Monday, October 27, 2008

You provide the pictures ...

So you thought the days of the great press barons and the epic fabri- cations were gone? Well, think again, earthling! Today's top story on Planet Fox is a delicate blend of viral marketing and old-fashioned lies, served on a bed of actual-seeming news routines:

In a sense, the teaser at right is true: The interview does provide "fresh ammo," judging by the piles of shell casings around the right-wing wankosphere. But the rest of the tale, almost in its entirety, is fabricated. The fun, as usual, is in watching the techniques that go into building a SHOCK HORROR OUTRAGE story from as little truth as possible.

Details first. Someone discovered, and posted to the YouTubez on Sunday, a BOMBSHELL interview that Obama gave to Chicago public radio in 2001. Let's let Fox characterize it:

Obama, in 2001 Interview, Lamented Failure
of Civil Rights Movement to Redistribute Wealth

A 7-year-old radio interview in which Barack Obama discussed the failure of the Supreme Court to rule on redistributing wealth in its civil rights rulings has given fresh ammunition to critics who say the Democratic presidential candidate has a socialist agenda.

Note that we have "failure to rule on redistributing wealth" or some variant of it three times already, and the hed takes us from merely "discussing" the event to "lamenting" it. That's amusing in itself; if a Fox News story noted that the Japanese didn't occupy the West Coast in January 1942, Fox would be justifiably upset at a hed that said "Fox laments Japan's failure to seize California." But there's also a deeper process at work. The assumptions that drive journalism are a lot like the ones that drive conversation. When you say stuff at the top of a news story, you're implicitly warranting that it's borne out by the rest of the story (or by the supplemental matter the story refers to). So let's have a look (true to form, Fox has taken the original story down; these are from the version around 4p Eastern):

"The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of basic issues of political and economic justice in this society, and to that extent as radical as people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn't that radical," Obama said in the interview, a recording of which surfaced on the Internet over the weekend.

"It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as it has been interpreted.

"And the Warren court interpreted it generally in the same way -- that the Constitution is a document of negative liberties, says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you, but it doesn't say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf, and that hasn't shifted.

"And I think one of the tragedies of the civil rights movement was that the civil rights movement became so court-focused, I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and organizing activities on the ground that are able to bring about the coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways we still suffer from that," Obama said.

Forgive me for not being terrified yet, but ... Halloween's still four days off. I'm still waiting for some lamenting, let alone some indication that anyone, least of all Obama, is casting this interpretation as a "failure" by the Warren court.

The 2001 interview evokes recent questioning by Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher, the Ohio man who asked Obama about his proposal to raise taxes on people making more than $250,000. Obama told Wurzelbacher he wants to hike taxes on the wealthy so that the government can spread the wealth.

Somebody at Fox must have just aced the propaganda midterm. Every time you kick the can down the field -- from "Joe the Plumber has pictures of candidate with sheep" to "candidate denies sheep rumors" to "new questions surface about sheep affair" -- you get farther away from the original allegation. If Fox (aided by an echo from the usual cybersuspects) can make this a story about socialism, rather than a story about some tame if complex comments a law professor made on a radio show, it's done its job successfully.

Enough of that, though: What does Vladimir Ilyich Hussein Ali Obama actually say about redistribution -- or even anything with a root like "redistrib*"?

The interview has evidently been edited (the audio, I mean, not the IMPORTANT PARTS of the text EMPHASIZED ONSCREEN in case you WEREN'T SCARED ENOUGH YET about "REDISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH TO AFRICAN AMERICANS"). From that, it's fair to infer that the YouTube poster is putting forward the most damning case possible; if you've got the candidate on the record saying he wants your white women wealth, you don't cut that part and leave the bit where he talks about the Phillies. The best match I can find to the apocalyptic right-wing glee over Obama's notional lament is this, around the 2:55 mark:

"... you[?] just look at very rare examples where, during the desegregation era, the court was willing to, for example, order changes that cost money to local school districts."

So, "changes that cost money to local school districts" is the closest thing we have to an operational definition of "redistributive change"? What do you figure are the chances that he's talking about --- oh, busing, for example? Or other results of desegregation orders?* In general, if there's something on the recording that points to wholesale talk of raiding your savings account to fund those shiftless characters who didn't have anything better to do that sit around the Woolworth's lunch counter and act uppity, we aren't shown it, and there's good reason to presume that means it ain't there.

But that, once again, isn't the point. Every time the news cycle turns over (the hed on the current version is "Obama camp lashes out at Fox News over coverage of 2001 radio interview"), we're another mile down the road from the original nugget of facticity -- iand on, in this case, to whether the Obama camp is changing the subject by blaming Fox.

Fox does quote the Democratic camp, which says, in part: "In the interview, Obama went into extensive detail to explain why the courts should not get into that business of 'redistributing' wealth." (That's a fair description of the recording, I'd say.)

The McCain spokesman counters: "Barack Obama expressed his regret that the Supreme Court hadn't been more 'radical' and described as a 'tragedy' the court's refusal to take up 'the issues of redistribution of wealth." Both predicates are out-and-out lies. There is no other way to describe them. Fox (and the McCain camp) must hope that anyone who bothers to listen to the recording is too stupid to know what it says. But -- claim, counterclaim, and independent assessment by a journalist (who's also, oddly enough, a Fox contributor); it must be a news story!

Is there a takeaway point for editors? Sure. When your foamy-mouthed readers demand to know why this story isn't all over the front page, tell 'em you don't run made-up stories from news organizations that lie so often and so casually that they can't even remember where the true part ends anymore.

UPDATE: Lest you think we wax alarmist about the possibility of any professional news outfit falling for this stuff, here's

The Arizona senator pointed to a 2001 radio interview in which Obama said that one of the failures of the civil rights movement was that "the Supreme Court never entered into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society."

This may not be a lie in the intentional sense, but it's completely false. That sequence does not appear in the interview. If that's how McCain phrased it, the appropriate journalistic thing to do is to note that McCain was lying like a cheap rug.

* Your mileage may vary. My high school wasn't integrated until 1970, and I spent a large party of my career in the district that lent its name to Swann v. Mecklenburg.



Blogger Old Word Wolf said...

Regarding redistribtion: The federal earned income tax credit -- households earning less than the poverty level are SENT money. Farmers who agree not to grow a crop or two are SENT money. Here in Florida, if property taxes in county XYZ won't cover school district expenses, then the state SENDS them some of the property taxes collected down in the Keys. Everytime someone receives a "welfare check," that money -- hate to call it wealth -- has been redistributed from somewhere. My point is, what's so awful about "redistributing wealth?" We've been doing it since the graduated income tax was installed.

9:20 AM, October 28, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

The GOP thinks everybody is rich or thinks they will be some day (Congratulations, Joe, you're rich - now you'll get taxed!). Democrats presume that most people have less money OR empathy for those with less money. So redistribution of wealth means different things to them.

Sort of like the right to vote.

12:23 PM, October 28, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What really bothers me about the Fox rhetoric is the continual, unrelenting use of "unstated premise." There's an underlying syllogism "Socialism is bad; Obama is a socialist; therefore Obama is bad." A reasonable amount of attention has been focused on trying to prove the second step of this--well, no, prove is too strong a word. But the first step is always merely assumed to be true. It's never even stated so that readers could stop and reflect, "Now, do I think that's true?" Fox simply writes as though this is a foregone conclusion. It's like nails on a blackboard.

(Political disclaimer: I personally believe that "socialism" is too vague a term to have a value judgement of any kind attached to it. If you get down to cases--and Obama has done so on many occasions, as with his tax plan--those can be evaluated.)

Mary Kuhner

7:02 PM, October 28, 2008  
Blogger bruce said...

"And I think one of the tragedies of the civil rights movement was that the civil rights movement became so court-focused, I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and organizing activities on the ground that are able to bring about the coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways we still suffer from that," Obama said.

In Obama's own words, he does indeed lament that redistributive change was not brought about - indeed he thinks it is a tragedy. How do we know this? He called it a tragedy.

If you're going to be an apologist for someone, at least have the sense to not repost things which directly contradict your points.

Granted I support Obama, but this kind of rank partisanship is a real turnoff. To be fair, you posted this before the election, so I suppose a degree of blind ideological loyalty is understandable given the heated rhetoric at the time.

7:34 PM, May 01, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Even ignoring the four clauses that you skip in going from "I think" to "through which you bring about redistributive change," there's a bit of a problem. He can't be lamenting "that redistributive change was not brought about," because he never says it. Indeed (and I think I quoted him on this point), he brings up some case in which it was. So it's hard to see how he could be proclaiming something a tragedy when he isn't, you know, proclaiming it in the first place.

That gets to the clauses you left out. Usually, when you're trying to figure out what people mean, it's a good idea to look at what they actually said. What Obama _says_ is that he thinks it's a tragedy that the civil rights movement became court-focused to the exclusion of the other ways in which law and policy and opinion are changed. (At least, that seems the plain grammatical meaning of what he said.) Whether he thinks more or less change could have been brought about, or whether any such change would have been more or less stable or better rooted in public opinion, isn't clear. But we do have a good idea what he said. You can read the evidence any way you want, but I don't see it supporting a claim like the one Fox attributed to him.

Which is the bigger point. Even if you want to call this a toss-up (it isn't), Fox is manifestly lying when it claims that Obama saw a tragedy in some "failure" of the Supreme Court to rule on "redistributing wealth." Likewise, the McCain camp was lying through its teeth. These lies form a distinct pattern; look at the last week or so of the campaign and you'll see a series of similar quote-mines.

I'm not sure what you mean by "partisan," and I'm not sure you know what you mean either. I don't categorically object to negative campaigning or to attacks on Democrats. I do have a problem with news organizations that lie. When the NYT makes stuff up about George Bush, I don't think I'm being partisan to point it out. Are you suggesting that Fox ought to be allowed to make things up, or that there's something inappropriate about pointing out patent journalistic fabrications?

11:26 PM, May 03, 2009  

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