02 February 2010

Feck! Mo' Better Feck!

Just a quick follow up to my "Feck! Feck! Feck!" post of yesterday.

If you want to see other related posts about similar topics, click here, and scroll down.

On Sunday, Roger Ailes, the founder and CEO of FoxNews appeared on ABC's This Week talking head gabfest, along with mainstay George Will, Arianna Huffington, and Paul Krugman. He was practically incoherent—except for his truculence. His statements were simply a memorized set of talking points which primarily plugged his network's slogans. Here's the transcript. The one bit of candor that slipped out was really quite revelatory: Barbara Walters asked Ailes if his latest commentator, Sarah Palin, was qualified to be President. Here's his response:
WALTERS: ...Do you think she has the qualifications to be president?

AILES: FOX News is fair and balanced. We had Geraldine Ferraro on for 10 years as the only woman the Democrats ever nominated. Now we have the only woman that the Republicans nominated. I'm not in politics, I'm in ratings. We're willing. [I think he actually said 'winning'.]

HUFFINGTON: Roger, you clearly are in ratings, but if you are in ratings, can you explain to me why FOX went away from the meeting the president was having in -- why did you go away, 20 minutes before the end?

AILES: Because we're the most trusted name in news.
There. "I'm in ratings." But when contradicted—Obama's Q & A with the Republicans was the most highly-rated political news of the day—he resorted to a slogan. "Trust us." The two—ratings and trustworthiness—are fundamentally incompatible. Ratings is about 'entertainment'; trustworthiness is something else altogether having to do with such things as truth, accuracy, and fact-based premises.

Another telling moment came in a give and take with Krugman in which Krugman accused Ailes's network of deliberately misleading its viewers in an effort to keep them uninformed about the health care reform issue. Ailes responded that the American people were not stupid, a non sequitur, then, after some cross-talk, accused the President of trying to take $500 billion away from old people—a thoroughly discredited canard.

I think this highlights some of what I was saying yesterday about enthymemes: the right tends to demagogue the issues, often using false or discredited assertions as the unspoken premise of their argument. Yet, to the extent the propaganda is "catapulted" and reinforced by misleading/slanted/biased reporting, these assertions become commonplaces. FoxNews watchers will get what Ailes is saying because they believe its unspoken premise to be true. As Aristotle taught, it is extremely difficult to dispute an engrained, unspoken premise.

The problem lies in the failure of the right-wing to engage not only the left-wing but the mainstream in dialogue. President G.W. Bush pre-screened audiences and questions every time he engaged in dialogue, even, it was suspected, press conferences; it was clear that the press was intimidated by Bush because he froze out any news organizations who challenged his assertions. So-called political debates have become primarily chances for the candidates to spout their talking points from their campaigns; they talk past each other, and the questioners never get a chance for follow-through. Congressional representatives stand up and speak to empty chambers; they don't respond to valid points from the other side; they merely posit their focus-group tested talking points. Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio talk show hosts pre-screen the few callers they take, refusing to take criticism unless they have specifically planned a response to a specific point. Similarly, Limbaugh and Palin and others refuse to appear on non-sympathetic news shows which might challenge them to articulate their views and unspoken premises. Cable news commentators tend to be bomb-throwers: they make outrageous claims (usually to self-selected, sympathetic audiences), guaranteed (on the Ailes model) to generate controversy, with little or no regard for the truth; and often they are in the direct employ of political organizations or their PR flacks, though this is never disclosed. Mainly, they attack anyone who would challenge their views—whether it is the 'mainstream' media ('liberal' media in their minds) or other commentators. A challenge to their point of view is personally threatening to them and they often resort to vile ad hominem attacks to defend their positions.

Radical views fester in the hot-houses of cloistered communities. Today, a new poll came out showing that sizable percentages of avowed Republicans either believe or don't know whether Obama should be impeached (for no apparent reason), that he was not born in America, that he is a socialist, that he wants the terrorists to win, that ACORN stole ten million votes in the last election, that Sarah Palin is more qualified than Obama to be president, that he is a racist who hates white people, that gays should not be allowed to serve in the military or teach in schools, that gay couples deserve no state or federal benefits, that sex education should not be taught in schools, that the Genesis version of creation in the Bible should be taught in public schools, that contraceptives should be outlawed, that the birth control pill is abortion, and that abortion is murder, and, lastly, that their state should secede from the Union.

This refusal to engage is the state of our public discourse at the present time. President Obama made what I take to be a serious attempt to get past this situation with his televised, un-prescreened Q & A with Republican members of Congress. Anyone who saw it would conclude that he has a firm grasp not only on all the issues, but on the pros and cons of both sides of the issues. Yet, FoxNews cut away once it became clear that he was able to actually answer and engage with the questioners, even challenging the unspoken premises behind many of their questions.

As the old saw has it, sunshine is the best disinfectant. Enlightenment comes from education, to which many on the right are just plain averse; they want their views to be reinforced, not challenged. The question is how to engage the hermetic recesses in which these sorts of radical views prevail in a way which is neither preachy and arrogant nor militant and threatening. Obama, in Jedi-master mode once again, may have shown us the way. Will he be able to follow through? Will we?

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