Monday, May 19, 2008

TO on KO

I love Countdown with Keith Olberman. He was the only media voice with the courage to speak truth to power when all others were giving us no truth, just cower. Usually, he's very good in terms of pointing out reasoning errors and inconsistencies in political rhetoric and making cogent, passionate arguments himself. But there were two last night that need to be called out.

The first occurred in his conversation with Rachel Maddow concerning John McCain's recent flood of major advisers who have had to step down when it was exposed that they not only were lobbyists working for the man who supposedly stands up to lobbyists, but actually were paid agents of foreign governments including the brutal regime in Burma, a warlord in Somalia, and Ferdinand Marcos. Pointing out the hypocrisy was fine. Arguing that major players in the campaign are those who become major players in the administration and arguing that putting people in positions of great authority who, up until very recently, were getting large checks from very nasty people would amount to at least a perceived conflict of interest and possibly a recipe for disastrous policy is well above board.

But he ended the piece (I'll get the exact wording as soon as I can find it) by saying to Maddow something along the lines of since we're out of time this will be a question for next time, but when will we be able to look into the income of Mrs. McCain and see where her fortune is invested and what other interests may or may not be having an effect on McCain's decisions.

That is a cheap argument by innuendo. I agree that Cindy McCain is being held to a different standard than, say, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Pointing out the double standard is perfectly kosher. I agree that the disclosure of candidates sources of income -- including their spouses' since things can be easily hidden -- is a good thing as transparency is a key to good governance. BUT the insinuation by KO was clearly there, pointing the listener to guilt without evidence. Call for the release, fine, but to frame it in a way that rhetorically asserts conflicts of interest without having the goods is fallacious.

The second one came during the "Worst Person in the World" segment. The "winner" for the evening was Oliver North who criticized Barack Obama for saying that he would negotiate with Iran. Of course, North himself negotiated with Iran at a time when they were ruled by an even more anti-American leader and he was not negotiating peace, but rather negotiating a price for military weapons that we were illegally selling them.

Yes, the irony is ironic. But, of course, there are problems here. It is a clean example of tu quoque. Just because I do it too doesn't mean it isn't good advice not to. If Keith Richards tells you to keep away from drugs, if Michael Moore tells you to eat well and get plenty of exercise, and if Dick Cheney tells you hunt safely, you should listen to them. Just because they don't listen to their own advice doesn't mean that the advice is necessarily bad. We all do things we shouldn't. There are doctors who smoke, policemen who steal, and seventh grade grammar teachers who dangle their participles in public. Evaluate the claims on their merits, not on who makes the claim and whether they themselves act in accord with it.

Further, to compare Iran/Contra to legitimate diplomacy is a very faulty analogy. Yes, North negotiated, but that bears little resemblance to the high level diplomatic talks Obama is proposing. I agree North's comment is funny in a sick and twisted sort of way, but the merits of early contact between world leaders is a subject of much greater complexity than it is generally receiving.

Keith Olberman is a gem, but even the good ones have bad nights and as I always tell my critical thinking students, it is important that we not only analyze the arguments of those we disagree with.