Tidbits for Political Junkies with Short Attention Spans & Hearty Appetites


Friday, April 30, 2004

Why Debunking is Not Enough

It’s become a staple of the left – from the busy bees at the Center for American Progress, to the “D-Bunker” on John Kerry’s site, to watchdog sites like Factcheck.org, to answer Bush claims with some sort of fast-response “Claim v. Fact.” While this is without question a welcome development, it is not nearly enough. There are more tools in the arsenal of persuasion than fact and argument, and we would do well to attend to them and use them as effectively as the Bush team does.

Luke Francl got me going yesterday with this post on the latest Bush ad – which provides a fine illustration of how the Bush team operates – and how ineffective mere debunking is. First, here’s Luke:

FactCheck's exasperation gets to the heart of my frustration with these "spin-busting" services. To a fault, they assume that getting the "facts" out there will coerce the politicians to change their ways. In the case of the Bush administration, this is clearly futile. The Bush administration's selective use of "facts" has practically turned truth into a Democratic monopoly.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons why the Administration continues to lie – but that is, to some degree beside the point. As Sidney Blumenthal notes, it has a serious stake in maintaining the lie – precisely because beliefs that are demonstrably wrong (such as the belief that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11) are reliably correlated with a tendency to vote for the Bushies.

The problem with the fact check folks, and debunking in general, is that what they do is far too limited. It is generally a mistake to respond to a Bush “message” as if it were merely an argument. There is too much going on, in too many dimensions, to leave much chance that a literal response -- confined to the narrow planes of fact & logic -- will either be sufficient or very effective.

The great Bush media skill is in managing “impressions” – which may or may not be explicitly stated, which may or may not have any logical underpinnings, and which may or may not have any evidence to support them. The idea, very simply, is that you walk away with pretty much the same message – regardless of the level of attention you pay to it. It is for this reason, for example, that the Bush team conceived of the very clever stratagem of using those “keyword” backdrops: the effect is to make it virtually impossible to photograph Bush without creating, in the process, and image that advances his message. This is also why they continue with oblique references to WMD, why they repeat certain well-tested catch phrases, and why – for much of his intended audience – it may not matter that they often do so incoherently.

An ad like Bush’s most recent one, “Weapons,” therefore, needs to be approached on several levels. Don’t just look at what it says, in other words – look at what it implies, and look at how it reinforces those implications with images and music.

Removed of it’s context, this is the “explicit” text of the ad:

As our troops defend America in the War on Terror, they must have what it takes to win.

Yet, John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the War on Terror: Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Patriot Missiles, B-2 Stealth Bombers, F-18 Fighter Jets and more.

Predictably, the ad is chock full of distortions, as factheck.org quite capably points out. But there’s more.

First, notice the “must have” formation. While you could read this as merely a statement of principle – and an inarguable one at that – you could also read this as an acknowledgement of the fact that our troops, currently, do not have “what it takes” to win. This, of course, is borne out by the context and timing of the ad – since news reports, such as this one in Newsweek, are doing a fine job of documenting just how under-prepared our troops are, and just how deadly the consequences have been.

The impression that the ad wants to leave, without ever explicitly stating it, is that John Kerry vote’s – rather than Bush team’s haste, arrogance and poor planning –have led us to this sad state of affairs.

Clearly the Bush campaign wants us to believe that “no” votes against large appropriations bills, even “no” votes against appropriations that passed anyway, somehow caused these weapons to magically disappear. Lest there be any doubt that this is precisely the impression they want us to have, helpful computer graphics actually do make the weapons magically disappear – as we zoom in, over ominous chimes, on a worried soldier out on the battlefield.

Overall, it’s a piece of masterful misdirection. That soldier probably wouldn’t have been there in the first place had Bush not been so eager to put him there – and it is the Bush team’s reluctance to send adequate numbers of troops, and their wholly unrealistic expectations about the duration and complexity of the war, that have led to this point. And the fact remains that, even having won all of the appropriations he has asked for thus far, our soldiers still lack adequate body armor, and those armored vehicles are in too many cases still sitting back home, or not even manufactured yet. Never mind the fact that this is Bush’s war. Let’s dump the danger on Kerry.

The one really truthful element in the entire piece is that “implied” message – underscored with sound & image – that our troops are indeed under-equipped and vulnerable. They are. But this is truth used in the only way that the Bush team knows how – in service of a Big Lie. This result is powerful, and insidiously effective, advertising that – to borrow a phrase from Mark Crispin Miller – “we misunderestimate at our peril.”

We are wrong if we assume that – by “disproving” some core claim in the Bush ads, the whole message will tumble down, like a house of cards. In this brave new world of message management, the rules of logic don’t really apply. You can refute – indeed, demolish – a whole serious of foundation premises, and the structure of distortion built upon them will all too often still stand.

Fact checking this stuff is a good start, but we’ll have to do much, much more.

[Note: this entry cross-posted at MyDD, here and dKos, here]

UPDATE: Luke Francl responds here


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