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Caveat lector

THE FACTS, MA’AM, JUST SKIP THE FACTS! What are the facts about U.N. inspections? On Crossfire, the boys didn’t care:


OUR LATEST INCOHERENT DISCUSSION: Our incoherent discussion continues. On C-SPAN, yesterday’s vote is consistently presented in a certain way: Do you, or don’t you, support the president? But support the president in what, we would ask? He hasn’t said what he’s going to do. At present, the president seems to be at the U.N., seeking an inspection regime.

Yesterday’s vote merely transfers power. If an inspection regime is put into place, it will be Bush who decides if the action is sufficient, not the U.S. Congress. It will be Bush who decides if we go to war, not the body the Constitution wisely designated.

At any rate, we will eventually have to decide if a particular inspection regime is sufficient. But how well will we understand the factual issues involved in that judgment? On last night’s Crossfire, Scott Ritter and Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) produced the following exchange:

SHADEGG: I agree with [Ritter], we need an inspections regime. But as recently as yesterday, Saddam Hussein said he will not agree to any new inspections. That means he will not agree to inspection of the palace grounds. And that means we simply will never know if they have the weapons.
RITTER: That’s simply—that simply shows your ignorance, sir. They have agreed to a resolution that says that palaces can be inspected. It’s in the memorandum of understanding.
SHADEGG: No they have not.
RITTER: Look, you’re lying to the American public if you’re saying that. They have said they will agree to inspections under existing Security Council resolutions. And Resolution 1154 clearly states that the memorandum of understanding, that it was agreed upon between Kofi Annan and the Iraqi government, allows inspectors in.
SHADEGG: But not—come on, let’s be honest about it. Let’s deal with the facts. Not to inspect the weapons, the presidential palaces.
RITTER: No, you’re wrong, it is to inspect the presidential palaces. You should do less soul searching and more researching.
TUCKER CARLSON: If I can break this up for a one second. We want to take a quick commercial break and we’ll be back in just a minute to take up where we left off. We’ll be right back.
Wow! A red hot, name-calling, clear-cut exchange on a crucial factual issue! Surely Carlson and co-host Paul Begalas came right back and resolved the key factual matter! Sorry. Here is what Carlson said as he continued to move to his break:
CARLSON (continuing directly): Some people say Scott Ritter became a traitor when he spoke before the Iraqi national assembly. We’ll ask him if he is next.
And sure, enough, when Crossfire returned, no effort was made—none at all—to resolved the crucial factual impasse. Instead, we went straight to the dimwit fare about motive and character that makes up the heart of our pseudo-debates.

Who was right in the factual dispute between Ritter and Shadegg? We don’t know, and you probably don’t either. And for the record, neither Carlson nor Begala showed any sign of knowing. But there was something much more important than that—they also showed no sign of caring as they moved on to mull Ritter’s motives. This small episode typifies the know-nothing approach we now take to our critical debates.

Will the American people be able to judge the utility of a future inspection regime? That will depend on the media’s desire to get the key facts on the table. Last week, David Von Drehle wisely made it one of his basic questions: “Is disarmament possible without ‘regime change’?” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/8/02). Eventually, the public will have to judge that question (the congress has pulled itself out of the mix). With that important Decision Day coming, maybe it’s time for the media to stop clowning around about who’s a Big Traitor, and act like big grown boys and girls at long last.

Then, as always, there’s Andrew Sullivan, engaged in his school-boy spinning:

MORE BUSH VICTORIES: A solid win in the House and almost certainly an emphatic one in the Senate. More interestingly, the polls show that Americans get the president’s arguments about Iraq in a post-9/11 world. According to a Pew Center poll, reported by ABCNews,
86 percent of those surveyed believed Saddam had nuclear weapons or was close to acquiring them, and 66 percent believed he was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Bush cites the attacks as demonstrating the need to act against Saddam, and has linked his campaign against Iraq to the “war on terrorism” he launched last fall, but he has not established a direct link between Sept. 11 and Iraq. Bush has also warned that Iraq could build a nuclear weapon within a year if it can get enriched uranium. “Clearly, the president’s major arguments in favor of taking military action against Iraq are resonating with the public,” the Pew center said in its report on the poll. Furthermore, 85 percent of those surveyed believed that the Saddam must be ousted—rather than simply disarmed—to deal with the threat posed by Iraq.

The Pew poll, if accurate, is clearly important, since it shows what the public is thinking on central questions. But there’s a dirty little story that never gets told by a press corps which loves polling figures. That story? On factual matters, the public almost never has the slightest idea what it’s talking about, and that is almost surely the case with the people polled on these matters. How much do these citizens know about the facts behind these matters? In this case, as in most other matters, the chances are good that they know next to nothing. Their level of knowledge could have been established by an information survey, but press entities almost never conduct them.

These Pew figures, if accurate, show that the public is agreeing with Bush’s presentations. Sullivan presents this in a cheerful way: to him, the figures mean that the public is “getting Bush’s arguments.” Agreement is important, but we’ll bet you a dollar that but most of these people have no idea what they’re talking about. For example, how many could have settled the Shadegg-Ritter dispute? Surely, we don’t have to ask.

Remember, facts play a decreasing role in our devolving press culture. Last night, Carlson and Begala hurried on, eager to examine a guest’s inner state. Why are Pew’s pollees likely short on facts? That’s easy: Most people get cable.