Factual Accuracy and McSame Syndrome

We stand today deep into the silly season of the 2008 presidential election; most of us have our dander up, and naturally some Obama partisans like Josh Marshall and Joe Klein have floated off on clouds of rhetorical overkill in an effort to push the idea that their opponent is somehow running an unusually dishonest campaign. Even aside from the partisanship, you have to be pretty willfully ignorant of history to think the 2008 race is at all exceptional in this regard, other than perhaps the degree of personal villification of one of the vice presidential candidates in a very short period of time. Now, personally I’m not as cynical as Jay Cost or Ross Douthat as far as saying “everybody does it, so what?,” but…well, I look at the accuracy of claims made in advertisements, speeches, etc. under three general categories:

(1) Is it literally true? Does it say anything factually false?
(2) Is it essentially true? Does it say something about the candidate or his/her opponent that is consistent with the point being made?
(3) Is it the whole truth, without any arguably important context or nuance omitted?

One of the reasons I enjoy writing longer-form blog essays is the freedom to drill down to all the relevant context and explain a point even in light of all the facts, all the context, all the nuance. But in the real world of short-attention-span politics, with its 30-second ads and soundbites, we have to accept that #3 is a hurdle that even the best-faith politicians frequently fail, and where politicians who do try to give the full context can end up losing their audience or tying themselves in “I voted for it before I voted against it” verbal knots.
That said, you do need to be able to defend a claim on both ground #1 and #2. If a claim is literally true but conveys a totally false image, you are basically in the Bill Clinton “it depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is” position; if it is intended to convey something people believe but rests on fabricated facts, that’s the Dan Rather “fake but accurate” defense. Either position is ultimately indefensible.
Let’s look at two main examples of recent controversies and how they measure up, as well as examining what I refer to as “McSame Syndrome.”

Continue reading Factual Accuracy and McSame Syndrome

How Wrong Was Josh Marshall?

Plenty Wrong.

Now that it has been revealed that the main source for Bob Novak’s column “outing” Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA employee was Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s right-hand man at the State Department and (like Novak) no fan of the Iraq War, with Karl Rove and a CIA spokesman merely confirming what Novak had already been told by Armitage – and that the White House was kept in the dark for many months, at a minimum, about Armitage’s role – it is clear that there was never any validity to the notion that Novak’s column was the result of some neo-conservative cabal seeking retaliation against Wilson and his wife for Wilson’s publication of a NY Times Op-Ed detailing what should have been a classified intelligence-gathering mission to Niger. This “neocon retaliation” theory was, as you will recall, the central and original theory of why the Plame story was a scandal at all, rather than a one-day story of a run-of-the-mill imprudent leak, and not even in the top ten as far as the most damaging leaks of the past five years.

Joe Wilson himself, of course, was the original source of this theory. But I thought it would be instructive to look back at one of the main blogospheric advocates of that theory – Josh Marshall – to get a full sense of how long and hard he pushed this notion, and thus how badly he ended up leading his readers astray. (I may get to look back at some of the other top Plame-ologists of the Left, but Marshall was perhaps the most visible and this post is long enough as it is). In Marshall’s case, the conspiracy theory was particularly attractive because it fit in with his broader attack on Vice President Cheney and the “neocon” advisers in the Vice President’s office and the Defense Department – indeed, Marshall repeatedly tried to retail a particularly baroque explanation in which the “outing” of Mrs. Wilson was tied to forged documents passed through Italy relating to Niger.

I should start by noting that re-reading Marshall’s archives reminds me how slippery he is – he truly is a master of implying things without coming out and saying them. But the sheer volume of his posts on this story has, unsurprisingly, yielded up more than a few instances of Marshall actually saying what he intended his readers to believe:

Continue reading How Wrong Was Josh Marshall?