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Who Parses The Parsers?

Reader Paul Krugman (really!) writes in to note that he was onto the whole "technically accurate, actually false" scene way back when:

For example, some commentators have suggested that Mr. Bush should be let off the hook as long as there is some interpretation of his prewar statements that is technically true. Really? We're not talking about a business dispute that hinges on the fine print of the contract; we're talking about the most solemn decision a nation can make. If Mr. Bush's speeches gave the nation a misleading impression about the case for war, close textual analysis showing that he didn't literally say what he seemed to be saying is no excuse. On the contrary, it suggests that he knew that his case couldn't stand close scrutiny.
Along these lines, let me issue a hearty recommendation to All The President's Spin by the Spinsanity folks, which is all over this stuff. I know a lot of people don't like the way this crew bends over backwards to go tit for tat criticizing liberals and conservatives, but the book in question is purely anti-Bush stuff, so don't let that worry you. Better, they very effectively move beyond the whole "media bias" thing to a sound structural look at what's going on. The issue, as they correctly frame it, is not that the administration has gone about behaving in such-and-such a way and the press has failed to call them on it because the press is full of bad people. Rather, the press was there first and established a tradition of going about its business in such and such a way. The Bush team very adeptly studied the practices of the erstwhile liberal media and developed a set of rhetorical and other public relations strategies that, when processed by the press in their habitual manner, would leave the public with a grossly misleading impression of what's going on.

This is not in any way to get the press off the hook -- their responsibility is to provide the public with an accurate impression of what's happening, and they've manifestly failed to do so by failing to adapt to the administration's manipulative practices. But it's important to understand what's really happening and why. It's especially important to note that this is a kind of assymetric warfare. Trying to win over the public by misleading them about the substance of public policy debates is a tactic that has very limited utility to a person -- whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise -- who wants to pursue a coherent policy agenda. If, like Bush, you're trying to seize the levers of political power for a limited period of time for the purposes of enriching your cronies, however, it's a great idea.

August 7, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Krugman may well be right, but I think there's not enough discussion of motive.

If Bush were merely trying to get us into war to avenge Poppy, or to hook his pals up with energy contracts, I think the case would be more damning. But I actually think, on September 12, 2001, the administration's thoughts must have crystalized (like those of any thoughtful person) on the possibility that the next attack might involve nuclear weapons.

Now, North Korea was beyond reach (I'd guess) by that point, and the possible threat from Iran was still deemed a few years down the pike, so Iraq presented itself as a situation that was both A) dangerous and B) fixable, in the military sense.

Obviously there was conflicting intelligence that started to come in. And obviously, this administration focused on hyping anything incriminating, while essentially ignoring anything that would tend to exonerate Saddam Hussein's regime. But if you're really convinced that in this new dangerous world you must err on the side of caution, I think a case for "hyping" can be made. Especially if the motive is legitimate.

Bush's big mistake, as I see it, was his failure to account for the possibility that their intelligence was wrong by making a more general case for war beforehand, and to warn the public in advance of the possibility that the intelligence might be wrong. I think it simply didn't occur to them they might be wrong. (actually the even bigger mistake was lack of adequate preparation and military preparedness; but that's a different story).

The president, like lots of people in the U.S. and abroad, understandably believed the worst about Saddam Hussein's regime, and ignored contrary evidence. He did so, because, like lots of people, he just knew Iraq was a genuine threat to acquire nuclear weapons. I knew this about Iraq, too.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Aug 7, 2004 12:57:19 PM

Nah, PB, this was about a confluence of factions coming together and cooking up a rationale that made sense to everyone and would seize the political moment.

You had the military brass that really wanted to kick Saddam's ass, make a demonstration effect for others in the region, and get ready to cut off China's oil supplies when they invade Taiwan in 2025.

You had the neoconservatives who are itching to embark on a behavioral engineering project the likes of which BF Skinner had never even imagined. And protect Israel. Ditto for the neolibs.

You had the counterproliferation types, your kill a bunch of Arabs just because types, and so on.

You had the counterterrorism folks ... oh, wait, they quit.

Posted by: praktike | Aug 7, 2004 1:29:59 PM

Well, we'll be analyzing exactly how the "bush administration" worked for years to come - ignorance? malevolence? pre-determined agenda with shifting motives of opportunity? all of the above? - but i want to note that pb has it precisely right when he says "it simply didn't occur to them they might be wrong."

Exactly.

And this is the heart of the reason that a shallow, ill-informed individual like george bush, as the head of an administration that never imagines that it might be wrong about anything, must be voted out of office.

The failure to pause, for even a moment, and wonder "might i be wrong? is there some other line of thought we should be considering, if only for due diligence purposes?" is the overriding characteristic of this administration in all things.

Indeed, Cheney on Russert the Sunday before the war gave us confirmation: "what if we aren't greeted as liberators?" "I really believe that we will be."

And, of course, don't get me started about Cheney, due diligence, and Halliburton's acqusition of Dresser. Forget the accounting; the failure to even consider for a moment the possibiity that Dresser would be lugging along asbestos liabilities foreshadowed Cheney's failure of due diligence on the Iraqi postwar, and the administration's failure of due diligence on anything....

Posted by: howard | Aug 7, 2004 1:41:31 PM

The hilarious thing is, that Iraq will probably get nuclear weapons quicker than if Bush had never invaded. Unless Bush gets his pro-western, pacifistic, doesn't-hate-anyone democracy, which is looking totally unlikely, they will still have all the same reasons to get some nukes they always had, and probably a few more. This time they won't screw around with trying to make them by themselves; it will be cheaper and quicker to buy them from someone (or maybe just the fissile material from Pakistan). If the Shiites take over the Iranians will probnbly let them have some temporary loaners.

Posted by: Tim H. | Aug 7, 2004 2:04:19 PM

Matt,
You've noted many times that pretty much everything the Bush administration sets out to do turns out terribly. Whatever other flaws they have, incompetence is certainly among their most notable traits. So how were they able to develop such effective public relations techniques?

Posted by: Dan | Aug 7, 2004 2:54:17 PM

Paul Krugman back in 2001:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00005KHD5/qid=1091904804/sr=1-18/ref=sr_1_18/102-2485293-6474514?v=glance&s=books

He realized Bush was a liar back in 2000, which is why he wrote this book.

Krugman gets credit for being first mainstream pundit to recognize Bush was lying, and saying so.

Posted by: Alan | Aug 7, 2004 2:55:56 PM

So how were they able to develop such effective public relations techniques?


Much the same way that sociopaths develop similar "public relations" [personable, charming] survival skills. In fact I'd wager it's exactly the same.

Posted by: Thumb | Aug 7, 2004 3:04:59 PM

Seize the levers of power for a few years to enrich their cronies? I hope you're right, Matt, but I think you may be being far too optimistic here. Bush, maybe, but I think Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, and friends are in this for the long haul. They want permenant Republican rule through an alliance of social conservatism and corporate-government cooperation, creating a new coalition, like the New Deal coalition, that can dominate American politics indefinitely. I seem to remember you claiming that you held this view yourself some time ago. Why are you now claiming that their objective is so small and innocuous as seizing power for a few years and enriching their buddies?

Posted by: Julian Elson | Aug 7, 2004 3:39:28 PM

And, of course, don't get me started about Cheney, due diligence, and Halliburton's acqusition of Dresser.

It does have a certain film noir charm. The point of Maltese Falcon was vacuity. The characters committed several murders for an object that turned out to be worthless. HAL management committed securities fraud to carry out the Dresser merger, which turned out to be toxic. Chalabi does come across as a 30's villain. But nothing in real life approaches Sydney Greenstreet, or Mary Astor on the elevator.

Posted by: Roger Bigod | Aug 7, 2004 4:46:06 PM

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/06/opinion/06herbert.html

Failure of Leadership
By BOB HERBERT

Anthony Dixon and Adam Froehlich were best friends who grew up in the suburbs of southern New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia. They went to junior high school together. They wrestled on the same team at Overbrook High School in the town of Pine Hill. They enlisted in the Army together in 2002. And both died in Iraq, in roadside bombings just four months apart.

Specialist Dixon was killed on Sunday in Samarra. Specialist Froehlich was killed in March near Baquba. They were 20 years old.

No one has a clue how this madness will end. As G.I.'s continue to fight and die in Iraq, the national leaders who put them needlessly in harm's way are now flashing orange alert signals to convey that Al Qaeda - the enemy that should have been in our sights all along - is poised to strike us again.

It's as if the government were following a script from the theater of the absurd. Instead of rallying our allies to a coordinated and relentless campaign against Al Qaeda after Sept. 11, we insulted the allies, gave them the back of our hand and arrogantly sent the bulk of our forces into the sand trap of Iraq.

Now we're in a fix.

The war in Iraq has intensified the hatred of America around the world and powerfully energized Al Qaeda-type insurgencies. At the same time, it has weakened our defenses by diverting the very resources we need - personnel, matériel and boatloads of cash - to meet the real terror threats.

President Bush's re-election mantra is that he's the leader who can keep America safe. But that message was stepped on by the urgent, if not frantic, disclosures this week by top administration officials that another Al Qaeda attack on the United States might be imminent.

A debate emerged almost immediately about whether the intelligence on which those disclosures were based was old or new, or a combination of both. Nevertheless, because of the growing sense of alarm, there was an expansion of the already ubiquitous armed, concrete-fortified sites in New York City and Washington.

The pressure may be getting to Mr. Bush. He came up with a gem of a Freudian slip yesterday. At a signing ceremony for a $417 billion military spending bill, the president said: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

Posted by: Ari | Aug 7, 2004 4:52:36 PM

The hallmark of this administration is the dishonesty of their public debate, to which Matt alludes. Carefully constructed arguments, meaning one thing but seeming to say another (eg Bush's pronouncements re: Saddam and 9/11, which, in the context of polls showing most Americans believed Saddam was involved, clearly intended to foster this false impression).

The reason for this may be that they think that most Americans believe as they do deep down but have been hoodwinked by liberals. Thus they believe there is no evolution of ideologies, but just entrenched warfare against the liberals with PR, not honest intellectual debate, being the weapon, and the hearts and minds and votes of the American people as the prize.

Posted by: epistemology | Aug 7, 2004 5:50:53 PM

Ari, links not entire articles. Very bad form for instance, googling could lead to Matt's site instead of the Times.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 7, 2004 5:54:29 PM

So how were they able to develop such effective public relations techniques?

Much the same way that sociopaths develop similar "public relations" [personable, charming] survival skills. In fact I'd wager it's exactly the same.

Posted by: Thumb


Not exactly. It's that, in spite of their incompetence as leaders, they survived and bubbled up to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, because they had mutated into a species of public relations gurus, protecting them from the species that would have otherwise eaten them.

Posted by: Mike | Aug 7, 2004 7:10:01 PM

Mike has it right. The reason Bush's team is so good at PR and so bad at everything else is the same reason baseball pitchers are bad at hitting and fielding: one thing only, got them to where they are.

Posted by: epistemology | Aug 7, 2004 8:54:51 PM

"so small and innocuous as seizing power for a few years and enriching their buddies?"

Matt is an empiricist and pragmatist. Events over the last few years I think have shown that the DeLay/Rove right can achieve a subset of their goals and barely maintain political power. I think they are at maximum strength now, and I think they realize it. In an attempt to achieve a more ambitious agenda they would lose some seats; in an attempt to gain more seats, they would have to moderate their agenda.

Example from a Texan: redistricting. In order to maximise Republican seats, they had to distribute the Rep base as widely as possible. Many districts are 55-60 percent Republican, and are guaranteed (because of urbanization and immigration) to become contested in 5-10 years. They could have gone for fewer but safer seats.

This is a last gasp for the Southern right, and they know it.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 7, 2004 9:22:05 PM

The Bush team very adeptly studied the practices of the erstwhile liberal media and developed a set of rhetorical and other public relations strategies that, when processed by the press in their habitual manner, would leave the public with a grossly misleading impression of what's going on.

Exactly.

What's really happening here is just that the Administration is playing the game with a degree of sophistication that is just way beyond what the press is capable of responding to.

The traditional methods of the press corps have been gamed to such an extent that they are helpless to prevent their own manipulation.

Posted by: Mork | Aug 7, 2004 10:11:00 PM

Mork,

The press is not helpless. The press has refused to do serious reporting, only dabbling into the waters since May this year. While main line journalists have been regularly intimidated, and key editors and media owners have decided to create a media climate to protect the administration, this does not excuse a lack of follow through. Choosing to be a journalist means dealing with the wrath of the powerful.

It is well past time to show the American public this administration, naked and unfiltered. This is how Murrow defanged McCarthy. This is how Nixon was brought to justice. The truth needs no spin or embellishment. It is time to refuse to cover the presidential daughters and their fishing trips, and to focus on unmanged reality of gestapo tactics used by the administration on a daily basis. There are more than enough stories of substance to report, why be led around the media circus like a steer with a ring through its nose? Reporters- RESPECT THY SELVES.

Posted by: patience | Aug 7, 2004 10:52:17 PM

I don't really see much difference between the two different scenarios you describe concerning the press failing to do it's job. The point is that they failed and how it happened is secondary. It's mind boggling to me that the press allowed them to get away with deceiving the public on the decision to go to war and it has since convinced me that Hermann Goering was right.

Posted by: rob | Aug 8, 2004 5:46:53 AM

It's mind boggling to me that the press allowed them to get away with deceiving the public...

What's so mind-boggling about it? Mass-media in the US is for-profit business. It's business like any other business, whose only objective is to maximize shareholders value. They do what they have to do; nothing mind-boggling here.

Posted by: abb1 | Aug 8, 2004 7:29:48 AM

The biggest problem with the press at large, is that they feel "honorbound", to report what both sides say at basically face value.

In other words. lies and deception are out of their jurisdiction. Everything is framed in "The Administration says" or "Critics claim", with absolutly no mention of reality. Somebody is right...well..more right usually. There are facts out there.

The reason for this is twofold. First, to maintain "balanced coverage". It's not about being accurate, it's about being fair. Which is wrong. The second, is that a tight electorate is good for their ratings. Lets face it, if the "divide" was 70-30, who would be interested?

Posted by: Karmakin | Aug 8, 2004 9:23:48 AM

By any standard of conventional thinking it was a crazy, even ridiculously crazy thing to do. Every expert confirmed the "journalistic beliefs" gratuitously reported as news in the MSM that this would be a terribly wrong, stupid thing to do. The invasion of Iraq? No, the fabulously audacious Thunder Run of the 3rd Infantry Division through downtown Baghdad. 1,000 years from now even military historians on planet Gork will use that Thunder Run as an example of how the brave rule the day.

By any standard of conventional thinking it was a crazy, even ridiculously crazy thing to do. Every expert confirmed the "journalistic beliefs" gratuitously reported as news in the MSM that this would be a terribly wrong, stupid thing to do. The invasion of Iraq? No, handing over sovereignty to Iraqi civilians when civil war still seemed more likely than civil administration.

Al Sadr, his insurgent militia, his Arab and Iranian cohorts are being crushed by Iraqi defense forces with a little help from the USMC. Phase 3 of the Iraqi gamble is nearing a successful conclusion. How do I know? Because Kofi Annan under intense pressure from the Arab League cabal is attempting to negotiate a cease fire in time to keep Al Sadr alive, uncaptured and viable as a rallying point for future insurgency.

The Bush lied about WMD hysteria is a strawman to begin with but will matter little when even the best of the Lefty spinmeisters lose traction by calling an obviously stabilizing Iraq a failure.

Posted by: Warthog | Aug 8, 2004 10:24:24 AM

This wouldn't be BS, except that Clinton said a whole lot of technically accurate things that were treated as outright lies by the press. He was called on it, and ridiculed for it. The press insisted that there was only one use for the word is. The howls when Clinton invoked the technical rules of perjury. The press didn't "parse" these the way they "parse" Bush's statements. It's dishonest to pretend Bush came up with a magic formula for duping the poor innocent press.
There is no "usual" way the press "parses" through information. There is the way they do it for people they like, and then there is the way they do it for people they don't like. Bush and Clinton provide us with a prime example. They liked the rich kid who coasted through life on his name and families money (just like them) and they disliked the poor kid who they didn't think deserved to be president because he wasn't as "Sophisticated" (i.e. Rich) and because he worked for what he got (without class, literally). I seem to remember a certain American Prospect writer comming out hard against self-made men about a week ago, so I'm sure Matt Y understand this dynamic perfectly.
Until something other than bias (both a class bias and a corporate bias, though not a directly ideological one) can be shown to fit these examples then it's really insulting to dismiss the possibility as the "whole media bias thing".

Posted by: Soul | Aug 8, 2004 11:19:33 AM

Geez, Warthog, and here it was only a few weeks ago that right-wing triumphalists were telling us that al sadr had been crushed....

Posted by: howard | Aug 8, 2004 12:42:03 PM

"No, the fabulously audacious Thunder Run of the 3rd Infantry Division through downtown Baghdad. 1,000 years from now even military historians on planet Gork will use that Thunder Run as an example of how the brave rule the day."

No, actually, Warthog, as "Slate" has pointed out, they'll use it as an example of how idiotic it is to assume that an entire hostile army has vanished just because they've thrown away their uniforms, gone guerilla, and are waiting for you to pull out.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Aug 8, 2004 1:47:00 PM

Oh. Sorry, Warthog. From your fluorescent purple prose, I jumped to the conclusion that you were referring to the original invasion. As for "Thunder Run" (what idiot comes up with these names?), I'll believe it will work when I see any evidence that Allawi's troops are willing to fight both Sunni and Shiite insurgents WITHOUT a huge American military presence to hold their hand -- and when I see any evidence that Allawi is now regarded as the Beloved Father Of His Nation by a majority of the Sunni and Shiite populations.

(Incidentally, according to today's Oregonian, he's already resorting to the wholesale torture of political prisoners using devices left over from Saddam's regime -- and a US National Guard squad who saw this being done and tried to break it up were ordred by their superiors not to interfere. They were also ordered not to talk about it, an order which they're starting to break.)

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Aug 8, 2004 1:56:23 PM

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