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FIXERS SPEAK! Disinformation rules your discourse. This weekend, the fixers spoke: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, APRIL 6, 2009

Selling us progressives our snark: Let’s see if we have our basic facts straight: Levi Johnston is 19 years old. Over the weekend, the half-sister of his former girl friend’s father got herself arrested for burglary. Somehow, this put Johnston into this headline. To purchase more snark, just click here.

Funny she (didn’t) ask: You hate to take Colin Powell’s side when it comes to last week’s interview. As we noted on Friday, Powell was instantly evasive when Rachel Maddow asked him about “the interrogation of prisoners like Abu Zubaida,” about “specific interrogation techniques” he may have helped approve. This was Maddow’s first question on the subject, a perfectly adequate start:

MADDOW (4/1/09): On the issue of intelligence, tainted evidence and those things: Were you ever present at meetings at which the interrogation of prisoners like Abu Zubaida, other prisoners in those early days, where the interrogation was directed—where specific interrogation techniques were approved? It has been reported on a couple of different sources that there were principals meetings, which you would have typically been there, where those interrogations were almost play-by-play discussed.

Powell was instantly evasive, as we noted on Friday. To review his evasive reply—and Maddow’s weak follow-up question—see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/3/09. (Scroll to the bottom.)

Given his instant evasions, you hate to take Powell’s side in this matter. But on Friday night, Maddow offered a mild disclaimer about something she’d said Wednesday night; in the process, she was quite disingenuous about what had occurred in her session with Powell. Does Maddow ever tell it straight? Here’s her full statement Friday night. To watch the full statement, click here:

MADDOW (4/3/09): The other night, I had an opportunity to do an interview with former Secretary of State Colin Powell. We discussed, among other things, meetings that he attended with other top Bush administration officials at which the subject of harsh interrogation techniques [pause]—torture—were discussed. It seemed to me that the atmosphere in the interview room grew tense during that part of the interview and that’s what I said when I interview—when I introduced the interview on this show.

The secretary’s office has now written to us, saying that that was not a, quote, “appropriate characterization” and that the secretary himself was not tense or uncomfortable during those moments of the interview. He just felt the questions were, quote, “wasted time on an issue that he had already answered."

I personally do not ever want guests on this show to feel like they are being portrayed in a way that they did not intend to portray themselves. I stand by my assessment that the conversation felt tense, but it’s only fair for me to let General Powell tell you what his own feelings were rather than having me describe my impressions of his feelings. So duly noted, for the record, I felt tense. He did not.

“I personally do not ever want guests on this show to feel like they are being portrayed in a way that they did not intend to portray themselves?” For the record, that’s a very strange remark. But in reviewing her earlier comments, Maddow committed an obvious howler. (We’ll guess she may hear from Powell again.) Does Maddow ever tell it straight? Increasingly, our analysts ask us.

What was wrong with Maddow’s statement? Note how she described her session with Powell: “We discussed, among other things, meetings that he attended with other top Bush administration officials at which the subject of harsh interrogation techniques—torture—were discussed.” So said Maddow on Friday night, pausing and taking a head-bob on “torture.” But that’s a very shaky account of what happened on Wednesday night’s program.

Did Maddow and Powell really discuss “meetings he attended with other top Bush administration officials at which the subject of harsh interrogation techniques—torture—were discussed?” Maddow was bold on Friday’s show, making this statement when Powell was absent. But in her actual session with Powell, she never asked if “torture” or specific torture techniques were discussed at the meetings he attended. In the following question, she slickly implied that this had occurred—but Powell quickly broke in and denied it. For the record, this was Maddow’s fourth question on this general topic:

MADDOW: I guess have to ask that—a broader question about whether or not you have regrets, not about what the Bush administration did broadly in the years that you were secretary of state, but the decisions that you participated in about interrogation, about torture, about the other things that—

POWELL: We had no meetings on torture. It’s constantly said that the meetings—I had an issue with this—we had meetings on what “torture” to administer. What I recall, the meetings I was in, and I was not in all of the meetings and I was not an author of many of the memos that have been written and some have come out, some have not come out—the only meetings I recall were where we talked about what is it we can do with respect to trying to get information from individuals who are in our custody. And I will—I will just have to wait until the full written record is available and has been examined.

Powell’s statement is somewhat hazy. What constitutes a “meeting on torture?” What did the principals decide the US could do “with respect to trying to get information from individuals in our custody?” But as she did throughout this interview, Maddow failed to ask the obvious follow-up, the question which would have forced her guest to speak with specificity: We now know that Abu Zubaida and at least two others were in fact water-boarded. Were you present at any meeting where the use of water-boarding was discussed? The question practically wrote itself—but Maddow kept failing to ask it. But so what? In accordance with an emerging pattern, she went on TV two nights later and seemed to imply that this had been settled. With Powell, she shied away from asking. Two days later, she treated the matter as if it were settled fact.

As we said on Friday, Maddow deserves some credit for raising this topic at all—although, to be honest, she basically had to. (We’re surprised that Powell agreed to be interviewed.) But in fact, she did a very poor job questioning Powell about this central topic. Let’s be clear: This was the only chance your side will ever get to ask Powell the relevant questions—and Maddow repeatedly failed to ask them. But then, Maddow has been quite good, in recent weeks, in playing soft with her guests when they’re physically present, then talking tough when they’re no longer there. This pattern continued Friday night, in that rube-pleasing smack about Powell.

Maddow held back in that segment with Powell. But then, what else is new? In fact, progressives and liberals have been poorly served by a string of career liberal journalists in the past fifteen years. With that in mind, we’d suggest you consider one possible reason why Maddow failed to ask Powell the obvious question. Were you present when water-boarding was discussed? Why didn’t Maddow ask?

We don’t know the answer to that question, of course. But we think you should ponder the following:

At age 36, Maddow is on her way to massive media stardom. She’ll be very rich and very famous—as long as she doesn’t blow it. (Not that she cares about such things, of course.) And guess what? In the past fifteen years, your interests have routinely been canned by rising stars in the “career liberal” media. These individuals have seemed to know the basic rules of the media game: You can’t become a big media star if you push outside the boundaries. (Around here, it’s called the “Parry effect,” in honor of someone who did keep pushing.) We’ll spare you the obvious individual examples, although we’ve discussed them in the past. But Maddow is going to be very big—unless she somehow blows it.

Is that why she didn’t ask those questions? We don’t have the slightest idea. She says she was tense, and she seemed to be tense; that may be the full answer right there. (Though it isn’t a reassuring answer.) But please be clear on one basic fact: Despite her bold talk Friday night, Maddow failed to ask the basic question when she actually interviewed Powell. Who knows? Maybe this is what happens when the gang at GE gets to pick our star journalists for us.

FIXERS SPEAK: For decades, fixers have ruled the American discourse. Saturday morning, in the Washington Post’s letters page, we got to see how this sad process works.

You’ll rarely see the process laid out more clearly—the process by which voters get disinformed on our most central policy matters.

At issue was the current Senate proposal to reduce the estate tax. (The proposal is sponsored Jon Kyl, the Arizona Republican, and Blanche Lincoln, the Arkansas Democrat.) On Thursday, the Post had published a very solid editorial denouncing the solons’ proposal. Headline: “More Tax Cuts for the Rich? A Senate amendment to reduce the estate tax should be defeated.”

On the same day, the New York Times published an even better editorial on the same topic. The Times editorial was especially good because it debunked three bogus claims about the estate tax—bogus claims which have long been used to argue against this tax.

In its editorial, the Times argued these points:

The estate tax applies to very few people: Opponents of the estate tax “creat[e] the false impression that the estate tax eventually hits everyone—by mislabeling it a ‘death tax,’” the Times wrote. In fact, under current law, “99.8 percent of estates will never—ever—pay a penny of estate tax.”

The estate tax isn’t confiscatory: Opponents of the estate tax “routinely denounce the 45 percent top tax rate as confiscatory,” the Times wrote. “In fact, the rate applies only to the portion of the estate that exceeds the exemption. As a result, even estates worth more than $20 million end up paying only about 20 percent in taxes.”

The estate tax doesn’t represent double taxation: “Another misleading argument is that the estate tax represents double taxation,” the Times wrote. “In truth, much of the wealth that is taxed at death has never been taxed before.” This point has been made many times in the past. For the Times’ full explanation, just read the full editorial.

The Times reviewed familiar claims—misleading claims which are constantly used by estate tax opponents. Again, this editorial appeared last Thursday, the same day as the Post’s.

Two days later, the fixers replied, in the Post’s letters page.

On Saturday, the Post published three letters about the estate tax; all three letters criticized the paper’s editorial. The first letter came from Lincoln and Kyl, co-sponsors of the senate proposal. And what a letter this letter was! It almost seemed the pair had told their staffs to study that New York Times editorial—so they could repeat all the misleading points the Times had just debunked. Here’s how the Lincoln/Kyl letter began:

LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (4/4/09): An April 2 editorial said that allowing the government to take 55 percent of a person's assets after death is a "far more rational response" to our economic crisis than our proposal to permanently reduce the death tax.

We do not believe the government should be entitled to confiscate over half of someone's assets after death, especially when those assets were already subjected to federal income taxes.

Slick! The solons used the term “death tax,” just as the Times had said. Exploiting a trivial aside in the editorial, they pretended that the Post had endorsed “tak[ing] 55 percent of a person’s assets.” (Later, they repeated this canard, complaining about business owners “paying more than half their value to the government when they die.”) And of course, they recited the “double taxation” canard, which seems to be required by law wherever estate tax reduction is sold. But then, all three letters to the Post repeated this required old saw. The other two letters railed against the evil of triple taxation:

SECOND LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (4/4/09): Imposing a tax at death is a double or triple tax on people who have already paid other taxes.

THIRD LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (4/4/09): As a matter of fact, these earnings have probably been taxed several times over the person's lifetime.

That second letter came from the director of policy at a “limited government” think tank (Americans for Prosperity). The third letter seems to have come from an Average Joe, but he helped drive the disinformation along. “The view that the federal government has the right to tax someone's earned and accumulated wealth simply because he or she dies is outrageous, nonsensical and immoral,” he thundered. As the Times had noted, lingo that like leads many people to think the estate tax hits all those who die.

Let’s make sure we understand what happened in last week’s exchange:

On Thursday, the Post and the Times both argued against reduction of the estate tax. Both newspapers, especially the Times, complained about the bogus claims—the disinformation—which have always been used to drive this campaign along.

Two days later, the disinformation was dumped on our heads once again. Citizens read, three separate times, that the estate tax constitutes double taxation. They were led to believe that the Post had endorsed “taking 55 percent of a person’s assets after death.” (That is impossible under the plan the Post really did endorse.) And the term “death tax” was thrown all around; Kyl and Lincoln used it three times. Lincoln and Kyl even dragged out those yeoman farmers who are supposedly harmed by this troubling, 55 percent seizure. That’s another bogus/misleading claim which has long been used by estate tax opponents. The Times didn’t discuss this claim last week. But there it was, just two days later, in the Post. Again.

Seldom do we see the way the fixers shape our discourse so clearly. On this, as on so many issues, a string of highly misleading claims were ginned up, long ago, inside pseudo-conservative think tanks. In this case, opponents of the estate tax have recited those claims ever since. If you read that Times editorial, you saw three such claims debunked. And presto! The fixers scrambled their jets! Two days later, the claims were back—and the Post felt they had to be published.

Remember: The Post opposes the fixers’ position. But they seemed to feel they had to publish their misleading claims all the same.

Similar disinformation campaigns rule other parts of our discourse. The mainstream press lazily lets them flourish. Big newspapers repeat or publish the bogus claims, even when the bogus claims work against that paper’s editorial policy. For this reason, the United States is full of citizens who “know” the following things:

• The Social Security trust fund is a pile of worthless IOUs.
• When we lower tax rates, we produce higher revenues.
• The United States has the best health care in the world.
• The death tax is double taxation.

This process has ruled your world a long time. From 1994 through 1996, this is how the public “learned” an important “fact” about the new GOP Congress:

No one wants to cut the Medicare program. The Republican plan just slows the rate at which the program will grow.

The public “learned” that Bill Clinton was lying when he kept saying the opposite. And then, from 1997 through 2000, the public “learned” these things (and many others) about another big liar:

• Al Gore said he inspired Love Story!
• Al Gore said he invented the Internet!
• Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal!
• Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones!

In fairness, the New York Times corrected that last bit of blather—in July 2007! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/1/07. No, we aren’t making this up.)

Our discourse has been ruled by the fixers for a very long time. In the case of those basic budget matters, deceptive claims get invented in spin shops, then get repeated incessantly. In some cases, major news orgs promote the fake claims; in other cases, they politely stand aside as others voice the fake claims. But this disinformation rules large parts of our discourse, getting fake “knowledge” in everyone’s heads. Public polling frequently shows it: College students “know” they’ll never see a dime of Social Security. After all, the program’s trust fund is a pile of worthless IOUs. The program will go bankrupt in 2041.

This process has ruled our discourse for decades. But you’ll rarely see the process enacted any more clearly than in this instance. On Thursday, two newspapers told the truth—and so, the fixers swung into action. Two days later, their misleading claims appeared in the Post. Again!

By the way: The “career liberal” world has tolerated this grinding process for decades. They politely sit back and keep their traps shut as the public gets disinformed. (Sometimes, of course, they repeat the bogus claims.) It’s safer and easier to function this way; why rock the boat and threaten good jobs? They’ve behaved this way for a very long time. Given the way we enjoy getting conned, it’s likely this gang always will.