Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rose Colored Journalism

Names for most of our sciences have Greek roots, a tradition that goes back to Aristotle. Every few years, a new one appears that invariably will be an “ology” of one sort or another. And so it was with “agnotology” several years ago. Here we have a compound of two Greek words; agnosis- “not knowing” and logia – “the study of”. The study of ignorance would be the literal meaning. The word was coined (2001) by Robert Proctor who teaches at Stanford. He was concerned that “junk” science was being used to defend the indefensible, things like cigarette smoking. More recently, agnotological evidence in the global warming hypothesis has been exposed. Specialists define the problem in several ways; a deliberate attempt to mislead, a perpetuation of ignorance, or neglect of known truths. Culturally induced ignorance is the favored definition.

Put another way, every day ignorance is simply the absence of knowledge, and therefore ethically neutral. Agnotology, on the other hand, would be a willful misconstruction, perpetuation, or avoidance. The difference between agnotology and an information vacuum is like the difference between ignorance and stupidity. With stupidity, you know the truth, but refuse to accept it – or you perpetuate falsehoods.

Giving this phenomenon a name is a new development; but clearly several related practices have been around for centuries. Politicians use “opposition research” to discredit opponents, intelligence agents use disinformation, and soldiers use psychological operations (aka PSYOPS) to confuse the enemy. Nonetheless, to date, the few experts in the agnotology field seem to agree that Media, print and broadcast, is the prime suspect for the modern practice, the antithesis of “enlightenment” - culturally produced ignorance. False narratives might be a good way to think of the agnotology that we encounter on a daily basis.

None of this is news or a surprise to anyone who can read a newspaper or use a TV remote. The editorial pages of most papers and magazines are awash with untutored opinion masquerading as fact or truth. Publications like Newsweek feature pages of opinion now before they get to the actual news. The message of such a format is clear; spin is more important than facts.

Interviews with so called “newsmakers” are a favorite venue for creating false narratives. Two recent examples from the headlines illustrate the political agnotology problem: The Fox News interview with Bill Clinton (26 Sep 06) and PBS’s more recent interview with Hilary Clinton (10 Nov 09) in Berlin.

First, a few words about the respective journalists. Chris Wallace of Fox News comes from the pit bull school of journalism. He does not suffer fools gladly, nor does he allow politicians to make excuses or cook the books. He also asks tough questions and tough follow-ups. Charlie Rose of PBS is the polar opposite of Wallace. Rose is more like an obsequious poodle who could serve as a role model for any state funded news anchor. He asks banal, if not leading questions, many of which he answers himself. Rose allows his political guests to make speeches and rattle on with talking points; he seldom challenges self-serving assertions with follow-up questions.

Comparing the two Clinton interviews, a reader is struck by two things. First is the difference between a journalist who is a truth seeker - and a journalist who facilitates false narratives. The second is the consistent self-serving, albeit mendacious, stories that the Clinton’s continue to tell over the years.

The major themes of the Clinton national security saga are: Bill is a victim; specifically, a victim of a right-wing conspiracy. He did all that could be done about terrorism; no one knew anything about al Qaeda until he and Richard Clark came along. Today’s problems in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are due to the “mismanagement” of the Bush administration. And the specific threat from bin Laden and al Qaeda today is a legacy of the Bush, not the Clinton years. The central false narrative is the assertion that bin Laden and al Qaeda represent the “core” of the Islamist threat. In short, once bin Laden is dead and his organization neutralized, American will be avenged and all will be well with Islamists everywhere. Let’s look at the relevant portions of the interview transcripts.

Wallace fox hunting circa 2006

Mike Wallace: …when you pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993, bin Laden said, "I have seen the frailty and the weakness and the cowardice of U.S. troops." …Then there was the bombing of the embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole… after the attacks, … bin Laden separated his leaders, spread them around, because he expected an attack, and there was no response…Why didn't you do more to put bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business when you were president?...The 9/11 Commission said: "The U.S. government took the threat seriously, but not in the sense of mustering anything like the kind of effort that would be gathered to confront an enemy of the first, second or even third rank."

Bill Clinton: …All right. Let's look at what Richard Clarke said. Do you think Richard Clarke has a vigorous attitude (sic) about bin Laden?...The country never had a comprehensive anti-terror operation until I came there… After the Cole (attack), I had battle plans drawn to go into Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban, and launch a full-scale attack search for bin Laden… But at least I tried. That's the difference in me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying…So you did Fox's bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me… you falsely accused me of giving aid and comfort to bin Laden because of what happened in Somalia. No one knew Al Qaeda existed then… I've never criticized President Bush, and I don't think this is useful. But you know we do have a government that thinks Afghanistan is only one-seventh as important as Iraq…And you've got that little smirk on your face and you think you're so clever… I did everything I thought I responsibly could.
A few weeks ago Hilary Clinton took the opportunity to perpetuate her husband’s narrative on PBS.


Charlie Rose:…is a Taliban in control in Afghanistan a threat to the United States?

Hilary Clinton: Yes. And to many of us, the principal objective is still to defeat, capture, kill the Al Qaeda leadership. We do think that is important…It’s a core issue for us… and much of what President Obama and the rest of us in this administration have been working on for the last eight months is that given the failures of the last eight years to capture and kill the Al Qaeda leadership…So he will be clearly defining the purpose of our mission, how it’s going to be reconstituted.

Charlie Rose: What’s taking so long, and what’s the debate inside?

Hilary Clinton: Well, I have to say that I think we went through eight years where it at least appeared on the outside that there wasn’t enough time taken, there wasn’t enough thought given as to what we were trying to achieve and how we would achieve it. There were a lot of midcourse corrections. Witness the surge in Iraq…The mission was, frankly, confused. There was a lot of talk during the prior administration that came pretty close to nation building, transforming Afghanistan…And we do bear some of the responsibility, frankly, for helping to create the very terrorists that we’re now all threatened by.

We find it hard to believe that nobody knows where the Al Qaeda leadership is. And I think that there is no evidence that anybody in the government at the top levels knows.

Charlie Rose: All right. So what’s the message of the Obama administration and from the secretary of state about the United States and its foreign policy intentions today?

Hilary Clinton: That we are back. Back as fully engaged. We’re not leaving any part of the world unattended to, because that was one of the most common complaints I heard…

Charlie Rose:.. what’s the impact of the global economic crisis?

Hilary Clinton: What we have done is by moving from the creditor nation that my husband’s policies helped to create to the debtor nation that we inherited from the Bush administration, made even worse by the lapses in regulation and the failure of oversight… I am a true believer in the… all these wonderful old-fashioned but very important values that (I) hold….

Setting the Record Straight

Bill Clinton’s recall or recitation of facts is flawed on many levels, but two stand out. He refuses to take little or any responsibility for the run up to the 9/11 attacks in New York, although the first attack against the Twin Towers took place on his watch. He also claims that no one knew anything about the al Qaeda threat until his administration. When Wallace refuses to accept these false narratives, the interview becomes a one-sided food fight. The ex-president descends to invective, paranoia, and name calling.

Hilary’s narrative with Charlie Rose is more civil, and even less candid; if that’s possible. While trying to explain Obama’s national security and economic policy; she refers to the mismanagement of the Bush years on no fewer than five occasions. Indeed, Mrs. Clinton spends so much time looking backwards; she could be channeling Mullah Omar. Rose doesn’t question any of this. She goes on to insist that somehow America is responsible for creating terrorists. Rose doesn’t dispute this chestnut. She concludes with a hymn to old fashioned values. Rose smiles in agreement. Hearing either Clinton talk about values is a little like hearing Woody Allen talk about parenting.

The truth in what’s not said

Yet the most damning evidence about the Clinton chronicles is what wasn’t said in either interview. Put aside all those Islamist provocations in the Clinton years, the attacks on: US embassies in Africa, US ground forces in Somalia, US airmen in Saudi Arabia, US naval forces in Yemen, and against civilians in the Twin Towers in New York. Put all that and Clinton’s dithering aside and recall that Kabul fell (26 September 1996) to the Taliban on the Clinton watch.

Recall also the intern under the desk in the Oval Office; recall the perjury, and impeachment trial that followed. Recall all the ballyhoo about Madeline Albright as the first female secretary of state and then remember that every girl’s school in Afghanistan was shuttered on her watch. Recall also Christina Lamb’s description (2002) of the Islamist “street” in Kandahar in the Clinton years. Talking to a teen in a soccer stadium, she recorded this narrative:

I‘ve seen more than a hundred (executions). I used to come because it was entertainment….The best time was during Ramadan because then there would be at least a hanging or amputation a day, sometimes three or four….we would buy pistachios or oranges. The person could be shot, hanged or sacrificed….you know, like sheep.

Their hands would be tied and they would be laid on a block then their chest split open with a long knife and their guts spilled out. Women were tied to goalposts and shot down, or if they had committed adultery, they would be stoned….I saw some homosexuals have their hands and feet tied and a wall collapsed on top of them. That was interesting….

They (the Taliban) made the family come and watch and collect the dead bodies. They used to keep an ambulance at the gate so when people had their hands or feet amputated they would be taken straight to the hospital. (pp. 246-249)

The stadium where this “entertainment” took place was completed in 1996 with the help of American taxpayers – at the midpoint of the Clinton administration.

This is the narrative of the Clinton years we don’t hear on PBS, most of the commercial networks, or in many print sources. We also don’t hear that the state sponsored theocratic barbarity in Afghanistan didn’t stop until George Bush sent in the Marines. We don’t hear that George Bush reopened those girl’s schools.

And now we hear Barack Obama claim that he will “finish the job.” Would that be finishing the job that Clinton didn’t begin nearly twenty years ago; or finishing the job that Bush began so well? If the strategy enunciated by Mrs. Clinton on 10 November, i.e. moving forward by looking back, plays out; we are in for a dark future. Enduring questions about President Obama’s judgment fester on many issues: yet, none is more worrisome than this; why did he bring the Clinton circus back to town? Agnotology indeed!


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