Apr 1 2010


Better to Mislead Than to Take a Side

In the third paragraph of a report on the stimulus program in the New York Times (2/18/10), readers were told, “There is little dispute among economists that the measure has kept the jobless rate from being even higher than it is.” Clear enough. But since reporting must be “balanced,” the Times recited Republican talking points—essentially, that the stimulus couldn’t have succeeded because unemployment is still high—and then suggested that such critics

have a point: “Economists say that Mr. Obama and the Republicans are both, in a sense, correct.” The

economist the Times quoted to back this up, however, didn’t say that both sides were correct at all; he said the country would have lost 2 million more jobs without the stimulus money.

Thus the Times protects its reputation for being studiously neutral—even at the cost of misinforming its readers.

Caring Enough to Spin the Media

A New York Times report (2/16/10) on civilians killed by a U.S. bombing in Marja, Afghanistan, included this passage: “Still, the deaths are troubling to the American and NATO commanders, who have made

protecting civilians the overriding objective of their campaign—even when doing so comes at the expense of letting insurgents get away. The stream of news releases flowing from NATO headquarters detailing

the episodes is testament to how seriously military commanders here take the problem.”

How else to measure humanitarian concern, if not by the quantity of press releases?

Civilian Deaths = Military Problems

The idea that the deaths of civilians are primarily a problem for those who kill them seems ingrained in corporate news. ABC News correspondent Miguel Marquez led his February 14 report from Afghanistan with news of a “major setback for international forces tonight: a claim that 12 civilians were killed when a missile missed its target.” NBC’s February 15 segment on the killing introduced it as a “serious setback” to “the effort to win over the Afghans,” then brought on retired general—and military industry lobbyist (New York Times, 11/30/08)—Barry McCaffrey to say: “It was a tragic accident. But these people need to be free of a Taliban redoubt and a major drug production center.” Presumably, McCaffrey was speaking of the living people.

When Torture Is a ‘Snag’ for Endless Captivity

Under the headline “2008 Habeas Ruling May Pose Snag as U.S. Weighs Indefinite Guantánamo Detentions” (2/13/10), Washington Post reporter Del Quentin Wilber wrote that terrorism charges against a Guantánamo prisoner named Hatim “seemed ironclad” until a federal judge intervened. Judicial review of cases like Hatim’s has “gutted allegations and questioned the reliability of statements by the prisoners during interrogations,” Wilber reported, potentially forcing the release of inmates “who are considered too dangerous to be freed.” This “may be a harbinger of trouble for the Obama administration,” the article said.

Only in the 22nd paragraph of the 27-paragraph story do we learn a key reason the judge dismissed Hatim’s confession: “The Justice Department did not dispute his contention that he was tortured in U.S. custody and that he made those admissions to avoid

further mistreatment.” To the Post, it’s not the torture that’s the problem—it’s the fact that a history of torture may prevent some prisoners from being held without trial forever.

Universal Healthcare Not ‘Popular’…at WaPo

Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt (3/1/10) suggested that the reason Obama and the Democrats were having problems passing healthcare was that the people don’t want to give coverage to everyone: “As president…Obama had to grapple with the reality that extending government-subsidized insurance to the working poor is not all that popular in a country where most people have insurance, from the government or from their employer.”

It’s not clear where Hiatt gets the idea that universal healthcare is unpopular; a New York Times/CBS poll (1/11-15/09) found 59 percent in favor of government-provided national health insurance, while a tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation (7/7-14/09) found 58 percent support for expanding Medicare to everyone. The Post itself (2/4-8/10) recently asked, based on Obama’s actual proposal, whether the government should “require all Americans to have health insurance, either from their employer or from another source, with tax credits or other aid to help low-income people pay for it?” That proposition got 56 percent support, versus 43 percent opposed—which apparently translates to “not all that popular” on the Post’s editorial page.

George Will’s Filibuster Flip-Flops

A 1993 Washington Post column by George Will (“The Framers’ Intent,” 4/25/93) defended the Senate filibuster, praising the framers of the Constitution for protecting “the right of a minority to use extended debate to obstruct Senate action.” In 1993, the Senate had a Republican minority.

Ten years later (2/28/03), with a Democratic minority in the Senate, Will wrote a column headlined

“Coup Against the Constitution” that attacked the filibuster: “If Senate rules, exploited by an anti-constitutional minority, are allowed to trump the Constitution’s text and two centuries of practice, the Senate’s power to consent to judicial nominations will have become a Senate right to require a super majority vote for confirmation,” Will fulminated.

Seven more years brings us to the present, when once again there is a Republican minority using the

filibuster against a Democratic majority, and once again Will is pro- filibuster. His February 25 column was headlined “For Liberals, the Filibuster Is Now the Enemy,” though the piece actually said that

liberals’ real enemy is James Madison, the “father of the Constitution.”

Will had the chutzpah to accuse politicians of having “situational ethics” when it comes to the filibuster. When he writes about the filibuster, though, it’s hard to discern any kind of ethics at all.