Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lying: Lessons from the masters

Here's a superlative example of the propa- gandist's art. At a casual read, you'll get -- well, exactly the impression you're supposed to get: The callow naif who is poised to represent the Party of Chardonnay and Surrender Democrats is surrounded by people even flakier than he is, so sign the kids up for those Farsi lessons now.

The story itself, of course, is almost a complete fabrication. The fun part is the "almost" -- seeing, in this case, what an impressive superstructure of lies the good folks at Fox can build out of a few kernels of empirical reality. That's the essential skill of the propagandist, so let's have a bit of a look at who said what.

Here's Fox, starting at midmorning with the reefer you see at lower right, effectively the No. 3 story on the Fox home page. The story was promoted in the afternoon to the dominant visual element on the page (upper right), suggesting that it's been vetted a bit up the food chain and endorsed for stronger play. And the story it refers to?

Obama adviser: Pooh Bear, Luke Skywalker hold lessons for foreign policy
Foreign policy architects could benefit from studying Winnie the Pooh and Star Wars, according to a Barack Obama adviser who is set to attend a meeting of the Democratic candidate’s national security work group Wednesday.

Not the same assertion as the frontpage hed. For "Obama's Pooh Bear policy" to hold up, two things have to be true: There has to be a Pooh policy, and it has to be Obama's. But why quibble about informal logical fallacies when Our Way of Life is at stake?
Richard Danzig, former Navy secretary under President Clinton, drew several creative and unusual analogies to explain the challenges America faces overseas during a foreign policy conference in Washington, D.C., last week, according to an article in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

Fox gains a bit of standoff distance with that. From here, it's going to be about what somebody else's report says, not what Fox is claiming on its own. Let's stop in at the Torygraph and see if we can track down the pertinent grain of truth:

Barack Obama aide: Why Winnie the Pooh should shape US foreign policy
Winnie the Pooh, Luke Skywalker and British football hooligans could shape the foreign policy of Barack Obama if he becomes US President, according to a key adviser.

The attribution is key. Under the rules, it means that this is what the "key adviser"* said, not what the reporter infers from what he thinks the adviser might have meant. Quite simply, it's a lie -- you can find a podcast here, but you aren't going to find the adviser making those assertions, because the reporter made them up.

Richard Danzig, who served as Navy Secretary under President Clinton and is tipped to become National Security Adviser in an Obama White House, told a major foreign policy conference in Washington that the future of US strategy in the war on terrorism should follow a lesson from the pages of Winnie the Pooh, which can be shortened to: if it is causing you too much pain, try something else.

The relative clause is ambiguous. From the text, you can't tell if the person shortening the Pooh lesson to "if it is causing you too much pain, try something else" is the reporter or the speaker. In the recording, the speaker offers no such summary. But by the time the story gets to Fox, any kernel of fact has fallen away, leaving only the context that the Torygraph invented:

In arguing that the country should back off a policy that causes too much pain, Danzig said, “Winnie the Pooh seems to me to be a fundamental text on national security.”

Wrong on two counts. First, the comment doesn't come in context of any such argument (because, again, the speaker presents no such argument). And second -- oh, hell, I suppose we have to bring it up sometime. Danzig is making sort of what we call a "joke," which "adults" or other people with what we call a "sense of humor" understand as a form of figurative speech.

Specifically, he's acknowledging the speaker who introduced him by referring to two of the latter's great interests: sports (hence the Berra quote that precedes the Pooh one) and his (the introducer's) children. Thus the idea that Winnie the Pooh is a foundational security text is -- you hate to even bring this up, given that the British press used to have a great reputation for wit, but he didn't really mean it!! And anyone who would claim (with what appears to be a straight face) that he did is either a liar of breathtaking scope or someone so bleeding stupid he shouldn't be allowed to tie his own shoes without close adult supervision.**

There is a serious point behind the Pooh quote, which the Torygraph at least provides, rather than paraphrasing:

Mr Danzig spelt out the need to change by reading a paragraph from chapter one of the children’s classic, which says: “Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump on the back of his head behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming down stairs. But sometimes he thinks there really is another way if only he could stop bumping a minute and think about it.”

So, like, I mean, the wisdom of the bear isn't "stop doing painful stuff," it's, like ... "consider alternate courses of action"? Heavy!

Mr Obama’s approach will be popular in Europe, where President George W. Bush has spent the week on a farewell tour, arriving in Britain yesterday for meetings with the Queen and Gordon Brown.

Which implies that what we're talking about is "Mr Obama's approach," rather than the observations of a policy analyst -- much as Fox does with the "Obama's Pooh Bear policy" hed. Alas, as the introduction makes clear, Danzig wasn't speaking in his role as Obama adviser. The Torygraph keeps its pivot foot down; Fox is the one that's cheating here.

Fox is also the lone fabricator on the centerpiece, "Adviser also cites 'Star Wars' at foreign policy conference." Danzig -- is it going to get too dull in here if we repeat this? -- does nothing of the sort. He's quoting an actual terrorist talking about the actual use of nerve gas in an actual terrorist attack, and he's doing so in the context of suggesting some general knowledge about small-group terrorism that could be useful for the future. The result isn't earth-shattering psychological insight (unless, like Fox, you think terrorism was invented sometime late in the afternoon of Sept. 10, 2001), but it is the sort of pragmatic wisdom you gain from actually doing the fieldwork. If David Petraeus made the same observations about terrorist psychology, Fox would be licking between his toes in sheer delight.

No doubt you'll have more fun with the Fox and Torygraph tales on your own than we have time or space for here. And if you do, it's worth bearing in mind that almost all news organizations, at some point, play fast and loose with contextualizing; that's the core of the many legitimate complaints about the popular reporting of science. Fox is unusual because it lies so deliberately, so casually, and so consistently in the service of its political masters.

That's particularly dismaying today, in that actual journalists are losing jobs (if you are reading this at or near a McClatchy paper, the house has just bought you a virtual beer) while lying hackery of the Fox brand is starting to seem like its own reward. It may be that we can't do much about that particular injustice except point it out. If that's the case, let's at least point it out loudly and regularly.

* Unlike Fox, the Torygraph appears to have some subs who can actually read their own stylebook. It doesn't make up for fundamental dishonesty on the part of the reporting staff, but it's better than nothing.
** By which I mean to leave open the possibility that "Tim Shipman in Washington" didn't write the myriad lies that the Torygraph is running under his byline, which is by no means impossible. Tim, if your desk is making things up and putting your name on them, now is your chance to let us know.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...


It's breath-taking, what they'll do.

5:55 AM, June 19, 2008  

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