Friday, July 30, 2004

Slander by Proxy

The Counterpoint is just wondering: why did Mark Hyman bother going to Boston?

Yet again, Mr. Hyman invoked dusty and inaccurate talking points in his commentary on the final day of the Democratic National Convention. Using the occasion of a “shadow” convention of sorts held by a cadre of anti-Kerry activists, some of whom are Vietnam veterans, Hyman again used his trademark techniques to rehash the “Kerry-Wasn’t-Really-That-Much-Of-A-Hero” charges that have been a staple Bush backers.

Relying on using quotations from participants in this “convention” (so as to lend an air of reportage to what is essentially an attempt at character assassination), Hyman quotes a number of individuals, including the organizer, Steve Sherman, who Hyman quotes as saying, “He (Kerry) called us baby killers.”

Kerry said nothing of the kind. In fact, at the Senate testimony he gave after returning from Vietnam, Kerry did not make any accusations himself about the actions of fellow soldiers. Rather, he reported what he had heard other veterans say they had done during testimony at a meeting sponsored by the “Winter Soldier” organization, a group of Vietnam veterans critical of both the war itself and the way soldiers were being used and abused by those higher up in the chain of command. The actual passage of Kerry’s testimony from which these charges of his “slandering” of fellow vets come reads as follows:

“I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.

It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit, the emotions in the room, the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam, but they did. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.

They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”

(If you’d like to see Kerry’s complete testimony rather than relying on characterizations of it, go here.)

This passage has been creatively edited, rewritten, and simply remade in order to fit the hamfisted charges of anti-Kerry activists.

Then falling back on his favorite rhetorical trick, Hyman quotes a former Vietnam POW Mike Benge who recounts his horror at seeing a female aid worker left to die by her Vietnamese captors. What does this have to do with Kerry? Hyman never explains, but by throwing in the emotionally wrenching image of a woman dying in a faraway jungle, he attempts to link Kerry to the disgust that the scene evokes. No logical connection is necessary.

It’s intriguing that Bush supporters feel an almost irresistible drive to attack Kerry’s war record. On the other hand, it’s not terribly surprising. After all, it was the Bush machine that attacked Vietnam vet and POW John McCain during the Republican primaries in 2000, suggesting (among other things) that he had been brainwashed by his captors. (In fact, the person behind the McCain smear, Ted Sampley, is a founder along with Benge, of “Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry,” the group behind this “shadow convention.”

Sampley also was behind the creation of a fake photo that supposedly showed John Kerry executing an American MIA. Given this, The Counterpoint will leave it up to the reader as to how much stock should be put in the “sources” quoted by Hyman.)

And of course Republicans are only too happy to question the patriotism of any Democrat, no matter how clear his devotion is. Max Cleland found this out when the GOP used television ads juxtaposing his face with that of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein during his unsuccessful bid for reelection to the Senate from Georgia. The fact that Senator Cleland had left two legs and an arm in Vietnam apparently didn’t cause a moment’s hesitation for his political opponents in demeaning his sacrifice for the country.

What seems nearly inexplicable about this tactic, however, is that even if one takes as unsympathetic view of John Kerry’s service record as one can given the facts, and puts this up against as sympathetic a view of George Bush’s air national guard service as one can (again, given the facts), Bush’s service record still pales in comparison to Kerry’s. But rather than making the more sensible argument that what happened 35 years ago isn’t relevant to the decisions a Commander in Chief will make today in the fight against terrorism, Bush supporters are drawn moth-like to a debate on the respective service records of the candidates, a debate they have no chance of winning.

John Kerry spoke out passionately against the war in Vietnam after having served heroically in that very war. For some (at least those who currently hold political beliefs that are at odds with Kerry’s), this by itself is something to hold against him. That is their right. But when it comes to assessing John Kerry’s war record itself, The Counterpoint modestly suggests that perhaps those who are best equipped to judge are those who served with him on his Swifboat in Vietnam, and the Green Beret whose life he saved. To what extent his war record makes him a desirable candidate for president is a matter of opinion, but the quality of his service is not.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

New Day, Old Points

In the third installment of “The Point” from the site of the Democratic National Convention, Mark Hyman again failed to follow through on his promise to actually cover the convention. For the third time in as many days, Hyman recycled dusty Republican Party talking points and delivered an editorial that could just as easily have been penned a month ago.

This time, the subject was that conservative chestnut, “frivolous lawsuits.” The only thing that made the commentary timely in any way was that it was delivered on the day that John Edwards, the Democratic nominee for vice president and a former lawyer, gave his acceptance speech. But rather than discuss Edwards’ voting record in the Senate on legal issues, or even his specific history as a trial lawyer, Hyman used one of the few rhetorical tricks he has in his bag: meaningless juxtaposition. He begins by suggesting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is considering “breaking with tradition” by endorsing President Bush because the prospect of a Kerry-Edwards administration is so fearful for businesses.

Of course, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a long-standing relationship with the current administration and is not the non-partisan organization that Hyman’s words suggest.

Hyman then brings up the name of Fred Baron, a prominent attorney and Democratic fundraiser (who was featured prominently in the official Bush campaign talking points that were released immediately after the announcement of Edwards as the VP nominee). Citing a Baron quotation from the 1990s as evidence that lawyers hope to wield influence in the Senate, Hyman then notes that Baron is now associated with the Kerry-Edwards campaign and will have an “open door” to a Kerry White House.

The incredible danger in having a prominent attorney connected to the White House (as opposed to, say, oil executives or corrupt energy company CEOs ) is that, according to Hyman, trial lawyers are opposed to “reasonable” lawsuit reforms.

As an odd footnote to the commentary, Hyman cryptically says (without any citation of a source or further explanation) that the Kerry campaign has recently returned $44,000 in “suspect” campaign funds from a Los Angeles lawyer.

Of course, “trial lawyers” is Republican code-talk for the groups that trial lawyers traditionally represent: consumers, medical patients, environmental groups, and others with grievances against large corporations. For example, John Edwards has been ridiculed for taking a case dubbed “the Jacuzzi case” as an example of his participation in needless lawsuits. In the case in question, a young girl had most of her intestines torn out of her body by the suction of a hot tub while her father watched. The model of tub in question had been responsible for a dozen similar injuries in the past without the company doing anything to correct the problem. How dare Edwards work on behalf of a child and her family after being needlessly maimed by the negligence of corporation!

It’s also the case that the Bush family, Republicans in general, and the Chamber of Commerce have no problems with trial lawyers becoming involved in politics when they happen to be Republican. The current Republican nominee for Senate in Florida, endorsed by both Jeb Bush and the Chamber of Commerce, is (you guessed it) a wealthy trial lawyer.

The balance between the ability of businesses and doctors not to avoid being targeted for unfair lawsuits and the ability of consumers to seek justifiable damages when hurt by negligent actions is a difficult and complex issue, one that is central to a society that operates under a free market economic system but is also ruled by laws that demand accountability and fairness. But, as always, it’s too much to expect “The Point” to deal with such issues in an intellectually responsible and consistent way when there’s even a possibility of cheap and easy political points being made.

And that’s the Counterpoint.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Dirty Politics, Even by "Point" Standards

Mark Hyman, in his endless search to find the real stories behind the Democratic National Convention, has uncovered quite a scandal. The only problem is that it’s 35 years old.

A day after important and substantive speeches by the likes of President Jimmy Carter, Vice President Al Gore, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and President Clinton, one would thing there would be plenty of substance to discuss. Perhaps Hyman would offer a cogent analysis of the way one or more of the speakers framed the candidates. Maybe he would offer a thoughtful rebuttal to President Clinton’s delineation of the major differences between the major political parties. He could have countered charges laid by the speakers that President Bush has weakened the country both at home and abroad. If he was feeling particularly analytical, Hyman might have critiqued the manner in which the Democrats tried to both appeal to their base and reach out to the larger, more politically diverse, audience beyond the Fleet Center. Even an attack on the practice of marginalizing and containing protestors by a party that criticizes the Bush administration for silencing dissent would have been both appropriate and served Hyman’s larger purpose of undermining the Kerry campaign.

Hyman might have done any of these things, but he didn’t. Instead, he delved into murky, stale, and illogical personal attacks. In a thoroughly bizarre commentary, Hyman likened the platform he stood in front of to the wooden bridge at Chappaquiddick, and proceeded to offer a inflammatory reading of the tragedy, suggesting that Senator Kennedy cared more about his political career than the life of Mary Jo Kopoeckne.

What does this have to do with John Kerry? Nothing, but Hyman hoped that by juxtaposing the Chappaquiddick tragedy, accusations of Kennedy’s wrongdoing, and John Kerry, he could taint the presidential nominee with negative associations. Hyman’s weak linkings of Kennedy and Kerry are based on the fact that Kennedy supports Kerry, that members of Kennedy’s staff work for Kerry, and that (according to Hyman), Kennedy is considered “the conscience of the Democratic Party.” Based on these vague associations, we are apparently expected to feel that somehow John Kerry shares responsibility for the death of a young woman 35 years ago.

One could counter Hyman’s accusations by pointing out that Kennedy was never convicted, let alone charged, with a crime beyond leaving the scene of an accident, something to which he readily admitted. One could also point out that Kennedy’s questionable actions in the immediate aftermath of the accident are consistent with someone who sustained a concussion (which he did), an injury that nearly always causes temporary short-term amnesia. One might even point out that given the proclivities of the current president as a young man when it came to issues of substance abuse, the only reason a similar tragedy didn’t befall him was simple dumb luck.

But to do any of these things would be to accept Hyman’s underlying “logic” as valid, which it obviously is not. Even if the most devious explanations of Kennedy’s actions in 1969 are absolutely true, what possible relevance can they have on the fitness of John Kerry to serve as president? Obviously none. But that doesn’t stop Hyman from hoping that by simply putting the words “Kennedy,” “Chappaquiddick,” and “Kerry” in the same commentary, perhaps enough intellectually-challenged viewers will react in Pavlovian fashion and recoil from Kerry as a candidate.

Perhaps Hyman found it difficult to mount an adequate challenge in the speeches given the day before. He might have not been able to challenge the assertions made, or find a way of critiquing the ideas voiced from the podium in a way that would be persuasive to anyone but the most die-hard Bush-ite. This, however, is no excuse for the intellectually invalid, journalistically empty, and ethically challenged commentary he spewed on Tuesday night.

And that’s the Counterpoint.

The Hillary Conspiracy

On the first day of the Democratic National Convention, “The Point” fell victim to its prefabricated nature. With the major speakers not slated to take the podium until late afternoon or early evening, Mark Hyman was forced to come up with something to say during the day in order to fulfill his self-described purpose of reporting on the real stories behind the Democratic National Convention.

Without much material to go on (and with little inclination or ability to actually find a story by, for example, finding someone to interview), Hyman rehashed the story of the “snub” of Hillary Clinton, offering a long-winded analysis of why John Kerry and John Edwards would not want Hillary Clinton to speak at the convention, but were forced to acquiesce by Democratic power brokers. His hypothesis revolves around the idea that the Clintons don’t really support John Kerry and that Hillary harbors presidential aspirations for 2008, possibly at the expense of both Kerry and Edwards should Bush win reelection and they each wish to run again for the nomination in four years.

Whatever the reasons for Hillary Clinton not being put on the slate of speakers initially, it soon became clear how silly it was to suggest that the Clintons didn’t support Kerry’s run for the presidency. Given the full-throated support of both Clintons, Hyman’s theorizing seems rather hollow. It’s difficult to believe President Clinton would have given as powerful a speech as he did if he wasn’t committed to electing John Kerry. The final nail in the coffin came the next day when Newsweek hit the stands with a story on Hillary Clinton’s political aspirations, making it clear that while she indeed might consider higher office, she’s clearly in favor of removing President Bush from office.

Of course, it’s a bit unfair to criticize Hyman for such vapid theorizing since he needed to get “The Point” in the can long before the Clinton’s took the stage Monday night. He might have done some digging to find an actual story to discuss, but that would have required actual reporting, something beyond the ken of a corporate VP.

And that's The Counterpoint

He's Not a Reporter, but He Plays One on TV

In announcing its “coverage” of the Democratic National Convention, "The Point" claimed it would find the untold stories behind the spectacle and offer viewers a more substantive look at the convention than would be offered by the talking heads on the networks.

This raises a larger issue about “The Point” that deserves at least a brief look. When criticized for being one-sided, Mark Hyman reminds readers that “The Point” is commentary, not factual reporting (as if we needed the reminder), and is labeled as such. Of course, Hyman glosses over the more central criticism of “The Point,” which is not that it is based on opinion (after all, editorializing is a well-respected tradition in journalism), but that it is never made clear to viewers who Mark Hyman is, why he’s editorializing, whether or not he is associated with the local stations on which he appears, etc. This is in keeping with Sinclair’s broader modus operandi, which is to keep viewers in the dark about how much of the content on their local news is in fact prefabricated product cooked up in mammoth studios in Baltimore rather than reporting done by truly local journalists.

But the larger point (no pun intended) is that Hyman tries to have it both ways. A regular feature of “The Point” is its so-called “investigative” forays, in which Hyman travels to Guantanemo Bay, Iraq, and other locations in order to “tell the real stories” that are going unreported. In doing this, Hyman attempts to put the trappings of actual journalism on “The Point,” blurring the distinction between reporting and editorializing. By going “on-scene,” Hyman suggests that he is doing the actual work of reporting and offering his readers objective stories of what’s “really going on.” On the contrary, these locations simply serve as photogenic backdrops, taking the place of the more familiar bluescreen that Hyman usually pontificates in front of.

Hyman rejects out of hand any suggestion that he’s obliged to be evenhanded, since what he does isn’t “reporting.” Yet, he’s eager to lend an air of authority to his pronouncements by playing the role of investigative reporter. In the end, this juxtaposition diminishes both the practices of factual reporting and editorializing which, considered separately, are respected and important activities.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


For the inaugural edition of "The Counterpoint," I thought we would take a look at a recent installment of "The Point" that encapsulates many hallmarks of Mark Hyman's rhetoric, including loaded language, mischaracterization, keeping silent about relevant facts that counter his opinion, and avoiding details that complicate the simplistic characterizations that serve as the backbone of "The Point."

In "Koppelgate II," Mr. Hyman yokes two unrelated incidents together in an attempt to suggest a causal connection where none exists. In the process, he distorts and mischaracterizes both.

In a moment of almost laughable spin, Mr. Hyman reminds his viewers of "Koppelgate," his term for the controversy over Sinclair's decision not to run an episode of ABC's Nightline on its stations entitled "The Fallen" in which Ted Koppel read the names of each serviceman and servicewoman killed in Iraq.

Through the name "Koppelgate" (a term that evokes not simply controversy but criminal wrongdoing), Mr. Hyman suggests that the flap was over the Nightline episode itself, rather than Sinclair's refusal to air "The Fallen." Of course, the controversy was over Sinclair's decision, not the episode itself, which was widely praised. In fact, Sinclair's own viewers stated overwhelmingly that they felt "The Fallen" should be shown, according to an internet poll posted on Sinclair's own "Newscentral TV" website. Hyman fails to mention this, hoping to smear Koppel with the taint of controversy that originated from Sinclair's editorial decision.

But suggesting that it was Koppel, not Sinclair, who committed the controversial act is not enough for Hyman, who goes on to suggest Koppel is against the troops and dishonored them by reading the names of those who had died. How did reading the names of those who gave their lives constitute "dishonoring" the troops? A fair and reasonable question, and therefore not one Mr. Hyman bothers to answer. He simply asserts that Koppel "trivialized" the deaths of soldiers in Iraq.

In a moment of bizarre and twisted logic, even by Hyman standards, he says,

Fellow ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos summed up Koppel's motives when he said, "as we approach the first anniversary of the end of major combat operations…Ted Koppel will read the names of those Americans… killed in action in Iraq."

How does Stephanopoulos's statement of fact sum up Koppel's supposedly dark motives? Again, there's no explanation.

Under normal circumstances, this would be a "Point"-ful of distortions and misinformation, but we're only halfway through.

Hyman then announces that Koppel must be "happy" that he is finally getting his sought-after results. He quotes a story by Robert Jamieson about a small July 4th parade in Washington state. During the parade, Hyman says that, Jason Gilson, a young vet of the Iraq conflict was booed and called "murderer" and "baby killer," and charges that the media are responsible for ill-will toward American troops, just as they were in Vietnam.

Was Gilson booed during a parade in a small town in Washington? Yes. But here, as Paul Harvey would say, is the rest of the story. The veteran in question was not in uniform at the time, and was not identified as a veteran of the Iraq conflict. The young man was, however, holding up a sign that read "Veterans for Bush." There are no witnesses that have corroborated the allegation that the terms "murderer" or "baby-killer" were used.

Hyman mentions none of this (and in fact, inserts the statement that Gilson was wearing his uniform, a statement contradicted by other sources), knowing that by avoiding these facts, he conjurs up the powerful (but false) image of a young uniformed soldier marching down the street simply as a proud member of the armed forces who is set upon by a wild-eyed crowd simply because he served in Iraq (and spurred on, by some bizarre chain of causation, by Ted Koppel reading the names of those killed in Iraq).

The parade took place in a town known as generally quite liberal. It seems unsurprising that someone carrying a placard in support of a politician with little support in a community would receive a hostile reaction (in fact Jamieson admits as much in a follow-up column). Given the circumstances, it seems highly unlikely that the young man was booed because he was an Iraq veteran. Indeed, there was no way for the crowd to have known he was an Iraq veteran or simply a volunteer for the organization sponsoring the placard. Was this treatment entirely civil? No. (In fact, the mayor of the town apologized to the veteran.) But was it a case of people turning against veterans? Hardly. It was the predictable reaction of a crowd to a statement of support for an unpopular politician. That, of course, makes for a less juicy story, so Hyman wilfully plays with the facts until they suit his purpose.

In closing, however, it's worth noting that even if the incident had happened just as Hyman describes, it would make no sense to blame Koppel for it. As nearly everyone in the nation, including family members of many of those who died in Iraq and Hyman's own audience, recognized, the Nightline segment was a simple and moving tribute to a group of men and women who have remained anonymous for far too long. With the government's refusal to allow pictures of American dead returning home for burial, with a deputy defense secretary (Paul Wolfowitz) who had no idea how many Americans had died in Iraq when asked, and with a commander in chief who refuses to attend even a single memorial service for any service member, Koppel's actions served as one of the only ways in which those who have sacrificed all they have and all they would ever hope to have for the country received an iota of recognition. Hyman and those at Sinclair accuse others of dishonoring and trivializing the deaths of American troops for political purposes, but to find who is truly guilty of such a perversion of basic decency, all they have to do is look in the mirror.

And that's The Counterpoint.

For an insightful, well-written, and fascinating article about the evolution of the Bainbridge story, see this piece from a local paper in Washington state, The Sun.

Cost of the War in Iraq
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