Friday, July 09, 2010

The echo chamber: Pronouns again!

Always nice when Jon Stewart's working in a holiday week, isn't it? Some of those otherwise hidden gems of Fair 'n' Balanced journalism might not otherwise get the audience they deserve -- this one, for example. (Its Web incarnation -- top story Monday evening -- is above.)
The random fear-stoking is really secondary to all the other buttons this one pushes in the audience. This evening's No. 2 story is an example: once again, those damn liberal media are ignoring a major story broken by the fierce watchdogs of Fox:

Last year, it was Van Jones and ACORN that slipped under much of the media's radar. But despite pledges to pay closer attention to the "polemic world of talk radio, cable television and partisan blogs," two new stories have taken their place in the annals of things not much reported.

But more broadly, it's a chance to light up the echo chamber for everybody's favorite themes (so, yes, it's going to hit the mainstream media, whether the news desk has the good sense to ignore it or not). Cal Thomas has the Apology Tour/kowtowing beat (now with added RacismĀ®!):

It is a continuation of the president's subjugation of himself (bowing to foreign leaders) and the country he is charged with leading by obsequiously kowtowing to a people for whom advancement to the Middle Ages would be a step up.

And Charles Krauthammer -- maybe George Will was busy elsewhere and Chuck was the only one available who could spell "exceptionalism":

There was no finer expression of belief in American exceptionalism than Kennedy's. Obama has a different take. As he said last year in France, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Which of course means: If we're all exceptional, no one is.

But -- wait for it, grammar fans -- there's more afoot here. Dr. Krauthammer is going to show you his psychoanalytic chops again, and he's going to do it with pronouns!

... It's fine to recognize the achievements of others and be non-chauvinistic about one's country. But Obama's modesty is curiously selective. When it comes to himself, modesty is in short supply.

It began with the almost comical self-inflation of his presidential campaign. ... And it carried into his presidency, from his posture of philosopher-king adjudicating between America's sins and the world's to his speeches marked by a spectacularly promiscuous use of the word "I."

How many times to we have to dig up the links and go through this again? "Spectacularly promiscuous" is Krauthammer-speak for "less than his predecessor, and probably significantly less, but who has time to test it when the original lie won't go away." It's not new. It's old enough that someone at the WashPost (people used to call them "editors") should be asking the little doctor when he'd like to document it and how exactly he got through medical school anyway with that sort of attitude toward the world of falsifiable propositions. But there's a new twist on the pronoun phenomenon just ahead:

Notice, too, how Obama habitually refers to Cabinet members and other high government officials as "my" -- "my secretary of homeland security," "my national security team," "my ambassador." The more normal -- and respectful -- usage is to say "the," as in "the secretary of state." These are, after all, public officials sworn to serve the nation and the Constitution -- not just the man who appointed them.

It's a stylistic detail, but quite revealing of Obama's exalted view of himself.

OK, we've got your conceptual definition. What's your operational definition? If "habitually" means something, it means something with decimal points -- if you want anyone to believe it, you're going to have to measure it and then show that it happens in Obama's speech at some predetermined degree higher than it generally does in presidential speech. That's basically a reliability question, meaning it doesn't address the validity question: Is this a detail "quite revealing" of an "exalted view of himself," or did you just make that up too?

Because it seems to cause such trouble at Fox, we should probably note that not all words and phrases carry the same meaning in every context they're spoken in. I'm going to bet that even Dr. Krauthammer doesn't see this post-election comment by Bush Senior as evidence of rampant narcissism:

"I would like to see my Secretary of State continue that which George Shultz has done in terms of the numbers of meetings with the Soviet Foreign Minister."

Clearly that's contextually differerent from Bush Junior's comment in November 2004:

"I'm proud of my secretary of state -- he's done a heck of a good job.''

Or Reagan from June 1987:

"And I shouldn't perhaps go out of the way to say that the thing that he himself has proposed, the zero-zero of intercontinental -- or intermediate-range missiles, that I proposed that four years ago and got in trouble with my then Secretary of State -- not the present one -- for saying such a foolish thing."

Or Bush Senior again, writing to (ahem) Saddam Hussein shortly before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990:

"Let me reassure you, as my Ambassador, Senator Dole and others have done, that my Administration continues to desire better relations with Iraq."

Or even Jimmy Carter amid the Andy Young flap in 1979: "He's still my ambassador to the UN, with restraints"

It's worth noting here that a search of the NYT database at Lexis-Nexis for stories containing "obama" and "my ambassador" on Thursday night turned up no hits. None. Which certainly doesn't mean the combination hasn't occurred, or that the Times is the same sort of archive of political speech it was three decades ago, but might start to suggest that the little doctor is simply making stuff up. But another those key phrases -- "my national security team" -- does yield some material for direct comparison. Here are two examples of Obama's speech, from January 2010 and September 2009 respectively:

"My national security team has led an interagency effort overnight."

"It was my judgment, informed by my national security team, that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning and inaccurate brush, thereby endangering them in theaters of war.''

You might conclude -- unless you'd been reading Kathleen Parker's unmitigated bullshit about girly-manhood or something -- that presidents use that sort of phrase when they're taking responsibility for a potentially controversial action. Based on these examples from Bush Junior (September 2007 and January 2007), I'd call that a fair guess:

"I have consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, other members of my national security team, Iraqi officials, and leaders of both parties in Congress."

"It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq. So my national security team, military commanders and diplomats conducted a comprehensive review."

If you turn the dial back another notch, you might even conclude that this is a way presidents talk when they're trying to underscore the importance of a security issue. Here's Bill Clinton:

"I have just been meeting with my national security team on today's tragic events in the Middle East, and I would like to make a brief statement." (October 2000; the Cole bombing)

"I want to explain why I have decided, with the unanimous recommendation of my national security team, to use force in Iraq, why we have acted now, and what we aim to accomplish." (December 1998)

"And so this morning, based on the unanimous recommendation of my national security team, I ordered our armed forces to take action to counter an immediate threat from the bin Laden network." (August 1998)

That's not the way to do content analysis; it's a way of starting to explain how the things you're going to measure might have some plausible relation to the real world of news content that people see and hear. Unless you're Charles Krauthammer, who interpreted "My national security team" this way in his column of December 18, 1998:

He then proceeded, pathetically, to enumerate every single one of them -- "the vice president, secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," etc., etc. The commander in chief and leader of the free world has fallen so low that he needs to draw authority from those under him.

So much for that "more normal -- and respectful -- usage," eh?

All right, America's Newspapers. Charles Krauthammer is a hack and a fabulist. You already know that if you run his column. Consider this advance notice that this particular column is a pack of lies from top to bottom. You should consider calling the Washington Post Writers Group and asking for your money back. And if you're the Washington Post, you should consider asking your columnists to meet minimum professional standards or confine themselves to the studios of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. I really don't think you'd have a problem filling the space with competently written, accurate, provocative material.

If it was up to me, I'd start by soliciting the official Language Log take on Kathleen Parker. That might provide the Wills and Krauthammers of the world with a gentle hint that open fraud is no longer an appropriate mode of op-ed discourse. Sound like fun?


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