Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rays of hope from the campaign trail

Here's an interesting bit of journalism* in a story that will merit some long-term watching. The topic is President Bush's bank shot at the Democrats during his address to the Knesset:

Bush then made a surprising segue, adding: "Some people suggest that if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away." He did not say who those people were.

No leading Democrat, and certainly not Obama, has suggested breaking ties with Israel. Obama in fact has called it one of the United States' most important allies.

I'm guessing that's the work of an alert wire/copy desk that still knows how to do rewrite (I've only seen this phrasing in the International Herald Tribune; the story is credited to three NYT writers, but the topic doesn't seem to have come up yet at the Times itself). What's unusual is not the attempt to "truth-squad" a speaker's facts. What's unusual is that it points out a false implication, and that's worth some attention, because it suggests that campaign reporting can break out of the call-and-response cycle that makes it so easy to manipulate. Rather than letting the candidates create a story line, the paper tries to keep them on track.

Here's how not to do it, from the AP:

The three-way dustup over foreign policy -- Bush vs. Obama vs. McCain -- began a day earlier, when Bush gave a speech to the Israeli Knesset in which he criticized those who believe the United States should negotiate with terrorists and radicals.

Here's what Bush said:

"Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along."

Bush is omitting (with the AP's help) the minor premise ("Democrats are among that 'some'"), which allows the party to act disingenuous when the intended target complains about the implied conclusion ("Democrats are just like appeasers"). But omitting that premise isn't the problem.** The problem is that the major premise is false. It's the difference between

All cats are mammals
[Bernie is a cat]
Bernie is a mammal

All cats are squids
Bernie is a cat
Bernie is a squid

See the difference? The AP quotes the president as warning against the Attack of the Squid Cats. That's a legitimate function of the press -- I mean, if your commander-in-chief is telling somebody else's legislature that cats are squids, you have every right to know about it. But the IHT is pointing out that, you know, cats aren't really squids after all. And that's actually fairly important for campaign coverage. It opens up some room for skepticism in an area where it's especially needed -- and where the press tends to do a particularly poor job.

I'd be tempted to go a step further than the IHT: not only has no "leading Democrat" suggested breaking ties with Israel, nobody within artillery range of mainstream American politics has either. Even by the standards of an administration that would employ John Bolton as a diplomat, that's an otherworldly assertion. So it's nice to see somebody slap it across the face with a big dead fish, however tentatively. If you like that sort of reporting, send somebody a cheery e-mail and ask for more of it by name.

* Flagged originally by the vigilant Ridger over to The Greenbelt. Cheers!
** It usually isn't. In a construct like "You should take quantitative methods -- people who are scared of math do well in that course," the minor premise ("you're scared of math") fills itself in automatically.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

It is nice to see something like this, isn't it? I wish we got more of it.

8:25 PM, May 17, 2008  
Blogger Denise said...

"not only has no "leading Democrat" suggested breaking ties with Israel, nobody within artillery range of mainstream American politics has either."

Nope, just every Libertarian I know (and I know a lot). But they don't count. Who is Ron Paul anyway?

12:20 PM, May 19, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Denise, are you sure we're talking about the same thing? I don't keep up with Ron Paul much, but judging from his chat with Ha'aretz, he hardly looks like "breaking ties." He certainly seems to favor a big-time reconceptualization of the relationship, but that's not the same thing as no relations at all -- whatever Bush seems to be insinuating.

More broadly, though, if a party suggests breaking relations with states without drastic provocation, I'd say that party is not only out of the mainstream but fundamentally irrational. Is that actually Libertarian policy?

12:17 AM, May 21, 2008  

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