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WHEN OPINION KILLED! Of course you can challenge opinion journalism. Sometimes, opinion kills: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 29, 2009

Kristol runs the rubes: William Kristol ran the rubes. E.J. Dionne wouldn’t tattle.

We refer to Kristol’s column in Tuesday’s Washington Post. In it, the tyro typed thusly. We start with a triumphal headline:

KRISTOL (10/27/09): A good time to be a conservative

Bien-pensant conservative elites and establishment-friendly Republican big shots yearn for a more moderate, temperate and sophisticated Republican Party. It's not likely to happen. And probably just as well.

The Gallup poll released Monday shows the public's conservatism at a high-water mark. Some 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, compared with 36 percent who self-describe as moderates and 20 percent as liberals.

The conservative number is as high as it's been in the two decades that Gallup has been asking the question.

Cracker, please! the analysts cried, after checking Gallup’s data (click here). At best, Kristol’s highlighted claim is grossly misleading. At worst, it’s simply wrong.

Kristol’s basic cumbers are accurate. In the recent Gallup survey, 40 percent described themselves as “conservative;” only 20 percent said “liberal.” But Gallup’s graphic shows the question being asked every year since 1992—and “conservative” scored a bit higher back then. (1992: 43 percent. 1994: 42 percent.) Based on the Gallup graphic, this week’s 40 percent is not “as high as it’s been in two decades.” It isn’t Gallup’s “high-water mark.”

A second point is much more relevant. This week’s “40 percent” is a stunningly typical score. In the public’s response to this annual question, “conservative” came in at 40 percent in the following years: 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004. In 2002 and 2005, “conservative” suffered a pair of down years, coming in at 39 percent. In the past few years, “conservative” dipped as low at 37 percent, no doubt in response to the foreign and domestic disasters associated with the presidency of a self-described conservative. But responses to this annual question have been remarkably consistent from 1992 until now.

Is this “a good time to be a conservative?” Maybe, maybe not. But Kristol was really running us rubes when he said and implied, at the start of his monthly column, that the current Gallup number represents an exciting, two-decade “high-water mark.” The Post’s editors should have made him rewrite his claims, which are grossly misleading.

Meanwhile, to watch Dionne soft-soap Kristol’s flat misstatement, you know what to do—just click here. Kristol, you see, is part of the club. As in 1999 and 2000, Dionne isn’t willing to tell you the truth about his frat-mates’ deceptions. (Kristol’s current deception won’t make much difference. In those earlier years, the endless deceptions Dionne accepted changed the history of the world.)

Final point: Should liberals be troubled by the long-term pattern in Gallup’s polling? Maybe, maybe not. Dionne links to a study which shows left and right pretty much drawing even if respondents are given four choices, not two. (Liberal, progressive, conservative, libertarian.) But 40 percent is a whole lot of people. Rather than directing our most churlish poseurs to mock and insult these mal-pensants, liberals might consider trying to learn how these people view the world—the better to persuade them that our own bright ideas are the best.

(To the extent that we have such ideas, the analysts asked us to add.)

Special report: Opinion kills!

PART 3—WHEN OPINION KILLED: Jesus, we’re stupid! At least, that’s what the analysts cried as they watched Sunday’s Reliable Sources, in which everyone—including the host, the liberal and the professor—seemed to stampede off to take their conceptual cues from Fox (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/27/09). Of course, the analysts had torn their hair the same way as they watched Friday’s Maddow Show. On that show, Our Own Rhodes Scholar also offered an utterly woeful analysis.

What’s the matter with Fox? On Friday, Maddow’s analysis was astoundingly weak (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/09). And it largely followed the official Fox line, in which we’ve been told that it’s utterly foolish to criticize “opinion programming.” In which an utterly silly distinction is drawn between “news” and “opinion”—between reporting and commentary.

On Sunday, the liberal, the professor and the host all pretty much seemed to buy the Fox line. But so had Maddow, on Friday night! Jesus, we’re stupid! the analysts cried. It’s no wonder we never win arguments!

Let’s review:

At the highest level of the liberal/Dem world, the White House recently entered the world of political press criticism. But we will never win these fights if we can’t analyze things more clearly—if we can’t help people understand what is wrong with the work that is done at Fox.

That said, let’s say this: Opinion kills! Let’s recall a time when that happened:

On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell marched grandly off to address the United Nations. These days, Maddow falls all over herself, fawning over the wonderful patriot (Lawrence Wilkerson) who assembled the secretary’s presentation. (Where do we get these people?) But then, with her mad Powell-love, Maddow apes the bulk of Serious Opinion in the days after the great leader spoke. In real time, Powell’s presentation was strikingly weak; in the fuller bloom of history, his presentation turned out to be wrong in its most important claims. But so what? At the Washington Post, a string of fawning opinion writers took a number and stood in line, each one hoping to top the others in fealty to the great general. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/14/03—Valentine's Day, one observes.)

“I’m Persuaded,” said the headline on Mary McGrory’s column on February 6, the day after Powell spoke. But then, Richard Cohen and William Raspberry also stampeded off to say how brilliantly Powell had proven his case about Iraq’s WMD. These claims all appeared in opinion columns. Coming from famous “liberal” columnists, they clinched the public case for war:

MCGRORY (2/6/03): I don't know how the United Nations felt about Colin Powell's "J'accuse” speech against Saddam Hussein. I can only say that he persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince.

COHEN (2/6/03): The evidence he presented to the United Nations—some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail—had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool—or possibly a Frenchman—could conclude otherwise.

RASPBERRY (2/10/03): It was a spectacular performance, and by the time Colin Powell was finished, I was a complete convert.

[...]

I had my doubts as to how much active production of weapons of mass destruction was happening in Iraq. Powell's display removed those doubts.

In fairness, McGrory and Raspberry said they weren’t ready for war. (“Yet,” each columnist added.) But amid embarrassing fawning to Powell—not unlike Maddow’s fawning to Wilkerson—the Post’s liberal columnists stampeded off to insist that he’d proven the case about WMD.

In this way, the route to war was sealed. And yes, these faulty, fawning judgments were rendered in opinion columns.

That segment on Reliable Sources? An utter, embarrassing joke. But so too for Maddow’s Friday “analysis,” which seemed to say that Fox News would be A-OK if they’d just dump those Tea Party promos. (Where do we get these people?) Simple story: If this is the best we liberals can manage, we are doomed to many more decades of pitiful, clownish defeat.

The other side got into the business of press critique long ago, during the Kennedy/Nixon era. They have argued their claims long and diligently—sometimes with justice, quite often without. But by now, they have helped create a world in which many people assume that they’re getting the “liberal” line when they watch the mainstream press. In part, the other side’s claims have worked quite well because they’ve been framed by highly skilled people—by professional persuaders who know what they’re doing, even when they attempt to deceive.

On our side, it works a bit differently. When we finally get into the chase, we can’t even explain what’s the matter with Fox! If they’d only drop those Tea Party promos, Fox would be A-OK!

We’d planned to go further with this series, but let’s leave it at this:

Maddow’s analysis was a joke, like a great deal of her work. On Sunday, HuffPo’s Pitney was pitiful too. If the liberal world is prepared to accept this level of functioning, the liberal world is standing in line for decades more of what we have had—pathetic, persistent defeat. At present, the liberal world couldn’t sell ice at the equator. If you doubt that, just watch our floundering in the health care “debate,” despite the utterly ludicrous state of American health care. (This is a failure which stretches back decades. It doesn’t just fall on Obama’s shoulders. And it doesn’t just fall on our politicians. To a greater extent, it falls on our “intellectual leaders,” who are so adept at standing in line for jobs at the Washington Post.)

One difference: In the future, we’ll be able to watch our “liberal” shows and laugh about Bush’s motivational speeches—without being forced to hear that Bill Clinton (and apparently Jimmy Carter) took part in these seminars too. (On our liberal opinion programs, our hosts are careful to pick and choose the things we’re forced to hear.) But we will lose, and lose, and lose again, if we can’t frame our arguments better. We’ll have Big Fun as we snark to ourselves. The outside world will roll on.

Let’s review:

When the White House hit Fox, Fox began spinning. They offered an utterly silly distinction: You can’t criticize opinion programming! It must be the dumbest distinction ever hatched. And all around the liberal firmament, our reps ran out and bought it.

Crackers! Of course you can criticize opinion programming! You can do so in almost every way you criticize news reporting! You can criticize it when it presents false facts. You can criticize it when it picks-and-chooses its accurate facts. You can criticize it when it focuses on silly topics. You can criticize it when it spreads hysteria about things which really do matter. (School sex clinics in every school! Run by Planned Parenthood! With secret abortions!)

You can even criticize “opinion journalism” when it calls 40 percent a “high-water mark!” Everyone knows this—until Fox speaks. But alas! When Fox spoke a few weeks ago, we acted as if its silly distinction was—dare we say?—on loan from God.

Fox spoke—and your world recited! It’s how your world studies to lose.