I’m only saying this because

Today I want to steal from the Daily Howler, Bob Somerby, because yet again he demonstrates the critical acumen of ten male persons.  He writes:

MADDOW MIND-READS MOTIVE: Quick disclaimer: We have an extremely low opinion of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a “progressive woman” who was willing to pander to Chris Matthews to land a key media spot. Disclaimer offered, let us say this: Appearing on Olbermann’s post-debate show, Maddow gave us an excellent look at the role of “motive journalism.”

Simply put: Pundits typically attribute “motive” to candidates whom they disfavor. [emphasis nonseq.]

At issue was Obama and Clinton’s discussion of the way illegal immigration affects working-class wages, specifically for African-Americans. (This issue was specifically raised by a question. Sorry: Transcripts aren’t available yet.) To simplify things a bit (but not much), Obama said that illegal immigrants don’t harm working-class blacks all that much. Clinton said she disagreed, and she said that all such groups will gain from comprehensive reform.

Why did the solons state these views? Let’s start with an obvious possibility; it may be that they stated these views because they actually believe them.  [bolded emphasis nonseq.] (As far as we know, academic research is a mixed bag on such questions.) But when Maddow was asked to share her views, she quickly began to trash Clinton’s motives, using extremely unpleasant code language. Clinton had been deliberately “driving a wedge,” she informed us, over and over. That’s right, Rachel—and Chris Matthews may well be the most brilliant man in the world.

Let’s understand how this works.

A mind-reader could have attributed “motive” to either Clinton or Obama. You could say that Obama was kissing up to Hispanic voters, for example, or that Clinton was courting African-Americans. But in the world of people like Maddow, “motive” is typically dumped on the head on the candidate who is disfavored. In saying that Clinton was driving a “wedge,” Maddow engaged in some ugly race-baiting—and she said that Clinton had a motive for her remarks. Obama’s “motives” were never considered, as was completely appropriate. [bold nonseq].

By the way: It’s widely held that Clinton needs major support from Hispanic voters next Tuesday. Why would she want to “drive a wedge” in a way which might offend these voters? To us, Maddow’s “analysis” didn’t even make sense. But so what? Typically, pundits like Maddow will mind-read and trash the “motives” of those they disfavor.

Sometimes a disagreement is just a disagreement. In assessing a disagreement like this, decent people will typically start with the thought that candidates may simply believe what they’ve said. But Rachel Maddow adores Chris Matthews—and she repeatedly, nastily said that Clinton was driving a wedge.

Two things.  First, this is what makes so much political reporting absolutely unreadable or unwatchable.  Candidates say things, they make arguments, stake out positions, and so forth, and between them and us stands a group of specialized interpreters who tell us what the candidates trying to say, or how people will take what they're trying to say, or, what is worse, why they're saying it.  The most basic question–whether what the candidate says is true or plausible or possible or sensible is a completely different question.  

Second, I think Somerby is on to something when he says we ascribe motive to people we disagree with–although I think pundits of the Chris Matthews variety ascribe it to everyone–that's their job, such as they think it is.  But Somerby's more basic point is that people who agree with you have reasons for their positions–they agree with you because you're right.  All of your beliefs are true, of course, as are all of mine.  But people who disagree with you fall into another category–the explanatory category.  This is different from the justificatory category into which you fall.  People who have false beliefs–obviously false ones because they're not like yours–should be accounted for and explained.  They believe those things because they "want to drive a wedge" or "want to appear" or "because they were raised that way" or "because of their experiences."  Try doing the opposite–give justifications for views you don't agree with and explanations for those beliefs you hold.

I only give this advice because I'm a logic teacher.

4 thoughts on “I’m only saying this because”

  1. I have been angry at the press for sometime now…..this helps to focus my anger..well done you and thanks

  2. Motive journalism, that’s pretty good. Though the name needs work. (Ad hominem circumstantial isn’t very catchy either). The technique having been pointed out, all too many instances of it come to mind. Unfortunately the problem seems difficult to nail down, since it seems like the media should provide, in many cases, some interpretation of the actions of our politicians.

    For instance, procedural tactics in congress often can’t be taken at face value–they’re often designed to stymie some other action which isn’t obvious to non-CSPAN addicts. And in many cases, it seems like campaign tactics would fall under the “should be interpreted” banner too–we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t recognize the many tactical games in play during elections.

    Regardless, “motive-ascribing content-dismissive journalism tactics” (OK, that’s even worse of a name) seem a good thing to keep in mind when processing political media coverage.

  3. I think you’re right to point out instances in which this is necessary. Giving the context of a legislative maneuver or the significance of giving a speech in place x–Springfield, Illinois in the case of Obama, for instance. And I can’t think of a good name either.

Comments are closed.