Thursday, July 10, 2008

How to talk gently about lies

I have been ruminating about Alex’s comment that the report of disputations among the Taliban is a fake, possibly a CIA plant [see July 2, 2008]. He claims to be able to discern it; apparently, I am not.

The world of “news” is so filled with lies that we all have a hard time sorting them out. The truth seems ever more elusive, the more we understand that so many of those who hawk information have reasons for presenting it in a certain way. We are becoming inured to lies. We are even inventing courteous ways of saying that we are being lied to, perhaps to avoid being so blunt. The newest way, at least that I have noticed, appears in today’s New York Times. Here is Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, talking about Maj. Gen. Jerome Johnson, former commander of the Army Sustainment Command: “I believe General Johnson presented evidence that deceived Congress,” Mr. Dorgan said in an interview. But the neatest way he put it is further down in the article: Dorgan says of Johnson’s report, that it was “a display of negligent disregard for facts that were known to the Pentagon.” “Negligent disregard for facts that were known”: a pretty good definition of “lying”.

But there are other ways to misrepresent the truth. The way that Fox News represents Michelle Obama is to run several minutes of talk about her in which she says scarcely anything except the few words that they find offensive. Given this kind of treatment, how would anyone get across anything they want to say? That kind of treatment indicates again that the “news” is crafted for an audience by social elements that have reasons, interests, in persuading others to see things they way they see it. It becomes all the most critical, then, for us to know what the interests are of those who describe situations. Politics is the contest over how to define the public situation. That makes news agencies political vehicles. Again, we need to know who owns the news companies and what their interests are. We know quite a bit about Fox: it would be nice if they would seek a better reputation; but then Bill O’Reilly is just too valuable.

Somewhere I saw that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth announced that they would be taking on Obama. This is a group whose credentials were dubious when they claimed to represent the real combat experience of John Kerry, and they have even worse credentials for saying anything in particular about Barak Obama. That they announced their plans to go after him reveals in fact what they are: professional character assassinators whose connection with “truth” is and has always been a charade. They have been pretty quiet, though, since both Obama and McCain have appeared to quash the “527 organizations” this time around. In fact, their website now says that as of May 31, 2008, they have “formally disbanded and ceased all operations”. Is it possible their claim to be working on an attack against Obama was an offer to serve the high-rolling elite who funded their activities the last time? These days the super-rich are not dumping so much money into the Republican cause this time around; could it be that the Swift Boaters didn’t get any offers worth their trouble this time? What with the cost of gas these days and the vanished funding from the super-rich, it hardly pays anymore to be in the business of character assassination.


Jeff said...

Please Professor, try not to look so bias yourself. Maybe Fox News is a right leaning news organization. We need the balance. The media in-general is so overwhelming left leaning it's pathetic. You appear to be the typical left leaning educator that infects our higher learning institutions. I had professors like you. They were all well meaning...I guess. But once I left the sanitized class room and got into the practical world I found their ideologies somewhat juvenile. You need to read some Thucydides professor.

By the way, if you want a real good understanding of “a display of negligent disregard for facts,” just listen to anything Senator Dorgan says.

Bob said...

Hi Jeff,
I was uncertain whether to put up this comment, and you are right, at least, to criticize my reference to the Swift Boat guys. I don't agree, however, that the media are as left leaning as you say. My original concerns in starting this blog had to do with affairs in the Middle East and Central Asia, an area that I [should] know something about, and I was horrified by the mistakes or policy and practice by, especially, the Bush administration in the region. On those issues, the media failed us. In fairness I should say that many much more extended works have now come out that detail very well the errors of the past.
But I agree I should not be making snide comments about the Swift Boat people: they will be dealt with, as we all will, in due time. Thanks for your comment.
I will soon be commenting on Rashid's Descent into Chaos. I hope you will read that book; don't dismiss it as a "left" leading work. There is enough there to condemn all of us.
Thanks for looking at the blog and for responding.
Best, Bob

Sami said...

This is a sad reminder of how impoversihed public discourses (specifically vis-a-vis the media)is in the U.S. The notion that there is a genuine right vs. left ideological fissure in American politics is a false one. Relative to say Europe or even India, Americans tilt the farthest rightward. Your two-party state basically consists of one major far-right Republican Party and a right-of-center Democratic Party. There has never really been any mainstream political movement in this country that has had anything in common with the rest of the International Left.

Anyhow, the real problem people like Jeff and other "FOX Fans" have with the so called "liberal media elites" appear condescending to them when they pretend to be objective in presenting the "news" (if there is such a thing left in this country). Because of the packaging success FOX has had and others like CNN have tried to emulate its model (while MSNBC has tried to corner the Obama fan market). In the end, while you get to live in your own separate television nations, you never get any news of the kind the socialists/communists at the BBC or even CNN International provide the rest of the world. If it isn't jingoistic and doesn't cater to your prejudices you don't have any need for it. Balancing meaningless ideological slants within a media bubble means very little if you all you care for is getting different spin on a limited number of issues.

Jeff said...

Professor---Thank you for posting a reply.

The Bush administration did make a number of mistakes early on with Iraq. But if we want to learn from mistakes we need to have an accurate picture. Many of the books supposedly detailing the mistakes are suspect. Much of the sources for the anti-Bush/anti-Iraq war books are from anynomous sources. And those sources are talking about events after the fact. After the fact statements need to be verified to some extent and Woodward and the gang lack in that area. So, at best, some of these books are probably part, or mostly, fiction.

I will look at Rashid's Descent into Chaos. I suggest you read Douglas Feith's new book "War and Decision." This book is based on on the record, not anynomous and unverifiable sources, who may have an axe to grind. If we're determined to get at the truth we need to stay off the bandwagon and think for ourselves.

Bob said...

Hi Jeff,
I do think you should see Descent into Chaos. Rashid is an experienced hand in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the stories he has to tell can make your hair stand on end. Thanks for your note. RLC