Tuesday, May 08, 2012

'I' has the honor to report ...

No, the first-person-pronoun theme hasn't gone away; it's just taken on a few new guises:

On Sunday’s “This Week” on ABC, Washington Post columnist George Will offered his theory on why Obama might be struggling this go-around.

“Look, self-absorption is part of the occupational hazard of politics, and it’s also part of the job description of being president,” Will said. “All that said, try to imagine Dwight Eisenhower talking about D-Day saying, ‘I did this. I decided this. I did this and then I did that.’ It’s inconceivable.”

That comparison between Obama and Eisenhower illustrated the problem for the president, Will said.

“If you struck from Barack Obama’s vocabulary the first-person singular pronoun, he would fall silent, which would be a mercy to us and a service to him, actually,” Will continued. “Because he was been so incontinent for the last three years that you wind up with, as you said, [an] Ohio State University with empty seats.”

"Incontinent" is the new "spectacularly promiscuous" -- a vaguely medical term thrown around by right-wing columnists to describe a linguistic phenomenon that supposedly sheds light on some sort of presidential psychiatric disorder (which one, we're not exactly sure) that the librul media are forever scurrying to hide.

As you've probably noticed by now (if not, start with a summary of the Logsters' rigorous observations*), there are two underlying problems with the "I" meme:

1) It's undertheorized. Pundits toss first-person-pronoun frequency around as if it had a fixed meaning, but it doesn't, and if it did, it's probably not what the pundit of the day thinks. (If you missed Jamie Pennebaker's appearance on NPR last week, have a listen.)
2) The scary Kenyan Muslim communist dude? He doesn't say "I" that often, compared with other presidents.
Will is, in short, lying, but here it's a sideswipe rather than the main event, which is comparing the feckless Kenyan to a real gentleman. Will has the vapors -- it's inconceivable! -- at the idea that Eisenhower would have done any such a thing. Alas for him, that's an evidence question. Ike's writing as a general is easy to find, and when it's examined, it too has a dismaying tendency to show the opposite of what's claimed for it.

We could take, for example, Ike's Order of the Day for March 13, 1943, as reported above in the Times, in which he uses "I" five times in 255 words, for a rate of 1.96% -- nearly three times the rate at which Obama used "I" in announcing Bin Laden's death and four times Bush Jr.'s rate at the beginning of the US-Afghan war. Indeed, Ike is almost up to the level of the notorious egomaniac George H.W. Bush in announcing the invasion of Panama (2.2%).

Again, it's not particularly a surprise to find George F. Will making stuff up to impress the peasants. It wouldn't even be interesting at this remove, had it not been for this column from the Washington Post's ombudsman, which has been sitting on the to-do pile since March:

Readers often write to me accusing Post columnists of getting their facts wrong. Most readers know that columnists are not reporters; opiners have a freer hand to pick and choose the evidence they like to make their points. ... But readers say that journalistic ethics argue for columnists who don’t make up facts or so distort facts that their points become only distant cousins to the truth.

Given the context above, you can see how that got our attention.

I agree, so I was glad to see that The Post’s humor columnist Alexandra Petri apologized to Rush Limbaugh after she made fun of the popular conservative commentator for supposedly taking on new, sexually oriented advertisers.

To summarize: Petri sought to make light of Limbaugh's loss of advertisers amid the "slut" controversy by airing some possibilities floated in Politico about who might pick up the slack -- specifically, the "life is short; have an affair" people. She was wrong, and the orcs pounced, and she apologized.

I have no complaints when an error is called on the carpet, but I'd like to know a little more about how those penalties are distributed. To pick a serial fabricator at random: Has Charles Krauthammer's slapstick relationship with "truth" ever been examined by a Post ombudsman? Searching the Post's database to 2005, the answer appears to be no. Indeed, "krauthammer" and "ombudsman" appear together in only two files, both of them online chats. A question for political writer Dana Milbank has some relevance to our discussion:

Q: Hey Dana, how does the fact checking differ for Post editorial writers? Krauthammer wrote that Russia committed "naked aggression against a small, vulnerable, pro-American state (Georgia)" That is not a true statement. The European Union's fact finding mission has established that Georgia began the war by shelling South Ossetia. Why would the Post allow that to be printed with its imprimatur?

A: You are both wrong.  The war began because of the naked aggression of the Appaloosians.

It makes more sense -- HAHAHAHAHAHA! -- if you caught the earlier reference to Appanoose County, Iowa, and its voting habits. But the point remains that Krauthammer lied about a militarized interstate dispute that played a minor role in the 2008 campaign -- remember John McCain's "We are all Georgians now"? -- and there's no indication that anyone at the Post is especially bothered by that occurrence.

The first-person-pronoun thing has actually gotten pretty threadbare. If George Will still thinks he can get away with it, you start to feel sorry for his long-ago dissertation committee. But it does take us back to the ombud's point: "Journalistic ethics" actually does argue for employing columnists who don't make things up, or at the least for calling them out in public when they do. The Post was eager to defend Rush Limbaugh's honor by putting one of its own columnists in the stocks. When can we expect it to hold Will and Krauthammer to account as the gleeful recidivist liars they are?

* Update: The Log's patience with Mr. Will appears to be growing short.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

George Will is a liar. He lies in support of things one must assume the Post supports, thus they will not call him out. One would say they just their columnists alone, but there's evidence that isn't true - ask Dan Froomkin.

7:04 PM, May 08, 2012  

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