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.

We Can't Pick and Choose

Earlier this week, Mark Hyman bravely took a stand on human trafficking, saying that it’s a bad thing. Hyman continues “Keen Grasp of the Obvious Week” by speaking out against poor people being cut off from dialysis.

Stating his support for bipartisan legislation that would provide greater reimbursement for dialysis treatment for those with end stage renal disease (ESRD), Hyman says that by following his advice and contacting members of Congress, viewers will save hundreds of lives.

As with the commentary on human trafficking, there’s little to be against here. Perhaps there’s a diabolical pro-ESRD lobby out there somewhere, but I’m not aware of it. And perhaps there are rival proposals that might do more for patients than the specific legislation Hyman champions, but the upshot of the commentary, that the government should do more to help those incurring huge costs for life-sustaining treatment, is a given.

But there’s a larger issue lurking here. Why should the government act to solve this particular medical cost crisis and not others? Hyman rightly notes that a disproportionate number of those with ESRD are poor and/or members of minority groups. But such people are also disproportionately members of the uninsured generally. It’s fine to have legislation that helps these individuals get the treatment they need, but would it not be even better to have legislation that provided health coverage for them before they got to the stage where they needed dialysis to stay alive? For that matter, wouldn’t investing in preventive healthcare for all citizens be better than paying large amounts for very expensive treatments (such as dialysis) after things go wrong? And wouldn’t the problems with healthcare costs that wildly outpace inflation be more manageable if the healthcare industry were not run exclusively on a for-profit basis?

As with the recent legislative escapades involving the late Terri Schiavo, it seems that conservatives are oddly selective when choosing what healthcare issues to pay attention to. Congress meets late into the night and the president flies back to Washington to create legislation that attempt to provide ongoing care for a woman who only has shreds of her brain left and no hope for recovery, yet millions of children go uninsured.

The premise behind both the conservative position on the Schiavo issue and the abortion debate, that human life is so inherently precious that we must protect it at all costs, no matter how incomplete it might seem, is a defensible one, and is in fact a position for which I have quite a bit of sympathy. But if we accept that premise, we must see it through to its logical conclusion and not apply it only in cases where there are political points to be scored with particular interest groups.

If human life is of such inherent value that even a brain dead woman eking out a bare biological existence should have everything humanly done to preserve her life, then we must acknowledge our collective responsibility to protect the wellbeing of all those living in this country, including the kid in the Chicago projects who isn’t getting enough to eat, the undocumented immigrant working as a maid who is afraid to seek prenatal care for her unborn baby, and the assembly line worker who can’t pay for the medication that would help treat his clinical depression.

To do anything less is to be less than a society that truly values life.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Slavery: It's a Bad Thing

Slavery: it’s a bad thing.

That’s the upshot of
Mark Hyman’s recent commentary on human trafficking, following a report by the Capital Research Center. (As an aside, the CRC is another of Hyman’s “non-partisan in name only” sources. Funded in large measure by conservative groups such as the Scaife Foundation, they are particularly critical of environmentalism, organized labor, government social programs, and anything else they feel gets in the way of the free market. While they are right on this particular issue, they are far right on most everything else).

No one disagrees with this. The fact that slavery still exists is appalling, and needs to be addressed. In particular, given that the modern slave trade is an international phenomenon, with human “capital” being gathered in poor countries and “sold” in wealthy countries, governmental action and international cooperation is essential.

Unfortunately, the United States is in less of a position to spearhead such an effort than it traditionally has been. While the U. S. has at times, unfortunately, pursued policies that were at odds with our national credo that “all men are created equal” and have inalienable rights, we’ve enjoyed a certain ethos in the world community when it comes to issues of human rights. At least until recently.

The juxtaposition of the CRC report and Hyman’s editorial with the release of (and subsequent reaction to) the State Department report on human rights emphasizes how tarnished the U.S. reputation is these days when it comes to championing basic decency. It’s bad enough that many of the countries chided in the report can
respond with substantive “comebacks” to U.S. accusations, but groups not affiliated with any government, such as Amnesty International, also point out the glaring hypocrisy of a country that pooh-poohs the Geneva Convention, detains prisoners indefinitely without access to attorneys, and allows torture of detainees, lecturing others about human rights.

For those that wonder what the big deal about Abu-Ghraib and related issues is, you’ve got your answer. Beyond the immorality of the specific actions, such abuses undermine the authority of the U.S. to lead international efforts to take on issues such as human trafficking. If the U.S. can’t lead by example, it won’t be able to lead in any other way either.

And that’s The Countepoint.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Bad Policy, Bad Morals, Bad Budget

In his latest “Point,” Mark Hyman rightly notes that President Bush has presided over a series of deficit-swelling budgets in his time in office. However, he suggests he’s more optimistic that the 2006 budget will be more economically sound, provided that a spendthrift Congress can harness its “untamed appetite for more spending.”

Hyman doesn’t acknowledge that both the Senate and the House of Representatives are controlled by Republicans. Apparently Congress still provides a more preferable scapegoat for the crippling debt that’s been run up in the last four years than does the president, and Hyman jumps on them, using numbers from the
National Taxpayer’s Union, a group Hyman labels “non-partisan,” but which in fact is funded by the Scaife and Mellon foundations, among other conservative groups, and favors replacing a progressive income tax with regressive labor and consumer taxes (a.k.a. a flat tax and a national sales tax).

But Hyman’s implication, that Bush's proposed budget is fiscally sound, is dead wrong. In fact, the Bush budget is the worst sort of political shell game. As the
Washington Post notes, the current Bush budget uses creative accounting to hide the fact that Bush’s proposals lead to skyrocketing deficits as soon as he leaves office. Even with this gaming of the budgeting process, Bush has presided over a colossal rise in national debt. If his policies are followed, the situation will get dramatically worse once he’s safely ensconced back in his Crawford ranch. Estimates suggest that if Bush’s proposals are followed to the letter, the budget deficit will gradually lower to a “mere” $251 billion, before beginning a rise to $335 billion in 2015.

But wait, there’s more! The Post also notes that Bush and many Republicans in Congress want to change the alternative minimum tax (AMT), a policy designed to make sure the wealthiest Americans don’t avoid contributing their fair share to the nation’s upkeep. If Bush’s changes are made, the size of the budget difference would be roughly twice the current estimate in ten years: around $700 billion. Even Republican Senator Lindsey Graham finds this unacceptable. From the Post article:

"The days of being everything to everybody are quickly coming to a close,"
[Graham] said, adding that a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts would make
it politically impossible to borrow the full cost of a Social Security fix. "We
have to look at the deficit in a holistic way."

The Post also quotes June O’Neill, a Republican and former director of the Congressional Budget Office as saying:

"I don't think that people should waste too much time on probing the details of
current policy, which just can't last."

So Hyman’s suggestion that the nation’s fiscal woes would be solved if Congress simply gave the Bush budget the green light doesn’t pass the giggle test. Nor does his claim to moral superiority. Hyman ends his commentary by saying that Congress shouldn’t engage in “frivolous” spending, “[n]or should Congress backtrack on earlier tax relief legislation. The people earned the money and it belongs to them not to government bureaucrats.“

Well, who are “the people” in this case? Invoking “the people” is a time-honored way of evoking a populist ethos, even if the policies being proposed are anything but. In this case, “the people” are members of the ultra-rich, who have benefited more than any other group from Bush’s giveaways. I say “giveaways” rather than tax breaks because, despite Hyman’s rhetoric, the money used by the government to keep the country going represents a real debt that Americans (and the most well-off Americans in particular) owe for services they take advantage of every day. It’s a bit like me telling my bank that I shouldn’t have to make my monthly mortgage payments because, dammit, I EARNED that money, and it belongs to me, not some bean-counting, paper-shuffling bank clerk!

Well sure, but I’m also living in a house that wasn’t free and which the bank helped me purchase. The money I take home is mine, but so are my obligations to those who make it possible to live a reasonably comfortable life. So are my obligations to my family. If our little micro-society is going to continue to function properly, I need to recognize the necessity of investing in the continued well-being of our Lilliputian “nation.”

The same holds true on a larger scale for our American nation. The Bush tax policies Hyman champions are not only putting the nation into record debt and allowing the wealthiest citizens to avoid contributing fairly to our society’s upkeep, but they are also shifting the burden of maintaining the nation to the middle and working class. Not only is this fiscally unsound (as is evidenced by the ballooning deficits looming in our future), but it’s immoral.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ve already heard me make arguments along this line many times. Let’s hear from another voice (from an evangelical Christian, no less) who makes this point in the specific context of Bush’s 2006 budget, and does so more eloquently than I ever could:
Jim Wallis, author of “God’s Politics”:

Low-income people should not be punished for decisions that placed us in
financial straits. Rather than moving toward a "living family income" this
budget stifles opportunities for low-income families, which are vital for
national economic security. Our future is in serious jeopardy when one in three
proposed program cuts are to education initiatives (after a highly touted "No
Child Left Behind" program); when fewer children in working poor families will
be included in Medicaid; when the food stamps that supplement families’ grocery
budgets are threatened; and when affordable housing is put out of reach. Cutting
pro-work and pro-family supports for the less fortunate jeopardizes the common
good. And all this while defense spending rises to $419 billion (not even
including any additional spending for the war in Iraq), with an overall increase
of 41 percent in military expenditures during the Bush years.

It is time to speak clearly about a budget lacking moral vision. A budget
that scapegoats the poor, fattens the rich, and asks for sacrifice mostly from
those who can least afford it, is a moral outrage. These budget priorities would
cause the prophets to rise up in righteous indignation, as should we. Our nation
deserves better vision. Morally-inspired voices must provide vision for the
people when none comes from its leaders.

The president said this budget represents his priorities. But are these the
priorities of the American people? It’s time for a national “moral values”
debate about the president’s budget.

And that, my friends, is The Counterpoint.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Confederacy of Dunces

Simple-mindedness is an equal-opportunity disability. That’s certainly evident in the UAW v. USMC tiff that Mark Hyman describes in his latest “Point.” The problem is that Hyman seems to only see half of the picture.

Apparently, the auto workers union was allowing Marines to park in a UAW headquarters parking lot that happens to be located near a Marine training facility. Although the UAW has a long tradition of barring foreign-made cars from the lot, they made an exception for the Marines.

At least they did until a few weeks ago, when the UAW decided to ban not only all foreign-made cars regardless of who was driving, but also to ban cars sporting bumper stickers supporting George W. Bush. The Marines got peeved, the UAW eventually relented and invited the Marines back, but the Marines, still in a snit, decided they didn’t want to park in the UAW’s stinky old parking lot anyway—so there! (No word yet on whether either side has accused the other of having cooties.)

Hyman rightly points out that it’s hard to tell exactly what cars are made in the U.S. and which aren’t. He’s also right in suggesting the UAW folks were being unfair in barring cars with pro-Bush bumper stickers. It’s petty. But the good ol’ USMC is being every bit as childish as the UAW. Explaining the decision not to return to the UAW parking lot even after being invited back, Lt. Col. Joe Rutledge said, “either you support the Marines or you don't."

Suggesting that the UAW’s desire not to have bumper stickers supporting one of the most viciously anti-labor presidents in history somehow means they don’t support the Marines is every bit as silly as the UAW’s position that driving a Honda makes you unAmerican. Both are simplistic, dopey positions that are much more about the egos of those involved than they are about substance.

Hyman, however, buys into the silliness by suggesting that the UAW is besmirching the honor of the Marines (the title of the commentary is actually “Auto Workers Unite! Against The Marines”). I can’t help wondering what Hyman’s view would be, however, if the situation was reversed. What if a Marine base was allowing union workers (or some other group) to park for free on their grounds, but said they did not want vehicles parking there that sported anti-war or anti-Bush bumper stickers out of respect for those serving on the base? Somehow, I think Hyman would find the Marines’ argument convincing and would likely accuse those who complained about the policy of (all together now) “hating the troops.”

Of course, the executives at Sinclair Broadcasting are no strangers themselves to stubborn and childish demands that others toe their political line. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Sinclair
insisted that on-air personalities at all of its stations make a statement “conveying full support” for the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies.

And then there’s poor Jon Lieberman. The one-time “golden boy” of Sinclair was promptly fired when he dared question the company’s decision to air a piece of anti-John Kerry propaganda as a news show.

Yep—simple-mindedness can strike anybody. But it does seem more pronounced in some people than others, doesn’t it?

And that’s The Counterpoint.

The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

It says something about the poverty of both Mark Hyman’s opinions and his ability to argue in support of them that he routinely bypasses answering his opponents and chooses to simply make stuff up about them.

A recent case is his mischaracterization of the anti-war protests that took place around the globe last weekend to mark the second anniversary of the Bush administration’s. invasion of Iraq. Instead of making an argument that such military action was necessary for the well-being of the U.S. Hyman simply slanders those who took part in the events, saying that they (big surprise) “hate America.”

On one hand, you have to sympathize with Hyman a bit. There is no coherent argument to be made that invading Iraq made the U.S. safer. Moreover, the turnout around the world of those protesting Bush administration policy must be disconcerting to those who actually support it. After all, the protests come at a time when several members of the so-called “coalition of the willing” are announcing plans to reduce or eliminate their presence on the ground in Iraq.

But that’s still no excuse for all-out distortion. In his commentary, Hyman attempts to link the protests that took place in dozens of communities around the U.S. to one organization, International ANSWER, (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) and then says (without a shred of evidence) that this group is simply a front for the Marxist World Workers Party, a group that “has long advocated the overthrow of America.” Hyman wonders why the group only protests American foreign policy, and why it chose to hold protests in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where the 82nd Airborne is based.

We’re then told that if we peruse a list of groups that make up the ANSWER coalition, we’ll see that it’s a “who’s who of society’s misfits and groups aligned against America.” You’d think that with a line like that, Hyman might provide a list, either in his commentary itself or in the video that accompanies his speech, of this rag-tag group. But none is forthcoming

Finally, Hyman lists a number of international military actions he claims ANSWER has opposed, going all the way back to U.S. involvement in the Korean War more than 50 years ago.

Where to start . . .well, let’s begin by dealing with ANSWER itself. It was founded shortly after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, long after the Korean War and U.S. intervention in Somalia occurred (two events Hyman claims ANSWER opposed). How this group opposed these actions when it didn’t exist is anyone’s guess. International ANSWER was formed specifically to protest Bush administration foreign policy—hence the focus on American actions.

I suspect that what Hyman is doing is conflating the views of any number of the many groups that make up the ANSWER coalition and falsely attributing them to the umbrella organization. Obviously, that’s logically unfair, but if everyone involved in ANSWER are “misfits” and those aligned against America, maybe they have it coming, right?

But what Hyman doesn’t mention is that the individual who founded ANSWER is Ramsey Clark, former United States Attorney General for President Lyndon Johnson. Not exactly the bong-wielding, dreadlock wearing, malcontent Hyman’s language is intended to evoke in the viewer’s mind. Some of the groups involved in the organization include Pastors for Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the Partnership for Civil Justice, and the Middle East Children’s Alliance. Are these folks progressive in their politics? Sure. But even Hyman doesn’t actually believe they all get together and sing the “Internationale” before sitting down and leafing through dog-eared copies of “The Communist Manifesto.” The Red-baiting rhetoric is simply name calling of the worst sort. At least Joseph McCarthy was crazy enough to actually believe the U.S. was lousy with communists. Hyman simply dusts off Tailgunner Joe’s rhetoric to use as hamfisted scare tactics.

But the larger point goes beyond Hyman’s mischaracterization of ANSWER. It’s his mischaracterization of the anti-war protests as a whole. ANSWER certainly played a part in organizing some of the protests, but they were hardly the only organization involved. In fact, what stands out about the protests of a few days ago is the diversity of those participating.

For example, let’s look at the protest in Fayetteville that Hyman implies was staged by a bunch of pinko peaceniks who hate the military and are targeting the troops because they loathe those in the service. Here are some of the groups who took the lead in organizing the Fayetteville demonstration: Iraq Veterans Against the War, Gold Star Families for Peace (an organization of those who have lost loved ones in the Iraq war), and Military Families Speak Out. Do these groups, made up of servicemen and women, along with their families, hate the troops and want to undermine America?

In fact, the demonstration in Fayetteville was aimed at making two points. First, that even among those connected to the military, there is strong opposition to the war. And second, that the demonstrations against the war are not only not demonstrations against the troops, but are motivated in large part because those involved in them want to bring the troops home.

Acknowledging this reality sinks Hyman’s argument, however. He’s spent a good chunk of his time on the air suggesting that anyone who disagrees with him about Bush administration policy in Iraq (or about much of anything else) is anti-American. Because the facts don’t support this cartoonish position, however, Hyman has to ignore them.

Oh, and one more thing: according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 51 percent of Americans say the war in Iraq was “a mistake.” Majorities also say the war was not worth fighting, that they disapprove of the way Bush has handled the war in Iraq, that the administration has no plan for getting out of Iraq, that U.S. has losses have been unacceptably high, that the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq, and that the U.S. is not in a stronger position in the world because of the war (in fact, far more people believe the U.S. is actually weaker because of the war than believe it is stronger). According to Hyman’s logic, that must mean that a majority of Americans hate the troops and are against America.

To wax Hymanesque for a moment, I believe in Mr. Hyman’s right to exercise his First Amendment right to speak his mind—absolutely (Hyman loves to pose as being fair-minded by saying he thinks others should be allowed to speak—how big of him!). But what Hyman is doing is the exact opposite of the stated claim that “The Point” is meant to encourage public debate and critical thinking. By misrepresenting his opponents and willfully ignoring facts that run counter to his caricature of them rather than actually offering a reasoned argument, Hyman cheapens public discourse, insults his viewers (no matter what their political leanings), and makes the argument more eloquently than I ever could that “The Point” has no business being forced on viewers over the public airwaves.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Hyman MIA on MIAs

In his latest editorial, he discusses the valuable, yet unheralded, work of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on MIA/POWs, suggesting that since the fall of the Soviet Union, the free flow of information has helped both nations discover the fates and resting places of many servicemen.

As with a number of Hyman’s “Point” commentaries, there’s not a clear thesis to be found. Is it that it’s a good thing that the remains of servicemen are being returned to their native country for burial? That’s not much of a claim—who would disagree with it? Is it that this particular commission should get more attention? Maybe, but this claim is buried toward the end of the commentary. If “The Point” is really a commentary (as it’s billed as being) rather than a news segment, it’s not at all clear what the opinion being expressed here actually is. Two minutes of local air time go by without much of consequence being said. (Of course, there’s probably nothing going on in your locale that would warrant any of this two minutes of news coverage, right? After all, your average Sinclair station does such a bang-up job of covering local stories in such depth that there couldn’t possibly be any better use of those 120 seconds.)

What’s interesting about Hyman bringing up the POW/MIA issue is the fact that, of all the people in government who deserve thanks for taking on this politically sticky issue, the two leading figures are favorite Hyman targets: Senator John Kerry and Senator John McCain.

Just last week, we saw Hyman’s latest attempt at character assassination against John McCain, and we certainly remember the anti-Kerry distortarama from the campaign. What Hyman hasn’t mentioned about either of these men is that they helped pave the way not only for better relations with Vietnam when it came to investigating MIA/POW claims, but they also helped lay the groundwork for normalization of relations with Vietnam. As the Department of Defense itself notes, this thaw in relationships has produced results in the ongoing efforts to investigate the whereabouts of American remains in Vietnam.

Kerry and McCain deserve particular credit because there task involved a great deal of political risk. Both men attacked by those who disapproved of any interaction with the government in Vietnam, no matter what the purpose. They also were targeted with propaganda by those deeply involved in the "MIA/POW industry," in which families of servicemen lost in Southeast Asia are victimized by those who prey on their hopes and desperation for their own gain.

Now, we shouldn’t expect Hyman to voluntarily sing the praises of these two men. He’s not obliged to do so. It would be nice, however, if he didn’t distort their accomplishments to suit his own political purposes. This is exactly what he did on August 5, 2004, during a commentary entitled "Patriot for Life." In it, he alluded darkly to rumors that there was a photo of John Kerry in a war museum in Vietnam, suggesting that this showed that Kerry’s anti-war activities were celebrated there as contributing to the communist victory.

But as we pointed out at the time, this photo of Kerry was not taken in 1971, but 1991, during a visit to Vietnam as a senator for the express purpose of helping facilitate investigations into MIA/POW issues. The photo was placed in the museum as part of the story of the growing rapprochement between the two countries (part of the process that eventually led to normalization). So while Hyman plays up his support for those helping to answer questions about missing servicemen in his latest commentary, he willfully distorted the facts about another man’s efforts to accomplish the same goal simply because he didn’t agree with his politics.

So much for Mark Hyman, champion of MIA/POW issues.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Friday, March 18, 2005


I'm proud to announce that beginning this week, I am contributing a regular "Counterpoint" essay for SinclairAction that will appear on their website. However, I will still maintain this blog independent of SinclairAction or any other organization.

The Counterpoint feature that appears on SinclairAction will be a "kinder, gentler" version of what you see here. On a weekly basis, I'll write a response to a chosen edition of "The Point" from the previous week and/or comment on general trends in Mark Hyman's rhetoric. There will be less snide asides from me and more pure fact checking and analysis. However, the goal is the same--to provide a balance to "The Point" and to identify and critique Hyman's simplifications, distortions, and falsehoods.

Like what you see here, the commentary that appears courtesy of SinclairAction represents my individual point of view, not the editorial voice of the organization (i.e., I'm not on the SinclairAction payroll). However, SinclairAction is offering me an opportunity to contribute to their ongoing efforts to monitor Sinclair Broadcasting and keep them honest (to the extent that's possible).

I'd like to thank the good folks at SinclairAction as well as Media Matters for America for the encouragement and support they've provided!


Let Them Speak, Too.

In his latest editorial, Mark Hyman lets Lieutenant Colonel Philip Logan speak about the war in Iraq “in his own words.” Here are three other soldiers (all a bit lower in the chain of command than Colonel Logan) talking about the same war in their own words. They are excerpted from first-person testimonies collected at Operation Truth.

Former Marine Rob Sarra

“We were told in the outset that Iraq was an imminent threat to the United
States. Some marines felt that this war was payback for September 11th. Some
marines felt that we were defending our way of life. This wasn't true. How is it
that if Iraq was such a threat, their own troops couldn't stop us from reaching
their capital in three weeks? We never found any WMD's or signs of battlefield
chemical weapons. We did however, find hundreds of caches of discarded weapons
and an army throwing away their uniforms for civilian clothes so they could
escape certain death and return to their homes and families. We found that once
we got to Baghdad, we had no exit strategy. Some of us wondered how we were
going to get back out of Iraq when we had bypassed towns teeming with guerrilla
fighters. Did they expect us to fight our way out?”

Sergeant Kendall D. Connell

“Unfortunately, America was fooled into believing through construed reports that
Iraq wanted to attack us. In all honesty, there are at least 30 other countries
with the capabilities and more intention than Iraq ever had on being able to
harm us. Even after this failure has been made public, soldiers continue to
fight when called on by the President. But how much longer can we be expected to
fight against our own created enemy? It's time for America to make a change by
not continuing to be stubborn and ignoring the real facts. I am not attempting
to sway the opinion of anyone through this letter. It would appear through
discussions that Bush supporters are firmly sticking to their vote regardless of
evidence. Maybe like me, the only way to accept reality is if you have actually
been a part of it. If you've been forced into spending 14 months in desert
sandstorms, living in tents with temperatures reaching 140 degrees daily, few
showers, little food, constant fighting, and seeing best friends die on a weekly
basis for no reason, then maybe you might be willing to ask yourself who should
be in charge of deciding your fate. Ask yourselves just once, as I had to
everyday, "Why are we fighting the Iraqis when they never hurt us"? However, I
would hope you might consider having a more open mind when deciding the lives of
the thousands of soldiers whose only request is to be sent to fight only when
it's absolutely necessary for the security of America.”

Captain David Chasteen [exerpt from an email to his wife]

“When this thing first started, I felt so disgusted with my country that I came
dangerously close to falling out of love with America for good. I never thought
I would be asked to fight an unjust war. I mean Jesus, we've talked about this.
Vietnam was more justified than this war, and I don't think there are many
people out there who thought that we would ever have another Vietnam, but here
we are. This country is not John Ashcroft. It's not W. These guys are flashes in
the pan. Our country will be remembered for the Washingtons, the Jeffersons, the
Adamses, the Lincolns, the Trumans; men who took the hard right over the easy
wrong, not every single time, but the times that it mattered most. Men who
didn't necessarily do what was popular, but did what needed to be done and stuck
to their guns when they knew they were right. This country isn't this war. It's
the constitution that inspires other countries around the world to think that
maybe it's possible to have a government that is subject to the rule of law and
to the people.”

And those are The Counterpoints.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


You might remember that when Sinclair newsman Jon Lieberman dared to speak a word of criticism about the company's plans to air segments of a propaganda film smearing John Kerry and do it under the banner of "news," he was promptly fired.

Well, Sinclair has found a replacement, a Hyman-clone named Don Hammond, and he's already passed his Sinclair "jumping-in" ritual by going after John Kerry with rehashed Swiftboat Veterans for Truth [sic] charges during a newsconference on drilling in ANWAR.

Read about it (and hear the audio!) at Media Matters for America.


Hyman Wrong on "Media Bias" in Iraq

Mark Hyman approvingly summarizes an opinion piece by Lieutenant Colonel Tim Ryan, a First Cavalry Division officer in Iraq, in which the colonel complains that press coverage of Iraq is skews negative. Hyman says:

For example, Ryan asks why the media spent so much time reporting on a handful of rogues [sic] soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison yet were silent when MugtadaAl Sadr's Sharia law court sentenced 200 Iraqis to beheadings and

Hyman ends his commentary with the following nugget:

Ryan's comments have merit. When I was in Iraq, good news no great news events didn't attract the media. No New York Times, no Washington Post, no network television, no CNN or Fox News Channel. They skipped the positive stories and remained in Baghdad waiting for the next car bomb to go off. And they were giving you a skewed view of the reality of what was actually going on in Iraq.

To begin with, Ryan’s ethos is a bit undercut when you read his essay in its entirety. Here’s the colonel describing a pleasant evening in Iraq, invoking the positive imagery the media is ignoring:

In the distance, I can hear the repeated impacts of heavy artillery and
five-hundred-pound bombs hitting their targets. The occasional tank main gun
report and the staccato rhythm of a Marine Corps LAV or Army Bradley Fighting
Vehicle's 25-millimeter cannon provide the bass line for a symphony of

Yikes. He probably likes the smell of napalm in the morning as well.

More to the point, both Ryan and Hyman miss the point about what’s newsworthy. “Islamic Militants Kill Innocent People” is not much of a headline. There’s nothing “new” there. “U.S. Soldiers Torture Prisoners” is (thankfully) unusual, and hence, newsworthy. To suggest otherwise is to imply that we should have the same ethical expectations of U.S. servicemen and women as we do for fanatical terrorists. If I were feeling Hymanesqe, I’d have to wonder why Mark hates the troops so much that he would suggest they are no better than the evildoers they’re fighting.

(Note also, by the way, how Hyman slips in the idea that it was only “a handful of rogue soldiers” responsible for the torture, ignoring the evidence that torture is condoned from much higher up, both in Iraq and elsewhere).

But the premise that the media has focused on the negative in Iraq is obviously valid, even if the rhetoric here is a bit overblown, right?

Nope. At least, not according to’s annual report on the state of the news media for 2004. The report breaks down the media into classifications (broadcast news, cable news, magazines, newspapers) and does a detailed content analysis of how each type of media covered selected stories. For Iraq, the study noted that despite claims by the administration and some conservative pundits, there was no evidence of systematic distortion of the news. Stories that were neutral or of indeterminate tone far outweighed stories that were either positive or negative. While in some cases, negative stories did outnumber positive ones (e.g., in nightly news broadcasts), in others, there was a significant lead in positive stories (e.g., morning broadcast news and cable news—although in the case of cable, to be fair, Fox News by its lonesome skewed the results considerably).

But Hyman is right in suggesting that we shouldn’t simply accept what the media gives us concerning Iraq, if for no other reason than the media is operating under Pentagon restrictions that keep it from reporting the true cost of the war. And it’s clear the media isn’t doing a terribly great job since over 50% of Americans still think there were WMDs in Iraq and that Iraq was tied to the al-Qaeda terrorists who staged the September 11 attacks.

So, yes—let’s get a soldier’s eye view of the war. I suggest starting at Operation Truth, an organization started by veterans of Iraq as a means of showcasing the voices of actual troops on the ground and letting them have their say. The voices are many and varied. There isn’t a single point of view on the war that emerges. What you quickly understand, however, is the profound affect the war has had on the young men and women sent to fight it, and a healthy skepticism that the brass in the Pentagon or their commander in chief truly have the ordinary soldier’s best interest at heart.

A couple of excerpts from the site:

From Staff Sergeant Charlie Carlson--

Our government needs to be more forthcoming and truthful about what is going on in Iraq. We, soldiers, know what the truth is but the media needs to report thetruth without the government trying to bend or cover up what really is going on.

From Corporal Sean Huze--

So, here I am. I'm left with pride in my own service and the men I served with, but the sickening feeling that it was avoidable. I would gladly lay down my life for our country. Like every other man who wears this uniform, our commitment is not at issue. Call it naivety, but it never occurred to me that my country was less committed to us than we are to it. Sending us in harm's way for a lie amounts to a betrayal that may prove to be criminal. It's unfortunate that on November 2nd 59,000,000 Americans failed to do their duty and hold the administration accountable for this betrayal of the troops. A dishonorable discharge was never more warranted.

I’m just wondering, Mark: do these guys “hate our military” too?

And that’s The Counterpoint.

The "Straight Talk Express" Doesn't Stop at Sinclair

After using and abusing the post hoc fallacy in his previous commentary, Mark Hyman moves back to more familiar fallacious stomping grounds: the ad hominem attack.

Going after the Republican that right wingers love to hate, Hyman smears Senator John McCain because of the Arizonan’s aggressive approach to campaign finance reform. In fact, Hyman begins his piece by gratuitously labeling the McCain-Feingold reform bill “infamous.” (According to whom is it infamous? Why would it be considered infamous? Hyman doesn’t say.)

Hyman then claims McCain is known for “squeezing campaign contributions from industries that came under the purview of his committees.” Again, Hyman offers no evidence or corroborating opinion for this charge. We’re just supposed to trust him.
Then, picking up a red herring with which to smack the Senator, Hyman brings up McCain’s connection to the savings and loan debacle during Bush I’s presidency. It’s left to the viewer to manufacture a connection between this and the subject at hand. (And by the way, Mark, you might want to think twice before delving into the
financial shenanigans of prominent Republican politicians.)

Hyman ends with suggesting that McCain improperly sold influence to a cable company that contributed a significant chunk of change to a nonprofit company that works with McCain on election reform. Cablevision, the company making the donations, favors “a la carte” programming options, in which viewers can pay for channels they want (say, CNN or C-SPAN, for example) while not having to pay for those they don’t want (Fox News, just as a for-instance). McCain says he has favored such choices for years, but only formally took a stand after the first donation. Hyman offers no proof of any quid pro quo; simply raising the suspicion is enough for him.

Hyman ends by warning that:

McCain's campaign reform approach has been to silence certain
groups third party groups that can hold candidates accountable. What we need in America is transparency so we know just who is giving money to whom and for what reason. That is real campaign reform.

Apparently Hyman is referring to 527 groups, entities that emerged through a loophole in McCain-Feingold and which the Senator is now looking to close.

Why would Hyman feel so strongly about the importance of 527s? Perhaps because Sinclair became the de facto publicity arm of one such group when it ran significant segments of a propaganda film smearing John Kerry and labeling it “news,” despite the fact that it was riddled with inaccuracies and distortions.

When asked about the credibility and newsworthiness of such charges, particularly in the wake of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth being exposed as a right-wing Republican group, Hyman claimed that the folks behind the propaganda piece were a completely separate entity from the Swifties.

Only one problem with that assertion: it was utterly false. In fact, the month before that interview, the Swifties and the group behind Stolen Honor announced their formal merger. Hyman was either inexcusably ignorant of the group providing his network with its “news” programming, or he was lying.

Perhaps rather than smearing McCain, Hyman and the folks at Sinclair should begin by becoming a bit more “transparent” about their own motivations for keeping 527s in business.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Mother of All Rationalizations

Any discussion of whether or not the invasion of Iraq is the first step to some sort of Disneyland of Democracy in the Middle East must begin by noting that this wasn’t why we went to war. The Bush administration sold the invasion as a matter of national defense because Saddam Hussein was in bed with al-Qaeda and would be ready, willing, and able to hand over nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons to terrorists at any time. None of that was true. And not even the staunchest of neocons would argue that the American people would have willingly sent their sons and daughters to fight and die in Iraqi streets for the hazy promise of democratizing the Arab world. Bringing democracy to the Middle East is the Mother of All Rationalizations.

But let’s pretend that Colin Powell had gone to the United Nations not to present nonexistent evidence of Iraqi WMDs, but to argue that democratizing the region was so essential that preemptive invasion was warranted. Let’s pretend George Bush never suggested there might be a “mushroom cloud” looming over an American city if the U.S. didn’t act, but that generations of Iraqis might live under a dictatorship unless we invaded. And let’s further imagine that the American public believed all this and supported military action for these purposes. Should we be celebrating?

Mark Hyman says yes. He marvels at the changes in the Middle East over the last three years, citing events in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, and Libya as examples of the wonders wrought by Bush foreign policy.

If you ever wanted a textbook example of the post hoc fallacy in action, here you have it. It would be wonderful if we lived in a world so simple that all it took was one tiny little war to transform an entire region that’s been embroiled in strife for centuries (if not millennia) into happy, shiny democracies. But that’s not the case.

To the extent progress has been made, it’s due in large measure to events outside U.S. influence. True, there’s been greater dialog between Israel and the Palestinians of late, but I’m guessing that probably has more to do with the passing of a certain gentleman with a grizzled beard and a penchant for checkered headwear than it does with the Stars and Stripes flying over Baghdad International Airport.

Lebanon? It was the violent death of a beloved public figure that led to the demonstrations against Syrian occupatoin, not peaceful Iraqi elections. And don’t look now, but those pro-Syrian rallies are dwarfing those dubbed the “cedar revolution.” Should Bush get “credit” for those as well?

But what about Libya? That Qaddafi fella sure gave up his WMDs when we kicked Saddam’s butt, didn’t he? Well, not really. Qaddafi’s move was the end result of several years of U.S. diplomatic (not military) action, begun by none other than Bill Clinton. But don’t take my word for it.
A concise expert analysis of the Libyan disarmament (and its lack of any connection to the Iraq invasion) can be had from the Brookings Institution, courtesy of Martin S. Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

In Egypt, it would be nice to think Mubarak’s claim that there will be open elections will materialize into something real, but indications are that this is little more than a stop-gap measure to consolidate his own power. For a detailed analysis of this,
head on back to the folks at the Saban Center.

The current edition of The Nation has a number of excellent pieces on the hopes for democracy in the Middle East (and the cynical and dangerous linking of these hopes to Bush policy in Iraq), including an
editorial on the specifics of Lebanon and Naomi Klein’s thoughtful analysis of the general situation in the Middle East vis-à-vis the “Bush doctrine.”

The conclusion reached by these authors is basic common sense: most of whatever progress has been made in the region has been in spite of, rather than because of, events in Iraq.

But that’s not the important issue. Debating who does or doesn’t get credit is an academic exercise. What’s more important is using the past as a basis for future decisions. What makes naïve and simplistic analyses such as Hyman’s so dangerous is that it encourages the belief that more belligerence and isolated U.S. military action is what the Middle East needs more of. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The invasion has turned Iraq into a haven for terrorists, alienated potential allies, galvanized anti-American sentiment, and caused even many moderates in the region to suspect that the word “democracy” coming from American mouths means little more than “hegemony.” Not an atmosphere that lends itself to productive political change, at least from an American point of view.

What’s needed in the Middle East (and what’s worked, to the extent anything has in the past) is that quality so lacking (and in fact derided) by Bush and his neocon pals: nuance. The complexities of forging democracies out of the ethnic and religious patchwork that makes up the crazy quilt we call the Middle East are enormous. Keep in mind, for example, that even in the much vaunted Iraqi elections, large numbers of Sunni Muslims refused to participate, and the situation is, if anything, even more complicated in Lebanon.

But let’s return from whence we came. Even if the Romper Room-level analysis of Hyman and his ilk were right on the money, and all the Arab world needed to become the new Athens was a swift kick in the keister from the 82nd Airborne, the ugly truth would remain: the Bush administration lied to the American people to win support for a war that has killed tens of thousands, and is now hoping all of us come down with a case of collective amnesia about how the whole thing started.

But we remember.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Monday, March 14, 2005


A word to Sinclair employees who read the blog:

You might be interested to know that AlterNet is sponsoring a “whistle blowers” program asking Sinclair employees who want to sound off about their employer to email their stories to them. You can email your comments to Find out more about this at

Also, for those of you who want to leave comments specifically on the blog but don’t want to do so publicly, you can reach me at


Temperature in Hell: 32 Degrees Fahrenheit

Wow! A “Point” we can agree with! Mark Hyman criticizes Temple University basketball coach John Chaney for sending in a player to intentionally foul opponents, resulting in one player receiving a fractured arm. Hyman rightly notes that this doesn’t make Chaney much of a role model.

We couldn’t agree more. Even Hyman’s premise, that individuals can’t decide whether they are or aren’t role models, is on the money. (After all, it’s those who pattern their behavior after people who determine who is and isn’t a role model.)

There are a few mischaracterizations. Hyman suggests that Chaney wasn’t remorseful after his actions. While that might have been true immediately after the incident, Chaney has since offered an
official apology for his actions. Hyman also claims that Chaney seems to have the upper hand over Temple University administrators. In fact, the administration, along with the athletic conference to which Temple belongs, have used their authority to suspend Chaney and to issue powerful rebukes of his decisions.

On the big issue, however, Hyman is right. Of course, Chaney himself has said that he agrees his actions were inexcusable, so it’s not clear if there’s anyone who would possibly disagree with Hyman’s position. As even first semsester composition students know, a thesis with which no one disagrees isn't much of a thesis.

But there’s one small detail that I have to admit nagging at me. Perhaps I’ve just become too cynical from dealing with Hyman’s editorials for so long, but there’s a question that I can’t help but ask. Perhaps I’m out of line, but given Hyman’s record on the issue of race, I find myself wondering whether or not Hyman would be so quick to condemn Chaney if the coach were not African American. Had Bobby Knight (who, after all, has made a career of not having “[r]espect for the game, the opponents, and one's self “) been the one to send a “goon” out to hack opposing players, would Hyman be jumping onto the bandwagon of criticism as eagerly?

I’m just wondering.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


Thanks to the in-the-know reader who points out that John Chaney made headlines earlier this season for making anti-Bush comments critical of the war in Iraq during a speech at a sportswriters gathering. No wonder Hyman went after him. My world now makes sense once again.

Not Exactly "Constructive Criticism"

Mark Hyman makes the claim that the United Nations can be run better. Not exactly “man bites dog” in terms of shocking statements. An organization that attempts to bring countries around the world together in harmony has difficulties? You don’t say? Heck, the International Olympic Committee has had more than its share of problems, and all it does is organize a glorified track and field meet every four years.

There’s no argument that many things could be done to strengthen the U.N.’s role in the world and allow it to more fully realize its lofty goals. In his commentary, however, Hyman alludes to a number of charges against the U.N. and Kofi Annan that are at best exaggerated and at worst simply false. If Hyman and fellow right-wing conservatives truly desired the U.N. to become a more formidable global force, such overblown criticism might be excused, but many on the right would be happy to see the U.N. disappear, or at least become a pawn of U.S. foreign policy. Hence the conservative press’s infatuation with dwelling on any possible vulnerability of the U.N.,
even if it means wildly exaggerating claims and leaving out important evidence. As with programs such as Social Security and Medicaid, “reform” is conservative code for “eliminate.”

I suspect the timing of Hyman’s commentary is designed to coincide with the conservative rhetorical air cover being flown in support of the Bush administration’s nomination of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. This move is a bit like naming
Wayne LaPierre to head up Mothers Against Guns, given Bolton’s past actions and statements about the worth of the United Nations. It certainly seems an odd choice for an administration that claims it wants to foster better international relations (of course, this is the administration that replace Colin Powell with Condi Rice, so there is a bizarre sort of consistency here).

The United Nations can and should work better. But to do so, it needs the sincere support of the only remaining superpower. As long as the U.S. drags its feet when it comes to paying its U.N. dues, balks at allowing U.S. troops to serve under U.N. command, picks and chooses which Security Council resolutions it wants to take seriously, and refuses to participate in important global bodies (such as the International Criminal Court), the U.N. will be hamstrung.

The U.S. needs to do two things: 1) firmly commit itself and its resources to full participation in the U.N., and 2) accept that the U.N. will not rubber stamp U.S. foreign policy decisions and willingly accept this. This pair of resolutions might make for some short term disappointments, but it will pay off down the road by making the U.N. a viable body that can take on global problems efficiently and effectively, freeing the U.S. from being the world’s policeman.

Of course, for this to happen, we need to have an administration that doesn’t consider policing the world to be its primary international role—something we certainly don’t have now.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Context Matters

Someone yelling “fire!” means one thing when it’s coming from the person in the office next to yours and there’s a faint whiff of smoke in the air. It means something quite different if you’re standing in front of a row of ten guys with rifles pointed at you (although in both cases, the news isn’t good).

Context matters. As this silly example demonstrates, even the simplest of exclamations has drastically different meanings depending on who’s saying it, to whom they're saying it, and why.

At least that’s the way it works in the real world. In Hyman-World, however, context is simply the crap you have to scrape off your boot before you kick someone in the crotch.

An example is
the most recent episode of “The Point” in which Hyman (doing his part in the right wing preemptive nuking of Howard Dean) attempts to portray Dean as a bigot, and to chastise the media for not saying so.

Hyman quotes Dean’s remark during the campaign about wanting to be the candidate of guys “
with Confederate flags in their pickups” and his more recent comment that Republicans couldn’t fill a conference room with African American supporters unless they brought in the hotel staff. Then, Hyman makes the following bizarre statement:

“Do you notice just a hint of Dean's core beliefs seeping out? Southerners are Confederate flag-waving good ol' boy racists. Blacks are only capable of service industry jobs.”

Mark Hyman, who has mocked the NAACP and compared undocumented immigrants to members of al-Qaeda, feigns righteous indignation at these comments, but only after willfully misreading them with malice aforethought.
Is there anything in Dean’s statement that says (or even suggests) guys with Confederate flags in their pickups are by definition racists? It’s Hyman himself who makes this connection.

The second quotation is remade even more imaginatively. Dean was pointing out (and rightly so) that Republicans would have a hard time drawing an African American crowd in a hotel beyond those who would have to be there because of their job. I guess the 150 members of the audience, nearly all of whom were Black, must not be as sensitive about racial slights as Hyman is, since they gave Dean a standing ovation after his speech.

Of course, Hyman knows exactly what he’s doing. He doesn’t care about racially insensitive rhetoric—he just wants to A) smear the new standard bearer of the Democratic Party, and B) continue to characterize the media as “liberal.”

It’s the second goal that causes Hyman to launch into another series of equally dopey statements. Claiming that the media had swarmed all over Trent Lott when he made his comment about how wonderful the nation would be if only Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond had been elected, Hyman wonders aloud why similar outrage wasn’t voiced when Senator Robert Byrd “used the racially charged N-word on national television” and when
Senator Christopher Dodd praised Byrd as a policymaker who would have been a great leader at any time in the nation’s history, including the Civil War.

“There's no mistaking what Dodd implied. Yet the press gave him a pass” Hyman claims.

There no mistaking Dodd’s meaning? Perhaps you should simply state what you claim Dodd is saying, Mark. Are you actually claiming Senator Dodd thinks the nation would be better off had the Confederacy prevailed? If that’s your honest belief, go ahead and say it rather than hiding behind the pseudo-certainty of the phrase “no mistaking.”

Dodd made a comment that was more than a bit dumb, given Byrd’s past association with the Ku Klux Klan in his youth. It’s also a comment that I don’t agree with in the slightest. But attempting to paint Dodd as a racist on the basis of this comment is disingenuous.

Admittedly, Senator Byrd himself is a better target, but again Hyman intentionally misleads viewers. He refers to an interview in which Byrd, commenting on the state of racial relations in the nation, said that there were plenty of “white n------s,” meaning that the ignorance implied by that particular word knew no racial boundaries. In fact, the remark was made in a way that implied that Byrd was referring to none other than President Bill Clinton.

I have no particular affection for Senator Byrd, and it was certainly a stupid comment to make coming from him. Comedian Chris Rock has made the same point using the same language, but again, context matters, and Byrd is not in a position to use such language without impunity. But the entire point of the exchange was that uncouth and ignorant behavior is colorblind.

Let’s compare this to what Senator Lott said. Lott, in prepared remarks, said we’d be better off had Thurmond won the presidency in 1948. The raison d’etre of Thurmond’s campaign was segregation. Hyman terms this an “oblique reference.” Right. What’s oblique is Hyman’s description of Lott’s comments.

And maybe there would have been more attention to Dodd’s comment had it been made in the context of a political career decorated with quotations like the following:

"The spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican

"Look at the cost involved in the Martin Luther King holiday and the fact
that we have not done it for a lot of other people that were more deserving. I just think it was basically wrong.

"The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let's take it in the right direction, and our children will be the
" [Spoken to a meeting of the Council of Conservative
, a group the Anti-Defamation League identifies as having an
ideology of White supremacism and White separatism. Visit their website today, and you’ll see that they believe that all hate crimes are hoaxes.]

"Yes, you could say that I favored segregation then [1962]. I don't now.
The main thing was, I felt the Federal Government had no business sending in troops to tell the state what to do.

Yep, our friend Trent has said all of this and more. Context matters.

And the media frenzy over Lott’s comments? That’s another fiction from Hyman’s fevered imagination.
As the Journalism Review Online noted in a fascinating story, the entire Lott episode was virtually ignored by the mainstream press. It wasn’t until several bloggers commented on it that the story gradually demanded attention. Had it been up to the so-called liberal media, Lott’s remarks would have disappeared into the C-SPAN ether.

With any other commentator out there, I’d say that the level of disingenuousness and malice without any regard to the truth in this commentary was beyond belief.

But in this case, I can’t say that. Context matters.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Smears "Working Assets"

Mark Hyman once again resorts to school-yard name calling in lieu of a reasoned argument, resorting to his well-worn spiel about how anyone who doesn’t agree with his opinion of the Iraq war is against the troops.

The target this time around is
Working Assets, a progressive organization that promotes a wide variety of causes. Their recent efforts include leading a movement to get the Dish Network to remove “The Pentagon Channel” from its package of television channels.

Hyman claims many channels are included on the network because “Uncle Sam” wants them there, including channels run by PBS and several universities. Hyman seems to be referring to the requirement that service providers such as Dish Network reserve a percentage of their offerings for programming that serves the public interest (a concept about which Hyman, as an employee of Sinclair Broadcasting, is understandably shaky). Hyman argues that the Pentagon Channel is no different than these other channels.

But it is. Its content is completely controlled by the Pentagon. Other channels mentioned by Hyman might make use of government grant money, but the government doesn’t dictate content.

A good thing, too, because there’s a law against the government producing propaganda. Not that this has stopped the Bush administration from violating this law in a myriad of ways. But it’s on the books. Hyman says if government control is the issue, what about the NASA Channel? Well, Mark, the NASA Channel isn’t broadcasting propaganda. By design, the Pentagon Channel is designed to help raise the morale of families of deployed members of the armed services. That’s a noble cause, and military families already have access to this programming. The problem is the move to push this propagandistic content into living rooms around the country. If the nation is ever bitterly split along ideological lines about the fate of the Hubble Telescope, perhaps the NASA Channel will need to be taken off the air, but for now, this is an apples and oranges comparison. “Working Assets” is doing nothing more than asking that existing federal regulations be enforced.

Let’s grant that there’s a reasonable argument to be made on the other side of the issue that says the Pentagon Channel is ideologically neutral, apolitical, and a genuine public service. It would be interesting to hear such an argument. But such is not coming from Hyman, who again trades in the rhetoric of character assassination. Rather than making a coherent argument, Hyman calls Working Assets part of the “lunatic fringe” who say “but we support the troops,” but don’t really mean it. According to Hyman, the evildoers at Working Assets “do not want the friends and families of our troops to have access to anything that just might offer a positive message of our troops.”

The obvious question is why Working Assets would want to hurt the friends and families of American troops. Hyman doesn’t address that because there’s no plausible answer. Not only is this characterization a smear, but it’s completely incoherent. And as if that’s not enough, the premise of the statement is false to begin with: those with a connection to the military already have access to the content of the Pentagon Channel.

Working Assets is simply the latest in a long and bizarre listing of individuals and groups who Hyman says “seem to hate our troops” or “seem to support terrorists,” including Ted Koppel, Peter Jennings, John Kerry, the vast majority of Democratic members of both the House and Senate, and liberals in general (“the Angry Left” in Hyman-speak).

The reasons for this reliance on this crassest of arguments are many: the inability to formulate a logical argument, the paucity of facts at Hyman’s disposal that support his side of the argument about the wisdom of invading Iraq, and the identification of the military with Bush administration policies in Afghanistan and Iraq are among the more obvious.

But there’s a deeper reason, I think.
George Lakoff notes in his book Moral Politics that for conservatives, the military is the epitome of their “strict father” (a.k.a. “bad daddy") worldview and moral compass. The military plays a crucial role in conservatives’ constellation of political interests not simply because it is the tool with which the nation protects itself, but because the male-dominated, regimented, hierarchical atmosphere of the military is the fullest expression of the values that guide conservatism. Therefore, the military is an absolute good, independent of whatever practical function it serves. Is the public’s money being squandered on useless weapons systems and filling the pockets of military contractors? That’s a minor price to pay for what conservatives see as an investment in the embodiment of their value system.

Given this, Hyman’s intellectual dishonesty, as inexcusable as it is, makes a perverse sort of sense. To even grant the possibility that a group on the other side of the political spectrum might respect the men and women who serve in the armed forces is anathema. Sure, it might be true, but to acknowledge that publicly, or even privately, makes Hyman’s head hurt. It spoils the neatly divided order of things. If being a conservative means supporting our military, then anyone who’s not a conservative must not support our military (no matter how ridiculous this belief is when applied to the real world).

So to the fine folks at Working Assets, I simply say this: don’t take it personally when Hyman makes these kinds of remarks about you. As aggressive and boorish as he may sound, the reality is that he’s just trying like hell to make reality fit his worldview, lest he be forced into reexamining his political identity. It’s not you—it’s him.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


Just wanted to give a public tip of the hat (again) to the tireless folks at Media Matters for America for their coverage of Mark Hyman's "correction" of his comments originally made in the February 16, 2005, edition of "The Point." You guys nailed it.

Thanks again,


Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Hyman On the Road to Damascus

Apparently Mark Hyman has had a conversion experience. He’s suddenly in the corner of professors who make controversial statements.

In his latest editorial, Hyman summarizes an opinion piece penned by Bruce Fleming, a professor at the Naval Academy, critical of the institution’s policies of having recruiting slots reserved for athletes, those already serving in the Navy or Marine Corps, and “favored racial groups.” This coddling has led, according to Fleming, to some Navy admirals claiming that some Academy graduates "cannot think cogently in words." (Parenthetically, let us remind ourselves that Mr. Hyman himself is a product of the Naval Academy. I leave it to readers to draw what conclusions they will).

It’s clear from Hyman’s editorial that it’s the race thing that most irks him. He pointedly refers to a specific case referred to by Fleming of a candidate who identified himself as Hispanic and received preferential treatment, but who didn’t appear to be Hispanic (whatever that means).

Oddly enough, the service academies probably have greater reason than any other institutions of higher learning to aggressively recruit members of ethnic minorities. Given the demographics of the enlisted personnel in the armed forces, it seems reasonable that the armed services would put a premium on creating an officer corps that mirrored the make-up of the enlisted personnel. The idea of a lily-white officer corps barking out orders to forces disproportionately constituted of African Americans and Hispanics carries the uncomfortable associations of Southern plantations and migrant farm labor. More than simply being politically incorrect, this certainly couldn’t help attain that elusive and valued characteristic, “unit cohesion.”

But the larger issue isn’t so much Hyman’s particular views on this issue; it’s that this commentary exists at all. Naval Academy politics is something Hyman has a personal interest in, given his associations with the institution. That’s fine. But why must viewers in 62 stations across the country have a solid two minutes of a 22-24 minute local newscast eaten up by Hyman riding his hobby-horse? These are 120 seconds of precious airtime that could and should be available for local journalists and/or members of the public to air opinions on issues of local concern (or to cover additional local news stories).

The problem with “The Point” goes beyond simply its predictably extreme right-wing slant or Hyman’s dubious logic and misrepresentations. The problem is that Hyman, as a Sinclair employee, has the power to force his agenda and opinions on viewers, no matter how irrelevant they may be to them. At a time when so little television time is devoted to local issues, we don’t have the luxury of allowing a corporate suit to go nattering away for two full minutes about an intra-campus dustup at his alma mater.

This particular commentary is far from the most objectionable Hyman has delivered in terms of its specific content, but it emphasizes more clearly than most the underlying objection so many of us have with Sinclair and “The Point”: these are our airwaves, our public resource, and we want them back.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

ps. As an interesting aside, I doubt Hyman would find Professor Fleming his kind of guy despite his approving summary. Dr. Fleming received an award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for an article he wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he suggested that the U.S. Naval Academy fostered an atmosphere that was at once homophobic and homoerotic.

Cost of the War in Iraq
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