What You Will

Another Burma Shave billboard on the information superhighway. Random thoughts about arts, faith, culture, music, language, literature, and the shortcomings of the Hegelian dialectic. (OK, just kidding about that last bit.)

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A post about nothing

One of the most revelatory statements I ever heard from a college professor was uttered by one Bob Chamberlain on the first day of my communications class. Prof. Chamberlain leaned back against a table he always had in the front of the room and told us that television was a means for delivering an audience to advertisers.

Until that point, I'd believed that television was primarily about the content. I might've been naive, I admit, on account of not having watched much of it: I grew up in a family that didn't own a TV.

In TV's early days, of course, it was hard to miss the fact that the advertising tail wagged the programming dog: TV shows had "sponsors," for goodness' sake, and George Burns and Jack Benny would take time out to shill for the product and then step back onto the set without missing a beat. These days we go to great lengths to deny the connection, and we have gizmos that help us try to separate ads from content. But the basic model is still there: the viewer is the product, the advertisers are the consumer, and the programming is just a venue for delivering one to the other. All of this becomes abundantly clear if you've ever looked at a media kit. (If you don't know what one is — take a class on advertising!)

Which is sort of a long-winded way of introducing the following thought: If you want to watch TV programming for its entertainment value, go ahead — but God help you if you should ever begin to take any of it seriously. And I mean any of it, including the news and political programming that begs you to take it seriously. It's there for precisely the same reason that "Big Brother" and "Jackass" are there: to serve you up on a platter to corporations who want a slice of your wallet. And if it doesn't deliver a big enough slice, it'll eventually be replaced with something that does.

I recently traded a few comments with another blogger who I'm sure would disagree, in part, with what I've just said. And, since he held comments from guests to a different standard than the one he applied to his own comments as a host, I've now been banned from commenting further at his blog, which is why I'm posting this over at my blog.

This individual's point, if you'll allow a broad application of that term, was that liberalism is represented in the media by its most extreme wing, whom he identified as Bill Maher, Michael Moore, and Keith Olbermann, whereas conservatism holds in check its most extreme wing (Fred Phelps and the John Birch Society) and leaves its media representation to sober, reasonable, balanced people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.

In other words, according to this individual, the left wing doesn't get any more radical than the liberal pundits you see on TV. And the conservative counterparts of liberal pundits are not conservative pundits. No sir, the conservative counterpart of liberal pundits is Fred Phelps, a ghoulish preacher who protests soldiers' funerals because "God hates fags" and calls himself a Baptist even though no Baptist denomination acknowledges him. To put it another way, according to my blogger-pal, the liberal analogue of Fred Phelps is not some anarchist hooligan or Communist Party figure. No, it's a middle-aged white guy in pinstripes who makes his audience chuckle by mocking conservatives. That's as extreme as the left wing could possibly get.

So when I challenged the dude's comparison of Keith Olbermann to Fred Phelps, here's what he said:
When it comes to Keith Olbermann and delusionary behavior, I need only quote this gem of his:

"Al Qaeda really hurt us, but not as much as Rupert Murdoch has hurt us, particularly in the case of FOX News. Fox news is worse than Al Qaeda — worse for our society. It's as dangerous as the Ku Klux Klan ever was."

Any person who believes that an American news organization (which gives more equal time balance than he does on his show) is worse than those who ran planes into buildings and murdered 3000 Americans is a person who more than measures up to the standard of being Fred Phelps' counterpart.
Now I don't doubt that Olbermann said that, even though the blogger in question didn't provide a source. Hyperbole is Olbermann's job, as it is the job of every pundit. Olbermann is paid to generate ad revenue and jack up ratings by pouncing on every controversy he can. And he frequently tries too hard. The comment comparing FOX to Al-Qaeda is indefensible. (Update: the quote is from Playboy. No wonder I missed it—I don't read Playboy for the articles.)

Whether that makes him the equivalent of Fred Phelps is an apples-to-oranges calculation that armchair pathologists like my blogger acquaintance can make if they want to. It doesn't provide one iota of illumination about either Phelps or Olbermann, but the fact that Olbermann is the most extreme left-winger this fellow can think of, in the mainstream media or out of it, does suggest that he doesn't know much about the left wing.

To bring things back to more reasonable sorts of comparisons, this individual went on to assert that conservative pundits "haven't said anything comparable to that gem from Olbermann." Well, I'm already sick of Googling this stuff, but so far I've got Ann Coulter linking Newsweek to Al-Qaeda, Bill O'Reilly comparing the entire "secular-progressive movement" to Osama Bin Laden, Rush Limbaugh saying the Democrats are doing PR for Al-Qaeda, and Chris Matthews equating Bin Laden and Michael Moore. That's enough for me. It turns out that conservative pundits are the true analogues of liberal pundits after all, and they can both be counted on to say equally ridiculous things.

And when I say that's enough for me, I mean that's enough. Comment if you must, but prepare to be mercilessly mocked, since my primary assertion here is that none of this is worth serious attention in the first place.


Blogger Martin said...

This topic doesn’t deserve another post, but perhaps it will be worthwhile to post the following little exercise as a comment. Then again, perhaps not.

My blogger-pal, whom I’ll address henceforth by the initials F.Q., took note of what I wrote above and came back with the following on his own blog:

The whitewasher for Keith Olbermann who is no longer welcome at this blog attempted to elaborate on his whitewash recently by insisting again that whatever Olbermann does can be brushed off …

(“Whitewash”? “Brushed off”? I said Olbermann’s remark was indefensible, ridiculous, and unworthy of serious attention. If that’s a whitewash, I’m Tom Sawyer. But I digress.)

… by calling attention to what mainstream conservative commentators have said, and cited Ann Coulter likening Newsweek to Al Qaeda.

Reality check time. The *context* for said remarks about Newsweek stemmed from the fact that Newsweek, to their eternal shame, ran a *false* story about American soldiers at Gitmo engaging in alleged torture techniques that included flushing a Koran down the toilet. The story was a lie yet it was trumpeted as an example of why Gitmo should be closed and how horrible our trooops have been....in other words a story that served the propaganda aims of Al Qaeda. Thus, it is perfectly legitimate to take note of how an outrageous story in the news media that is designed to undermine our troops and our nation during time of war can in the end legitimately earn yourself a comparison to the enemy if the effect of what you do hurts the morale of our troops and gives encouragement to the enemy.

A couple of interesting points occur to me. The first concerns F.Q.’s use of the word “lie” in the above paragraph. The conventional definition of a lie has three parts. To tell a lie, you must (1) state a falsehood; (2) know it’s a falsehood; and (3) state it with intent to deceive. But with a little research we can infer that F.Q. is using a different definition.

On May 1, 2005, Newsweek did in fact publish the story he mentions, attributing the remark about Koran-flushing to an unnamed military investigator in the U.S. Southern Command. When the article sparked riots in several Muslim countries, Newsweek published an editor’s note and then a formal retraction after the source said he could “no longer be sure” about the allegation. White House press secretary Scott McClellan, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld all commented on the story, but none of them alleged that, or presented any evidence to the effect that, anyone at Newsweek knew the Koran-flushing claim was false or published it with intent to deceive.

Yet F.Q. calls the story a lie, even though only one of three conditions exists to define it as such according to the conventional definition. We can only conclude that F.Q. is using his own definition of “lie,” and that the only condition required to meet that definition is to state a falsehood. Apparently it doesn’t matter to F.Q. whether the speaker knows the statement is false or is trying to deceive anyone.

This definition of “lie” is more common than you might think. Another place it’s popped up recently is in coverage of the controversial “War Card” report from the Center for Public Integrity, which cites 935 “false statements” made by top Bush administration officials about Iraq, Al-Qaeda, and WMDs. The report doesn’t use the word “lie,” but much of the news coverage about it does.

Recently, during a Congressional hearing, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) confronted Secy. Rice about the report:

Here’s a stack of these false statements right here, all 935 of them. This study has found that you, Madam Secretary, made 56 false statements to the American people, where you repeatedly pump up the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and exaggerate the so-called relationship between Iraq and Al Qaida.

Madam Secretary, can you please tell us, isn’t it true that you had intelligence that cast doubt on your repeated claims — that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction?

At this, Secy. Rice became visibly angry (you can’t blame her for that — I’d be angry too, in her shoes), and replied, in part:

Now, Congressman, I take my integrity very seriously and I did not at any time make a statement that I knew to be false or that I thought to be false in order to pump up anything.

Here Secy. Rice is saying she didn’t know the statements were false, and she didn’t make them with intent to deceive. She’s appealing to the conventional definition of lying, and she stands a chance with that definition. But she doesn’t stand a chance if we apply F.Q.’s definition. Remember, according to him, any falsehood is automatically a lie. The other conditions are immaterial. Secy. Rice made statements that happened to be false, so by F.Q.’s definition, she’s a liar. End of story.

My second point follows from my first. Reread the quote from F.Q. at the beginning of this comment, where he suggests that the Newsweek Koran-flushing story is the “context” for Ann Coulter’s comparison of Newsweek to Al-Qaeda, and that therefore the comparison is justified. Well, if F.Q. had bothered to click my link on the name “Ann Coulter” above, he might have noticed that it points to her comments about a Newsweek story from May 2007 concerning Barack Obama’s poll numbers — not to any comments she might have made about the Koran-flushing story two years earlier. To allege, as F.Q. does, that the Koran-flushing story is somehow the “context” for Coulter’s remarks about a completely unrelated story is to state a patent falsehood. And furthermore, it’s a lie according to F.Q.’s use of the term. Maybe he clicked my link, maybe he didn’t — but either way, F.Q. himself is a liar by his own definition.

All of this might be easier to overlook if F.Q. weren’t a college history professor who likes to brag about his expertise in historical-critical methodology. Give me a break — the guy’s either too lazy or too dishonest to check a simple citation. And he’s grading your kids’ term papers. I’m sending back his reality check. Insufficient funds.

10:16 AM  
Blogger ericpaddon said...

When it comes to your grasp of "reality" I only had to note with amusement your decision to lump ex-Tip O'Neill aide Chris Matthews in the category of "conservative pundit."

I think your own reality check has just bounced. :)

3:05 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

Hi Eric,

Glad to see you can't resist peeking over here once in a while. Unlike you, I'm perfectly happy to admit comments on my blog from people I don't respect. Feel free to drop by any time.

The initials "F.Q." are derived simply by taking the initials of your given name and substituting the consecutive letters of the alphabet. If those initials remind you of something else, that must be due to the way your mind works not mine. I've used similar anonymization devices before, to protect people from any unnecessary embarrassment. If you don't feel that you need such protection, I won't try to stop you from using your own name.

I understand Olbermann's ratings are up significantly since he started doing his "special comment" rants. I'm sure people find those especially entertaining. But you're right, he's still getting beaten by FOX, so whatever happens over there must be even more entertaining. I'm sure Keith's never-ending pursuit of ratings will continue to provide you with plenty of fodder, until he goes too far even for MSNBC.

I note that in response to the Ann Coulter quote, you've attempted to pit what you claim I "implied" about her remarks against your "translation" of her remarks. Cute. Now, any time you're ready to deal with either what I actually wrote or what Ms. Coulter actually said, just let me know.

I do see that I misjudged you in one regard: It turns out that you actually have no problem whatsoever with anyone comparing his or her political opponents to terrorists — as long as the opponents are liberals and the one making the comparison is a conservative. Me, I don't believe those planes were flown into buildings in order to give either party a stick to beat the other with. I think terrorism is much too serious a problem to be used as a political football ... but I guess you don't see it that way.

As for Chris Matthews, I refer you to the original post. If I'm going to maintain that TV pundits are not worth serious attention, then it's hardly surprising that I haven't memorized their resumes. Right or left, they've reduced political discussion to the level of a playground taunt. Apparently you like it that way. Which is fine for you, but count me out.

2:19 AM  

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