Thursday, March 31, 2005

Sinclairgate Update

[Editorial note: the following essay appears on as well. I wanted to wait to post comments on Hyman v. Koppel until I could coordinate my comments with a posting on SinclairAction's site. As always, thank you to the fine folks at SinclairAction and Media Matters for America for their help and support! -- TR ]

In 431 B.C., one year into the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Athenian leader Pericles delivered one of the most famous speeches in history on the occasion of a state funeral for Athenians who had died defending their democracy against Sparta.

I found myself thinking about this speech and what it says about the relationship between democracy and war in the wake of Mark Hyman's latest return to the subject of last year's ABC Nightline episode "The Fallen" -- in particular, what Pericles's speech suggests about the relationship between citizens in a democracy and their fellows whom they send to fight and die on their behalf offers a way of understanding Hyman's compulsion to "return to the scene of the crime," Sinclair Broadcast Group's decision to forbid its ABC affiliates to run "The Fallen." Acknowledging that this might seem to be a bit of a stretch, I offer the following thoughts under the heading "for what it's worth."

his Funeral Oration, Pericles notes that in praising the dead, we recognize that they were humans with their faults, but that this doesn't take away from the need to memorialize them; their sacrifice outweighs any reservations we might have about them as individuals.

My guess is that Pericles would say the same about the causes in which the fallen have given their lives. We might have reservations about the policies that sent them to fight and die, but that doesn't take away from our obligation to pay homage to those who gave their lives because their country asked them to.

For Pericles, this wasn't an issue. Athens, after all, was fighting for her very survival. Despite the rhetorical puffery that framed the invasion of Iraq as involving similarly dire circumstances, I doubt even the most hawkish neo-con could honestly say that he believed the sanction-ravaged, militarily decimated, diplomatically isolated Iraq posed even a shadow of a threat to the United States that Sparta's phalanxes did to Athens.

Despite the vast differences between the two situations, what rings so loudly through the 25 centuries since Pericles delivered his speech is the acknowledgment that the dead deserve their due, despite whatever extraneous feelings we have, and that those who die in service to a democracy are particularly deserving of honor. They have all the more to live for, in that democracy, more than any other form of government, holds out at least the promise of a better future. As Clint Eastwood's grizzled gunfighter says in Unforgiven: "Hell of a thing, killin' a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have." More than any other form of government, democracy offers the hope that we and our children will have more than we do today. Even the poorest who die in the service of democracy give up more than their equally impoverished brethren fighting in the cause of a totalitarian state.

I doubt that's something that most of us need to be told. I think Pericles was simply reminding his audience of something they already understood, at least implicitly, about their form of government and the relationship between the government and its citizenry. As citizens in a democracy, we recognize at a profound level that those who die in our wars do so because we the people sent them into harm's way. They die at our bidding. Even for the most apolitical and disinterested among us, I believe this knowledge is part of our political DNA, and the assumption that those who fall in our service deserve acknowledgment borders on an instinctive democratic reaction.

What has all of this to do with Hyman and his continual bleating about "The Fallen"? I think it explains why Hyman seems so preoccupied with this particular event, as well as the way he attempts to reframe it. The tenor of Hyman's language, along with the simple repetition of the subject for nearly a year after the event, suggests a certain desperation. Perhaps I give Hyman and Sinclair too much credit when I say that I doubt this desperation is simply a matter of spin or PR. To me, the compulsion to revisit the event appears to be motivated from a deeper spot in the identity of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Hyman himself.

Kenneth Burke, one of the 20th century's foremost thinkers about the way we use language as social beings, suggested that one key role of rhetoric is to deal with personal or collective guilt. We use language to sublimate or externalize that which makes us feel inner conflict or self-loathing. In particular, Burke points out the value of language in creating scapegoats, whom we rhetorically sacrifice in order to assuage such feelings.

Burke talks specifically about guilt, but I suspect that much of what he says would apply equally to guilt's more social cousin, shame. I can't say whether Hyman and those at Sinclair feel any guilt (consciously or not) about their decision to quash Nightline's tribute to those who died in Iraq. Given my assumptions about the relationship between a democratic citizenry and those who die on its orders, I can't help thinking they must. However, even if my assumption gives Sinclair and Hyman too much credit, there's no doubt they had public shame and ridicule heaped upon them. Viewers in many of their stations' markets wrote in to protest the decision. Many politicians, including Republican senator and Vietnam veteran John McCain, wrote scathing letters to Sinclair's executives. An online poll on Sinclair's own website showed overwhelming support for airing the tribute. Even Sinclair's stock price fell in response to the decision -- something that comes as close as one can get to corporate "financial shame."

What is Hyman to do, particularly given his personal predilection to use charges of "hating the troops" in attacking political enemies? Here he is, having his own company publicly flogged for doing exactly what he charges others of: trivializing the deaths of American servicemen and women by refusing to honor them properly.

Burke would say that it becomes necessary for Hyman and Sinclair to find a way of symbolically purifying themselves. How does one do this? By projecting one's own guilt and shortcomings on someone else, then savaging them. I think this is what is going on in Hyman's recurring fixation on "Koppelgate." Notice that Hyman never acknowledges in any of his commentaries dealing with the topic that Sinclair played any role in the "scandal" at all. The name "Sinclair" never even escapes his lips. The simple naming of the incident as "Koppelgate" captures the essence of the scapegoating dynamic: the sin is projected onto another figure ("Koppel-") and that figure is tarred with associations of guilt ("-gate"). The very things for which Sinclair and Hyman feel guilt (presumably) and have been shamed (definitely) are laid at the feet of the scapegoat: making decisions based on political rather than journalistic grounds, confusing commentary with news reporting, disingenuousness about motivation, and failure to properly honor the troops.

Had Sinclair and Hyman not constructed a self-image based so profoundly on a professed love of the troops and unquestioning patriotism, perhaps the drive for purification wouldn't be so powerful. But as we've noted, a technique central to Hyman's rhetoric is to align himself with "the troops" and to suggest those who disagree with him on political issues are "against the troops." The reaction to "The Fallen" struck at the heart of Hyman and Sinclair's public identities. The result has been a compulsive need to return to the issue in an attempt to alleviate this shame.

The fact that this ritual has been repeated several times suggests that it's not quite doing the trick. Like someone who compulsively washes his hands, Hyman can't get his hands clean enough ("Out, out, damned spot!"). There is a solution, however: Burke notes that another way to purify oneself is self-mortification. Rather than turning one's hostility on others, one looks inward. In this case, that would involve little more than a public admission of having made the wrong decision. Given the track record of Hyman and Sinclair, I don't suggest holding your breath. In the meantime, be prepared for more of the rhetorical equivalent of Hyman scrubbing his hands raw.

For the rest of us, let us simply remember what Pericles asked his fellow Athenians to recognize two and a half millennia ago: Public remembrance of the dead is a solemn and painful experience, but it is essential, particularly for a democracy. As those for whom the fallen died, as well as those who sent them to their death, we owe them public honor. To do any less -- out of emotional weakness or fear that doing so will undermine political resolve for certain policies -- is cowardice that we should be ashamed of. By honoring the fallen, we honor the particular link that those who died have to their fellow citizens in a democracy, something that is an absolute good, no matter what the faults may be in the individuals who died, or in the cause that sent them to their death. By honoring the fallen, we serve ourselves by solemnizing our relationship with those who have died in our name, and we give the dead their due.

And that's The Counterpoint.


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