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Print view: O'Reilly and O'Donnell played the fool on tribal cable last night
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THE LOGIC OF TRIBAL CABLE! O’Reilly and O’Donnell played the fool on tribal cable last night: // link // print // previous // next //

In search of successful frameworks: This morning, Bob Herbert writes a fairly standard column about the problem of gun violence. If you read all the way to the end (just click here), you finally learn what the columnist favors: “stricter licensing and registration, more vigorous background checks and a ban on assault weapons.”

That all seems sensible to us (though “sensible” doesn’t mean “unassailable”). But alas! Because Herbert’s proposals do seem sensible, we were struck by the perhaps-unhelpful way he framed his column.

Here’s how it worked for us:

Before we read a word of his piece, we were struck by his sub-headline: “Caring more about guns than people.” At the Times, columnists compose their own headlines—and this sub-headline did strike us as perhaps being counter-productive.

Almost everyone will understand what that headline seems to say; people who tend to oppose restrictions on guns “care more about guns” than they care about people. For a certain type of liberal, this construction will likely be pleasing. But does this construction really make sense?

The headline is evocative, but does it make sense? Do people who oppose restrictions on guns really “care about guns” at all—or is that just the type of construction which is designed to make partisans feel good? People who oppose restrictions will typically offer certain types of justifications for their views, some of which Herbert discusses. But do they really “care about guns?” Or is this a way for Herbert to signal than such people are simply “gun nuts?”

In the course of his column, Herbert describes those on the other side as “extremists” and “gun fetishists.” He builds the start of his column around a person who feels “that college students should be allowed to be armed while engaged in their campus activities;” he then dismisses this idea as being “too stupid for words.” For ourselves, we’re not entirely sure what that proposal means, since Herbert doesn’t explain it clearly. (Are college students currently restricted from carrying guns on a campus?) That said, when Herbert dismisses this proposal so harshly, is he likely to win adherents to his side—or to drive people away?

We don’t know the answer to that question. We pose it here because we so rarely see modern liberals asking themselves such questions. But starting with that evocative sub-headline, we’d tend to call this a feel-good column—a column which will please many liberals, while driving many others away.

Do such columns produce good results? Herbert’s proposals strike us as fully sensible. But here’s our question: How many people who don’t already agree were still reading this column by the time Herbert got around to listing the sensible things he’d propose?

How persuasive is this column? For those who don’t pre-agree with Herbert, we’d guess this: Not very persuasive. Not real persuasive at all.

The chance to define a key term: At one point, Herbert cites an “important study:”

HERBERT: Can we get a grip?

The contention of those who would like college kids and just about everybody else to be armed to the teeth is that the good guys can shoot back whenever the bad guys show up to do harm. An important study published in 2009 by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine estimated that people in possession of a gun at the time of an assault were 4.5 times more likely to be shot during the assault than someone in a comparable situation without a gun.

“On average,” the researchers said, “guns did not seem to protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. Although successful defensive gun uses can and do occur, the findings of this study do not support the perception that such successes are likely.”

Can Herbert’s description really be accurate? Why would someone “in possession of a gun” be more likely to be shot? Wouldn’t he have to display the gun—possibly trying to use it? Just a guess: Many people who pre-agree with Herbert will be reassured by this account. Many people who pre-disagree will roll their eyes at what Herbert says.

For what it’s worth, many people who tend to oppose restrictions hear about other “important studies”—studies which tend to support their predispositions. This lets us define an important term:

In tribal logic, an “important” study is one which tends to support one tribe’s pre-existing side.

THE LOGIC OF TRIBAL CABLE (permalink): If you watched tribal cable last night, you saw the standard gruesome fare—the logic of tribal cable.

Let’s start with Fox.

On Fox, you saw some standard selective outrage from Mr. O, Bill O’Reilly. Mr. O has always had remarkably silly ways to pick and choose targets for his rage. Last night, he criticized Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen for calling Sarah Palin “stupid” on CNN last weekend, thereby ignoring Obama’s call for a more civil discourse. He then explained why he doesn’t criticize conservative talkers for the same sorts of offense:

O’REILLY (1/17/11): Also, I've gotten a lot of mail asking me why I don't come down on right-wing talk radio…Talk radio is entertainment. People on there make a living expressing opinions. It's not a news forum; therefore the standards are not the same.

But when a newspaper like the Washington Post continues to feature columnists who's flat-out hate conservatives, you have to wonder why.

We won’t even waste our time discussing how foolish that is. Later, the program got even dumber, as Mr. O spoke with Bernie Goldberg. Incredibly, this was O’Reilly’s second example of how vicious the Post has been in the days since Obama asked us to tone things down:

O’REILLY: Now Bernie, earlier in the broadcast, we played a sound bite from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, calling Sarah Palin stupid. Another Washington Post columnist, Dana Milbank, also went on TV and said this:

MILBANK (videotape): I think it's irresponsible, and I think it's a bit of a straw man that people are claiming that Beck and Palin are being blamed. Mostly, people are saying—they're not being blamed for this particular incident. They are being blamed, as well as some on the left should be blamed, for inciting people generally.

O'REILLY: Now, that confused me a little, Bernie, because Milbank himself has been very vicious over the years, has he not?

GOLDBERG: Let me try to un-confuse you. And—and for the 99.9 percent of the American people who don't know what Dana Milbank is, Dana Milbank lecturing us on civility about the same as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lecturing us on human rights.

From the start of the program, O’Reilly has been teasing the idea that two guys from the Washington Post had “continued to bang the drum” in the days since Obama asked us all to knock it off. When we finally offered the second example, it was someone saying that Palin shouldn’t be blamed for the Tucson shootings—someone saying that people from the right and the left were at fault “for inciting people generally.”

One hour later, on Hannity, Sean Hannity interviewed Palin about the recent events. This session wasn’t nearly as bad as O’Reilly’s program, but problems could be observed. Hannity directly asked Palin if she thinks that “targeting maps, bulls-eyes etcetera…should no longer be used in these campaigns?” Palin didn’t directly answer—and Hannity didn’t push her. (In fairness, major pols almost never admit to mistakes.) And in the course of her half-hour session, Palin engaged in the type of self-pitying rhetoric which heightens resentment and anger:

PALIN (1/17/11): I will continue to speak out. They're not going to shut me up. They're not going to shut you up or Rush or Mark Levin or Tea Party patriots or those who, as I say, respectfully and patriotically petition their government for change. They can't make us sit down and shut up. And if they ever were to succeed in doing that, then our republic will be destroyed. Not necessarily me being sat down and shut up, but having the voice of respectful dissent being shut up. That would destroy our republic.


I'll tell you, Sean, I am not going to sit down. I'm not going to shut up.

As usual, Palin drove the resentment train hard. That said, Palin said various things that did make sense. For our money, the nonsense was worse one hour later when MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell offered an instant review of Palin’s session with Hannity.

It was tribal cable at its worst when O’Donnell played the fool about Palin’s session with Hannity. He easily matched the earlier nonsense presented by Mr. O.

O’Donnell devoted his first half-hour to “the Palin/Hannity summit.” The foolish bad faith of his “analysis” easily matched that of O’Reilly. For example, here’s the sad, pathetic way this pitiful rube-runner started:

O’DONNELL (1/17/11): Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday commemorating the life of a man who wanted to bring unity to a divided nation, a man who wanted to bring change to this country through peaceful means but who was struck down by a gun shot.

So why today? Why would Sarah Palin choose the 25th Martin Luther King Day to again defend her record of divisive comments, many of them invoking gunshots?

Hiding behind Dr. King, O’Donnell launched his latest attack on Palin’s extremely bad timing. Before long, he returned to last week’s attack on this score, complaining about the way Palin released her videotape last Wednesday, the same day Obama was speaking in Tucson. Last week, of course, Palin was being harshly criticized on MSNBC for having failed to speak. This is what Keith Olbermann said last Tuesday night:

OLBERMANN (1/11/11): Our fourth story: When does the normally, supremely efficient, self-publicizing machine that is Sarah Palin come out from behind the proverbial skirts of her mouthpieces in the media and foreswear the rhetoric of violence? When, or is it if?

Last Tuesday, Olbermann’s entire second segment was devoted to the idea that Palin needed to speak out. (Uber-hackish Howard Fineman agreed with him, voicing the tribal line: “I mean, the silence is deafening from the great northwest.”) But you know the logic of tribal cable! The very next morning, Palin spoke out—and she was then attacked for having spoken out that day! But then, O’Donnell admitted, on last night’s show, what would have happened if Palin had waited till Thursday of last week:

O’DONNELL: I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about the timing of that video [from last week]. You know, should she have waited another day and released it not on the day of the memorial service? Well, then you might have the problem of it actually appearing to be a rebuttal of Barack Obama’s speech the night before. Should she have done it sooner?

Duh. Last Tuesday night, Olbermann was urging Palin to speak. Inevitably, so was Ed Schultz. (“Sarah Palin has never had a problem going after her critics or finding a camera to do it. But her silence now, don`t you think it is rather deafening?”) But uh-oh! When Palin spoke the very next morning, she had spoken on the wrong day! And as O’Donnell noted last night: If she had waited one more day, that would have been the wrong day too! And when she sat with Hannity last night, that was also the wrong darn day—this time, because of O’Donnell’s massive respect for Dr. King.

As with O’Reilly, so with O’Donnell—we see the logic of tribal cable. By the logic of tribal cable, every action or statement by The Other must be denounced and condemned. And so, as O’Donnell continued last night’s tribal cleansing, he of course returned to earlier complaints about Palin’s deeply offensive use of the term “blood libel.” And he again refused to tell his viewers that at least three figures who are quite familiar on MSNBC have also used that phrase in “metaphorical” ways in recent years (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/13/11).

By the logic of tribal cable, we rubes simply can’t be told that.

Can your nation survive this culture—a culture in which well-matched sets of tribal clowns treat their viewers like fools? Look around! Frankly, we doubt it.

Bill O’Reilly was truly awful last night. But then, how awful was O’Donnell? Good lord! He staged a thirty-minute witch-dunking, then piously offered us this:

O’DONNELL: Any chance that Congress will surprise us and return tomorrow with a new tone of civility? Today, Giffords’ husband urged us all to remember the lessons of Martin Luther King, Jr.

DR. KING (videotape): Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plain of dignity and discipline.

It’s hard to be more dishonest than O’Donnell was, pretending to honor Dr. King’s call for work “on the high plain of dignity and discipline.” But just wait! Given the dictates of tribal logic, tribal players like O’Donnell are surely going to try.

Tribal rules about what Cohen said: Should Palin be pummeled for using the term “blood libel?” That is a matter of judgment, though the outrage has been quite selective on MSNBC. Just for the sake of the record, this is what Cohen said on the subject last weekend, just before trashing Palin as “stupid.” And yes, this tape was played by O’Reilly last night:

COHEN (1/16/11): I don't think for a second that Sarah Palin knew the meaning of “blood libel.” I just don't. There is nothing in her background which suggests it. And if she did, I don't think she used it all that inappropriately. I mean, if—if it refers to a false accusation for which a community is blamed, then she was right.

For ourselves, we have no idea if Palin knew the meaning of “blood libel.” But just for the record, Cohen became the latest Jewish observer who said he didn’t think that she had used the term inappropriately.

Alas! The logic of tribal cable told O’Reilly and O’Donnell how to proceed in this matter:

In the one tribe, O’Reilly played this tape of Cohen defending Palin, then trashed him for hating her so much! In the other tribe, O’Donnell has now trashed Palin for using this term on several different programs. But he has never yet told you that some major Jewish observers find no fault with Palin’s usage. And he hasn’t told you that three major MSNBC favorites have used the term that way too.

Can your nation survive this culture? We’ll guess that the answer is no.