‘I’m Not an Expert, but I Play One on TV.’
This would be a better country if those engaged in public debate had a little humility about what they know and what they don’t know. No one is an expert in everything.
But we’ve seen several high-profile commentators go beyond the realm of understandable errors and flubs to the realm of spouting at length and getting things completely wrong.
Shaun King, the “senior justice writer” of the New York Daily News, asked his Twitter followers how to change the Constitution, and upon learning how difficult it was, wrote a column wishing it was easier. Last fall, CNN’s Chris Cuomo contended that it was illegal for anyone who wasn’t a member of the news media to possess the DNC and John Podesta documents posted on WikiLeaks. That was a muddy explanation at best; hacking or stealing information is a crime but looking at it or publishing it is not.
And now we have Howard Dean arguing that the Constitution doesn’t protect nebulously defined “hate speech” and citing three Supreme Court cases whose rulings are the opposite of the position he supports.
Dean cites three court cases, and he mischaracterizes the decisions in all of them. The first case he references, Snyder v. Phelps, was an 8 to 1 decision in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church’s freedom to chant the horrible slogans and hold up the horrible banners it favors at a military funeral. If the church is free to protest at a military funeral, it makes no sense to argue that Ann Coulter is not free to give a speech at Berkeley. Dean is perhaps unknowingly citing a case that argues the reverse of his position. The second case Dean cites, Virginia v. Black, struck down a state law that deemed cross-burning a prima facie attempt at intimidation. The decision was complicated, with multiple justices concurring in part and dissenting in part, but its upshot was that if prosecutors wanted to charge someone with a crime for burning a cross, they had to prove that the cross-burner intended his action as a threat.
“Criminal threats”, “intimidation” and criminal harassment are already crimes on the books in many states. If Ann Coulter explicitly threatens an individual in her speech, she can be charged with a crime for that. But whatever her flaws, Coulter is unlikely to make an explicit incitement to violence in a speech at Berkeley.
The third case Dean cites, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, has come up a bit more frequently as of late. Eugene Volokh points out that while the Chaplinsky precedent hasn’t yet been struck down, subsequent decisions have drastically narrowed its definition of “fighting words.” In 1971, the court ruled that a vulgar phrase on a jacket didn’t fall within said definition because it was unlikely that any “individual actually or likely to be present could reasonably have regarded the words” to be “a direct personal insult.” In R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, the Court struck down a hate-crime statute, decreeing that the state can restrict speech to a certain “time, place, or manner,” but only if those restrictions were “justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech.” (I.e., the government can ban flag-burning by, say, banning all outdoor fires in certain areas, but not explicitly because it dishonors the U.S. flag.)
The generous interpretation is that this reflects the difficulty of explaining complicated concepts off-the-cuff while the bright lights of the television studio are shining. Or maybe Dean has, at best, a cursory understanding of these cases, or maybe no understanding at all. At the core of his argument is an effort to blur the line between speech that is merely objectionable or offensive to someone and speech that presents an imminent threat of physical harm to someone. The former is protected under the Constitution, and the latter isn’t, particularly if the threat is explicit and specific.
First Amendment lawyers across the country and across the political spectrum probably threw things at their television as Dean asserted that the three cases supported greater government restrictions on speech instead of the opposite.
Just how harmful is ill-informed talking-head blather on television? I can’t help but wonder if it adds to public skepticism and distrust of “elites” or scoffing about “so-called experts.” Of course, actual experts are indeed actual experts. But our country has a lot of people who aren’t experts, but who play them on TV.
The joy of journalism is that if you’re doing it right, you learn something new every day. The dark side of journalism is the number of people who write about topics they… maybe, kinda-sorta understand.
I was talking with a neighbor about his work, a complicated profession measuring and projecting the economic effects of corporate mergers, and asked him how his field is covered by the media. He mentioned an article in a national magazine that made his profession seem secretive, greedy, and a bit sinister, and scoffed at how the reporter simply didn’t understand the work he and his colleagues did. He described a version of what the late author Michael Crichton called “the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.”
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
It’s not hard to find cases of reporters metaphorically tripping over their shoelaces, and either forgetting or never learning about facts and events important to their beat: Forgetting Obama statements from five years earlier. Botching a description of what the Easter holiday is about. Not knowing who Alger Hiss is, not knowing about the Clinton administration bombing Iraq in the 1990s, not know who A.Q. Khan is.
Recall the sneering contempt that Obama administration official Ben Rhodes had for the White House press corps:
Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
There’s nothing wrong with not knowing something. We all start at zero. The real shame comes from not picking up more knowledge as we stumble along the path of life.
As Hugh Hewitt put it:
I would not go through life ignorant of key facts, especially important facts. So many of the people writing under bylines are willing to do just the opposite today. It cannot end well when a free people are choosing leaders based upon the reporting of a class of people both biased and blind as well as wholly unaware of both or if aware, unwilling to work at getting smart enough to do their jobs well.
Still, young journalists at least have the excuse of being young. What’s Howard Dean’s excuse?
Samantha Power Sends Her Regrets
Samantha Power, formerly President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, declared yesterday on Twitter, “I am very sorry that, during our time in office, we in the Obama administration did not recognize the Armenian Genocide.” Obama promised he would do this on the campaign trail in 2008, and then never quite got around to it, making the same decision he had previously denounced by his predecessor, that the U.S.–Turkish relationship was too valuable and delicate to risk by publicly recognizing it.
(In Turkey, it is literally illegal to declare that there was an Armenian Genocide; the Turkish position was that it was just a big, messy, bloody war. Back when I was living there, the other Americans and I just called it “SCAG” to avoid any listening Turkish hosts — short for the “So-Called Armenian Genocide.”)
My pop culture co-host podcast pointed out, “The Kardashians spoke out on #ArmenianGenocide more than the Obama administration did.” After that tweet, Power was immediately taken to the nearest emergency room for treatment of third degree burns.
Kim Kardashian was actually something of an impassioned activist on this issue on her social media feeds.
ADDENDA: Not your typical beer ad, from Modelo USA: “After being deployed six times with the armed forces, Juan Rodriguez-Chavez came out as a decorated war hero. To retired Gunnery Sergeant Rodriguez-Chavez, having a fighting spirit means never giving up and coming out successful in whatever you do.”
“…. noting that he wasn’t born in the U.S., but “that fact never once crossed his mind the four times he put himself in harm’s way to save the men who were.” While it seems like the ad might be making a subtle political statement, Mr. Sabia said that was not the intent. “The objective is to celebrate a war hero,” he said.
Celebrating a legal immigrant war hero? I might order Modelo next time I’m out.