups would be funny if he weren't, ya know, Leader of the Free World.

I wanted to riff off this episode, however, to point something out. Perhaps I've mentioned it before, but there's an awful lot of misinformation surrounding the issue of "funding the troops." That the media let the issue be framed in such baldly partisan language is evidence itself of the ineptness with which they handled the issue, which is in my opinion what ultimately led to the breakdown in Congress. Everyone essentially admitted that Bush won the funding battle because Bush won the messaging of the funding battle. The Democrats' message was that this is how previous wars were ended and that this was how Congress was given a check on the president's war powers, and the president's message was that defunding is tantamount to letting the troops run out of bullets in the middle of Baghdad. Ultimately, the electorate (which in very real ways still is the final arbiter of these decisions, and this is an excellent example of such a situation) was swayed by Bush's argument, and the Democrats came to the conclusion that it was too politically perilous to push the issue (a decision they will, in all likelihood, come to regret next year).

Here's where the media screwed everything up, though: one of these arguments is a fact, and the other argument is a lie. Literally. It is absolutely true that Congress has used this power before and that it never amounts to soldiers running out of bullets. Never. In fact, the Republican congress did it as recently as 1993, when they defunded Clinton's peacekeeping mission in Somalia. It is, therefore, a bald-faced, absolute, literal, in-every-sense-of-the-word lie to say or in any way imply that defunding the war=soldiers in the middle of gunfights running out of bullets or going hungry or not getting their paychecks.

Yet that is not how it was portrayed in the newspapers or on TV. Russ Feingold, screaming from the rafters that the GOP's argument is crazy talk, was treated as "just another opinion on the matter" while pundits, anchors, and reporters alike were allowed to use the term "defunding the troops" with impunity. No one was ever called on it despite the fact that this is not a subjective position, but rather something that can actually be verified or refuted with even a mere modicum of research, so far as I've found.

It is notable that (from what I read, anyway) it was often implied that soldiers would run out of bullets, or that they would suffer from defunding-- you may remember a number of iterations of "defunding would harm soldiers in the field"-- but almost no one would actually come out and say "they'll run out of bullets." It's become a very handy way to tell when a politician or pundit is lying: when they imply something over and over, but never actually say it, obviously so that, when the truth finally comes out, the speaker can't be fingered as technically having "lied." Perhaps this explains why no intrepid reporter ever bothered with fact-checking it: since no one ever technically said it...

But, of course, we all know that these were exactly the arguments being forwarded, which is exactly why the majority of Americans polled now believe that defunding a war is bad but ending the war in every other conceivable way is good, amazingly despite no one ever technically telling them that!

There are 2 points in this whole battle where the media's careless treatment of the debate is both mitigated and exacerbated, however. One is that a number of Democrats in the House and Senate, including, most disappointingly, Barack Obama, actually confirmed the rightwing frame on camera. I am still, at this point, utterly baffled at why they did so; perhaps they thought the PR battle was already lost and didn't want Pelosi leading them down the path to losses in '08. On the one hand, this fact relieves the media of a degree of culpabiliity, since if even some Democrats were saying it, it must be true, right? On the other hand, if the media were handling this in the true/false manner it really merited, perhaps they would've confronted these wavering Democrats on the issue.

The second point is that, if you look at the history of "defunding" wars, and the fact that it's always happened safely in the past, and that after losing funding, all previous presidents have ordered the Armed Forces to execute orderly and safe withdrawals from theirs conflicts, in what way could the current troops possibly be put in harm's way by defunding, especially more than by staying in this war? Though I said that the "running out of bullets" argument is an absolute lie, there is actually one way in which it could be true: if Congress knows or believes that the president would intentionally let the troops run out of bullets. That is, if Congress would refuse to pass a funding bill for the war, and the president were to set a deadline until the troops start running out of supplies (which, as you may remember, he did), and instead of ordering a withdrawal, he kept them right where they are. Then he'd invite all the media to come to the Green Zone and watch while he dares Congress to sit on its hands while the clock winds down.

Sounds crazy, right? But what else Could Obama possibly have meant when he said no member of Congress "wants to play chicken with our troops?" Why would Democrats not only back down from defunding before they even tried, but even reinforce the framing that defunding puts troops in harm's way? In what other way could that statement possibly be true? Do you really think Bush would order a withdrawal if Pelosi said he was cut off, and even if he would, do you really think he would let Congress know that? This is the argument that, I believe, was going on behind the argument we were hearing on TV, yet not a single reporter ever pushed this issue. Not a one. Imagine what could've happened had the media brought logic into the equation and shown that one argument was patently, verifiably false, except under this bizarre cicumstance, and what could have happened. Not only would our discourse have been more honest and real and productive, but perhaps there's a chance that "Home by Christmas" could have been a reality for 160,000 families this year.

1 comment:

Barmecide said...

Joke Line. I get it. Hehe. That's a new one on me.