Tortured Logic, “Dueling Speeches” Edition

Media overplay, under-analyze yesterday's torture arguments

“Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens fell silent. In other words we went off course.”
–President Barack Obama

“I want to say I was always on Darth Vader’s side.”
—Bill Kristol

“That’s kind of a weird thing to admit.”
—Jon Stewart

Barack Obama’s speech about terrorists combined a ringing reaffirmation of American constitutional values with a disappointing willingness to repeat some of the words—and a few of the practices—of his unfortunate predecessor.

Jon Stewart picked up on the terrorism boiler plate Obama’s speechwriter had borrowed from Bush’s (“we cannot count on a surrender ceremony to bring this journey to an end”), while Rachel Maddow was almost the only commentator to emphasize the main source of concern for the human rights community: Obama’s willingness to continue a system of extra-constitutional, indefinite detention without trial in the case of certain hard core unprosecutable terrorists—perhaps as many as one hundred.

The evening network newscasts were consumed with the “drama” of the counterpoint between Obama’s speech and Dick Cheney’s lame effort at rebuttal. As a result, the network men and women mostly abandoned any pretense of journalism in favor of simple repetition of excerpts from the remarks of the principals. And none that I heard mentioned that the president had included the silence of  “journalists” as one reason we had violated our own values so shockingly.

ABC News anchor Charles Gibson made it clear that he completely missed the main point of Obama’s speech by declaring at the top his broadcast that the debate was about “where is the line between the need to keep America secure and the desire to maintain the core values that define this country,” while Obama had spent much of his speech arguing that there is usually no conflict between those two at all:

We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset - in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval… America must demonstrate that our values and institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell made herself an honorable exception to the laziness of most of her colleagues by actually doing a modicum of fact-checking. Mitchell pointed out that while the former vice president was a vigorous defender of the CIA in yesterday’s speech, that fact was “an irony because all during the Bush years he was a great attacker” fighting the CIA “all the time.” And while Cheney pretended that water-boarding was only used as a last choice when there was no other alternative “that was not the case with Abu Zubaydah, he was water-boarded eighty-three times, producing no actionable intelligence.”

As usual, NBC’s David Gregory was the most mindless of the bunch, reporting in his usual breathless fashion that “a lot of Republicans I spoke to today said there was a rallying cry from Cheney—a message to conservatives and Republicans this is the issue that we can win politically and we can win substantively, that this administration doesn’t have it’s head on right with regard to the national security.”

Cheney said, “Every senior official who has been briefed on these classified matters knows of specific attacks that were in the planning stages and were stopped by the programs we put in place.” It would have been a real joy if just one reporter had managed to remember that the current director of the F.B.I., Robert Mueller, has repeatedly said that he does not believe that torture prevented a single attack on the United States. But, of course, no one did.

But what TV reporters failed to accomplish, Cheney mostly achieved all by himself. Besides bringing his usual beguiling demeanor of a medieval executioner to the podium of the American Enterprise Institute, just about every sentence he uttered managed to encapsulate the exact opposite of the truth.

Let’s parce just one of those sentences: “List all the things that make us a force for good in the world – for liberty, for human rights, for the rational, peaceful resolution of differences—and what you end up with is a list of the reasons why the terrorists hate America.”  

This from a man who violated the nation’s devotion to liberty by kidnapping suspected terrorists (who often turned out to be innocent bystanders), who made a mockery of human rights by embracing torture methods which are war crimes under treaties we have signed, and whose commitment to the “rational, peaceful resolution of differences” was exemplified by a disastrous war of choice which killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

The least surprising thing about yesterday’s speeches was the evidence the president provided that he is determined to cling to the center, even as Cheney goes further off a right-wing cliff. The incessant suggestion that Obama was some kind of radical was always the most ridiculous accusation of last year’s presidential campaign. (This is how FCP characterized Obama the week before he was elected: “Like John and Bobby Kennedy, he is a politician and a compromiser, the product of an urban Democratic political machine, a United States Senator who is about as radical as the League of Women voters.”) So there is nothing really surprising about his relentlessly middle-of-the-road approach to most of the crises he has inherited. But he would do well to remember that the most admirable aspect of Dwight David Eisenhower’s presidency was his boundless capacity to reject the advice of his own generals.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.