Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Conservative Slander Machine, Part 2: Crying Wolf

Every Wednesday, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform hosts a weekly meeting of the "Leave Us Alone Coalition". This is a collection of conservative activists and politicians who use the time to discuss current issues and coordinate their message and response to those issues. They are an important source of the seemingly unending string of outraged accusations, pure slander and fictitious talking points that our current President has had to weather from the moment he took the oath of office. Many of these controversies have involved accusations about the President himself; others have been phony controversies unrelated to the President personally, but used to oppose his policies and delegitimize his Presidency.

(This and unlabeled images from wikimedia commons)

Norquist's meeting is not the only source, of course. Americans for Prosperity plays an important role as well, disseminating tactical advice and talking points to numerous local Tea Party groups around the country. Conservative talk radio hosts serve not only to echo the outrage, they make up new accusations, sometimes as simple on-air improvisations. And of course the Conservative blogosphere invents new "crises" out of whole cloth. These are repeated on radio and FOX television using the disingenuous "Some people are saying..." throw away line, followed within a few days by "Why isn't the mainstream media reporting..." intimidation tactic.

The system works. If the Clinton administration was the test run for the conservative slander machine, the Obama Administration is the machine's operational deployment. The last 3 and a half years have been an unending string of phony charges, fake outrage and distractions. All of them have originated on the Right. Virtually all of them have been shown to be without substance. Some of them have been outright frauds, promoted by people who know they are false. Consider some of them...

President Obama was born in Kenya, and is a secret Muslim

I start with this one, because it has more lives than Michael Myers. The President's release of his short-form birth certificate in 2008, confirmation of the document's legitimacy from the State of Hawaii, verification from the hospital in which he was born, birth notices placed in the local papers at the time of the birth and the President's release of his long-form birth certificate in 2011 have all been rejected by the "Birthers"

Related to this claim is the idea that President Obama is secretly a Muslim. Interestingly, this delusion is often held by the same people who claim that Christian clergyman Jeremiah Wright is Obama's "spiritual advisor and mentor". The President's public statement that he is a Christian, his Christianity based "sermons" at the National Prayer Breakfast, his occasional discussion of the importance of his Christian faith in interviews, have failed to prevent adherants of this myth from repeating it.

We will "draw the curtain of charity" over the poor stupid bastards who insist the President is actually the anti-Christ.

The utility of the Birther controversy in undermining the Administration has been marginal. No one sane ever really believed it, although the lazy false-balance of some in the Beltway Press prevented them from calling it what it is: a crazy conspiracy theory. After the release of the president's long form birth certificate, the main-stream media became more openly dismissive of Birtherism. It became harder for Birthers to get air time. But the full embrace of Birtherism by Donald Trump served to revive the story. Birtherism still isn't respectable, but it is news once again. 

The Administration's use of policy "Czars" represents an unprecedented and unconstitutional expansion of Executive power

This was a favorite Glenn Beck crusade in the early days of the Administration; his panic has since subsided as other boogeymen have arisen. It should be noted that there is no such thing as a "czar"; the term is one invented by the press to denote officials in the Executive Office of the President with responsibility for oversight of specific policy areas.

The EOP should not be confused with the Cabinet, which is a body described within the text of the Constitution. The EOP works directly for the President; most of its staff is not ratified by the Senate. The EOP was created in 1939 and has steadily increased in size since then, in tandem with the increased size and complexity of government. Since there's actually no such thing as a "czar", Right Wing conspiracy mongers have felt free to apply the totalitarian sounding title to anyone in the White House whose area of policy oversight they didn't like. 

(Czar Alexander III)

The whole Czar controversy culminated with the firing of Van Jones, widely viewed as a win for Glenn Beck. After his subsequent campaign to get Cass Sunstein fired went nowhere, Beck quietly moved on to new irresponsibilities and the Czar issue became less of a rallying cry for conservatives. The approach of the election has revived this phony issue, at least to some extent.

Health care reform would create "Death Panels" which would deny care to elderly, terminally ill and handicapped patients

This particular calumny was started by Conservative activist Betsy McCaughey (note: the linked Wikipedia article badly overstates the influence of her Committee to Reduce Infectious Deaths. I think she must have edited it herself.) in an attempt to duplicate the career bump she enjoyed from helping torpedo the Clinton Health Care Plan.

Sarah Palin picked up on McCaughey's ravings, using the term "death panel" to describe different provisions of the bill at different times. The phrase created a firestorm of controversy, leading to the contentious town hall meetings vividly depicted on television, and nearly killing the bill before the myth was finally debunked.

Since then various politicians, including Palin have attempted to recapture the moment, applying the term to the Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board, with only marginal success.

The Obama Administration targeted Republican donors in "deciding" which Chrysler dealerships to shut down as part of the auto industry bail-out

This one failed shortly after launch, providing a cautionary tale to non-statisticians who attempt to use statistical methodologies. Some conservative blogger announced that a large percentage of all the car dealerships being closed as part of the automotive industry's bailout and restructuring were Republican political donors. This charge was immediately adopted by conservative talk radio, FOX news and the Washington Examiner before someone with an education pointed out that the vast majority of all car dealers, closing or staying open, were Republican campaign donors. The outrage was quietly dropped. But the beauty of this type of accusation is...

it NEVER dies.

Twenty years from now, it will be easy to find an aged ex-Tea Bagger who will swear to you that the dealership myth was true. Just like you still find people who insist Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Moslem fundamentalists are building a "victory mosque" at Ground Zero.  

This one was started by Pam Geller and Robert Spencer, and is a good example of the most overtly racist views being mainstreamed by FOX.

This started with the announcement of a proposed Islamic Center at Park Place in Manhattan. The facility was to include a fitness center, a theater, a pool, a daycare... in fact, it sounds one hell of a lot like the JCC. But it also included a prayer space, which racism entrepreneurs immediately mischaracterized as a "mosque".

But these kind of manufactured controversies must be elaborated on in order to stay in the news cycle. So there were attempts to link the public face of the mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, to Islamic extremists. There were rumors that extremist money was behind the project. Then, the politicians saw an issue and started exploiting it, with Sarah Palin famously calling on peaceful Muslims to "refudiate" the project.

I am happy to point out that my President, Barack Obama, refused to demagogue on this issue, saying: 

"Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."

Finally, as it became clear that this big, elaborate vanity project was going nowhere very quickly, the controversy died down. Last September the prayer center opened in the existing building. No terrorists were inspired.

I could go on for this like hours. Remember Obama's trip to India, that was going to cost $200 million a day? Except, it didn't cost a fraction of that? The story went from rumor to Drudge to Limbaugh to the Tea Bagger caucus in the House within days. They claimed that the President was taking 507 hotel rooms and a carrier battle group of 35 vessels. The main stream media started asking about it...

and then realized how nutty all this was (with some help from the White House) and quietly dropped it.

Remember Shirley Sherrod? The black civil servant who was videotaped saying that "She hadn't done as much as she could have" for a white farmer, because he was white? From  a video blogger to Andrew Breitbart to FOX, and even the Department of Agriculture bought into it, forcing Sherrod to resign before it was revealed that the videotape had been deceptively edited so as to convey the OPPOSITE meaning of what Ms. Sherrod had actually said.

Or that Beau Obama had been flown back from Hawaii on his own airplane?

Or that the President didn't wear a flag pin?

Or that the BP spill was Obama's Katrina?

This stuff isn't true. It's not even convincing. But the rise of new media has given political entrepreneurs tools to disseminate falsehoods to willing and eager listeners that they haven't had since the media became professionalized at the end of the 19th century.

There was a time when the repetition of so much inaccurate information would destroy the credibility of anyone repeating it. But outlets like Brietbart, and FOX, and Drudge don't have a business model involving accuracy, they have a business model involving partisan orientation. Their credibility with their consumers stems from their partisan orientation, not their veracity.

And finally, the purpose of this stuff is not to convince anyone, of any single thing. Each new crisis, each new display of theatrical, feigned outrage...

is only a single bullet, being fired from a battery of slanderous machine guns. It's great if one or more of the bullets actually draw blood, but mostly the purpose is to make the other guy keep his head down.

Each lie needs only to dominate a single news cycle to be succesful. If it can dominate 6 or 7 consecutive news cycles, and perhaps one round of the Sunday morning talk shows, the lie will have served its purpose. The Democrats will be responding rather than initiating. They'll be getting funny looks from constituents. There'll be vid of them answering questions about embarrassing things, even if those things have no substance.

Conservative media news items currently serve the exact same purpose as negative campaign spots. Combined with the coming tsunami of conservative special interest money, Republican Air Power may be an insurmountable advantage this Fall.

Remember Wisconsin.