Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Please Cite Your References

I listen to a lot of right-wing talk radio in my car. Take that as you will. I typically listen mid-day if I'm on my way to or from a meeting, lunch, or an errand since NPR is playing "classic or classical" music at that time of day and everything else on the radio sucks. I tend to listen for 15 minutes at most before I get sick of it and switch off. One of the things that gets me pissed fastest is what I'm going to call meme-fuscating: the practice of developing an idea that explains the world through your perspective and then repeating it often enough that you and your listeners subconsciously or consciously adopt that idea as fact. Meme-fuscating is so common that you can quickly get numb to it while listening to talk radio. It comes in high-level forms (liberals hate the military and think soldiers are dumb) and detail-oriented forms (Barrack Obama won't say the pledge of allegiance). The problem with meme-fuscating is twofold:
  1. It gets repeated so frequently that it eventually becomes accepted as fact even outside of the immediate radio audience who hears it;
  2. The high-level forms take on the feeling of religious belief and are so broad and nonsensical as to be unassailable -they are like inalienable truths to the radio listeners and hosts.
This morning, I was driving from the doctor's office and listening to Neal Boortz who was going on and on about Wesley Clark's recent comments regarding John McCain's qualifications to be President. Clark has come under fire for comments purported to slam the idea of McCain's military experience qualifying him for the Oval Office. Boortz ran in two directions with this story. He first wondered why Clark had stated that John Kerry's military record qualified him to be President in 2004. He then went on to say that Clark's comments and the spin on them in liberal blogs gave credence to the idea that liberals hate those in the military.

Let's just ignore the second prong of Boortz's attack. The first point -that Wesley Clark said John Kerry's war record qualified him to be President- made me wish that Boortz would cite his sources. The thing is that in the act of meme-fuscating, citations never occur. That would get in the way of the flow of the sermon. Perhaps I've spent too much time writing research papers, but I really think it's irresponsible to make such claims without backing them up. To help Boortz out, I did some research and found a transcript of Clark's speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention (hat tip to the next right). He said, in part:

John Kerry has heard the thump of enemy mortars.

... He's seen the flash of the tracers. He's lived the values of service and sacrifice. In the Navy, as a prosecutor, as a senator, he proved his physical courage under fire. And he's proved his moral courage too.

John Kerry fought a war, and I respect him for that. And he came home to fight a peace. And I respect him for that, too.

... John Kerry's combination of physical courage and moral values is my definition of what we need as Americans in our commander in chief.
It certainly seems that Clark is implying that Kerry's military service prepared him for office or at least that it reflects up on his character. He never directly says it qualifies him for office, but he does come close. How hard would it be to just mention the date and location of this speech instead of just talking in abstract terms? How hard would it be to admit that Clark never explicitly said what you claimed he said?

What's worse is that Clark is taking heat for something he didn't do. It turns out that in the course of an interview on Face the Nation this past Sunday, Clark was in the process of heaping praise on McCain when Bob Schieffer turned his comments around to attack Obama. Clark simply said that Schieffer's argument didn't make sense. Taken out of context with the rest of the interview, Clark's dismissal of the argument has somehow been taken as a criticism of McCain. If you don't believe me, watch the video here. Then consider what Clark had been saying before Schieffer interrupted:
I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war. He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And he has traveled all over the world.
Now how is that slamming McCain? Why are we going to have to keep hearing about this story for days if not weeks?

Clearly Boortz shouldn't be alone in taking the blame for this episode of meme-fuscating. The major media outlets are running with the story as well. Maybe this is just an unfortunate side-effect of our rapid-fire media cycle, but some people are knowingly running with this story in a direction they know entirely misrepresents the truth.

Boortz's comments (along with dozens of others echoing similar cries) should not and cannot be understood as individual commentary when in fact they are emblematic of a larger movement that is entirely at odds with helping people understand the news of the day.


John said...

From AmericaBlog, a nice post mentioned an article at Columbia Journalism Review. In part they say, "It’s crucially important that we have a political debate in this country that’s at least sophisticated enough to be able to handle the following rather basic idea: Arguing that a person’s record of military service is not a qualification for the presidency does not constitute “attacking” their military credentials; nor can it be described as invoking their military service against them, or as denying their record of war heroism."

Here's the link: http://www.cjr.org/campaign_desk/attacking_mccains_military_rec.php?page=all

Matt said...

You just reminded me that I haven't read Americablog in a few days. I did see them cited in an article about the Wesley Clark stuff at Politico.com. I guess John Aravosis has been pretty vocal and unabashed about attacking McCain.

Venice said...

I think we're losing sight of the big issue, which is that NPR's classical lunch hour is just about the greatest thing ever. I much prefer music to talk-radio, but I also prefer the death cries of flatulent armadillos to talk radio.

regarding the Clark stuff, it reminds me of some of the stuff Romney supporters were saying in the primary. It's true: McCain's service in the military and his five years being tortured do NOT qualify him to be president. Spending over two decades in the Senate, serving on some of the most important committees, and meeting with foreign leaders DOES qualify him to be president.