Howard Kurtz, Michael Barone & Argument by Anecdote

It is vital to find a way to combat one of the right wing's favorite (and most deceitful) tactics -- argument by anecdote.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – updated again)

Following up on this post from the other day, The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz this morning wrote about the regular commenters at Little Green Footballs who expressed support for Al Qaeda’s plot to assassinate former President Jimmy Carter. Here is the passage from Kurtz’s article in its entirety:

In other news . . . more disgusting chatter from the political fringe, this time on the right.

I was appalled when some crazies posting comments at the Huffington Post expressed disappointment that the suicide bombing in Afghanistan missed Dick Cheney. Now some wackos posting at the conservative site Little Green Footballs are bummed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed didn’t succeed in killing Jimmy Carter (a plot that was included in his laundry list of confessions).

To wit:

“Can we furlough him–just so he can realize the Carter plot? Please?”

“Even this schmuck had some good ideas.”

“Can we trade Carter to get the WTC and its occupants back?”

I don’t hold either Web site responsible for this garbage, and it’s not representative of anything other than the politics of hatred as practiced by a tiny minority. But how despicable: Whatever his shortcomings as president, Carter is 82 years old. Have some irrational people hated him so intensely for three decades that they still want him assassinated? Pathetic.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald reprints some of the posts and beats up on Little Green Football’s founder:

“Let us first recall that LGF’s Charles Johnson was one of the leaders of the Outrage Brigade driving the big ‘story’ — that made it into virtually every national media outlet — of how anonymous HuffPost commenters expressed sorrow that the bombing in Afghanistan did not result in Dick Cheney’s death.”

Charles Johnson responds that the comments on his site “reflect only the opinions of the individuals who posted them. There’s serious doubt whether any of the ones you quoted rise to the level of hatred that showed up in Arianna’s readers’ Cheney-related comments. I don’t think they do, and I think most honest readers would agree.”

One could, if one were so inclined, voice several criticisms of Kurtz’s conduct here — namely, the fact that he devoted virtually his entire column to the HuffPost incident (promoted by the Post’s front page) versus burying this item deep in his column, the failure to take note of how common such commentary is at LGF, and his refusal to condemn (or even notice) Johnson’s defense of these pro-assassination sentiments from his regular users (Johnson claimed that the LGF pro-assassination comments somehow don’t “rise to the level of hatred that showed up in Arianna’s readers’ Cheney-related comments”).

Most notably of all, there is the complete disingenuousness of Kurtz’s claim that he never for a minute meant to suggest that the HuffPost comments were “representative of anything other than the politics of hatred as practiced by a tiny minority.” Why, then, would he devote a front-page article to those comments — echoing the very prominent coverage given to them by his colleagues, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh — unless the intent were to indict “the Left” or” liberals” or Democrats generally with the familiar stereotype, rooted in the trite and fabled images of the 1960s hippie-protestors, of being so driven by deranged and America-hating anger that they actually cheer on the attempts by The Terrorists to kill the Vice President?

But at least Kurtz wrote about the LGF commenters and, in doing so, was forced to acknowledge what the HuffPost “story” that he pumped meant, and more importantly, what it did not mean. And that is a good development, even if it is the case — as it certainly was — that the swarms of emails he received from readers here and elsewhere forced the issue into his column.

This whole episode raises two broader issues that I think are worth highlighting:

(1) Writing about extremist right-wing blogs can be tedious at times, but the point in writing about them is never the blogs themselves (let alone their commenters), but rather, how the national media depicts political movements and the assumptions embedded in how they referee our country’s political discourse. That is always the point. It isn’t news that LGF and other large right-wing blogs are the venues for sociopathic and violence-inciting rhetoric on a daily basis. Standing alone, there is limited value in writing or thinking about that topic.

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The point here — as always — is to try to force the media to write about the stories it covers in a more critical and factual manner, to compel them to abandon the cheap and lazy cliches that otherwise frame everything they write. That is one of the most critical functions of blogs, and it is one of the goals that is realistically attainable by bloggers and their readers working together.

That, for instance, is the function that Talking Points Memo has performed with the U.S. attorneys story. They didn’t do so much original reporting or uncovering of new facts. The real work they did was in critically examining the available facts, making the connections that were being missed, and then insisting that the media treat the story as it deserved to be treated by highlighting and documenting what it revealed. With some exceptions (such as FDL’s original reporting on the Libby trial), that is really one of the core functions bloggers perform — to battle against the cliched narratives and reflexive mindset the media has relied upon for two decades now in determining which stories they select to cover and what they say about those stories.

(2) One of the reasons why I wrote about that HuffPost story when it was still nothing more than infected bile bubbling up in the right-wing blog sewers was because it was glaringly clear that it was going to worm its way through the standard channels and become a major media story. And the reason that was clear is because the tactic embodied by that “story” — namely, finding isolated, obscure, stray, unrepresentative individuals or comments and obsessively focusing on them in order to imply that they are representative of “liberals” or “the Left” generally — is a deceitful tactic that is one of the most commonly used by the right-wing noise machine, and the national media has been trained to ingest that tactic and disseminate it.

The Ward Churchill whirlwind is one of the classic examples of this rotted genre. “Stories” of that type — which are, as I’ve noted before, perfect examples of the logical fallacy of “argument by anecdote” — are naturally attractive to lazy journalists because they enable broad political points to be made simply by focusing on single anecdotes in isolation. Very little analytical or journalistic work needs to be done in order to covert those anecdotes and cliches into a sensationalistic, attention-generating story.

This is why Michelle Malkin blog’s (and LGF), for instance, constantly hypes photographs of the single most “offensive” sign at every protest march, or why Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh single out some obscure comment by some unknown or inconsequential “leftist” and lead their shows with it regularly. It is a manipulative and slothful — though highly effective — means of assigning attributes to a large political movement based on nothing other than cherry-picked and highly unrepresentative examples. And that is why Malkin’s screaming about the HuffPost comments she found was so clearly going straight to the national press. That tactic almost never fails.

There is a column today by U.S. News and World Report‘s Michael Barone — predictably celebrated by the most intellectually dishonest right-wing followers — which is a classic example of this technique. The article is entitled “The-Blame-America-First-Crowd” and this is its only point:

They always blame America first.” That was Jeane Kirkpatrick, describing the “San Francisco Democrats” in 1984. But it could be said about a lot of Americans, especially highly educated Americans, today.

In their assessment of what is going on in the world, they seem to start off with a default assumption that we are in the wrong. The “we” can take different forms: the United States government, the vast mass of middle-class Americans, white people, affluent people, churchgoing people or the advanced English-speaking countries. Such people are seen as privileged and selfish, greedy and bigoted, rash and violent. If something bad happens, the default assumption is that it’s their fault. They always blame America — or the parts of America they don’t like — first.

As is true for all of Barone’s columns, the whole thing is composed of the emptiest 1990s political platitudes — America’s college campuses are filled with America-hating radicals and thus “students are bombarded with denunciations of dead white males and urged to engage in the deconstruction of all past learning and scholarship,” etc. etc.

But what is most notable about the column is that — while repeatedly attacking what “they” think — he never once identifies a single person who believes any of the things he is condemning. Supposedly, America is being threatened by this huge swath of people who fit the cartoon that is floating around in Barone’s slothful and uncritical mind — the “they” — yet Barone cannot find a single example to identify. Nonetheless, the largest right-wing bloggers excitedly point to it as some profound illumination of what “they” think.

There is a reason for that rather glaring omission. The technique used by Barone is fundamentally dishonest, as it’s intended to do nothing other than manufacture some warped and repellent idea and then impute it to “the left” or “liberals” or “Democrats” — through nothing more than innuendo and the transparently fallacious and primitive technique of “argument by anecdote.” That is, far and away, the tactic used most commonly by right-wing deceivers, and the national press reflexively echoes it.

Generally speaking, there are two ways to combat an intellectually dishonest standard — (1) argue in the abstract against its validity, or (2) apply it to those who wield it. To engage in method (2) is not to abandon method (1). Quite the contrary: the only genuinely effective method for illustrating just how rancid techniques of this type are is to subject those who use them to those same techniques and demand that the media apply those techniques consistently.

UPDATE: Anonymous Liberal points out that there actually is someone who meets Barone’s cartoon strawman of those who “always blame America — or the parts of America they don’t like — first.” It’s Barone himself, along with his political comrades, who ceaselessly ascribe blame for everything — from the failures in Iraq to the loss of trust by Americans in their government — on those treasonous, subversive Americans who oppose The Great Leader and his wars, which now happens to include the majority of the country.

Like good little authoritarians, people like Barone conflate allegiance to their Leader with allegiance to the country, and therefore equate “blaming Bush” with “blaming America.” That is the great irony which A.L. documents — that the people whom Barone and his allies blame for America’s failures are the majority of Americans themselves. If any faction can be said to “Blame America first,” it is the faction of Bush followers represented by Barone, who argue on a daily basis that the blame for the failures of their Leader rests not with the Leader but with those Americans who fail to support him with sufficient loyalty and fervor.

UPDATE II: Within hours of this being posted, we are graciously provided with a perfectly illustrative example of this cheap, manipulative tactic.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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