Portraying sense as nonsense

Kevin Drum wants to know just what the hell Chris Suellentrop thinks he’s up to. So do I. The fact that Andrew Sullivan links approvingly to Suellentrop ought to say somthing about just how bad the piece is.

Part of the journalist’s job ought to be throwing the penalty flag when politicians (and others) talk bunkum. But that job needs to be done carefully and seriously. There’s nothing easier than pretending that someone else’s statement doesn’t make sense, especially if you take it out of context. Shabby pieces like Suellentrop’s facilitate the job of the true maestros of political lying, just as bad reporting about fake corruption scandals helps the real crooks. The bad guys are perfectly happy if the public gets the sense that “they all do it.”

Update Ummmmm … sorry about that. Apparently Kevin, Andrew Sullivan, and I (and Josh Marshall, to boot) all missed Suellentrop’s intended point. Here he is, explaining his post (from “The Fray”. Slate’s comments section:

I was obviously too oblique, given the number of readers in the Fray (and my inbox) that have objected to this piece. My point was simply that Wesley Clark’s statements aren’t being treated like Howard Dean’s statements.

Perhaps it’s because Dean is the front-runner and therefore his statements are receiving a higher degree of scrutiny. (That’s my guess, by the way.) Or perhaps it’s because Clark’s supporters are right, and the fact that he was a general inoculates him somewhat from this kind of criticism.

Is Clark really the “electable Dean,” or does he just seem that way because he’s being judged by a different standard for now?

My error is the less excusable since this is the second time I’ve been misled by Suellentrop’s prose. (The last time I thought he was dumping on Harry Potter, when his real target was George W. Bush.)

As a fellow-practitioner of the art of irony, I have some sympathy for Suellentrop, but I think that some of the blame in this case must rest with him rather than Kevin and me. (Sullivan, who gleefully agreed with an interpretation Kevin and I noticed was absurd and which Suellentrop now disclaims, is left looking silly, but that’s nothing new, is it now?)

However, now that I understand what Suellentrop was driving at, I only partly agree. Sometimes the Faux News folks and their pals have pretended to find inconstencies or idiocies in Dean’s comments that weren’t actually there. To that extent, Suellentrop was right. But sometimes they have merely pointed to actual instances where Dean said something that (1) wasn’t true; or (2) wasn’t consistent with his other statements; or (3) was true, but expressed an attitude the voters probably wouldn’t like. (I’d put his comment about our not being safer domestically for having captured Saddam Hussein in the third category.)

By contrast — as Kevin points out in detail in his post — everything Suellentrop quotes Clark as saying is more or less right. There’s nothing there to match against Dean’s assertion that the lunatic idea that Bush was warned specifically about the 9-11 attacks and let them happen anyway is “the most interesting theory” about what happened. Nor has Clark pulled anything like Dean’s tap-dance on trying Osama bin Laden should we ever capture him: Dean’s final position, I take it, is that Osama should be presumed innocent, but that Dean would like to see him executed.

“They’re all the same” always sounds like objective journalism. But sometimes they’re in fact different, and a journalist should be capable of telling the difference.

Second update I see Glenn Reynolds also got fooled. I’m waiting for a correction from him or from Sullivan. But I’m not holding my breath.

Third update Glenn updates, attributing the idea that Suellentrop was parodying Fox News to me rather than to Suellentrop. Glenn finds, even on re-reading, that he doesn’t get it. That seems to him a reflection on Clark rather than on the quality of Suellentrop’s writing.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Portraying sense as nonsense”

  1. Dead parody

    Perhaps as we make suggestions on improving the news media, we ought to warn against printing satire where readers least expect it. Or at least warn against printing satire that doesn't work. This Slate piece by Chris Suellentrop, for example, purporte…

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