Saturday, July 03, 2010

Blame game: From man to pig ...

We spend a lot of time around here picking on the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, so let's take a brief glance at how the world looks from a fresh, distinct, radically different angle:

(CNN) -- When signs of a severe economic downfall emerged more than two years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama was quick to point a finger at the man he hoped to replace.

Seventeen months into his administration, the message is often the same, and Republicans say it's time for him to drop the Bush bashing and take ownership of the problem.

"Nothing makes a president look weaker than pointing the finger at past administrations," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "By blaming somebody, it looks like you are playing politics and people just want jobs. They don't care about whose fault it is. Playing the blame game only boomerangs on yourself."

Sound familiar? It should. It's been a running theme for many months over at ... wait, what's that other network? The one that everybody's always holding up as the anti-CNN? Here's Sean Hannity from a year ago:

President Obama claims that he wants the American people to hold him accountable for his decisions, but as Peter Baker of The New York Times points out, since taking office the president has dodged responsibility for any of our nation's problems.

Instead he's been engaging in one of the liberal left's favorite pastimes: blame Bush, blame Bush, blame Bush.

Let's take a look:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, 2/9/2009: We also inherited the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression.
OBAMA, 2/24/2009: With the deficit we inherited.
OBAMA, 3/6/2009: We inherited a big mess.
OBAMA, 3/12/2009: Because of the deficits we inherited.
OBAMA, 3/18/2009: Because of the massive deficit we inherited.
OBAMA, 3/19/2009: Because of the massive debts that we've inherited.
OBAMA, 3/20/2009: Because of the massive deficits we inherited.
OBAMA, 3/25/2009: And because we've inherited a historic fiscal mess.
OBAMA, 6/1/2009: We inherited a financial crisis unlike any that we've seen in our time.
OBAMA, 6/9/2009: The financial crisis this administration inherited is still creating painful challenges for businesses and families alike.

This is a broken record. Isn't it time for the president to retire that line and maybe start to take some responsibility for his own?

Amazing coincidence! That's the takeaway message CNN has too!

The White House needs to go on a confidence campaign and perhaps take a page from President Reagan's playbook, Epstein said.

Let's do just that. Here's Reagan from 1982:*

Sept. 16, 1982: ",,, if we had not brought inflation down as far as we have from the double-digit rates we inherited."
July 1, 1982: "A year and a half ago, we inherited 21.5 percent interest rates, double-digit inflation and a trillion-dollar debt, the worst economic mess in post-war history."
June 16, 1982: ''Some diehards are now declaring the present recession was caused by our program,'' Mr. Reagan said in a speech at the Albert Thomas Convention Center here tonight. ''May I just point out - we had the recession before we got the program.''
April 30, 1982: "And they have every reason to because that 12.4 percent inflation rate we inherited has been running at only 3.2 percent for the last six months."
March 19, 1982: "Our Administration has been reminding the American people that the economic mess we inherited last year - and the recession we're in now - is the legacy of years of misguided policy. ... Well, we inherited many mistakes by others - but we're not going to just bemoan the past."
Feb. 19, 1982: "A year ago, I went before the American people to say that we'd inherited the worst economic mess in half a century."

Nothing makes a president look weaker, huh? Good thing Reagan had gotten out of the habit by the time he ran for re-election:

Oct. 2, 1984: Mr. Reagan told the business group that his Administration ''inherited the legacy of 42 unbalanced budgets in the last 50 years.''
Aug. 24, 1984: "The Census Bureau confirms that, because of the tax laws we inherited, the number of households at or below the poverty level paying Federal income tax more than doubled between 1980 and 1982."
Feb. 23, 1984: "May I give two examples? We've not only cut down the rate of increase in spending that we inherited and that we found when we came here, but no one has added up the proposed spending increases that we have denied. "
Feb. 1, 1984:In an address to executives of the concrete and gravel industries, Mr. Reagan cited a dozen different aspects of the economic recovery, saying, "We inherited despair and turned it into hope."

The right time to drop the bashing and take ownership, in other words, seems to be sometime toward the end of Year 4. Unless you're a major cable network trying to build a bogus politics story around a fictional talking point about one party passed along by a strategist for the opposition, that is.

The point is not that CNN and Fox are the same thing. They aren't, though when it comes to buying this handful of magic beans from this huckster, it's hard to tell. But it's equally important to note that they aren't polar opposites or left-right anchors on a Likert-type scale of ideology in journalism or anything like that.

CNN is building a story in a very old-fashioned way: some people in the pundit class are saying X, here's an expert saying Y about that, here's another expert saying sort-of-Y, and here's an opposition expert saying not-Y. The gatekeeping fail comes at the outset. As when it buys into, say, Paul Payack's loopy assertions about presidential speech, CNN isn't bothering to ask what properties would have to be in place for X to be worth talking about. And as with other such pseudo-quantitative assertions, the first thing to do is -- ready for this? look around a little and see what the terrain looks like. If the pundit class is chattering about some phenomenon that amounts to Water Flows Downhill or Sun Rises in East, that's a sign that you don't have a story and should tell the strategist to bugger quietly off into that good night. CNN evidently doesn't make a habit of that sort of reflection, but if we ask nicely, there's always a chance that it might.

Fox is a different creature. It can turn out stories built exactly along this pattern (claim, support, contradiction, coinclusion), but it only does them for some political actors. Fox would never run an assertion that George W. Bush was a girly speaker because of his use of the passive voice, or that his use of the first-person singular pronoun marked him as a blithe narcissist unfit for leadership in times of crisis. Fox is a propaganda organization, and propaganda organizations don't buy magic beans from the enemy. That's why CNN is easy to game and Fox isn't.

Takeaway point for editors? If the reporter can't tell you what a "blame game" would look like and how this alleged instance compares to your good old null hypothesis, you don't have a story. You don't have to show it's false. The reporter has to show it's true.

* Not what you'd call a thorough content analysis, but a ranging shot; it's what you get by searching the NYT archive for "reagan" and "inherited."

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