Friday, April 22, 2011

Equivocation From Politico

Politico elucidates a telling flaw of the 'both sides have points' journalism paradigm. Ben Smith has apparently been racking has brain to normalize the statistic that half of Republicans believe that President Obama was not born in Hawaii, and that consequently, a massive fraud was performed 50 years ago to fake his eligibility. The Politico leading light compares the shocking 45% of Republicans who believe that President Obama was born outside of the U.S. to Democrats who answered either 'very' or 'somewhat' the question:
"How likely is it that people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East?"
This comparison is completely inadequate, inappropriate, and embarrassing for a major media outlet to make, even off-hand at a cocktail party. Ben Smith wrote it on his official blog.

First of all, the facts behind the questions are distinctly different. "people... taking no action to stop the attacks" is not exactly a statement that was contradicted by evidence. Evidence proving that inaction was due to an absence of knowledge is hard to imagine, much less come by. President Bush and his national security team had even been briefed with a daily update titled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike U.S." about a month before the attacks. On the other hand, President Obama's birth certificate is a matter of public record, and the contention that "the President was born outside of the U.S." has been flatly contradicted by... well, reality. It would be difficult to disprove the 9/11 inaction theory empirically, though believing it certainly requires believing the worst about American leadership. On the other hand, birtherism requires a dogmatic rejection of reality.

Liberal American ideology would tend to provoke Democrats to believe that someone somewhere in the government had forewarning about the 9/11 attacks. The tendency among the party that erected the Great Society and offered the New Deal is to emphasize the government's capabilities. If someone in the government hadn't had prior knowledge of the attacks, it strikes at a core trust in the capability of the state to protect Americans. The error behind the "Bush Knew" conspiracy theory results from placing too much faith in government.

The pertinent question is: what does the error behind the Birther conspiracy say about the Republican party? Republicans are distrustful of government, sure, but distrustful to the point where they believe that local newspapers, every current media outlet, and the State of Hawaii perpetrate a fraud allowing the country to democratically elect Barack Obama? The only plausible lesson that we get about Republicans is that they believe their political opponents don't legitimately exist. Some democrats had doubts about the intentions of the Bush Administration; some Republicans steadfastly refuse to believe the reality around them. The two statements are simply not similar.

But even if they were equivalent statements (or said something fundamentally similar about the respondents), the numbers don't stack up to make Ben Smith's case. 45% of Republicans fully believe that the President was born outside the United States. "Fully" another 22% said they "weren't sure," i.e. that it was "somewhat likely" that the President was not a natural born citizen. Comparing the 50% of Democrats who thought it was 'somewhat' or 'very' likely that Bush or someone in the Government allowed the 9/11 attacks from ulterior motives to the 67% of Republicans who believe that President Obama's birth in the U.S. is not an established fact may be fair. But Ben Smith double counts the Democrats(or massively undercounts the Republicans, depending on your point of view). The better comparison is between the true believers. 23% of Democrats believed that it was "very likely" that, to use Ben Smith's simplification "Bush Knew." 45% of Republicans believe that Obama's birth certificate is not valid.

I honestly don't know why Ben Smith would invest so much time and energy attempting to normalize the reality-rejectionist wing of the Republican party. Perhaps it endears him to the reality-rejectionist leaders in Congress. It's too bad that he sympathizes with those either fundamentally dishonest or fundamentally insane Republicans and helps to push along the paradigm that both points of view need to be reported.

The Progressive response to this atrocity of equivocation, to be successful, would be to subvert the traditional media by forcing them to balance unmoored non-relevant statements from "both sides" of every "debate." It's too bad that Progressives care too much about the country to effectively pursue this strategy, which would threaten to destroy the press, long looked to as the organ of public sentiment.

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