“I tend to be generous with the benefit of doubt,” wrote Kathleen Parker, the mildest of conservative Washington Post columnists, in a recent effort at punditry. That’s an understatement, but then, understating is what Parker does. She also excels at writing equivocal near-condemnations that end up in pretzel form and stuck in dead-ends of ambiguity when clarity is called for.
This makes her very useful to the mainstream media, which like to present the illusion of balance while rigging the game. When I see her on a Sunday morning “roundtable” as one of the conservative voices recruited to spar with sharp, aggressive, no-holds barred progressives like Kathleen van der Heuvel or Van Jones (and a left-biased moderator), I know that the discussion will make any uninformed viewers believe that the truth consists of the midpoint between progressive spin, and Parker smiling and raising her eyebrow. She is, in short, a weenie. A nice weenie, to be sure, but when your job is battling in the marketplace of ideas, unyielding politeness, measured words, and the insistence that all sides have merit—which is often, indeed usually true–results in shorting her side, and giving the contest to the combatant with no such reticence about full-throated advocacy. Parker isn’t wrong. Parker is incompetent at her job, as it has evolved. Thus when she accepted a co-hosting gig in a CNN “Cross-Fire” clone as the Right commentator to Eliot Spitzer’s Left, he completely dominated her (he was also a bully and a boor in the process) until Parker left the show, frustrated and humiliated.
I was horrified recently to discover that Parker had written a column about the President’s non-apology apology that tracked closely with mine (posted the following day), because I dreaded Ethics Alarms readers concluding that I was cribbing from her. Her column was also notable for its theme, which was signaled by its opening sentences:
“Among the many rules I grew up with, two stand out. The first was to never call someone a liar, which was considered the worst character indictment one could issue. The accuser had best be prepared to fight or be fleet of foot. The other was a dictum so oft- repeated that it is permanently tattooed on my brain: “If you’ll lie by omission, you’ll lie by commission.”
She then proceeded to make the case, much as I did, that the President had lied about how the Affordable Care Act worked and later about his intent when he lied, while she simultaneously tried to give him the benefit of the doubt (of which there is none) regarding whether he was in fact lying. That’s Parker. Over at MSNBC, Chris Matthews was calling Dick Cheney a racist for calling the President what Parker was too nice to call him, using breath-takingly crazy logic and historic revisionism. “Is this, calling the President a liar, the new language of American politics. Or is it a language specially treated for the country’s first African-American president?” Matthews bleated. (Aside: Interestingly, Chris was at the the NBC roundtable on the Same Sunday that Kathleen was at ABC’s, and took a more moderate stance, a lot like the Old Chris, before his contract with MSNBC required him to go over to the Dark Side. Am I saying that Chris’s race-baiting and outrageous Obama-boosting these days is at least in part a sham? Indeed I am. Am I suggesting that he’s trying too hard, because he doesn’t believe half of what he says? I sure am. Am I calling him unethical and unprofessional for giving his progressive Obama-loving audiences what they want toi hear rather than what he really believes, which is far more nuanced, fair and rational? Yes.) If the President lies, he’s a liar, and if he’s a liar, it is not the job of the news media or fellow politicians, or past officeholders to obscure that fact from the public by refusing to say so.
Adding race-baiting to Matthews’ furious assertion to the contrary made this one of his lowest points yet. Chris, like all of us, can recall Democrats and pundits calling President Bush a liar when he was not lying, just as they said that he “stole the Presidency,” which is a lot worse. A rule holding that lies cannot be identified for what they are and appropriately linked to their wielders accomplishes nothing other than making it easier for public officials to lie to us.
Which brings me, rather late, I know, to the particular example of Kathleen Parker weenie-ness that sparked this post.
She was writing—this time AFTER my post on the topic, which means maybe people will think she’s cribbing from me (in my dreams, I know)—about rhetorical excesses, and what was wrong with, among other things, Sarah Palin comparing the growing National Debt’s burden on future generations to slavery. I think Parker’s main point goes too far: just because an event is sui generis doesn’t mean that some aspect of it cannot be legitimately used metaphorically to describe something less momentous. The problem with Palin’s comparison wasn’t that slavery is off the table as a potential metaphor, but that Palin’s metaphor was terrible.
Parker then went on, since she is incapable of focusing her thoughts on one side only, to mention the attacks on Palin for doing this, noting that they were “so vicious that the attacks themselves are beyond comparison.” Then she alluded to Martin Bashir’s attack that I had made the center of my post. At least I knew that, but a typical Parker reader who doesn’t watch the lowest-rated of MSNBC’s shows, which means that it is approximately as popular as reruns of “Petticoat Junction” over at TVLand, would have no idea what she was referring to. Here’s how she described it:
“One in particular was so awful that I won’t repeat it. Just as Palin didn’t deserve such an onslaught, people reading this column in good faith don’t deserve to have such wretched thoughts imposed on their psyches.”*
How many genteel Post readers imagine, in their wildest dreams, that the “awful” attack consisted of a broadcaster on a national cable network advocating that someone shit in Sarah Palin’s mouth? My guess: not a one. So they don’t know, and because Parker is too nice, too polite, and too much of a weenie to actually inform her readers about how disgusting and unprofessional Martin Bashir is, or even that he was the one who made the “awful” statement, he has escaped part of the just consequences of his actions, as has his irresponsible network, which is allowing him to keep his job despite an obscenity that should have seen him ushered out MSNBC headquarters with a police escort. Those misinformed Post readers might tune Bashir in some day, when they should have been warned to stay away.
It is not Kathleen Parker’s job to be nice. It is her job to inform us, and if she can do that and still not give readers the vapors, wonderful, and I salute her. BUT…
Not calling lies lies, liars liars, and refusing to report horrible conduct because it’s just, just too icky for words compromises the truth, misleads the public, and helps to make unethical practices effective, common, and risk-free.
Truth-telling is no job for weenies.
* On the Post website, to be fair, this included a link to the Bashir video.