A lesson on political equivocation from Thomas Friedman

30Sep09

Tonight in my Television & American Culture course, I screened Buying the War, an excellent Bill Moyers PBS feature detailing how the press allowed themselves to be co-opted by the Bush administration to enable the fraudulent war in Iraq. (If you haven’t seen it, check it out online.) The screening reminded me of this piece of Thomas Friedman hackery from yesterday’s New York Times that I needed to rant about. (If you want to dive into truly artful anti-Friedman ranting, you gotta read some of these great Matt Taibbi pieces – I am but a novice cowering in Taibbi’s shadow.)

Friedman’s core point is compelling if not original or breaking news – that the right-wing’s anti-Obama anger has reached a point of divisiveness and hatred that it raises fears of violence and questions any sense of national unity. But then there’s this paragraph:

Sometimes I wonder whether George H.W. Bush, president “41,” will be remembered as our last “legitimate” president. The right impeached Bill Clinton and hounded him from Day 1 with the bogus Whitewater “scandal.” George W. Bush was elected under a cloud because of the Florida voting mess, and his critics on the left never let him forget it. And Mr. Obama is now having his legitimacy attacked by a concerted campaign from the right fringe.

This is classic Friedman – creating a false dichotomy that he can transcend and rise above. But stop and think about this for a second. Clinton was attacked by the Republicans first for a series of manufactured scandals, and finally impeached for lying about sex (which a good number of his Republican accusers were also guilty of). And Obama has become the target of an angry mob for… trying to reform health care?

Meanwhile, Friedman’s “on the other hand” balance is Bush being criticized for winning an election when he clearly did not have a majority of votes. Of course, Friedman doesn’t mention that the Democrats rubber stamped a war sold on false pretenses (that Friedman himself helped sell), or that the Democrats stood by while Bush created a regime of torture and surveillance, only willing to fight back once public opinion had shifted post-Katrina. From 2001-2005, there was a tremendous degree of political unanimity behind Bush, with dissent treated as treason and only a tiny number of elected politicians willing to outright criticize Bush or his wars.

This equivalency parallels an argument that the Moyers documentary makes – the press doesn’t bother to counter factual claims from official sources, leaving the countering to opposition parties. (Tim Russert flat out admits that the reason he didn’t call Cheney and others on their false claims was because the Democrats weren’t doing it themselves.) The fatal model for the contemporary press is to offer two sides of an argument presented by opposing “experts,” rather than either question the factual basis for the claims, or consider that arguments might have more than two sides. You’d think that Friedman would have learned such lessons from his own failures as a war cheerleader, but instead he’s creating his own false dichotomies to avoid intellectual honesty.



3 Responses to “A lesson on political equivocation from Thomas Friedman”

  1. 1 George A.

    As a member of generation Q in the flat world, I can always rely on Friedman making words up. The archetypal blood boiling Friedman column thus include unnecessary coining of terms on top of the false dichotomy.

  2. 2 DLarson

    Here Here! I aqree with everything J. Mittell says and the fact that the media can look back on themselves 5 years later and say, oh, we kinda screwed up, and then not take to task all of the hype over town hall meetings is just disgusting. They, themselves created the hype, just as the right knew they would instead of balancing the coverage with, ‘on the other side more that 95% of the people here wanted to have a real discussion about policy’. The media is so focused on ratings and pack journalism, they completely forgot that balance means a good critical look at the issue/policy from different perspectives and not creating conflict from each side that has stakes in the issue. More analysis, less conflict driven drama!

  3. 3 rlalexander

    I think the other area we have seen this lack of journalistic integrity in is the climate change debate. Some lone voices over the past few years have pointed out the inequity of climate change skeptics getting as much air time and print space as climate change campaigners, despite the vast majority of scientific research backing the pro-climate change side. That’s not to say that there should not have been a debate and that the pro campaign should have won hands down – I’m all for a robust argument and there’s no better way to win over skeptics than with some solid evidence and rational thinking. But the media was quite prepared to play each side off each other without looking at the merits of the arguments, and as a consequence many skeptic-led arguments saw the light of day which, when put under scrutiny, might have never seen the light of day. It’s a shame that journalists often don’t apply the investigative skills which they’ll use on an ‘excusive’ or a ‘scandal’ story on bigger, pressing issues like climate change.


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