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Beware! Scare Tactics Are Coming!

August 28th, 2009 · 13 Comments

Morning Edition today decided that opposition to Obamacare would make a good hook for an excursion into the psychology and biology of fear and political scare tactics. The scientific gloss here is so banal—did you know people who are frightened find it difficult to think rationally, and tend to pass scare stories on to others?—that it seems fairly transparently pretextual, a way of padding out three minutes worth of “Republicans are scaremongering!” Of course, Republicans are scaremongering. But I don’t remember parallel stories when Democrats were joining in the fun (the run up to the invasion of Iraq) or leading the charge (the failed Social Security reform).

More broadly, while I’m usually pretty impatient with conservative whining about liberal media bias in general, and about NPR—the only non-text news source I consume with any frequency—in particular, it does like they’ve been unusually brazen in recent months about shedding any pretense of impartiality. Steve Inskeep has probably been the worst offender. This question, from a recent interview with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), is just one of several instances lately where he’s required me to pick my jaw up off the floor:

MR. INSKEEP: There’s a Republican consultant, Alex Castellanos, who put out a much-publicized memo urging Republicans to use different language and to say that Democrats are plotting to drive up costs and do a government monopoly of health care. Do you believe the Democrats you’re negotiating with are secretly plotting to drive up costs and do a government monopoly of health care?

The actual Castellanos memo doesn’t seem to contain any allusions to secret plots, though it does, unsurprisingly, assert the standard Republican view that Obamacare will have the effect of driving up costs. But getting Grassley to disavow that paranoid notion reinforces the frame that everyone to his right, from Senate colleagues to the barking loon on the street with the hand-lettered “Obama is a Nazi” sign, is catching the 3:15 Conspiracy Express to Crazytown.

Update: A visiting friend to whom I mentioned this replied with a sarcastic “Fair and Balanced!”—which got me thinking about the effect of that slogan.  Fox News was always too overtly, proudly conservative for even its fans to take the claim literally, and I always read it as a winking jab at other media outlets—lampooning journalistic pretensions to objectivity while implying that those supposedly even-handed venues were nothing of the sort, an unfairness Fox would correct.  My friend’s reaction gives a hint at how successful it may have been at making objectivity into a punchline. Just as we can no longer declare ourselves “shocked” with a straight face—we automatically supply Claude Raines’ second “shocked!” —a journalist’s claim to provide “balanced” coverage seems sure to provoke a guffaw.  I can’t decide whether I think this is a healthy development or a sign of the end times. Pusillanimous he-said-she-said buck passing deserves all the scorn it gets, but I’m less eager than some to toss the very idea of objectivity as an aspiration for journos.

Tags: Journalism & the Media


       

 

13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 jre // Aug 28, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    True enough; “secretly plotting” appears nowhere in the Castellano memo. It’s worth noting, though, that

    Their Washington-centered system will end up costing trillions more, not less, and bankrupting the country.

    and

    They want to empower a big Washington-run monopoly to control your health care.

    do.

    In my view, Innskeep was guilty of the sin of spin, but had a valid point and should have asked Grassley essentially the same question, if not in those words.

    Innskeep took an even more confrontational tone in his interview with Michael Steele. Frankly, I thought he was right to do so.

    Either
    (a) Steele is really that incoherent in his thinking, in which case Innskeep is supplying yet another useful reminder to the RNC that it needs a better spokesman, or
    (b) Steele is a cynical weasel who deserved the pummeling he got.

    Can’t see much reason for NPR to apologize in either case.

  • 2 jre // Aug 28, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    I see (too late) it’s “Inskeep”, not “Innskeep.”

  • 3 Wellescent Health Blog // Aug 28, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    That the media might be playing down the value of being objective is disturbing and essentially turns all news into editorial commentary. When we are carrying on important discussions such as those regarding health care reform and the information being presented is likely partisan , then the worry is that the person with the bigger megaphone wins unless the audience is constantly reminded that the information being presented has an associated slant.

  • 4 sidereal // Aug 28, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Of course, Republicans are scaremongering. But I don’t remember parallel stories when Democrats were joining in the fun (the run up to the invasion of Iraq) or leading the charge (the failed Social Security reform).

    Kicking the equivalence engine into 5th gear, are we? There is no ‘death panel’ equivalent in the Social Security reform debate.

    You have the head of the RNC, sitting Senators, and major movement media personalities musing or just outright asserting that the Democrats want to kill old people and are establishing legislation to do just that. The dominant claim during the Social Security debate was that the Republicans wanted to privatize Social Security, which. . . they did.

    If there’s anything worse than lazy Two Sides-ism, it’s lazy equivalence.

  • 5 Tom G // Aug 28, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    I think of Julian as one of the most intelligent bloggers I follow so I was surprised by this post.

    I lean left so maybe this is just my bias, but yes I think its worse this time for two reasons.

    The first point is that Republicans have been trying to cut Medicare spending since its creation. For reasons of political expediency, they are now tying themselves to a position that the government should pay for all treatments for the elderly regardless even of whether we think the treatment works.

    The second point is the inflamatory smears from one leading Republican after another, about the government killing off the elderly. I am trying and failing to think of the equivalent from earlier debates coming from senior political figures.

    Tom

  • 6 Neil the Ethical Werewolf // Aug 29, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Had the mainstream of the Democratic Party mongered about 5x as much scare in the runup to the Iraq War, they might have accurately described what would happen.

  • 7 jesse // Aug 29, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    Totally agreed that Inskeep was a tool for both his question and the underlying assumption you detailed, BUT: I’m with Tom G and sidereal. Even if there was equivalent scaremongering in the runup to Iraq and social security reform (there wasn’t), the WORST CASE SCENARIO happened in both situations: we screwed the pooch in Iraq, and the economy (and stock market) came to a screaching halt. The stock market (down >30% since attempted SS reform) is that place GWB would have had our boomers transfering their money to in record numbers if everything had gone his way. Thanks for scaring the shit out of us, Dems!

  • 8 Julian // Aug 30, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    I suppose I should add that I, too, wish we’d been hearing more about the shameless scaremongering in the run-up to the Iraq war. Anyway, if people are upset by the implication of equivalence, I’ll happily grant that it’s especially bad now.

  • 9 Barry // Aug 31, 2009 at 11:04 am

    I’ll add in – can Julian come up with any liberal scaremongering about the Iraq War or Social Security ‘reform’ attempt which were:

    a) Advocated by multiple top party leadership, or congressmen, or Senators,

    AND

    b) Flat-out lies? Or even (if true) as misleading and bullsh*tty as the GOP’s current campaign?

    Note: the run-up to the Iraq war would provide about 1,000 tons of stuff from the right meeting both descriptions; the attempt to destroy Social Security would probably be good for 100 tons of such stuff.

    Given that the GOP has such a fresh track record, it’s pretty f*cking rich for anybody to look at the Democratic Party and the GOP as anywhere nearly equivalent in this.

  • 10 DivisionByZero // Aug 31, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Republican scaremongering and Democratic scaremongering are not equivalent. Both sides do it but the Republicans add a dollop of moral outrage by more or less claiming that “liberals” are evil, not just wrong, but evil. It’s shameful. I know the far left claims Republicans are evil too but it doesn’t seem to make its way into the mainstream.

  • 11 Barry // Sep 1, 2009 at 9:30 am

    I’m still waiting for Julian to provide those real, actual equivalent scaremongering from the Democratic Party about the Iraq War.

    More Julian: ” But getting Grassley to disavow that paranoid notion reinforces the frame that everyone to his right, from Senate colleagues to the barking loon on the street with the hand-lettered “Obama is a Nazi” sign, is catching the 3:15 Conspiracy Express to Crazytown.”

    Um, they are? Note that this would be Senator ‘Death Panels’ Grassley?

    Or is it shrill to point out that a Senator is flat-out lying, in line with his party’s position?

  • 12 DivisionByZero // Sep 1, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Frankly, I wish more Democrats would come out and call the Republicans on the bald-face lies and just call them what they are, liars. The Republicans are exploiting the Democrats professed desire for bipartisanship and restraint.

  • 13 Barry // Sep 2, 2009 at 11:18 am

    That’s a good chunk of it – why not lie when you won’t be called on it?

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