Let me begin by noting that I would not prefer to keep writing posts about Benghazi, the I.R.S., Attorney General Holder, and his inept and politicized Justice Department. All of the related scandals involve outrageous misconduct by the Democratic administration, together with the resulting attempt by Republicans to both uncover what occurred in the face of concerted Administration stonewalling and obfuscation, and to score political points while embarrassing President Obama and Democrats in the process. Since in this matter the offenders are either Democrats or those under a Democratic administration, it is impossible to comment on the matter fairly with out appearing partisan to some otherwise reasonable readers.
I should not have to write repeatedly about these collective failures, fiascoes and abuses of power, and would not if the leaders responsible would just tell the truth, stop spinning and using smoke screens, apply appropriate sanctions and consequences to the individuals involved. This Administration refuses to do that, and too many major media outlets refuse to do their jobs and pressure them to do that. Instead, a massive disinformation campaign has been mounted, presumably coordinated by the White House and the highest levels of the Democratic party, to minimize the situations involved, confuse the public about what occurred, misrepresent the seriousness of the implications of the events, and allow them all to fade away, ideally while performing political jiujitsu on Republicans and promoting a public backlash that might even benefit Democrats, as the impeachment of President Clinton did in 1998.
This must not be allowed to happen. I am under no delusions that I have any influence over whether it does happen or not: this blog has a good sized audience for an ethics blog, but that is like a restaurant saying that the pickled lizard-brains seem to be popular tonight. I do believe that publishing my best objective ethical analysis during this disturbing period might, might, somehow bolster the efforts of those who do have such influence.
Yesterday at the Congressional hearings on the I.R.S. targeting of conservative groups, a couple of misleading arguments by administration defenders officially reached dishonest talking point status, joining many others we have heard for the past two months (or more) and continue to hear. “Talking points,” used in this context, are arguments, statements and phrases devised by political strategists, usually field-tested in focus groups and polls, and then emailed out to officials, party members, operatives, talking heads, friendly journalists and columnists and others to repeat in public statements in the media, over and over again, to influence public opinion. They are designed to shift blame, confuse the issues, inject false facts, and to appeal to rationalizations and bad logic.
It’s a cynical exercise, and infuriatingly obvious to the relative few Americans who watch a lot of TV, listen to a lot of interviews and check multiple sources, have open minds and IQ’s above freezing. It’s ridiculous, in fact: suddenly Democrat after Democrat after progressive talk show host (or, at other times, Republicans and conservative talking heads—this is not restricted to Democrats) “independently” make the same dubious points using almost the same words. But I’m not the target audience; they know anyone paying close attention is on to the technique. It’s aimed at those less involved citizens who pick up on the new excuses and circulate them to their friends and colleagues, who may not be paying attention to the media at all. It’s aimed at partisans controlled by confirmation bias: you will instantly see the talking points repeated in blog comment threads. These kinds of talking points are designed to make coherent debate and analysis impossible.
Before addressing yesterday’s additions to the current talking point garbage pail, let’s review the haul so far. Now take your Pepto Bismol…
The use of dishonest and intentionally misleading “talking points” began with the first of the current scandals (Fast and Furious is still a scandal and the object of a cover-up, but it has faded into oblivion for now, the beneficiary of an Obama administration scandal glut), the Benghazi attack and its aftermath. In various ways and in various forms, the Obama Administration went out of its way to misrepresent the fatal attack on the U.S, outpost and the death of our ambassador and others as the result of “spontaneous” outrage over an anti-Islamic video on YouTube. The misrepresentation was done consciously and deceitfully, often with accompanying vague references to “acts of terror,” but fact is that the CIA conclusions relating to the attack did not attribute it to a video, did indicate that Al Qaeda influences were involved, and the Obama Administration told not only the media and the public, but the world, otherwise.
The President, Hillary Clinton, Jay Carney, and infamously, Susan Rice (now rewarded for her deception with the National Security Advisor position, all the better to send the message that “the ends justify the means”) all had a part in the disinformation campaign. Was this done, as critics of the President have argued, to avoid the revelation of facts that undercut President Obama’s victory over terrorism claims in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death until after a close election? I think that’s a reasonable conclusion, though one that is difficult to prove. The strategy of the Obama Administration, with the assistance of the lapdog press, of course, has been to confuse the issues and the public with these carefully devised, almost certainly poll-tested, talking points and tropes, to be repeated over and over by officials and administration allies to overwhelm and defeat the search for the truth. For the Benghazi deception scandal, the key ones have been:
- “President Obama called the attack a ‘terrorist act’ from the beginning.” As even the Washington Post’s slanted Fact-Checker has shown, this is a lie. He did not. He highlighted the video as the cause of the attack, all the way to the U.N.
- “Only stylistic and minor changes were made to the CIA’s report on the attack.” This was demonstrably false, and yet Jay Carney has refused to retract it.
- “The altered talking points resulted from sparring agencies,” without White House involvement. In fact, released emails showed that White House personnel were intimately involved in the re-drafting.
- “Ambassador Rice was attacked for her five TV appearance regarding Benghazi because she was a woman, an African American, and to stop her from being Secretary of State.” Ambassador Rice was justly criticized because she asserted as true to the public what she either knew was not, or should have known was not, as she used her stature and position to carry a manufactured cover story for political ends. And now she has been rewarded for it.
- “It doesn’t matter.” When high public officials intentionally mislead the public regarding the government’s performance in an incident that takes the lives of an ambassador and other U.S. personnel, for the suspected purpose of ensuring that voters do not have all available information before electing a President, it matters a great deal.
- “It’s not a scandal.” Astoundingly, Time’s Joe Klein, who once was a real journalist but who Obama’s election transformed into an untrustworthy, partisan hack, just wrote this a week ago, echoing “paid liar” Carney, the President, and every enabling journalist and blogger who puts quote marks around “scandal.” The justifications for this talking points vary, from Klein’s (he adopts the first lie above) to Hillary’s “it doesn’t matter” to Carney’s “it’s old news” to various rationalizations—“every administration and President lies,” “Republicans lie too,” “There are worse things (this is hardly Watergate),” and others. If we accept a President and a U.N ambassador intentionally deceiving the public on so important an event for political advantage, then we endorse unlimited dishonesty as a legitimate governing device.
- “Congress should be solving the nation’s problems, not investigating the White House.” This is the time-tested talking point of every corrupt administration, national, state and city, since the Republic began. I believe the use of this shameless cliché suggests a cover-up all by itself. Congress has an obligation to police the integrity of the government. Suggesting otherwise is promoting public ignorance.
The Justice Department’s surveillance of Associated Press phone lines and Fox reporter James Rosen
These are really two scandals wrapped up in one, both involving Eric Holder’s Justice Department engaging in unprecedented assaults on the First Amendment for the purpose of discouraging leaks of classified information. They have not generated as many talking points because as yet not all of the facts are known, and a corrupt and untrustworthy Justice Department has been placed in charge of investigating itself. There have been plenty of questionable and misleading statements around this scandal, but the defensive talking points only number one.
- “Republicans in the House and Senate were the ones calling for the Administration to get tough on leakers, and now they are complaining that the Justice Department did just that.” None of the Republicans calling for more aggressive investigation and prosecution of leakers in the Administration advocated or suggested mass surveillance of news organizations or the criminalization of news reporting. Investigating and punishing law breaking officials and lawyer who violate laws and ethics rules does nor require attacking the First Amendment.
The I.R.S. scandal
I covered many of these in the recent post about Nancy Pelosi, as the House Minority leader launched into a veritable I.R.S talking point orgy, plus some lies original with her, for Nancy is gifted that way Some of the early misrepresentations by Lois Lerner and others that have been proven false are still repeated as talking points.
- “The targeting of conservative groups only involved a few rogue I.R.S. employees in the Cincinnati office.” Nobody in Washington or the I.R.S. believes this. Former employees of the agency I talked to said the suggestion was laughable, given how the agency works. Nothing of that sort could have continued for nearly three years without the knowledge of superiors in Washington, if not their direction.
- “No laws were broken.” If, as appears to be the case, proprietary information about donors to political groups as well as tax information submitted to get I.R.S. approval were leaked to progressive groups, such as ProPublica, which has confirmed it, laws were indeed broken. The law of the land, the Constitution, was violated by the selective enforcement and speech-based harassment as well. And even if no laws were broken, it was wrong.
- “The I.R.S. is an independent organization.” An outright lie. It is part of the Executive Branch, and the President appoints the Commissioner.
- “Liberal groups were targeted too.” Liberal groups were given the usual scrutiny before being granted 501(c)(4) status. Only conservative groups were given special scrutiny that resulted in long delays, effectively removing them from participation in the 2012 campaign.
- “This was stupid and incompetent, but not political.” The burden of proof is on anyone who maintains this counter-intuitive assertion. An agency in a Democratic administration undertook to hamper the activities of philosophically-opposed groups in the run-up to closely contested elections. It targeted and was hostile to conservative organizations and only conservative organizations. Such conduct appears politically motivated on its face, and establishes a prima facie case for improper political motivations in contravention of citizens rights.
- “The Commissioner during this period was a Bush appointee, so that proves that the activity wasn’t politically motivated.” I have dealt with this incredibly cynical and absurd argument more than once, most thoroughly here.
- “The I.R.S. was inundated with new applications for 501(c)(4) organizations.” This falsehood was repeated under oath by I.R.S. officials Lois Lerner and Steven Miller, and parroted by others. The Washington Post and other fact checking organizations have debunked the lie that a surge of applications sparked the focus on tea party groups, because it began before any increase materialized.
The new talking points, two particularly obnoxious ones, were unveiled by Rep. McDermott (D-Wa) along with some others when he set a new world record for dishonest hackery by blaming the testifying tea party groups for their own plight:
- “ None of your organizations were kept from organizing or silenced. We are talking about whether or not the American taxpayers would subsidize your work. We are talking about a tax break.” That’s right, none were stopped from organizing or silenced, except that they were not permitted to have the benefit of the same useful tax status that organizations friendly to Obama policies received with ease. It was a tax break that the groups were neither more nor less entitled to than the progressive groups the I.R.S. was giving a pass to. The issue is not the wisdom of 501(c)(4) organizations. The serious offense that this talking point is designed to obscure is the application of a content-based, politically-motivated double standard.
- “During the Bush administration liberal groups were targeted without any concern by Mr. Issa or anyone else in this committee.” The lowest of the low. This one is right up there with the “Bush appointee” absurdity, but even more dishonest. Under the last administration—you know, the one responsible for everything that goes wrong in this administration?—the I.R.S. properly investigated some specific, established progressive, Democratic-supporting groups for specific, alleged violations of their already-granted 501(c)(4) status. That is entirely correct and proper. The difference between investigating specific groups for specific violations and targeting all groups with identifiable conservative interests is the equivalent of the difference between investigating O.J. Simpson as a murder suspect and using racial profiling to round up every African-American in the neighborhood, and even McDermott, dolt that he is, knows it.( Rep. Issa was not Chairman of the Government Oversight Committee during the Bush years, either. I assume he knows this as well.)
Like all of these dishonest talking points, logic and fairness is beside the point. The purpose is to confuse the issues sufficiently that most people give up and stop paying attention.
Sources: FactCheck, National Review, Townhall, Examiner
Graphic: Scenic reflections
17 thoughts on “A Handy Review of Dishonest Scandal-Obscuring Talking Points”
I apologize—some Word coding snuck into the middle of the post, and I didn’t catch it until a moment ago. This never happened for three years, and now it’s occurred several times in the last couple months.Why, I do not know.
Nice post, Jack. Thanks. Lot’s of work. And a great definition and explanation of talking points. I did not know they were tested. Frightening. They’re so amateurish, I thought they were just thrown together sometime before (as part of of the beginning of?) cocktail hour on a conference call and then faxed or texted out in time for the guests on the cable talk shows to numbly parrot them into the cameras. Awful.
It wasn’t the work I minded. It was the nausea.
And how about the news outlets that let hacks come on and spout talking points? That’s just wrong. Why doesn’t a host ever say, “Those are just talking points. You didn’t answer my question?” I think the entire industry is terribly complicit and lazy in that regard. They seem to think so long as they have dueling talking point spouters, they’ve discharged their reportorial duties. Terrible.
Great point. It is professional negligence. The interviewers surely know these talking points before they are out between the teeth.
Your second-to-last one is a new example of the kind of Government bully doublespeak that really makes me grind my teeth. It’s a system-level brother to the police officer who tells you “No, you aren’t being detained” with his hand on his gun and your ID still in his hand, or the small-town government who says there is a process in place for zoning variances when only the committee’s friends get variances to build new additions.
I wonder if the people who do these things as adults are just the grown-up version of the kid who sits directly in front of his little sister’s toybox and says “I’m not STOPPING you from getting in, I’m just sitting where I want to, it’s a free country.”
Yesterday I saw Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) use two of your talking points (1: “The Commissioner during this period was a Bush appointee, so that proves that the activity wasn’t politically motivated.” and 2: “This was stupid and incompetent, but not political.”
Since I didn’t know much about him, I looked him up today.
This man has a long history of admirable civil rights work.
He mentions that in the bio on his website, naturally, but then goes on to mention his impeccable morals twice in the first two paragraphs of his bio:
“Often called “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced,” John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he calls “The Beloved Community” in America. His dedication to the highest ethical standards and moral principles has won him the admiration of many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress.
He has been called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress,” and Roll Call magazine has said, “John Lewis…is a genuine American hero and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber.”
He’s “the conscience of congress” and yet, there he is, on live TV, spouting what he must know is crap, and spitting out his words like anyone who thinks otherwise is the dirt below his feet.
Washington disgusts me.
Ex-Sen. John Glenn, a hero of mine, did the same thing during the Clinton scandals. It is very dispiriting.
“It wasn’t the work I minded. It was the nausea.”
It made me sick to read it, also.
As usual, excellent summary of that facts, Jack.
A new IRS talking point was mentioned last night:
“you wouldn’t have been harassed if you hadn’t applied for tax exempt status”.
That’s sort of like saying the rape victim was asking for it, isn’t it?
Sorry, Jack, I see you already mentioned that new talking point.
I have to stop skimming.
What is unethical is making accusations about the Obama administration’s involvement with zero evidence backing it up.
The burden of proof is on those making the accusations and not the defending the charges. Where are the documents linking Obama to these crimes? Where’s the smoking gun?
He’s President, did you know? He’s responsible for the executive branch, and those who report to him. RESPONSIBLE. If he oversaw the corruption,or knew about it, then he’s also corrupt. If he didn’t know, he’s incompetent. That’s how organization,s work, including the government. You can’t be the one in charge, have the place breaking rules, abusing power, violating rights, and say, “Hey, it’s not my fault!”
He’s President, did you know? His job isn’t to micromanage the millions of federal employees day to day jobs.
Obama’s responsibility is to make sure those government employees who do things that are unethical or corrupt are held accountable and properly disciplined. That is what the CEO of any company would do if a low level employee was committing a crime.
No, management is making sure you have subordinates who are competent and trustworthy in the first place, and that you create an organizational culture that encourages, nurtures and rewards effective and productive conduct. Not that Obama holds any of his subordinates accountable either, but in any event, the CEO is accountable for mass organizational misconduct, because he’s responsible for building an organization that functions efficiently, ethically and well. It’s his failure if its not. He doesn’t hesitate to take credit in the rare cases where things work out well.
You missed my favorite: naked McCarthyism. “There’s no wrongdoing here. The Tea Party’s foundational principle is that taxation is excessive, so it’s obvious they’d try to commit fraud.”
Yes, heard it. Good one. Yecch.