Some bias with breakfast

Josh is upset with media misrepresentation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s August 30 speech to the American Legion. Based on two articles about the speech (this one and that one), Josh concludes that the first article misrepresents Rumsfeld’s speech, and that this “subtle character assassination” is due to a liberal bias in the media.

I take issue with this conclusion.

First of all, the first article is about an election year stunt to garner support among the Democrat’s base (a strategy that assumes that the concept of a coherent Democratic base is not self-contradictory). The Democrat’s are pushing for a resolution requiring the resignation of Rumsfeld. It won’t pass, and the Democrats know it (and even if it did pass, I can’t imagine it would actually lead to Rumsfeld stepping down), but this kind of thing isn’t new in Washington. The article in question only mentions his speech twice, once in the opening paragraph:

A resolution demanding the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after he compared Iraq war critics to Nazi appeasers has strong support among U.S. Senate Democrats, a senior Democrat said on Sunday.

and once in reference to Senator Barbara Boxer’s take on the resolution:

California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer (news, bio, voting record) has vowed to offer a resolution calling on Bush to name a new defense secretary, saying she was outraged by Rumsfeld’s comments that appeared to compare Iraq war critics to appeasers of Nazi Germany.

Josh takes issue with the fact that Rumsfeld doesn’t actually directly compare opponents of the Iraq war to Nazi appeasers, and the fact that Rumsfeld’s speech isn’t quoted, hiding the first fact from the reader.

Again, though, the article is about the resolution, which, stunt or not, undoubtedly has origins older than this speech. The speech is omitted because it’s not central to what’s being reported on. Beyond that, though, I am confused by the distinction Josh makes when he says:

…note that the specific charge is that people have not “learned history’s lessons.” In other words, the accusation is not that people are Chamberlainesque hand-wringers, unable to act. It is simply that they haven’t learned the appropriate lessons from history. The charge is one of ignorance, not cowardice.

In reference to the following from Rumsfeld’s speech:

I recount this history because once again we face the same kind of challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism.

Today, another enemy — a different kind of enemy — has also made clear its intentions — in places like New York, Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, and Moscow. But it is apparent that many have still not learned history’s lessons.

But what is it ignorance of, if not the dangers of appeasement? Now, either the “many [who] have still not learned history’s lessons” are, in fact, guilty of advocating appeasement, or there is no one who actually advocates appeasement of the new fascists. If the ignorance in question is ignorance of the dangers of appeasement, then in the former case, the charge of ignorance holds some water, but only by relying on an implicit accusation of appeasement, while in the latter case, it’s semantically and rhetorically empty, a charge levied at no target at all.

The point is that, although it is undoubtedly factually incorrect to state that Rumsfeld directly accuses opponents of the Iraq war of being equivalent to fascist-appeasers, a construal of his speech under which a someone is being accused of appeasement is entirely reasonable. Continuing directly from Rumsfeld’s speech:

We need to face the following questions:

* With the growing lethality and availability of weapons, can we truly afford to believe that somehow vicious extremists can be appeased?
* Can we really continue to think that free countries can negotiate a separate peace with terrorists?
* Can we truly afford the luxury of pretending that the threats today are simply “law enforcement” problems, rather than fundamentally different threats, requiring fundamentally different approaches?
* And can we truly afford to return to the destructive view that America — not the enemy — is the real source of the world’s trouble?

These are central questions of our time. And we must face them.

Again, either someone is advocating appeasement, and Rumsfeld is calling them out, or no one is, in which case it is difficult to see the point of bringing up this particular episode in history. Given that the Bush administration considers the Iraq war the latest battlefield in the “war on terror” –

Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war. Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington, and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home…. Our mission in Iraq is clear. We’re hunting down the terrorists. We’re helping Iraqis build a free nation that is an ally in the war on terror. We’re advancing freedom in the broader Middle East. We are removing a source of violence and instability, and laying the foundation of peace for our children and our grandchildren.

– is it so unreasonable to see a link betwen Rumsfeld’s criticism of those who would appease the “islamo-fascists” to those who criticize the Iraq war?

I am not defending Schumer or Boxer’s personal feelings of insult, nor am I saying that Rumsfeld was in fact accusing them personally (or anyone else in particular) of seeking to appease latter-day fascists. I am simply pointing out what I see as a flaw in Josh’s argument for liberal bias in the media. In the single article presented as evidence of liberal media bias, one mention of Rumsfeld’s speech regards only a particular politician’s personal feelings about the speech – and says that it “appeared to compare Iraq war critics to appeasers of Nazi Germany.” (my emphasis) – and the other makes a fairly reasonable inference based on the speech and the Bush administration’s standard line on the role of the Iraq war in the “war on terror.”

Josh finishes by writing:

The article linked above fails to quote Rumsfeld because it is attempting to mislead.

As should be clear by now, I don’t agree with this inference. He continues:

I grow increasingly tired of people who continue to believe that there is no liberal bias in the media. I’m really not sure what else could explain the necessity of such a subtle character assasination.

I think that Josh’s own biases play an important role in his take on this. Let me be clear, though, that I don’t think this is a bad thing. Josh has made the case to me, and I agree, that a certain degree of bias – in whatever direction – gives reporting more punch. I’ve even heard Josh make more convincing arguments than this one for a general liberal media bias. Furthermore, I share many of Josh’s biases, so I’m not arguing against him out of general disagreement or dislike for his politics.

I’ve tried to present at least one possible, and plausible, alternative explanation for this “subtle character assassination” that got Josh worked up. One data point doesn’t make a slam-dunk case for liberal media bias. Granted, this meme is all over the place since Rumsfeld’s speech, as a simple google search quickly reveals, but this seems to me to be stronger evidence of lazy journalism than liberal bias. “The media” is – sorry, are – anything but monolithic. If there is any single, overriding bias in the media, surely it’s a bias toward sensationalizing everything, and surely this can, and does, cut in any direction on the political spectrum.



  1. Joshua
    Posted September 4, 2006 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Although you raise some good points here and there, I think you are ultimately missing the issue. The righteous indignation expressed by the Democrats over Rumsfeld’s comments would be appropriate if he had been cheaply dismissing their objections to the Iraq War with a baseless comparison to other cowards from history. But this is not what he did. Quoting from the speech would have cleared up this disctinction for the reader of the article in question (or at least given him the tools to decide for himself whether my characterization is correct), so one would therefore expect any complete report on the issue to include such a quote.

    That this speech is not central to the article is simply wrong. It is mentioned three times, by the way, not two – and all three of these mentions involve key Democrats citing it as important among the reasons they think Rumsfeld should resign.

    I have given a comprehensive response to this post on my blog, along with a couple of concessions on issues where I felt you made good points.

  2. Joshua
    Posted September 4, 2006 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    On a second look at the article, I think I am on shaky ground saying that Dean is citing Rumsfeld’s speech specifically as a reason for supporting his resignation. I certainly get the impression from what he said that that is his intention, but his actual statement doesn’t support this conclusion to such an extent that I can demand others share it. So perhaps I need to ammend my post to say that “two citations” of the speech is defensible – though I myself still count three.

    My review of Chomsky is done, by the way.

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