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Daily Howler: False beliefs are everywhere, a Times op-ed said. So too bollixed logic
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ALL TOO HUMAN! False beliefs are everywhere, a Times op-ed said. So too bollixed logic: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JULY 1, 2008

THE CASE OF THE MISSING SO-CALLEDS: Speculation confirmed! Yesterday, discussing Neal Gabler’s piece in the Los Angeles Times, we wondered if a bunch of “so-calleds” might have been dropped by an editor (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/08). Gabler, a long-time favorite of ours, e-mailed with the body count. He said he should have stressed a basic fact a bit harder—the fact that the journalists in question, the ones who have murdered Big Dems through the years, really aren’t “liberals.” That said, he told us that two “so-calleds” and one “allegedly” were edited out of his copy.

It’s true, and it’s important: Dems haven’t been murdered by Limbaugh and Hannity, as Gabler importantly said in his piece. Over the past many years, the major damage has been done by a string of major “mainstream” news orgs—by the so-called liberal media.

By lunch-time yesterday, another thought had entered our heads: When the term “left-wing” was applied to Dowd, that may have been an editor’s idea of a synonym for “liberal.” We didn’t quite ask, and Gabler didn’t say. But yes, that sort of thing happens too. Who would think those terms meant the same thing? Readers! Must you ask?

Gabler’s piece is very important, once the “so-calleds” get factored back in. The liberal world is still obsessively focused on Fox and Rush. But Fox largely reaches the choir, as Gabler explained in his piece. The serious damage done to Clinton, then to Gore, came from the Washington Post and the New York Times. And it came from NBC News, the network Jack Welch built. Given the endless conflicts of interest involved in these matters, it has proven very hard to get liberals to appreciate this fact. Professional liberals love banging Fox. And they tend to obscure our real history.

It’s very important that citizens learn who Matthews/Dowd/Collins/the late Russert are. There are many ways we can think of these people. But citizens need to learn a key fact: Whoever they are, they really aren’t “liberals.” And they sure aren’t “the left”—or “left-wing.”

In the next few months, we and Gabler plan to take over the world. We’ll make all these matters clear then.

ALL TOO HUMAN: The American people are pretty sharp! It’s a standard talking-point, beloved among pols and pundits alike. Unfortunately, the pleasing claim is a bit of a stretch. In Friday’s New York Times, Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt began an op-ed piece thusly:

WANG AND AAMODT (6/27/08): False beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found. Thus it seems slightly less egregious that, according to another poll, 10 percent of us think that Senator Barack Obama, a Christian, is instead a Muslim. The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories—and mislead us along the way.

Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth? We’ll guess that a certain percentage have no view at all—have never considered the matter. But then, information surveys persistently show the factual ignorance of we-the-people. Typically, journalists don’t like to go there. But we Americans don’t know what we’re talking about, on every conceivable subject.

Ten percent think Obama’s a Muslim? On the front page of yesterday’s Post, Eli Saslow did some valuable reporting from Findlay, Ohio about this groaning problem. But with great persistence, we are constantly shocked—shocked—to learn that misinformation is going on at this casino. (How can so many people think that Iraq was involved in 9/11?) In fact, we Americans are constantly misinformed, even about the most crucial topics. When we express our shock at some new demonstration of same, we only show one more part of this stew. As a nation, we tend to be deeply misinformed about our own state of misinformation.

Ignorance is different from dumbness, of course—but we’re tangled up in that trait too. As Wang and Aamodt continued, they discussed some all-too-human ways we become dis- and misinformed. By paragraph 3, they were breaking our hearts with these all-too-human observations:

WANG/AAMODT: This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

[...]

Journalists and campaign workers may think they are acting to counter misinformation by pointing out that it is not true. But by repeating a false rumor, they may inadvertently make it stronger. In its concerted effort to “stop the smears,” the Obama campaign may want to keep this in mind.

In short, in the course of debunking a bogus statement, you will only convince many people it’s true. (How well we understand that one!) Perhaps understandably, Wang and Aamodt seem to be living in a scholarly dream world; they still picture modern journalists trying to “counter misinformation!” But their overall point is well taken—and they felt the need to present this heart-breaking point too:

WANG/AAMODT: Adding to this innate tendency to mold information we recall is the way our brains fit facts into established mental frameworks. We tend to remember news that accords with our worldview, and discount statements that contradict it.

If you ever doubted that one, just go read the Huffington Post, or watch one of Olbermann’s “Special embarrassments.” (Warning! Thespian crossing!) For most of the past twenty years, pseudo-conservatives had taken the lead in public displays of selective inanity. In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, pseudo-liberals have made it clear: We’re determined to close the gap.

“False beliefs are everywhere,” Wang and Aamodt wrote. And so is our all-too-human selective reasoning. Last Friday, we chuckled mordantly as we read the Wang/Aamodt piece—then looked to this New York Times editorial, right on the facing page.

“Lock and Load,” the headline said. The editors were in a state of high dudgeon about the Supreme Court’s decision on guns. We’re not experts on the Second Amendment ourselves—but we started a bit when at the editors’ second paragraph. One key word gave us pause:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (6/27/08): In a radical break from 70 years of Supreme Court precedent, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, declared that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to bear arms for nonmilitary uses, even though the amendment clearly links the right to service in a “militia.” The ruling will give gun-rights advocates a powerful new legal tool to try to strike down gun-control laws across the nation.

The Second Amendment “clearly” links the right to bear arms to service in a militia? That statement could be defended as technically accurate, we suppose; in the Second Amendment, the clause about bearing arms is clearly linked—by a comma—to a clause about militias. But little else seems especially “clear” about this matter—except in the minds of the editors, who seemed to be “remembering news that accorded with their worldview,” to adapt the Wang/Aamodt framework.

In the Times’ front-page news report that same day, for example, Linda Greenhouse described a situation which seemed a good deal less clear. Indeed, in this Wall Street Journal op-ed from March, liberal icon Laurence Tribe had noted the following: “[S]ome liberal scholars like me, having studied the text and history closely, have concluded, against our political instincts, that the Second Amendment protects more than a collective right to own and use guns in the service of state militias and national guard units.” Tribe’s evolving view on this subject has been widely discussed in recent years. But the news doesn’t seem to have reached the Times board room, where the editors seemed to be “discounting statements that contradict” their own political instincts. A few grafs later, the editors were perhaps seeing things a bit too clearly again:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: Overturning that law, the court’s 5-to-4 decision says that individuals have a constitutional right to keep guns in their homes for self-defense. But that’s a sharp reversal for the court: as early as 1939, it made clear that the Second Amendment only protects the right of people to carry guns for military use in a militia.

To the editors, things were “clear” in 1939 too. But uh-oh! Out on page one, Greenhouse was saying that this 1939 opinion was short (five pages)—and “opaque.” Again, things seemed more “clear” on the editorial page than in the front-page reporting.

In our view, this is the way Times editorials have tended since Andrew Rosenthal took control of the board. Rosenthal seems to favor a shirts-and-skins world. This struck us as Classic Rosenthal:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: This audaciously harmful decision, which hands the far right a victory it has sought for decades, is a powerful reminder of why voters need to have the Supreme Court firmly in mind when they vote for the president this fall.

To our taste, Rosenthal seems to live in a Mitty-like realm, where he audaciously defies “the far right.” The Times seemed inclined this way before his reign. But it seems that the quotient has risen.

But then, the spiraling dumbness of our discourse seems to be all around us. In Ohio, citizens swear by the freshest rumors, brought to them each day by the milkman. On cable TV, screaming mimis ponder the latest alleged insult/outrage, which they yank out of context and happily flog, thereby making it through the night. And pseudo-liberals seem determined to match pseudo-cons in public dumbness. The American people are pretty sharp—but we’re also all-too-human. As we near our nation’s birthday, have we become too dumb to be self-governing? False beliefs (and bollixed logic) are everywhere? Can that be true even here, where we live?

TOMORROW: The dumbness of the discourse.