Sunday, October 15, 2006

La Cage Aux Foley

Mark Steyn points out the bizarre frivolity of an election turning on a sex scandal, sans actual sex, while there are real threats to world peace out there:
Thanks in part to last decade's holiday from history, North Korea and Iran don't have to buy any more time. They've got all they need. Life isn't a night on Broadway where you can decide you're not in the mood for "Henry V" and everyone seems to be having a much better time at "La Cage Aux Foley." Forget the Republicans for a moment. In Connecticut, the contest is between a frivolous liberal running on myopic parochial platitudes and a serious liberal who has the measure of the times and has thus been cast out by the Democratic Party. His state's voters seem disinclined to endorse the official Dems' full-scale embrace of trivia and myopia. The broader electorate should do the same.
Part of the column is an object lesson in how the media make up the news. It's simple, really you ask a loaded question and then report the response of those you cover to your question as news. In this case the reporter was sent to report on the indictment of Adam Gadahn for treason. But he apparently sees this as being timed to draw attention away from the Mark Foley scandal. He foils this scurvy trick by asking a Justice Department representative by asking him if that isn't what's really going on. The representative says no, it isn't. But the reporter has his story: ""Justice Department officials denied the case was timed to deflect attention from the fallout over lewd computer messages sent by a former Republican congressman to young male aides, a scandal that may help Democrats seize control of Congress in the Nov. 7 elections."

This is the old McCarthy trick. "Do you deny that . . .?" It's also a method used by trial lawyers to introduce ideas into the minds of the jury for which there is no evidence whatsoever. It's a leading question, and it's not allowed on direct questioning, only on cross-examination. In essence, it allows the questioner to testify to the jury. He doesn't care what the answer is. By asking his questions with details and rhetorical skill, he tells the jury a story the only support for which is that it may be consistent with facts that have been alleged. "Isn't it true, Deputy Fuhrmann, that Mrs. Simpson was a drug addict and was murdered by Colombian drug dealers to whom she owed money?" You get the idea.

Now that's misleading, but our criminal justice system allows it because of the presumption of innocence and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. These questions are allowed for the purpose of testing the case presented by the state, to probe and perhaps discover weaknesses.

But what is the excuse of a news reporter for using techniques of cross-examination, if he is truly fair and objective>? Journalists, which is a fifty-cent word (in the parlance of Newsweek) for reporter. Reporters like it, because it sounds more professional and it rids them of the association with what "reporting" means. Reporting is boring. Journalism allows you to put words in the mouth of the people you write about, to interpret events for your readers, to play Woodward and Bernstein, but with yourself as Deep Throat.

There are a couple of reasons why this is pernicious. First, there is no judge to rule on the propriety of such questions. I've often thought it would be nice if the people giving press conferences were to interpose objections to questions, based on the rules of evidence used in courts, and just refuse to dignify them with an answer until they drop the implications furnished by the reporter. Second, there is no opposing questioner who can point out the fallacies and sophistries to the reader or listener.

Our First Amendment was written in a journalistic environment of vigorous arguments from all along the continuum of opinions on public issues. It the founders had foreseen our present situation, in which the points of view have been been limited to a very narrow bandwidth, in which only certain points can get through.

I realize that this post is didactic and pedantic, so I'll nip it with this: Go read Steyn's excellent piece and ask yourself if you really need a "news" service to tell you what to think of events in addition to the events themselves.

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