Just Above Sunset
February 13, 2005: What the Press Reports - Notes on Objectivity and Selectivity

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Some readers know Just Above Sunset has a low tolerance for Internet hoaxes.  There are sites like Urban Legends, and others, which expose them all the time.  But this below is actually on the Bush White House site – a transcript of a speech last Friday.  I have scanned the sites that expose hoaxes but this seems to be real.  Unless someone hacked the White House website.


Read it and make sense of it. 


Two years ago I wondered why the press doesn’t call out flat-out lies.  I commented on remarks by the President and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in a photo opportunity - according to a White House Press Release - July 14, 2003  2:11 P.M. EDT:


The fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely.  And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in.  And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region.  I firmly believe the decisions we made will make America more secure and the world more peaceful.


I found this kind of extraordinary.  The basic facts were wrong, or….  Think about it - CNN got it flat-out wrong.  I watched that stuff from the UN, about how the Blix fellow and his team were in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction and coming back to New York every few weeks to talk about what they had and had not found.  Now it seems that never really happened.  No UN inspectors ever went to Iraq.  They were never allowed in.  So the press has been irresponsible – they made all that up.  It was all done on a sound stage somewhere?  Why did CNN and the rest fabricate this whole thing?  Our government went to war precisely because Blix never made those trips CNN and the rest was reporting.  He wasn’t ever allowed in.  Damn.  Why didn’t they tell us?  See July 27, 2003 Mail for it all.


Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, replied, defending the press -


Was this a Bush "lie" or a Bush "goof"?  An argument can be made for both sides.  Technically, he's obviously wrong, UN inspectors did obviously go in and then leave shortly before the bombing started.  On the other hand, he was probably thinking of that time before the UN resolution when Iraq actually was refusing to allow the inspectors in, at least unconditionally.


  Although people think journalists are always there, ready to jump all over slips like this, that's pretty much a misconception.  Think about it.  Although you may think you do, you actually rarely see news media, on their own authority, running around pointing out the lies of public officials.  What you actually see is news media running around reporting on some political opponents' claims about the other guy's lies.  Try as it might, objective journalism has yet to find a way to independently expose what may or may not be "lies" and even just "goofs" without appearing, maybe with some justification, like they're just pimping for some special interest or political ideology.


So is this below a goof?  If you were a reporter or editor, how would you report it?  How much of the benefit of the doubt do you give here?  The man is a dangerous fool.  Well, maybe he was tired.  But here, do we know what he “really” meant? 


For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
February 4, 2005

President Discusses Strengthening Social Security in Florida
Tampa Convention Center
Tampa, Florida


… THE PRESIDENT: Because the -- all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those -- changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be -- or closer delivered to what has been promised.


Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the -- like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate -- the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those -- if that growth is affected, it will help on the red.


Okay, better? I'll keep working on it.




And Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, explains again.


Of course it's a goof! Bush's brain got into a fistfight with his tongue, and both of them got pummeled into submission! Not the first time that's happened.


Do we know what he was trying to say? Of course we do, although you may have already had to have followed the discussion to know what he was alluding to, which is to the proposals on the table whether to tie the size of Social Security benefits to wages or to prices.


The man may or may not be a dangerous fool, but that has little to do with what went on here; what sort of danger did he put America into by blithering a passel of nonsense to a bunch of people in Tampa?


If I were a reporter or editor, I wouldn't bother with this story, except possibly as one of those humorous kickers about Bush tripping over his mouth once again, and only then on a very slow news day.


We need a serious report on this? To what end? To demonstrate how much better off we would be if we amended the constitution to allow his predecessor in office, obviously more articulate than this president, to serve a third term? Or to once again try to convince those red states that they voted for the wrong guy? Do you honestly think they didn't already know he couldn't talk his way out of a paper bag when they voted for him?


In other words, is there any motive to play up this story other than trying to rack up some partisan "gotchas"?  I can't think of any.


In fact, if the press did come down on this incident like flies on shit, the general public would not only accuse them of anti-Bush bias, the public would be right.


Joseph, our expatriate American friend in Paris doesn’t buy it – 

Oh, come off it, Rick. There is a story here. That story is: what's wrong with Bush is what is wrong with America - a country which in its fat middle can no longer read, write, or reason.


I still shriek with laughter (mostly at Harvard) to think that Bush "earned" an MBA.  This was all pre-GMAT, BTW.  Having just taken said exam, I cannot imagine Bush scoring north of the 20th percentile.  Based on that, he would not be accepted at the University of North Iowa.


The story, Rick, is that our "leader" may be the most confused, inarticulate and dishonest in the world.  Not in the civilized world, Rick.  In the whole wide world.  Nambians, Rick, expect more from their leadership.


In virtually any other country with a "free press" any politician who behaved this way would take a real pranging, and it would be recognized for the embarrassment that it is.  When this occurs are foreign journalists politically motivated, or is it just a slow news day?

Strong words.  So I devised a news story -


Let's see, the opening paragraphs to a hypothetical news story - 


Today in a speech delivered in Tampa, President Bush lapsed into apparent incoherency while attempting to explain his thoughts on why the Social Security program is in crisis and reform of the program is necessary.  When pressed later on the matter, White House spokesman Bob Smith dismissed questions from CNN, NBC and Fox News regarding the president’s words, asserting that the president was not suffering from any sort of mental disorder nor was he unable to actually comprehend the nature of the program he wishes to change.  Smith also denied the president was fatigued and lost his train of thought.  "Everyone knows what the President means," Smith said, "and those who expect elegant words need to remember the American people know that coherence and precision in thought and expression mean nothing, as it is what the president does, not what he says, that matters."  Smith added that this was why the previous Clinton administration was so reviled by the American people and the world, as that administration "in spite of all its fancy words caused untold economic damage the current administration is trying desperately to repair."  Smith added these questions from the press revealed an elitist bias from "fancy-pants college types who think they are better than other Americans because they take education and coherence seriously."


In a related comment, Smith said the president would soon shift his focus to an effort to shore up the country's preeminence in science and technology by requiring all science courses be based on revealed Biblical truth - that evolution was simply a questionable theory based on inadequate evidence, and any theories in geology that claim the earth was any older six thousand years could not be true, given what is in the Bible and was calculated by Bishop Usher in the early eighteenth century.  ...


And so on and so forth.  That's the alternative universe.


But Rick in Atlanta persists -


Okay, first of all, virtually everyone screws up at some point or other, no matter what school they graduated from.


But second of all, the real story you are pitching may be a "think piece" that examines the comparatively low quality of American (especially higher?) education.  (Some of the more cynical in the news biz call this kind of analysis a "thumbsucker," but one reason I love listening to NPR news is that it is filled with what I prefer to call "think pieces.")  By the way, I imagine yours would be a good story, although it would need to touch on the fact that foreigners flock from all over the world to enroll in our colleges, universities, and grad schools.


Still, although you might use a few Bush sound bites as examples to make your point, critics of your report might justifiably fault that tactic by claiming Bush's verbal farts (or are they cerebral?) may not be an obvious result of the low quality of our educational system but may indeed be a sign of something else. In any event, the story would not be about Bush (since he didn't just start doing this stuff since America reelected him in November) but would be about how hard it is to get a good education in this country.


More to the point, if you want to be an advocate, you'll have to learn to not look for a job in the so-called mainstream media (although, assuming you think Fox is "mainstream," they may take you on, depending on what you're advocating.) You may prefer that all journalists take sides, but you can bet that whatever mainstream media outlet starts advocating a particular cause over another will stop being mainstream, mostly because the general public will question their objectivity and will stop listening to them.


Another way of saying that is, if you want to work in the mainstream media, best go there with a desire to "inform" the world, not to "reform" it.


And while you were so busy inventing a story out of whole cloth, including made-up facts and quotations, you forgot to make up a byline:


By Jason Blair

New York Times Reporter


Is there some Bob Smith guy at the White House who actually said, "those who expect elegant words need to remember the American people know that coherence and precision in thought and expression mean nothing, as it is what the president does, not what he says, that matters," along with those other things about "fancy-pants college types"?  Now, that WOULD be a news story!


Which may be why they never say things like that in the White House, since I'm sure the non-existence of headlines about brash and stupid things said by White House spokesmen make their lives so much easier over there.


But while seeing Bush once again getting tangled up as he tries to explain himself is, I'm sure, a source of amusement to those who really, really dislike him, it actually adds nothing new to the public discourse. The people who don't like Bush already know this about him, while the people who do like him don't care. And unless there's a wide consensus that brain farting might actually be an impeachable offense - in which case you might have yourself a news story that even folks who DON'T dislike Bush as much as you do just can't ignore - there really are no action items on this table.


Also worth noting:


The news peg of your story seems to rest on the "fact" that "President Bush lapsed into apparent incoherency while attempting to explain his thoughts..."  Other than, as I keep saying, that Bush does this sort of thing all the time and that this Tampa item in no way advances that story, it's also the kind of wording your editors would not allow. If Bush boarded a plane, that's a fact; if he "lapsed into apparent incoherency," that's opinion. Virtually nobody can dispute that he got onto the plane, but whatever "apparent incoherency" may be apparent to the reporter might not necessarily be apparent to everyone else.


Then from Montréal up in Canada Nico weighed in -


Letterman did a tribute show to the Carson a week or so back, and the Tonight Show producer recounted Johnny listening awestruck to one of the Charlie’s Angels talk blankly.  In the eventual lull, he leans over and asks if she'd ever read a book.


And with that he defines this one all pervasive idea of America, where anyone is able to be some divine fool, and succeed beyond any expectations.


On the skeleton coast, grasp and wit in leadership are a must.  Plus Nambians probably know their leaders by blood.  Bush may lead America, but likely not the



I found the bush byte as incoherent as post Super Bowl philosophers.  It does little to define him, except maybe set an expectation.  Definitely not a journalistic coup.  A picture of him drooling.


The first paragraph sounds like a memorized sound-byte.  Forgetting the inspections was what declaring the war was about.  Duh.


But America is home to many of the world's most educated and articulate people.   Intelligence seeks out its education, the rest high school diplomas.  It's like that most places, except elsewhere you'd study something enough to make money at it.   If not that, you'd be a peasant, not a potential coveted idol.


I was just back in Virginia last week where I saw a lot of good friends.  They are a varied group that brings a wealth of education and experience together.   In the hills of Middleburg, I saw poster for the 400 year anniversary of the state. 


I remembered the many civil war re-enactments I'd come to in that same rolling landscape with the kid next door, who'd dress like a ghost soldier and run through musket and cannon smoke with teeming others.


The place has substance and quality, and happy peasants.  It is a shock troop, even now, to WashingWood's oddity bubble only thirty miles away.  You can see and feel it change as you approach Crystal City from outside the Beltway.  There is life (and drooling) between Hollywood and Washington.


And Joseph in Paris piled on -


Seriously, though, the thing that's disturbing about hearing Bush go on like that is that he does not at all sound like some confused person "trying to explain himself" - he sounds like one of those commercials in which a four year old has been given some complex passage to memorize and read out loud.  Naturally, as he has no understanding of the material or what it all means, it's comes out sounding like Bush.   THAT’S what's disturbing: that he sounds like a four year old who has been given something difficult to memorize.


Of course, that reminded me of this – “Everyone has a photographic memory. Some don’t have film.”  (Steven Wright)


And Rick in Atlanta has the final word.


I agree!


And I only wish this was newsworthy, since the liberal part of me looks at these shows and says, "Holy Jesus! Look what we've done to ourselves! Have we so little self-respect as a nation that we'd punish ourselves this way?"


The answer, of course, is, yes, we probably do, since we kept him in office knowing he's this way.


Some of us just wish it were newsworthy.  Some of us think it is.  When the Pope gets sick the press covers it, so if the president loses it more and more often and seems befuddled?  Is that news?


Oh, never mind.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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