Friday, February 3, 2012

Daniel Henninger, Obama's Speech, and the Wall Street Journal

Dear Jim:

Thank you for sending me Daniel Henninger’s Wall Street Journal article, “Obama’s Maddening, Winning Speech” (Feb. 2, 2012).  I read it with interest, but also with some astonishment at what I perceived as a questionable display of bias, right at its very beginning. In my opinion, this was hardly appropriate for a journal of such high reputation.

These are Henninger’s opening words: “His poorly received State of the Union speech deserves a second look.” My response to this is, “Wow! poorly whom, exactly?”  I, for one, thought that SOTU was a pretty darn good speech.   But then, Henninger loses no time to imply that I must be in the minority--or let’s be accurate, I ought to infer this because of his second sentence, where Henninger suggests that those who contribute to “conventional wisdom [have] pronounced the SOTU a relatively weak Obama effort.”

So much for what I thought I heard Obama say.  Or maybe, I should start to worry about the quality of my mind!   I must say that I consider Henninger’s entire first paragraph (4 sentences worth) an affront to his readers and a mode of writing more appropriate to propaganda than to intelligent, reasoned discourse.   Maybe he’s simply concerned that, were he to begin in a more neutral way, his readers may arrive at opinions different from his own.  Still, his beginning is demeaning.

Let’s dispense with his introductory remarks and get to the meat of his article, which seems to be the economy.  Henninger writes that Obama is “going to take ownership of the American economy. Not the real one, but the one he’s just made up.”  Once more, my response is one of incredulity:   Did he just accuse President Obama of fabricating reality, of creating a fictional economy?

What a classic piece of Republican projection: of Republicans accusing the Democrat of doing that which they regularly seem to do themselves.    Just who is it who has been making up stuff and creating a fictional reality over the past several years, if not Republicans?   After all, our economic crisis is a child of their policies, of their indefensible tax cuts, and of a steady stream of their deregulation policies.

Let us not forget that Henninger wrote this piece just two days ago, at a time when we have had new information about our economic status.   Has he consciously ignored the “inconvenient” facts that in December our economy had created 203,000 new, non-farm jobs and in January added another 243,000?   Is he unaware that our unemployment rate dropped in January from 8.5% to 8.3%?   Exactly who is making up what here?

A bit further on in his article, Henninger decides to bring the weight of truth to bear on Obama’s speech, and so he cites “Washington’s policy sophisticates” as if this referred to some generally understood and specific body of infallible, ultimate judges.   He indicates that he is worried about the fact that “a speech that flopped among Washington's policy sophisticates is soaring out in the country.”   Who are these “sophisticates?” Since he never says (transparency, anyone?), I will suggest that they may constitute a small coterie of members of the Heritage Foundation, or they may not even exist.

What I find particularly delicious about this reference to “policy sophisticates” is that the entire Republican field of presidential candidates has been tripping over itself to separate from “Washington insiders” and, at the same time, using the word “elite” as if it were the most heinous of adjectives in existence.   Yet, here is Henninger, an arch conservative and Fox News contributor (besides being Deputy Editorial Page Director for the Wall Street Journal) embracing the expertise of some unmentioned group of elitist Washington insiders.

That’s wonderful. But there’s even more about Henninger’s manipulative way of writing, of coercing his reader.   When he wants to insure that his readers know where to position themselves on a topic (and jump on his bandwagon like high schoolers at a pre-game pep-rally), he uses clauses like “any half-awake citizen will notice...,” or he begins a paragraph condescendingly: “Mr. Obama may not know much about the private economy, but...” I would hope that such wording immediately would raise warning flags in the minds of most readers.

However, the most amazing thing in Henninger’s essay is his penultimate paragraph.  Here it is, in its entirety:   “The GOP is appealing, as its candidates so often do, to the American brain. Barack Obama is happy to be left by himself, going for their hearts. If he wins, the Republican will wail at the unfairness, irrationality and illogic of what beat them.”

Who is he trying to kid?  Did he really say that the GOP candidates, those brave knights of the Right, are appealing to the “American brain?” Is he seriously implying that it is the Democrats who have been acting and speaking illogically and irrationally?

Let’s take a quick look at those GOP candidates, Henninger’s saints of truth, intellect and logic.   If Romney were appealing to the “American brain,” he wouldn’t tell blatant lies, like he recently did when he said that our safety-net programs have “massive overhead” when, in fact the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that between 90-99% of dollars allocated to safety-net programs reach the beneficiaries. This is just the latest of a litany of nearly daily lies that Romney states as he tries to win over one constituency or another.

Is Gingrich really appealing to the “American brain” when he argues that he did not lobby for Freddie Mac?  Are we to believe that Freddie Mac paid him over $1.6 million for his good looks and his questionable cred as a historian?   Or, even more mind-boggling, are we to believe that the “American brain” can take seriously Gingrich’s promise to create an American colony on the Moon within less than a decade?

If Henninger’s “American brain” is a powerful and well-trained brain, can it possibly embrace Santorum’s argument that America’s colleges and universities are merely centers for the indoctrination of left-wing ideology?   This is what Santorum told his audience-of-the-day last week (members of the Naples, FL First Baptist Church) and he urged them to stop giving any money to America’s institutions of higher education!  The crux of Santorum’s argument was that, by giving money to American universities and colleges, we “are undermining the very principles of our country every single day.”

I don’t believe that Henninger can agree with this (and I’m certain that the “American brain” would not).

Then there is--or in some cases, was--the rest of the Republican candidate pool.   Rick Perry was named one of the worst governors in the nation by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and has been plagued by unethical campaign financing, lack of transparency, putting partisanship above his Texas citizens, and personal use of campaign funds. There’s a no-brainer for you.

Michelle Bachmann probably tells a lie/day when given the opportunity of a public forum, and PolitiFact has probably burned up half of her large wardrobe in assigning her statements its “Pants on Fire” rating.    Her lies are like salted peanuts: were I to cite one example, I wouldn’t be able to stop, and I’m sure that you all have your favorites already.

Then we arrive at the absolute insanity of Herman Cain’s 9% flat tax, or what he calls his 999 economic plan.   Is there a thinking brain that can embrace it?  His is a regressive tax which would hurt the poor much more than the wealthy (as do all the various Republican plans being floated, by the way) and it would cut the Federal revenue in half.   This is hardly a way to fix a struggling economy.

Given the fact that Ron Paul has made many outrageous anti-semitic comments in his past, has endorsed the doctrine of “nullification” which gives states the right to reject Federal laws, and apparently remains opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is hard for the thoughtful “American brain” to even dig down below this smog to some of Paul’s foundational positions that, some may argue, merit discussion: his isolationist stance and his ideas about the Federal Reserve and the gold standard.

Then, of course, there is Donald Trump.  But he has cleverly taken himself out of the race, and for good reason. He has an associate who is an unindicted co-conspirator in a massive 2000 stock swindle, two other associates who served prison time on cocaine charges, and a partner who was prosecuted for trafficking underage girls off the Turkish coast.   For these reasons, no clear-thinking “American brain” would even get as far as questioning the logic of Trump taking up the cause of the Birthers.

Unless I missed a candidate (I spared us Sarah Palin, because she never officially threw her name in the ring), we are left with Jon Huntsman.   Unfortunately, Republican voters have been too influenced by their conservative wing and the Tea Party to give much consideration to the sole candidate who really could appeal to a thinking person. When he only received 4% of the Republican vote in South Carolina, Huntsman, the one true intellectual among the lot, was forced to withdraw.

Now, in conclusion, let me return to the Henninger article and its source, the Wall Street Journal.   As I recall, Jim, you and I were discussing great newspapers over Thanksgiving dinner, and you cited the Wall Street Journal to counter my vote for the New York Times as among the best papers in the world.  My response was that, ever since it was taken over by Rupert Murdoch, the WSJ could no longer hold a candle to the NYT.  I then encouraged you to send me a WSJ article sometime that you considered evidence of its continued greatness.

It may be that you sent me the Henninger article for some reason other than as evidence of journalistic prowess. Even so, I am a bit at a loss to understand what it was that you saw in this article that made you think that Henninger--or this particular piece by him--might persuade me that the Journal still can compete with the Times.   If this is the best you can find, I sadly refer you to Joe Nocera’s less-than-flattering op-ed piece from July of 2011, the title of which is “The Journal Becomes Fox-ified.”  For the time being, I rest my case and happily return to reading the Times, still the best paper in the world. 

As ever,


PS: This is a different friend named Jim, for those who recall my blog post of May 22, 2001: "Letter to Jim: Helprin's Hillsdale Commencement Address."

1 comment:

  1. A good, straight-forward treatment of classic signs of bias, in what some might think of as an even-handed article. The use of bias is typically purposeful, to persuade, but it has the mostly subconscious effects of clouding the issues involved, and making those in strong agreement, including the writer, feel good. The author heavily relies on the false-consensus bias, authority figure bias, and external agency bias. Underlying those is a strong dose, as usual, of the objectivity bias, or the Fundamental Attribution Error. Republicans, by long, multi-study evaluation, have been shown to be more susceptible to these common biases, for reasons too involved to discuss here.

    The advantage of explicit evaluation of bias is that their presence is not particularly debatable- a little here or there, but not in the main. In conversation, it can allow a less partisan discussion. Consciously naming and categorizing them makes many articles like this one look gap-toothed and insubstantive, after the redaction for bias is done. Nor is it unreasonable to point these out in discussion. We all feel irrationally well-qualified to engage in sex and political conversation, when in fact theyre both quite difficult to do well. At the least, a few ground rules are called for.