“Are You a Flake?” Ethics

"Are you Michele Bachman?"

With only four well-chosen words, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace accomplished several objectives Sunday, all of them in the best tradition of ethical, objective, responsible journalism.

The words were “Are you a flake?,” posed to Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who is running for President.  The question…

1. Properly forced a conservative darling to address her most striking weakness, belying Fox’s well-deserved reputation for bias toward figures its viewers admire…

2. Was a near-perfect example of the “off-the-wall” question technique, which has exposed more than one pretender to high office (Hello, Mike Dukakis!) as less than desirable.

3. Simultaneously gave Bachmann an opportunity to show how quick she could think on her feet while demonstrating important leadership traits like self-awareness, humor, wit, and grace, or, in the alternative, demonstrate the opposite.

How did she do? Well. Judge for yourself:

Wallace: Are you a flake?

Bachmann:  I think that would be insulting to say something like that because I’m a serious person. I’m 55 years old. I’ve been married 33 years,” she said. “I’m not only a lawyer, I have a post-doctorate degree in federal tax law from William and Mary. I’ve worked in serious scholarship … my husband and I have raised five kids, we’ve raised 23 foster children. We’ve applied ourselves to education reform. We started a charter school for at-risk kids. I’ve also been a state senator and member of the United States Congress for five years.

Yes, Michele Bachmann got huffy and defensive, and responded with an extended “Do you know who I am?” litany that still didn’t answer Wallace’s question.

It was a completely fair question. After all, Bachmann is one of John Avlon’s favorite “wingnuts,” (though of course he doesn’t use labels.) She had already had to explain to Glenn Beck why she wasn’t “a kook.” Bachmann has, like Sarah Palin, made statements ranging from novel to strange to jaw-dropping; as with Palin, the media has been hyper-vigilant in reporting her gaffes, and as with Palin, sometimes the media’s anti-conservative bias has resulted in excessive criticism and misrepresentation of her statements to make them sound worse than they were.*  Even more than Palin, however, Bachmann is mistake-prone (she just managed to mix up John Wayne and serial killer John Wayne Gacy in an Indiana appearance) , and fond of sweeping statements of dubious or fanciful origin. Does that make her a flake? Not necessarily; Ronald Reagan could come up with a head-slapper now and then. It does, however, raise issues of her fitness to lead, and Wallace was responsible and correct to ask her directly.

She should have been able to handle the question easily, and without bristling. The fact that she didn’t, or couldn’t, tells us several things about Michele Bachman, none of them good. She appears to have absolutely no sense of humor, which, if you are going to make gaffes with any regularity, is an essential quality to have. She is instinctively defensive. Wallace is a friendly interviewer; it was obvious that his question was intended as an opportunity for her to respond to her critics, not an accusation. Similar questions would be:

  • Asking President Obama, “Are you a Socialist bent on destroying America?”
  • Asking Rep. Eric Canter, “Do you really want old people to die?”
  • Asking Dan Quayle, “Are you an idiot?” 
  • Asking Dick Cheney, “Are you a monster?”
  • Asking Rep. Dennis Kucinich the exact same question…”Are you a flake?”

I assume that every one of these individuals would be able to a turn the question around and with a modicum of humor, explain why the gross characterizations of them by their political opponents are inaccurate and unfair. Not Bachmann, though.

Apparently flogged by his Fox News masters or at least by a flood of nasty e-mails, Wallace delivered an abject apology for making Bachmann squirm, saying on a video,

“A lot of you were more than perturbed, you were upset and felt that I had been rude to her,” says Wallace in the clip posted online. “And since in the end it’s really all about the answers, and not about the questions, I messed up, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

That costs Wallace at least two of his three cheers. Are we really going to go through this again, with male political adversaries and interviewers being accused of being mean and rude for treating female candidates exactly the way they would treat male candidates?  Even more disturbing than the inherent gender bias in Wallace’s apology is its partisan effect. If Bachmann had reacted to the question as a professional, graceful, deft candidate should respond to it, would Wallace have apologized? He is essentially apologizing for asking her a question that she couldn’t handle, taking the blame for Bachmann’s inadequacies. That is bias. That is a reporter, or a news network, trying to rescue a candidate from her own ineptitude.

Even given a gratuitous apology to work with, Bachmann still couldn’t muster any grace, intelligence or wit. Asked if she accepted the apology by ABC News’ Jon Karl, Bachmann said, “I think that it’s insulting to insinuate that a candidate for president is less than serious. I’m a very serious individual.”

Yes, Michel, you ever oh so serious.

But are you a flake?

* You can find examples of each of these in this list, “Ten of the Craziest Things Michel Bachmann Ever Said” created by Think Progress, a progressive site never noted for its fairness or fealty to the facts:

(1) BACHMANN WARNED ‘THE LION KING’ WAS GAY PROPAGANDA: At the November 2004 EdWatch National Education Conference, Bachmann said the “normalization” of homosexuality would lead to “desensitization”: “Very effective way to do this with a bunch of second graders, is take a picture of ‘The Lion King’ for instance, and a teacher might say, ‘Do you know that the music for this movie was written by a gay man?’ The message is: I’m better at what I do, because I’m gay.”

Comment: Does this sound to you like Bachmann was warning that “The Lion King” was gay propaganda? She said nothing of the kind. Yet thanks to this misleading heading, you will see that alone cited around the web as proof of Bachmann’s flakiness mentioning what she actually said. What she said is, in fact, silly. But not as silly as saying “the Lion King” is gay propoganda

(2) BACHMANN CLAIMED ABOLISHING THE MINIMUM WAGE WOULD CREATE JOBS: While testifying in front of the Minnesota Senate in 2005, Bachmann said, “Literally, if we took away the minimum wage — if conceivably it was gone — we could potentially virtually wipe out unemployment completely because we would be able to offer jobs at whatever level.” This isn’t remotely true. Even simply reducing the minimum wage would, as Paul Krugman noted, “at best do nothing for employment; more likely it would actually be contractionary.”

Comment: Sorry, Think Progress—lots of economist think that abolishing the minimum wage would create jobs…movie ushers, for example.  Saying that it would wipe out unemployment completely is bats, but so is Krugman’s statement.

(3) BACHMANN CLAIMED THAT SCIENTISTS ARE SUPPORTERS OF INTELLIGENT DESIGN: During a 2006 debate, Bachmann said, “There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design.” This was, and is, not true.

Comment: No argument here: Bachmann was making that up. It’s not true.

(4) BACHMANN CLAIMED TERRI SCHIAVO WAS ‘HEALTHY’: Not long after Terri Schiavo died, Bachmann said she would have voted for the Palm Sunday Compromise because Schiavo “was healthy. She had brain damage — there was brain damage, there was no question. But from a health point of view, she was not terminally ill.” An autopsy found that Schiavo had suffered irreversible brain damage and her brain, said the medical examiner, was “profoundly atrophied.”

Comment: Bachmann’s argument is weak, but her contention that Schiavo was “healthy” in the sense that she had no illness or underlying pathology is true. She was not terminally ill; that’s a correct statement. She was, however, not what any reasonable person would call healthy because she was brain dead. Bachmann’s argument isn’t crazy; it’s just wrong…kind of like Obama saying that the Libya campaign doesn’t involve “hostilities.”

(5) BACHMANN LIKENED VISITING IRAQ TO VISITING MALL OF AMERICA: In 2007, Bachmann returned from a junket to Iraq and told her colleagues, “[T]here’s a commonality with the Mall of America, in that it’s on that proportion. There’s marble everywhere. The other thing I remarked about was there is water everywhere.” As ThinkProgress documented at the time, the comparison was preposterous.

Comment: I have no idea what the hell Bachmann was thinking when she said this.

 (6) BACHMANN CLAIMED THAT CARBON DIOXIDE IS ‘HARMLESS’: In 2008, a Stanford scientist revealed “direct links” between increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and “increases in human mortality” — globally, he found that as many as “20,000 air-pollution-related deaths per year per degree Celsius may be due to this greenhouse gas.” The next year, Bachmann, who is not a scientist, said that “carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.”

Comment: This is an ignorant comment, though there is no reason to believe Bachmann is any more scientifically ignorant than the politicians and journalists who uncritically accept whatever selected climate scientists say as absolute truth.

  (7) BACHMANN CALLED FOR A CONGRESSIONAL WITCH HUNT: Pivoting off the news of Barack Obama’s alleged relationship to former Weather Underground member William Ayers, and his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bachmann accused the candidate of having “anti-American views.” She then suggested that Congressional liberals — including Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid — ought to be subject to “an exposé” by the media because of their views. “I think people would love to see like that,” she told a stunned Chris Matthews.

Comment: 1) Chris Matthews is easily stunned. 2) Bachmann did not call for a “witch hunt”—using its inflammatory description and attributing it to Bachmann is dishonest and unethical reporting 3) She did not call for a “Congressional” inquiry, either; she called for a media inquiry. 4) The kind of exposé she was calling for regarding Pelosi and Reid is exactly the kind of exposé the media regularly attempts on various conservatives… such as Bachmann. If her statement is crazy, it is only because assuming that the media would ever scrutinize liberals as aggressively as conservatives is crazy.

  8) BACHMANN SUGGESTED GAY SINGER SHOULD REPENT AFTER GETTING CANCER: Bachmann saw Melissa Etheridge’s cancer as a teachable moment: “Unfortunately she is now suffering from breast cancer, so keep her in your prayers,” she said in November 2004. “This may be an opportunity for her now to be open to some spiritual things, now that she is suffering with that physical disease. She is a lesbian.”

Comment: Where did Bachmann say that Etheridge should repent? I think the statement is vaguely presumptuous and offensive, but saying that the singer should repent would be crazy—and Bachmann didn’t say that. Again, Think Progress is dishonest.

(9) BACHMANN BOASTED ABOUT BREAKING THE LAW: In advance of the 2010 national Census, Bachmann told The Washington Times that she would break the law by not completing the forms. “I know for my family, the only question we will be answering is how many people are in our home,” she said. “We won’t be answering any information beyond that, because the Constitution doesn’t require any information beyond that.”

Comment: By what standard is this “crazy”? If this is on a “craziest things,’ list, I take that as proof that Bachmann has made fewer than ten crazy statements.

 (10) BACHMANN CLAIMED THAT GLENN BECK COULD SOLVE THE DEBT CRISIS: During a February trip to South Carolina, Bachmann told a South Carolina audience, “I think if we give Glenn Beck the numbers, he can solve this [the national debt].”

Comment: I get it…Think Progress doesn’t like Glenn Beck. From the looks of things, however, I’d say that claiming Glenn Beck could solve the debt crisis is no crazier than claiming the crisis could be solved by (pick one) Timothy Geithner, Paul Ryan, Paul Krugman, Mitt Romney, Tom Coburn, Harry Reid, or Barack Obama.

19 thoughts on ““Are You a Flake?” Ethics

  1. Jack,
    I don’t know about “hundreds and hundreds” but there ARE a number of scientists (my ex-bio professor being one) who believe in intelligent design. Granted, for most of them, their scientific expertise in fields unrelated to evolutionary biology, zoology, or physics, but they exist nonetheless; frightening though that prospect may be.


    • Yes, thanks, I was going to get into that. I can’t tell if that’s what MB meant, in which case she’s being deceitful, or if she really thinks scientists in the field of biology and paleontology are supporters of intelligent design. In either case, the “hundreds” part is unsupportable.

    • A high school student actually called her out on that and attained hundreds of signatures, including numerous Nobel laureates, opposing intelligent design.

  2. I’ve heard of several cases in which she can’t just begin with a YES OR NO, which is the right way to start. I hear she’s not stupid, but she seems kinda dumb, at least on a few things she can’t handle. Esp. since she’s supposedly ‘savvy.’ If she’d laughed, said, “NO!” with a smile and then gone into her list, it would have been a great and amusing soundbite that might have won her some votes. Personally, what little I see of her (I aim to keep it that way, too), ain’t gettin’ me in her corner, and if she herself keeps her corner empty, then yay. But I’m biased.

  3. I considered it the softest of softball questions. You have to be a real dunce to screw up a question like that.

  4. In what universe does asking an intentionally softball question of a potential presidential candidate and then apologizing when that candidate can’t handle even that qualify as “ethical, objective, responsible journalism”?

    To be fair, I didn’t hear the rest of the interview: Wallace may have impersonated a journalist at some other point in the conversation.

    • I think it should have been a softball question, but it obviously wasn’t. Doesn’t that mean you can’t call it one? Bernie Shaw’s Kitty Dukakis question should have been a softball too. In baseball, these are called change-ups, and they are deceptively effective at getting whiffs. I don’t think it would be called a softball question if Katie Couric asked it (after all, “What newspapers do you read?” was regarded as a killer); I think raising the issue was responsible and relatively tough.

      But the apology was disgraceful, as I said.

      I think Chris Wallace is pretty straight…he could slip into an anchor role at CNN without changing his stripes. The apology was a disappointment.

      • Remember, Katie Couric’s question was a follow up to Palin’s previous answer. It’s only not a softball if her first response was untruthful.

      • I think you can’t analyse this issue fully without considering the intentions of the interviewer, the ‘mens rea’ if you will.

        If the interviewer is deliberately asking easy questions to help the candidate look good, then that is probably unethical. This is also true if the interviewer is deliberately asking questions in order to portray the candidate in a particularly negative light. This is also true regardless of whether the candidate is so feckless he or she answers the question stupidly, or is competent enough to provide a ‘good’ answer.

        In this case the apology is good evidence of the interviewer’s intentions. He is clearly very concerned not to upset the candidate, which probably means he intended the question to be a ‘soft’ one. It also means he is probably somewhat incompetent, or misjudged the candidate’s competence, as a better way to ask the question would be “How do you respond to critics who say you are not a serious candidate?” This does not carry such a strong implication that the candidate is a flake.

        At the end of the day, because of all the variables it’s difficult to sustain a charge of biased interviewing. I think the apology, however, is probably damning.

  5. Did you just use Think Progress, an avowed liberal source as back up for claiming the general media has an anti-conservative bias?

    That’s like using Fox News to claim the media is anti-liberal.

    • No. Think Progress was typical of the Bachmann lists—the Palin lists, Avlon’s lists, they are all similar in that about half the statements are really outrageous and the others are either manipulated to seem outrageous or just outrageous to hard left liberals. (Saying abortion is the equivalent of murder is debatable and an extreme position, but defensible, and thus not outrageous.) As the post indicated, I think Bachmann’s a dolt, but as with Palin, just because a politician deserves criticism doesn’t make all the criticism fair.

  6. Let’s be honest here. She is NOT a viable candidate. She would be eaten by news coyotes within the first three months of a real election campaign..

    Republicans know it: how else to get Obama a 2nd term? They’re just waiting for someone with with WEIGHT (Rick Perry?) to enter the race.

    Ignore her. She’s implode before we know it.

  7. PLEASE tell me you’re kidding about Gov. Big Hair. Bill Maher doesn’t get everything right, but he has a lot of points that are more than salient about the ridiculousness of Rick Perry. Anyone remember how hurricanes (I believe Katrina was the one in question) was just an act of God so no one can blame anyone human for the devastation? Except that Katrina was over and done with when most people died, etc… Oh, and the oil spill, too- that was all God’s fault, putting that oil down in the bottom of the deep part of the Gulf.

    Although Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert wouldhave even more fun if HE enters the fray. I’m a native Texan, and I roll my eyes at what I hear from home from him regularly…

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