Richard Cohen is, supposedly, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post. Never mind that he embraced the Iraq war, belittling those who did not buy the Bush administration's trumped-up case for war as "fools or Frenchmen." Never mind his defense of the Bush administration's outting of Valerie Plame, or his defense of Monica Goodling, or his defense of financial services executives who ran their companies into the ground and the business media that stood idly by while it happened, or his outrage that Stephen Colbert dared make fun of President Bush's low approval ratings at the White House correspondents dinner -- or the fact that he didn't seem to mind Bush's jokes at an earlier dinner about failing to find WMD in Iraq.
Never mind all that. Richard Cohen is the Washington Post's idea of a liberal. And Richard Cohen loves him some torture.
Here, Cohen describes the capture of a hypothetical terrorist:
Now he is in American custody. What will happen? How do we get him to reveal his group's plans and the names of his colleagues? It will be hard. It will, in fact, be harder than it used to be. He can no longer be waterboarded. He knows this. He cannot be deprived of more than a set amount of sleep. He cannot be beaten or thrown up against even a soft wall. He cannot be threatened with shooting or even frightened by the prospect of an electric drill. Nothing really can be threatened against his relatives -- that they will be killed or sexually abused.
"Harder than it used to be"? Only if torture works. If torture doesn't work, it may well be easier than it used to be.
Note, also, Cohen's nonchalant descriptions of torture: The repeated use of the word "even," designed to make the tactics (physically assualting a captive, making her think you're going to drill a damn hole in her head) sound like no big deal. A prohibition on making a captive think you're going to rape and murder his seven year old daughter is turned into "nothing really can be threated against his relatives."
Next, Cohen suggests that torture is little more than what New York Times reporter Judith Miller went through: "Special prosecutors are often themselves like interrogators -- they don't know when to stop. They go on and on because, well, they can go on and on. One of them managed to put Judith Miller of The New York Times in jail -- a wee bit of torture right there."
Yes, that's right: Judith Miller's prison sentance -- during which she had to suffer the indignity of her newspaper arriving a day late, leaving her woefully uninformed for her frequent visits from people like Tom Browkaw and Bob Dole -- was kind of like being waterboarded and having your captors threaten to rape and murder your children.
Back to Cohen:
No one can possibly believe that America is now safer because of the new restrictions on enhanced interrogation and the subsequent appointment of a special prosecutor.
Nonsense. If you think torture doesn't work -- and there is a great deal of evidence that it doesn't -- then of course America is safer for not torturing. We no longer waste time on tactics that don't work. We no longer enrage the world by engaging in barbaric and inhuman torture.
Cohen's claim is absurd on its face. But it is also a striking reminder of one of his darkest moments as a columnist:
Richard Cohen, in a column headlined "A Winning Hand For Powell," declared that Powell's presentation "had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise." Cohen was careful to make clear that he based his own conclusion not upon an examination of Powell's arguments and evidence, but on Powell himself: "The clincher ... was the totality of the material and the fact that Powell himself had presented it. In this case, the messenger may have been more important than the message."
Once again, Richard Cohen mistakes his own inability to see through conservative talking points for the truthfulness of those talking points.
Sure, Cohen makes a late assertion of his "abhorrence of torture." But after wading through his spurious claims about torture working, only a fool would believe him.
Here are Glenn Beck's August 31 sponsors, in the order they appeared:
Remember that fawning Washington Post profile of National Organization for Marriage executive director Brian Brown? The one that omitted facts that make NOM and Brown look bad, and -- despite running more than 2,000 words -- didn't contain a single quote critical of Brown? Well, I just stumbled across something else Washington Post writer Monica Hesse left out.
Hesse's profile opens by drawing an explicit contrast between Brian Brown and people like Pat Robertson and James Dobson:
The nightmares of gay marriage supporters are the Pat Robertsons of the world. The James Dobsons, the John Hagees -- the people who specialize in whipping crowds into frothy frenzies, who say things like Katrina was caused by the gays.
The gay marriage supporters have not met Brian Brown. They should. He might be more worth knowing about.
The thing about the John Hagees and the Pat Robertsons is that some people consider them "fringe." And when they speechify, the people they're most persuasive with are the ones who already believe them.
But this country is not made up of people in the far wings, right or left. This country is made up of a movable middle, reasonable people looking for reasonable arguments to assure them that their feelings have a rational basis.
Brian Brown speaks to these people.
That set the tone for the profile: Brian Brown isn't like "fringe" activists like Robertson, Hagee, and James Dobson.
A bit later, Hesse makes passing mention of Brown's previous job:
After UCLA he accepted a position with the Family Institute of Connecticut, and worked to prevent the distribution of condoms in schools.
No explanation of what the Family Institute of Connecticut is. Well, guess what? Here's how the Hartford Courant described the group in 2005:
"It now is associated with Focus on the Family, the group headed by the nationally known conservative James Dobson, but the institute's budget of $450,000 comes entirely from individual contributions, Brown said."
Huh. So, Brown's last job was running a group associated with James Dobson's Focus on the Family. Seems like the kind of information that should be included in a profile that portrays Brown as nothing like that nasty James Dobson, doesn't it?
And, given that the profile echoes Brown's argument that he is just interested in preserving the "history" and "tradition" of "the institution of marriage" being "between a man and a woman," doesn't it seem like the Post should have mentioned that Brown opposes even civil unions?
And shouldn't a profile that adopts Brown's portrayal of himself as a friendly guy who doesn't have anything against gay people -- some of his "friends and family" are gay! -- but just wants to limit "marriage" as something between a man and a woman perhaps note that not only does Brown oppose gay marriage, he wants to keep gays out of his church?
Brian Brown, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut -- which led a petition drive for the Defense of Marriage Act -- was also among those marching with Wyatt. Brown said the acceptance of homosexuality in the church marked the destruction of the American family and marriage.
"That radical of a departure from Christian tradition ... warrants a march," Brown said as he wheeled his children, Elizabeth, 3, and Brian, 1, in a stroller. [Hartford Courant, 8/20/03]
And shouldn't a profile that emphasizes how reasonable and sane a person is maybe mention that he opposes cohabitation between men and women?
In the view of some, the increase in cohabitation between men and women is eroding the institution of marriage.
"I think the whole idea that you shack up, and this is how you figure out what you're going to do with your life, that isn't conducive to the type of commitment you need for a lifelong stable relationship," said Brian Brown, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut. [Hartford Courant, 3/13/03]
And shouldn't an article that describes Brown as someone who "takes nothing personally. He means nothing personal. He is never accusatory or belittling. His arguments are based on his understandings of history, not on messages from God that gays caused Hurricane Katrina" maybe acknowledge that Brown has referred to gay marriage as "the largest battle in the culture wars since Roe v. Wade"? [New York Times, 7/6/03]
At this point, you have to wonder whether Monica Hesse did any actual research at all -- or if she just met Brown, found him pleasant, talked to a couple of his buddies, and dashed off her profile.
It's not an uncommon position. If you know, for example, that Betsy McCaughey has a 15-year record of making false claims about health care, why on earth would you call her for comment about health care? Why would you quote her? Why would you take anything she says seriously? Why would you give her attention, and give her a platform from which to continue to make false claims? Even if you debunk her false claims, you're probably doing a lousy job of it, and you're certainly letting those falsehoods shape the debate. What's the upside? Why is it important that people who have no credibility be part of your coverage?
Now, there are arguments against this shun-the-liars approach. For example, you can argue that some people -- say, Sarah Palin -- are famous enough and have enough fans that their statements are newsworthy, even if their history of untruths should have torpedoed their credibility by now.
But the basic premise that people who lie repeatedly shouldn't be trusted, shouldn't be relied upon for analysis, shouldn't be called for comment, and shouldn't be rewarded with media attention, is quite common, and should be easy to understand.
But, incredibly, Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon appears to be entirely unfamiliar with the concept:
Washington, D.C.: At what point does the media declare somone an unreliable source and stop giving them a platform? I'd think that anyone who continues to spout inaccuracies and/or falsehoods, no matter their political leanings, would be banished at some point. Why do they continue to get platforms on TV and in print to keep giving out bad info?
Perry Bacon Jr.: I don't quite know who you are referring to. I think most writers, myself included, try to note in a story if someone is quoted saying something that is flatly wrong. It's not like falsehoods like the "death panels" thing grow from people declaring it on CNN. It stars on blogs, then gets to talk radio and people believe things before the more traditional media has time to look into the issue.
Forget about the second half of the answer, in which Bacon blames everything on blogs; that's nonsense. It wasn't the blogs or talk radio that invented the falsehood that Al Gore claimed to have discovered Love Canal; it was Perry Bacon's Washington Post colleague Ceci Connolly (who Bacon praised in the same discussion.) Yes, a lot of misinformation starts in the fever swamps and blogs and talk radio and message boards -- and a lot starts at the Washington Post, too. But that isn't at all relevant to the question Bacon was asked.
The question Bacon was asked was very simple: Why does the media continue to give a platform to people who have proven to be unreliable sources? And Bacon doesn't understand the question. It has apparently never crossed his mind that it's one thing to "try to note in a story if someone is quoted saying something that is flatly wrong" -- but the obvious next step is: Stop taking them seriously. Stop quoting them. Stop giving them a platform.
Again: There are reasons you might not agree with that approach. But Bacon isn't disagreeing with it; he appears to be unfamiliar with the concept. That speaks volumes about the elite media: it never occurs to one of the Washington Post's star reporters that maybe he should stop giving attention to liars.
How far out there is right-wing website WorldNetDaily? So far out that most of its fellow conservatives are not only disassociating themselves from it as fast as it can, but are actively figuring out how to boycott it. From an Aug. 31 post by Jon Henke at The Next Right noting WND's embrace of the claim that the federal government is building concentration camps for U.S. political dissidents:
The Birthers are the Birchers of our time, and WorldNetDaily is their pamphlet. The Right has mostly ignored these embarrassing people and organizations, but some people and organizations inexplicably choose to support WND through advertising and email list rental or other collaboration. For instance, I have been told that F.I.R.E (The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) -- an otherwise respectable group that does important work -- uses the WND email list. They should stop.
No respectable organization should support the kind of fringe idiocy that WND peddles. Those who do are not respectable.
I think it's time to find out what conservative/libertarian organizations support WND through advertising, list rental or other commercial collaboration (email me if you know of any), and boycott any of those organizations that will not renounce any further support for WorldNetDaily.
Ouch. That's gonna leave a mark -- well, it would if Joseph Farah, Jerome Corsi and crew had any sense of shame.
Oh, and one of the organizations that has rented WND's mailing list is ... the Republican National Committee. Here's a screenshot from an RNC email sent out August 27 on the WND list:
After playing a clip of Bill Clinton saying that as a matter of politics as well as policy, Democrats need to pass health care legislation, MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell asked Rep. Anthony Weiner:
Congressman, isn't it your colleagues in the House that are preventing something getting done, that they want all or nothing?
I've made this point before, but this is a ridiculously loaded question that could just as easily be asked of those who oppose, for example, a public plan -- but it never is.
Before I explain the double-standard, it's important to note that O'Donnell's question is simply false. House liberals aren't insisting on "all or nothing"; they have already made huge concessions. In fact, Weiner had said just seconds earlier that what he really wants is to "bypass the insurance companies altogether and have something like Medicare for all Americans."
But just seconds after being reminded that Anthony Weiner has already made concessions, giving up the single-payer plan he really wants, O'Donnell accuses him of stubbornly insisting on "all or nothing."
Now, the double-standard.
If people who want a public plan and won't vote for a bill without it can be described as "preventing something getting done" by insisting on "all or nothing," so can people who don't want a public plan and won't vote for a bill with it.
If two sides are fighting over an element of a bill, and neither will back down, it can't be the case that only one of them is stubbornly insisting on their way or the highway.
Finally, O'Donnell's question suggests that what's important is passing something, anything, rather than making sure it's something worth passing. That suggestion is dubious on both policy and political grounds, and isn't an assumption that should guide O'Donnell's journalism.
Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon reacts to the finding by his paper's ombudsman that about 85 percent of Post articles about health care reform have "focused on political maneuvering or protests":
Washington, DC: Hi Perry,
So even the Post's own ombudsman says that the paper's coverage of health care reform has focused way too much on politics and failed to explain the policy issues to the American people. How are you going to change your own reporting, in light of the ombudsman's conclusions?
Perry Bacon Jr.: I think we've had excellent coverage of the some of the major issues. Ceci Connolly wrote an excellent piece about end of life counseling, Alex Macgillis has wrote several smart pieces about the public option and had a great outlook piece laying out the bills themselves. Joel Achenbach took a smart look at the legislative process to write the bill. Shailagh Murray wrote about some of the medicare reforms. Could we write more? Of course. But I think and Andy agreed, we have to cover the politics as well.
So, confronted with evidence that the Post has focused overwhelmingly on politics rather than policy, and that the public doesn't understand the basics of health care reform, Bacon turns his Ombudsman's finding that the paper hasn't done a good job of explaining the policy into an endorsement of the coverage of politics. Smooth.
The bottom line is that the mass confusion about health care makes a strong prima facie case that every news organization could do a better job of explaining the basic facts. When that case is augmented by data showing that 85 percent of a given outlet's coverage has been about the politics rather than policy, the only reasonable response for an employee of that outlet is "We must do better." Instead, they all too often get defensive, pointing to this article or that. Fine. Let's say every article Bacon referred to was excellent -- a dubious assumption, but let's make it. The fact remains: The Post must do better.
Howard Kurtz writes:
Obama's essential appeal in 2008 was his vow to move beyond red and blue partisanship. But that has disappointed some of the liberal pundits who thought he shared their goals.
Really? To the extent that it's possible to identify Obama's "essential appeal" in 2008, it was probably "change," not "his vow to move beyond red and blue partisanship." Kurtz seems to think people who want change are disappointed because they don't understand what's really important: bipartisanship. That's typical of the way the media elite views the world, as I wrote back in January:
To many journalists, bucking your party -- like "centrism" and bipartisanship -- is a noble goal all by itself. But I suspect most people recognize that these things are means, not ends.
Sure, people want the politicians to stop bickering and get things done. But, more specifically, most people want the politicians to stop bickering and do things they want done. A single mother working two minimum-wage jobs to feed her kids might want politicians to come together in a spirit of bipartisanship -- but she doesn't want them to pass bipartisan legislation lowering the minimum wage; she wants a bipartisan bill raising the minimum wage. If she can't have that, I suspect she'd take a party-line minimum-wage increase, even if it means a decrease in the bonhomie at Washington cocktail parties she'll never attend.
For most people, bipartisan consensus is great -- but it is as a means of accomplishing tangible results, not a goal in and of itself. But many political reporters seem to have an ideological, if not religious, commitment to bipartisanship and centrism. But -- and here's where things get really problematic -- they don't really have any idea of where the "center" is.
Kurtz' line explains why the media is so eager for Democrats to cave on health care reform -- to them, it's more important that there be health care reform that passes with Republican votes (no matter how unlikely that is) than it is for health care reform to actually be good. They care more about "bipartisanship" than about effective solutions to the nation's problems.
W]hen it came to the ''death panels,'' The Washington Post's influential media reporter, Howard Kurtz, observed: ''For once, mainstream journalists did not retreat to the studied neutrality of quoting dueling antagonists.'' Reporters took the additional step of pointing out, on their own authority, that the proposals don't contain any such provision. To ''he said, she said,'' was added: ''we say.''
Trouble is, it hasn't really mattered. Even though news organizations debunked the claim, 45 percent of respondents to an NBC poll still believe the reforms would indeed allow the federal government to halt treatment to the elderly -- a staggering number.
Why? Maybe because, by Kurtz's count, Palin's ''death panels'' were mentioned 18 times by his own paper, 16 times in The New York Times and at least 154 times on cable and network news (not including daytime news shows.)
Plainly, refuting a falsehood doesn't keep it from doing harm. The solution isn't some cheap fix, first giving end-of-the-world play to some incendiary fantasy and then inserting a line that says the preceding was utter rubbish. The real problem goes to the core of traditional news practices. As Greg Marx noted in a sensible Columbia Journalism Review posting, the solution is ''making a more concerted effort not to disseminate false or dubious claims in the first place.''
As the saying goes, what really matters isn't what people think, it's what they think about: Debunking falsehoods is fine, but the more that news media embrace it as if it's a cure-all, the worse we'll all be. The solution isn't to refute, it's to ignore. End the practice of rewarding the most sensational, the most irresponsible, the most baseless allegations with top-of-the-news billing. The media bury worthwhile news all the time; how about burying the worthless stuff?
Wasserman makes an important point: As bad as the media's handling of misinformation about health care has been, the bigger problem is that they've done a lousy job of telling readers and viewers what is true. By not focusing -- repeatedly and clearly -- on the central facts about health care reform, they guarantee that the falsehoods will be what people think about.
Telling the truth requires more than telling people what the lies are.