EA Special: Mitt Romney's "Deviant" Politics, a Slain Ambassador, and the Death of American Objectivity
This entry was updated to more accurately reflect the number of protesters who took to the streets last week.
The past week has seen one of the greatest political failures in recent American history. It has also demonstrated that the media is willing to allow this to happen.
Let's dissect the rational, the facts of what occurred, before we discuss the ridiculous.
On 11 September 2012, word spread across the internet that an anti-Islamic film, later identified as "The Innocence of Muslims", had been produced by a small group of Americans. Several hundred protesters gathered outside the US embassy in Cairo. Inside the crowd, a small group of "Ultras" --- football fans who have been prominent in demonstrations since the challenge to the Mubarak regime --- climbed the embassy walls and set a US flag on fire. The international media notice of the event meant many across the globe were now aware of an anti-Islamic film that had previously escaped attention.
Hours later a small group of protesters gathered outside the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Attacks on the mission, a safe house, and an American convoy led to the deaths of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and 3 other US personnel.
Amid the developments, the Republican nominee for President, Mitt Romney, made a statement in which he either did not know key facts or outright lied about the sequence of events, as he accused President Barack Obama of sympathizing with the "terrorists" who killed the Ambassador.
By dawn, as fact-checkers, policy analysts, and Democratic pundits expressed their outrage at the fallacious comments, Romney and others in the GOP doubled down, not only restating blatant lies but asserted that the President was directly responsible for the deaths of the four Americans in Libya. (see a timeline of the events)
Crowds gathered in cities across North African and Middle Eastern countries to express their anger at the anti-Islamist film. On Friday, the traditional day of protest in the Muslim world, several thousand protesters, spread across multiple nations, took to the streets. Some of the demonstrations turned violent. In Tunisia, the US Embassy and an American school was burned, as four Tunisians were killed. In Sudan, a group of rioters first set fire to the outside of the German and British embassies and then took buses, possibly supplied by the government, to the US embassy, where blazes were also lit. No US forces opened fire, though the local police did and three people died in skirmishes. In Yemen, the US mission in Sana'a was stormed as four people were killed.
Red Lines are Crossed, and Deviance is Given Legitimacy
What may jump out for some readers is my claim that Mitt Romney "lied" or made "false allegations" against President Obama.
I stand by this as an "objective" assessment. Romney's initial statements that the Obama Administration apologised to the perpetrators of the violence, or that it sympathised with terrorists, is factually incorrect. This is enough to outright condemn the candidate's statements.
But there is another reason why Romney's statements should be condemned by the mediaa.
In the theory of journalism, a concept called Hallin's Spheres says there are three areas of knowledge.
The first is the Sphere of Consensus, which includes all we can take for granted because everyone is in agreement and all the facts point towards the same conclusion. The earth is round. Pedophilia is bad. Women should have the right to vote. In our society, in our day and age, these things are a "given" so there is no need to prove them every time they come up, and the opposite opinion is not given space, let alone serious scrutiny.
The second subset of knowledge is often called the sphere of legitimate controversy, the area most discussed by journalism. Her, the conclusion is not agreed upon, and there is at least some evidence that could be use to argue multiple points of view. Will a jobs creation bill create jobs? Will a health care bill lower medical costs and/or expand coverage? Will preemptive war make us safer? Is investing in roads and highway systems a better idea than investing in mass transit?
This sphere is largely characterized by questions, unknowns that have two or more possible answers. Objective journalists will present the facts and try to present multiple points of view actually. Generally, our political parties also debate these ideas, giving journalists some grounding on where to start their discussion --- by trying to stay half-way between the two parties and by giving each a fair chance to make arguments.
There is a third sphere of knowledge --- the sphere of deviance. This sphere is nearly the opposite of the first --- there is general consensus that the claim is false --- and falls outside the second sphere because there is no "legitimate" controversy. There is no significant or respectable body of facts to support the ideas, which often run contrary to public mores. Examples: pedophilia is acceptable, slavery is permissible, 9/11 was an "inside job", President Obama is a practicing Muslim.
Normally, journalists can distance themselves from the third sphere and settle in the second: find a central point between political parties and points of view. But what if one party becomes so radical that it accepts arguments from the "sphere of deviance" as tenets of its own platform? This puts journalists in a bind: ignore these "deviant" ideas and risk being labeled "liberal media", discuss them and risk lending legitimacy to a "deviant" idea.
With little if any legitimate evidence, journalists have considered whether the World Trade Center buildings were a planned demolition, questioned the President's birth certificate, fed talk about "death panels" under health care legislation. The mainstream media has been dragged so far into the sphere of deceit that to even suggest that there is no legitimate controversy is considered an insult by many in the Republican Party and on the right of US politics.
A growing number of Republicans have condemned Romney's comments about President Obama and last week's events. Even Tom Ridge, hardly a liberal or weak on security issues, pushed back hard.
Among those Republicans with for running the country and defending the nation, the idea that a US President would clap for the terrorists or that another President absolutely could have avoided this tragedy, does not sit easy. After all, under Barack Obama's watch, four people were killed on 11 September --- on George W. Bush's, that number was nearly 3,000, but his mainstream opponents and the highest-ranking Democrats never questioned Bush's pain or love for America. In fact, on that 9-11, there was very little political talk at all: there would be plenty of time for that later when more facts were known and we were not reacting to an immediate threat. Even later, as Bush's opponents criticized his response and even his approach to "national security" before 9-11, no prominent Democrats went as far as to say that "their" President could definitely have prevented the attacks./p>
The rising uneasiness among some Republicans is palpable. In May I drafted an article about how even the American Enterprise Institute was arguing that Republican obstructionism led to the "worst Congress ever" and how the media was too frightened of being seen as biased to point this out. I also argued that "objectivity", in its truest form, would not allow for "neutrality" if the GOP was willing to ignore facts and science (the sphere of legitimate controversy or sphere of consensus) and instead rely on deviance, misinformation, and/or deceit. According to these conservatives, US outlets were so afraid to take a stand that they allowed clearly-established facts to go unmentioned, while reckless and groundless accusations got airtime.
Now Mitt Romney, counting on this crisis inside the media, said something that was factually untrue. He also crossed a red-line and said something that was outright deviant --- the President of the United States had more sympathy for terrorists than for members of his own administration who were killed in the line of duty. Romney said these things on the anniversary of 11 September. Would the media be bold enough to call him out on this?
The Media's Cascading Failure
Romney was counting on a crisis of identity within the media. Behind in the polls, he could throw a "Hail Mary" pass and hope that the American people either believed it (because the speech was on TV) or that he could blame the media for it (because the speech wasn't, so they must be demonstrating more "liberal bias").
Most journalists decided to cover the event by noting the controversy, but by noting Romney's defenses or, like Don Lemon in the video at the top of this article, refused to do so. By covering crazy ideas, even sceptically or while noting dissenting arguments, journalists were giving voice to the "sphere of deviance", giving the American public the impression that this was somehow "legitimate controversy".
In short, every time Mitt Romney's lies and slander were given airtime without the word "lies", or "slander", or a similar descriptor, journalists were failing to do their most basic jobs.
But this was not the only media failure this week. US broadcasters and press go for lengthy periods largely forgetting about the Middle East, but this week they have devoted countless hours and pages this week to the prospect of the "clash of civilisations".
This situation did not escape the notice of some journalists, even as some of their employers were feeding the frenzy:
Remarkable how out-of-breath reporters & a few dramatic pix can make it look like there is a global Muslim uprising against the west— reza sayah (@sayahcnn) September 14, 2012
1.5 billion Muslims in the world. How many "raged" today against the US? How many protests "erupted"? How many actually protested?— reza sayah (@sayahcnn) September 14, 2012
Earlier I made the objective assessment that Mitt Romney lied. Another objective assessment is that there are more than one billion Muslims in the world (some counts are closer to two billion) and yet there were only perhaps 10-20 thousand protesters, including several thousand Hezbollah members in Lebanon (see an interactive map of the protests). The number of protesters with an anti-US focus was less, and the amount advocating violence was even smaller. As a percentage of the Muslim populace, these were not dramatic numbers, and the numbers of protests, stretched over several days, falls far short of the numbers of protesters who took to the streets for weeks, or in some cases nearly two years in the recent uprisings.
Obviously, the events of the last week were newsworthy --- not just the deaths of the US personnel in Libya, but all the riots, protests, and violence. But to cover these stories without context, without noting that the drama was skewing the importance of the stories, and without having a wider body of coverage of the region for comparisan, gave the American audience the distinct sense that things were far more dire in the Middle East and North Africa than they were.
This is not the only example of failure. Most American media has neglected the ongoing conflict in Bahrain, a major US ally, perhaps because the story is not sensational enough, or perhaps because it raises too many difficult questions about American policies. Syria sometimes offers examples: while the world paid attention to the country in February, the primary catalyst for US coverage was the death of an American journalist.
Turn on cable or "local" news, and there is rarely detailed coverage of the "Arab Spring's" ugliest conflict. What you find find, however, are regular features about "foreign fighters" or "jihadis" fighting with the Syrian opposition. There is no doubt that this is an important aspect of this story, but amid up to 100,000 Free Syrian Army soldiers, there are a few thousand jihadis or foreign fighters. In other words, these fighters make up perhaps 3-6% of the opposition's soldiers, make up far less than 1% of the opposition's thinkers, but receive a tremendous amount of attention from the US media. So when I talk to "average" Americans about Syria, the first question they often ask is about these fringe elements.
Sometimes the American media fails at an even more fundamental level. Newsweek, for example, crystallised their overview in a provocative cover and article on "Muslim Rage", written by anthe strident critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, pass as their "analysis" of the current situation.
All of this plays back into Mitt Romney's hands. He lied, found a perceived pressure point in the American public's neck and squeezed, hoping that people would be so frightened by what happened last week that they would turn to him out of fear. He used rhetoric insinuating that President Obama was sympathetic towards terrorists, that he was weak, that he "encouraged" the enemy through his policies. Romney does not have to get his hands dirty by calling him "Hussein Obama," or by accusing him of being a Muslim, or by implying that he is not an American (oh, actually Romney did do that), or by accusing him of letting the Muslim Brotherhood --- which renounced violence years ago) --- infiltrate the White House, as his staffers and advisers have argued.
The bottom line is that Barack Obama has been, for many people, an effective foreign policy President, with few glaring failures, certainly when comparing his first four years to George W. Bush's tenure. Moreover, Romney and Obama have similar foreign policies, especially when it comes to Iran.
The differences between the men and the parties are largely rhetorical. President Obama has killed most of the top-ranking members of Al Qaeda, but while using softer, more diplomatic language that has raised the American standing abroad. On the biggest issues, Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has largely followed the strategies outlined in the last years of the Bush Administration. So Romney's attacks on Obama's foreign policy have not discussed specific failures or policy differences, but have revolved around image and labels: "weak on terrorists", "sympathetic" to them, or "abandon[ing] the freedom agenda." There is no list of criticisms beyond the labels because there is no substance. The Romney camp is using fear as a device to win, with race and the implication of an "alien" religion as mechanisms to propel this.
There are legitimate reasons to question the administration on many issues, including foreign policy. There are looming questions, like whether drone strikes in Yemen have made us safer, whether there should be intervention in Syria, or how the US can stop Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu from pre-emptively striking Iran and dragging us into a war that our military commanders do not want to fight. There are questions about Pakistan and Afghanistan, China and Mexico, Bahrain and Egypt and Libya. But we're not discussing these because, rather than confront President Obama within the sphere of legitimate controversy, Romney and the GOP have resorted to pulling our entire political dialogue into the sphere of deviance.
This has dangerous implications for American politics. And the media has played an important role in the downward spiral. Terrible daily coverage of the Middle East has led to sensational coverage of events that are more drama than substance. At the same time, a fear of confronting deviance has lent legitimacy to questions that are not legitimate. Those wishing to exploit the media's fear of perceived bias have poisoned the well of public discourse, and the media has distributed the water because, well, they think that it is their job.
This needs to stop. The media needs to do some serious soul searching, as do US conservatives, because our current method of politics is as corrosive as it can get, and it shows few signs of getting better.