A Well-Distracted Electorate

Government supported by an uninformed citizenry is not a democracy; it is a sham. — David Mindich, Tuned Out

Some people drink Pepsi. Some people drink Coke.
The wacky morning DJ says democracy’s a joke.
— Cake, “Comfort Eagle”

In This Week’s Sift:
The Chaff Debate: ABC vs. Obama. When I defined “chaff issues” last week, I didn’t know I’d get such a good example of them two days later.

Guilt By Association. The Obama-Ayers smear as a new example of an old tactic.

Short Notes. I couldn’t totally ignore the world outside the campaign, so it all gets crammed in here: Bush on climate change. Rove decides not to testify after all. Re-splicing the state of the union address. And some pretty young women making tongue-in-cheek public service announcements.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to stay away from the campaign, figuring that it was a long time between primaries and we’d just end up rehashing the same stuff. But tomorrow is the Pennsylvania primary, so I’m making up for lost time with an all-politics issue.

On the big question — what’s Pennsylvania going to do? — you can find a poll to support any prediction you want to make. It’s a mess. To me, the most persuasive analysis comes from Geekesque on DailyKos: Clinton by 8-16%. Geekesque notes that the variance in the polls is between Clinton and Undecided: Obama’s support is stuck in the 40-45% range. We may be seeing the Bradley effect, where white voters refuse to tell pollsters that they plan to vote against a black candidate.

That result would keep the Democrats on the road to a disastrous convention fight, so I hope I’m wrong.

The Chaff Debate: ABC vs. Obama

Last week I talked about chaff issues — those content-free political topics that distract the public from issues that affect their lives. Right on cue, Wednesday night’s Democratic debate on ABC [video, transcript ] served up the full smorgasbord of chaff. ABC News moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos (a former Bill Clinton staffer) barraged Obama with questions about the “bitter” comment, flag pins, Rev. Wright, and his neighbor the ex-Weatherman. They balanced it slightly by tossing one chaff question (about her false sniper-fire story) to Hillary Clinton. When Gibson did finally get around to talking about real issues (after at least 45 minutes) he devoted a significant chunk of time to arguing in favor of the Bush/McCain position on capital gains taxes, strongly implying (against all evidence or sense) that this is a big deal to middle-class voters.

As so often happens, the best critique of the debate was by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. After running clips of the most ridiculous moments from the first hour, he described it as “a 60-minute master class in questions that elevate out-of-context remarks and trivial, insipid miscues into subjects of national discourse — which is my job. Stop doing my job.” Another comic response: a mock ABC ad for the debate.

Josh Marshall reflected on what the debate said about the media’s changing role:

Organized campaigns of falsehoods, distortions and smears used to be something most people thought of as a bad thing, if not something that’s ever been too far removed from American politics. Now, however, members of the prestige press appear to see it not as a matter of guilty slumming but rather a positive journalistic obligation to engage in their own organized campaign of falsehood, distortion and smear on the reasoning that it anticipates the eventual one to be mounted by Republicans.

Press reaction. ABC’s performance drew bad reviews throughout the press. The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber called the first half of the debate “a 45-minute negative ad“. The Philadelphia Daily News’ Will Bunch wrote to Gibson and Stephanopoulos: “you disgraced my profession of journalism, and, by association, me and a lot of hard-working colleagues who do still try to ferret out the truth.” Greg Mitchell (author of the new book So Wrong for So Long about the media’s failures regarding Iraq) called the debate “a shameful night for U. S. media“. Richard Adams of the British newspaper The Guardian headlined his piece: “Worst. Debate. Ever.” The Washington Post’s Tom Shales said the moderators put in “shoddy, despicable performances” and “ABC’s coverage seemed slanted against Obama.”

Criticizing the critics. But let’s be fair and balanced: A few people liked the debate. Right-wing people, mainly. Michelle Malkin parodied the criticism as: “How dare they explore questions of character, truthfulness, and judgment?” And for New York Times columnist David Brooks “the questions were excellent.” Friday Brooks defended chaff issues in general: “But the fact is that voters want a president who basically shares their values and life experiences. Fairly or not, they look at symbols like Michael Dukakis in a tank, John Kerry’s windsurfing or John Edwards’s haircut as clues about shared values.” (Oddly, they never look at such symbols when judging Republican candidates.) Don Imus — yes, he’s back on the air now — thought Stephanopoulis was “great” and the debate was “fine” and added that Obama “is almost a bigger pussy than she is.” Thanks for sharing that, Don.

Clinton supporters claimed that ABC’s critics were just Obama supporters trying to protect their candidate from “tough” questions, saying “if you cant handle a tv anchor how should the American people expect you to handle a hostile world leader?” As if Kim Jong Il is going to grill Obama about Rev. Wright.

ABC’s defense. In an interview with TPM’s Greg Sargeant, Stephanopoulos described his questions as “tough, fair, relevant, and appropriate.” (Though Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins unearthed a video of Stephanopoulos when he was working for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, saying that the American people “don’t want to be diverted by side issues, and they’re not going to let the Republican attack machine divert them.”) Unfortunately, Sargeant did not ask him specifically about the most outrageous question of the evening: “Do you think Rev. Wright loves America as much as you do?”

Or maybe the most outrageous question was “raised by a voter in Latrobe, Pennsylvania” and “comes up again and again when we talk to voters.” That voter, Nash McCabe, appeared by videotape to ask Obama: “I want to know if you believe in the American flag.” From the way they introduced it, you might think that ABC went out asking voters what questions they wanted to ask and then presented the most typical one. You would be wrong. Actually the New York Times quoted McCabe on April 4. ABC then tracked her down to put the question on video. So ABC went looking for some “typical voter” to ask a question they wanted asked. (The Clinton sniper-fire question was also asked on video by a voter. Was he a ringer too? I don’t know.)

ABC’s defense continued Sunday on Stephanopoulos’ “This Week”. The roundtable discussion was uniformly pro-ABC and anti-Obama. All four panelists took for granted that debate critics were Obama supporters, and they promoted the Clinton-campaign spin about “toughness”.

Objectivity? In an effort to determine if there was anything objectively different about the ABC debate, Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney analyzed the four one-on-one debates, two hosted by CNN and one each by ABC and NBC. He categorized the questions in each debate as either policy questions, non-policy questions about process issues (like the role of superdelegates), and scandal questions. Result: ABC’s debate had more scandal questions than the other three debates put together (13-8). Of the 21 scandal questions in the four debates, Obama was the target of 17 and Clinton 4.

I did my own research and wrote an article on Daily Kos examining ABC’s bias. I went back to the previous ABC-hosted debates, a Republican and a Democratic one held back-to-back in Manchester on January 5. I found a consistent pro-Republican bias, and in both January debates the candidates were invited to attack Obama. No other candidate, Republican or Democrat, was singled out like this. In all three debates, ABC consistently assumed that in November Republicans will be on offense and Democrats on defense: Republicans were not asked to anticipate Democratic attacks, and Democrats were not asked how they would attack Republicans.

Only Democrats got questions of the form: “What will you do after your plans fail?” After you fail to protect an American city from a terrorist nuclear weapon? After the generals tell you that pulling troops out of Iraq will be disastrous? And so on.

I invite you to watch for these patterns as the campaign continues.

Brushing it off. Thursday Obama was in North Carolina, using the debate as an example of “the old politics.” The crowd loved his mime of brushing the negativity off his shoulders. Observers younger and cooler than I am have pointed out a connection to Jay Z’s rap “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”. And then Obama went on The Colbert Report to put “manufactured political distractions” on notice.

Guilt By Association: “Can You Explain That Relationship?”

In Wednesday night’s debate, that was how George Stephanopoulos phrased a question about Obama’s neighbor, the ex-Weather Underground member William Ayers. Ayers has also recently been the subject of a conversation between Sean Hanity and Karl Rove, a memo by a Clinton supporter, and John McCain on Stephanopoulos’ Sunday morning show. The Clinton and McCain camps are trying very hard to make this an issue.

I’ll describe that bit of chaff in a moment, but first I want to discuss in general the propaganda tactic of guilt-by-association. The essence of the technique is to associate some fear-inducing person or event or imagery to a person, and then to demand an “explanation” from that person. But no explanation is possible because there is no accusation, just a cloud of amorphous negativity. As Glenn Greenwald said about another chaff issue back in March

It’s just illusory innuendo that, by design, can never be satisfactorily addressed because nobody can ever apprehend what the substance of the “scandal” is.

Now let’s look at Ayers and his wife wife Bernardine Dohrn, another former Weather Underground revolutionary. The Washington Post had a good profile of them Friday, and its Fact Checker discussed the Ayers-Obama relationship in February. The Weather Underground was a radical anti-Vietnam-War group that did a number of bombings during the Nixon years, including one at the Pentagon. Three Weathermen were killed when one of their bombs went off prematurely, but otherwise the bombings were crimes against government property. A comparable organization today might be the Earth Liberation Front, an environmental group that blows up stuff, but doesn’t target people.

Ayers and Dohrn were fugitives for several years before surfacing in 1980. The outstanding charges against them had been dismissed in 1974 due to misconduct by the prosecution, so Ayers never went to prison and Dohrn served a few months on another charge. They’re both college professors now: Ayers is a professor of education at the University of Illinois and Dohrn a law professor at Northwestern. They’ve stayed married all these years and raised three children, including the son of their imprisoned Weather Underground colleagues. (They did OK by that kid — he won a Rhodes scholarship in 2002.)

Ayers wrote a book about his radical years, and did not repent. (I don’t believe that Gordon Liddy and Oliver North have never repented for their crimes either. And North, like Ayers, got off on a technicality.) He said to the New York Times: “I feel we didn’t do enough.” But from the Times’ write-up, I can’t tell whether he meant “We didn’t blow up enough stuff” or “We didn’t do enough to end the Vietnam War.” The book was published September 10, 2001 and his remarks appeared in the Times on September 11. That’s Ayers’ sole connection to 9/11.

What’s his connection to Obama? They both live in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago (where I lived when I was in grad school). Their kids have attended the same school. Ayers and Dohrn hosted a meeting in 1995 in which the outgoing state senator anointed Obama as her successor, and Ayers gave $200 to Obama’s state senate campaign in 2001. For three years Obama and Ayers were both on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, “a grantmaking foundation whose goal is to increase opportunities for less advantaged people and communities in the metropolitan area, including the opportunity to shape decisions affecting them.” (Ayers is still on the board.) Obama describes Ayers as a friend, but says they disagree on a number of issues and don’t exchange ideas on a regular basis.

These undisputed facts allow people to construct sentences that include the words Obama, terrorist, bombing, and 9/11 — sentences that Obama can then be asked to “explain”. In Wednesday’s debate, Senator Clinton piled on to Stephanopoulos’ guilt-by-association attack by adding that “people died” in the Weather Underground bombings, and that Obama’s “relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York and, I would hope, to every American, because they were published on 9/11.” While none of Clinton’s statements are technically lies, they are well constructed to mislead you into thinking that Ayers killed innocent people and that his comments came in response to 9/11, rather than coincidentally appearing on 9/11.

Association attacks thrive in a confused, non-specific environment. In conversation, the best response to an association attack is to insist on hearing an accusation before making any further defense. Exactly what did the target of the attack do wrong? If that question can’t be answered, then no “explanation” is needed.

Short Notes

The funniest thing I saw this week: Somebody has re-spliced the 2003 state of the union address to be a bit more honest: “Every year, by law and by custom, we meet here to threaten the world.” [standing ovation]

What do other Chicago ministers think of Rev. Wright? Pastor John Buchanan of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago published this statement in the church newsletter: “Among Chicago churches and Chicago clergy of all denominations, Jeremiah Wright’s ministry is widely admired as a model of what a public church can and ought to be, and he, himself, is widely respected.”

Comedian Lee Camp has a series of videos he calls Pranktivism. In this episode, he stands outside fast food restaurants distributing pamphlets for the fictitious Obesity Exchange Program, which sends our overweight five-year-olds to Bangladesh in exchange for their underweight kids.

Intel Dump’s Phillip Carter responds to President Bush’s admission that he exaggerated the progress in Iraq to “bolster the spirits of the people in the field”. Carter was in Iraq during those pre-surge days, and he says: “It’s disappointing to hear now, two years after the fact, that the president was knowingly bull—-ing us the whole time.”

One response to the revelation that the National Security Council designed torture programs for individual detainees: a petition for Condi Rice to resign. (Except for Cheney, the other participants are already gone.) Explanatory video here.

Public service announcements from Funny Or Die: Kristen Bell appeals for contributions to the McLovin Fund to help actor Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who can never work again after playing the McLovin character in Superbad. And Hayden Panettiere warns against sexual harassment, or at least the kind of harassment you might get if you were Hayden Panettiere.

MoveOn asks how you stay in Iraq for 100 years. Answer: Six months at a time.

In the days of the smoke-filled room, a party’s nomination depended on the endorsement of powerful bosses. Well, this week a big-name boss endorsed Obama, and Slate-V anticipates Clinton’s counter-attack ad.

Grist’s David Roberts discusses Wednesday’s Bush speech on global warming: “I hate to be the party-pooper. But we’ve been here before. How many times does Lucy expect us to try to kick this football?”

John McCain released his own tax returns this week, but not his wife’s — and she’s got all the money. John Kerry tried this tactic in 2004 and didn’t get away with it. But McCain is teflon. Let’s see what happens.

The GAO reports that the Bush administration has no plan to eliminate terrorist base camps in Pakistan, where bin Laden allegedly is hiding. EmptyWheel does a timeline, noting that it’s been 87 months since Richard Clarke first asked the administration to develop a comprehensive anti-al-Qaida strategy.

Last week (second Short Note) I linked to Dan Abrams’ interview with former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who claims that Karl Rove orchestrated his prosecution for political reasons. In the interview, Abrams quoted Rove’s lawyer saying that Rove would welcome the chance to testify before Congress about the case. Well, now that the House Judiciary Committee is asking, the lawyer is saying his words were taken out of context. Don’t expect to see Rove under oath any time soon. (Of course we all remember what happened the last time Rove put his hand on a Bible.)

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  • DavidW in SF  On April 22, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    If <>Newsweek<> (or any other “news” publication) actually had any interest in informing the America people, they’d be running <>The Weekly Sift<> instead of hiring Karl Rove.“Chaff” is their bread and butter.

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