16 December, 2009

Talking Points (repost)

The following is prompted by an interesting post and discussion at Mia's 'blog on the same subject. I wrote this a few years ago so the examples are horridly out of date. I could have rewritten it giving current examples but frankly, I couldn't be bothered and you'll all get the point anyway.
Interestingly, I was criticised when I first posted it for giving two examples that apparently make Republicans look bad. Personally, I think both examples are equally insulting to the intelligence, but see what you think. I have never bought into the idea that if you say a Republican said something stupid, you have to "balance" it by saying a Democrat said something stupid too. If someone says the world is round, do you have to "balance" that by speaking to someone who says it's flat?

The war on talking points

It’s about time we had one. Like mixed metaphors, misused phrases and other forms of poor expression, parroted talking points are now so common in the news media that we hardly notice what a blight they are on public discourse any more. It’s worst in America, but where America goes, others follow and I certainly don’t want to go there.

Watching, reading or listening to the US news media today, it’s increasingly hard to tell the party talking points from the actual analysis – if, indeed, there even is any analysis any more. These days, the party machine sends out the hymn books, and the commentators dutifully sing from them.

Let’s look at a few “issues” that have originated at party headquarters and ended up masquerading as news analysis:

The talking point:
Media reporting of bad news from Iraq is damaging the war effort, endangering the soldiers and deliberately ignores the good news.

The reality check:

This very popular talking point from the Republicans is designed to blame the messenger for bad news and also foster the idea that ignorance is patriotic. But it fails to recognize a few basic truths about news. The fact is that news, by its nature, is bad. If good news rated, then it would be reported. The responsibility for that lies with the viewer.

Scenario 1: Let’s say there’s a multi-vehicle pileup on a major freeway. One person is killed, seven more are injured, two seriously. It’s the third such accident on that stretch of road this year. Is the news report obliged to “balance” the story by stating that everyone else got home safely? Are they also obliged to state that it’s no reflection on the state of the road or traffic management, despite the regularity of such accidents?

Scenario 2: A new school opens in a disadvantaged area of, let’s say, Baltimore. It has places for 700 students and creates 90 full-time jobs plus ancillary staff. On the same day, there is a bank robbery in, let’s say, Cincinnati. Things go wrong. Shots are fired. By the time anyone figures out what has happened, two bank customers are dead and the bandits have escaped with $150,000. Which of these two events is going to be higher up on the news? More to the point, which are you more likely to tune in for? How many people can honestly say they would be thinking “Never mind about the shooting, tell us more about the school!”?

Answer the questions to these two scenarios honestly, and you’ll answer every question about whether the war in Iraq is being reported responsibly. If people in Britain had simply been told Don’t worry, be happy, in World War 2, then perhaps they wouldn’t have sent all those boats to Dunkirk to bring their soldiers to safety. If Australian troops had “stayed the course” at Gallipoli, we might still be there. Just in case anyone has forgotten, we went on to win both those wars, despite the “negativity” of withdrawing from an unworkable situation.

But don’t let any of this make you think that the intellectual fairy floss of talking points is an exclusively Republican thing. The Democrats love their talking points just as much and they are just as insulting to people’s intelligence. Check out their opening salvo for 2006,

The talking point:
George W Bush is living in a bubble, out of touch with the real world. *

The reality check:
Let me get this straight. This is a man who had an ultra-privileged upbringing, who never had to try hard for anything. He bankrupted every business he ever managed, but that still didn’t hurt him because there were always some nice Arabs around to bail him out. So he has never had to suffer the consequences of his actions. And now he is one of the most protected people on the planet with all his information filtered by his minders. And you’re telling me that he might be out of touch with real life? Tell me something I don’t know!

The Bush-bubble talking point should have won the annual No-shit-Sherlock! award but Democrat-leaning hosts, commentators and bloggers dutifully picked it up and repeated it as if it was something that had only just been brought to their attention. And perhaps it had. Perhaps they have become so used to getting their talking points on a feed from the parties that they have forgotten a time when they ever had to make up their own minds.

Any other professional would be insulted if they got emails from people outside the industry suggesting how they should do their jobs today. But the American news media laps it up. It’s so much easier than having to do research or analysis. But if there are daily things that the parties want discussed, then obviously there are things that they don’t want discussed. Surely those are the things that people need to know about. What might those things be? We never find out because the editors have it so easy on their drip feeds of talking points that they’ve forgotten how to do things like ask questions.

The news media is not biased – just criminally lazy.

Originally posted at Strawberry Fields, 18 June, 2006

* 2009 Update: It surely won't be long before Republicans trot this talking point out regarding Obama. And they will be right of course. For at least the next three years (and probably the next seven, the way the Republicans are behaving) he will never have to put his hand in his pocket for anything, never have to drive his own car or dial his own phone. Naturally, this will result in some detachment from ordinary people. It goes with the job. Most leaders rely on their staff to keep them in touch with average folk and those staff are probably just as out of touch as their boss, living in the same political bubble and writing some of these very talking points. So when the right wing inevitably uses the bubble talking point, it will be just as true as it was in 2006, just as obvious, and just as pointless.
Balanced enough for ya?


  1. Mia Mia Mia what a platonic love you have for her. What will you do in USA? She is in Tel Aviv. =D
    There is no politics in your country Bill? Always the same USA thing?
    By the way, I prefer pictures of birds. You overthink.

  2. http://the-billablog.blogspot.com/search/label/Australian%20politics

    I only pander if I'm paid.

  3. When Walter Cronkite died people said he was the last of his kind. He was. He reported the news.

    I'd rather read about the school.

    Platonic love? Story of my life.

    Bill posts about Australia but the 5 people who live there don't read his blog. That's why I talk about China so much. If I can get 1 billion followers I win.

  4. Who says you don't pander?

    China is a big market, but they have that filter which is almost as regressive as the one they're planning here. On a completely unrelated topic, I'm going to begin writing in Hindi.

    Cronkite was from a time when reporting the news was considered a public service, not a business consideration. Bloody socialists!
    Some polls have suggested that the next most trusted voice is Jon Stewart. I love Stewart, but his gig is to point to something really stupid and say 'That's really stupid.' To his credit, Stewart is the first to point out what a sorry state of affairs that is. In some ways, he is the classic Shakespearean fool. It takes the jester to speak truth to power.