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Wednesday, May 28, 2003 ( 5:31 PM ) (Permalink)

Bush Contextomy, Part 4

Reader Robert A. Cox emailed some further information on the Dowd contextomy controversy:

"The Maureen Dowd story was broken by Times Watch which got the story out first based on my email to the New York Times Corrections Department the morning of May 14th (Andrew Sullivan had it later that day; I do not know whether he picked it up from Times Watch or independently and he has not replied to my emails as of yet). I have yet to hear back from the New York Times but The New York Daily News is reporting that Maureen Dowd is currently under investigation as a result of this column. Maureen Dowd 'responded' in her latest column which includes the full version of the quote."

If Dowd's recent column was intended as a correction of the contextomy, it doesn't measure up. All that she did is print the quote in full, without putting the previous misleading interpretation on it. She doesn't indicate that her previous column was in error, or that the quote was taken out of context. It will be interesting to see whether the Times requires her to be more forthcoming with a correction. If the Times sets a good example, perhaps Slate will require Timothy Noah to correct his "whopper" of last week!


Sunday, May 25, 2003 ( 7:25 PM ) (Permalink)

Where's the Beef?

Timothy Noah's "Whopper of the Week" feature on Slate for Friday consists of the following two quotes:

"'I don't believe anyone that I know in the administration ever said that Iraq had nuclear weapons.'
—Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, at a hearing of the Senate's appropriations subcommittee on defense, May 14

"'We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.'
—Vice President Dick Cheney on 'NBC's Meet the Press', March 16"

According to Noah's definition, a "whopper" is an unambiguously false statement taken together with its refutation. So, in this case, Rumsfeld's statement is the supposedly false statement refuted by Cheney's earlier statement. To refute Rumsfeld's statement, Cheney must have been saying that Iraq had nuclear weapons. However, Cheney's statement is rather obscure, especially because of the use of the word "reconstituted". What does he mean by claiming that "he"—Saddam Hussein—has "reconstituted" nuclear weapons? Here's the context of Cheney's strange remark, taken from the transcript of the interview:

TIM RUSSERT: "What do you think is the most important rationale for going to war with Iraq?

VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: "Well, I think I've just given it, Tim, in terms of the combination of his development and use of chemical weapons, his development of biological weapons, his pursuit of nuclear weapons.

RUSSERT: "And even though the International Atomic Energy Agency said he does not have a nuclear program, we disagree?

CHENEY: "I disagree, yes. … Let's talk about the nuclear proposition for a minute. … In the late '70s, Saddam Hussein acquired nuclear reactors from the French. 1981, the Israelis took out the Osirak reactor and stopped his nuclear weapons development at the time. Throughout the '80s, he mounted a new effort. I was told when I was defense secretary before the Gulf War that he was eight to 10 years away from a nuclear weapon. And we found out after the Gulf War that he was within one or two years of having a nuclear weapon because he had a massive effort under way that involved four or five different technologies for enriching uranium to produce fissile material. We know that based on intelligence that he has been very, very good at hiding these kinds of efforts. He's had years to get good at it and we know he has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."

It's clear from the context that what Cheney was claiming was that Hussein had "reconstituted" his nuclear weapons program, not that he had in fact acquired such weapons. For one thing, it makes no sense to say that he "reconstituted" nuclear weapons. What could it mean? To "reconstitute" is to constitute again, that is, to create again, which would imply that Hussein had possessed nuclear weapons, lost them somehow, and then rebuilt them. However, it's clear from the short history that Cheney gives—as well as from statements that he makes elsewhere in the same interview—that he is denying that Hussein had previously acquired nuclear weapons.

The transcript of this interview says at the beginning that it is "a rush transcript" and that "accuracy is not guaranteed". I don't have access to a recording of this interview, but I suspect that the transcript was garbled at the sentence in question. Cheney either said, or meant to say, that Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program, that is, rebuilt it since it was disrupted by the Gulf War and the subsequent UN inspections. (If any reader does have a recording of this interview, please let me know how accurate the transcript appears to be at this point in the interview.)

A further piece of evidence that Noah and Milbank have misleadingly quoted Cheney out of context is provided by the following comment at the end of Milbank's "Verbatim" item, the original source for the two quotes: "aides later said Cheney was referring to Saddam Hussein's nuclear programs, not weapons".

I assume that Noah never bothered to read the complete transcript that he links to, or he would be the one guilty of a "whopper".


Friday, May 23, 2003 ( 12:14 AM ) (Permalink)

Bush Contextomy, Part 3

Brendan Nyhan has a report on Spinsanity concerning the spread in the media of Maureen Dowd's misleading quote of President Bush, mentioned below in Part 2.


Brendan Nyhan, "Dowd Spawns Bush Media Myth", Spinsanity, 5/22/2003

Saturday, May 17, 2003 ( 10:39 PM ) (Permalink)

Defending Objectivity

Julian "Bad Moves" Baggini has a new article on truth and objectivity in journalism that is well worth reading. "What does this have to do with logical fallacies?" you may wonder. Good question!

Objectivity includes avoiding certain fallacies, such as believing something just because you want it to be true (wishful thinking), or believing it for other emotional reasons (appeals to emotion), such as fear that it is false. Objectivity in writing, including journalism, includes presenting all relevant evidence, as opposed to slanting it by ignoring evidence that undermines what you believe (one-sidedness). If more journalists were more objective in their thinking and writing, there would be less need for the Fallacy Files, and fewer examples in it. That would be fine with me.


Friday, May 16, 2003 ( 10:28 PM ) (Permalink)

Slanted Statistics

Eugene Volokh has discovered a good example of a biased sample, in a college textbook no less. This is one of those cases where the size of the number should be enough to induce skepticism in the reader, but there's no way to discover that the sample is so biased without doing the kind of research that Volokh did. Of course, most people are too lazy or insufficiently motivated to do that, so that these kind of statistics often go unchallenged.


Wednesday, May 14, 2003 ( 11:50 PM ) (Permalink)

Bush Contextomy, Part 2

Maureen Dowd quotes the President out of context in her column today, not to make him look silly, but to support her case that he has underestimated Al Qaeda. Andrew Sullivan has the details.


Andrew Sullivan, "Dowd's Distortion"

Sunday, May 11, 2003 ( 1:19 AM ) (Permalink)

On "Bushisms"

Eugene Volokh debunks the most recent "Bushism" so that I don't have to. These Bushisms are usually quotes of the President's malapropisms taken out of context in such a way to make them sound sillier than they really are. Volokh is right that Slate really ought to provide links to the full context of the quote, so that the reader can easily check it out, but then that would be killing the goose.


Sunday, May 04, 2003 ( 10:37 PM ) (Permalink)

What's New?

Friday, May 02, 2003 ( 11:40 PM ) (Permalink)

Quoting Kamiya Out of Context

Spinsanity's Brendan Nyhan has a recent post on yet another case of contextomy:

"Gary Kamiya of Salon.com has been the target of…accusations of a lack of patriotism in the wake of his April 11 article on the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The piece is titled 'Liberation Day' and the subtitle states 'Even those opposed to the war should celebrate a shining moment in the history of freedom—the fall of Saddam Hussein.' In it, Kamiya wrestles with the complexities of the US victory in Iraq, calling for liberals to celebrate the freedom of the Iraqi people but struggling with mixed feelings about the war.

"During this discussion, Kamiya offers the following passage:

'I have a confession: I have at times, as the war has unfolded, secretly wished for things to go wrong. Wished for the Iraqis to be more nationalistic, to resist longer. Wished for the Arab world to rise up in rage. Wished for all the things we feared would happen. I'm not alone: A number of serious, intelligent, morally sensitive people who oppose the war have told me they have had identical feelings.'

"Kamiya disavows '[s]ome of this,' stating that it 'is merely the result of pettiness—ignoble resentment, partisan hackdom, the desire to be proved right and to prove the likes of Rumsfeld wrong, irritation with the sanitizing, myth-making American media. That part of it I feel guilty about, and disavow.' He also admits that he worried that President Bush's success in the war would lead to worse outcomes in the future, but ultimately returns to his position that we should celebrate the liberation of Iraqis previously oppressed by Saddam.

"Those who wish to quote from such a nuanced piece have a particular obligation to represent it accurately, but many conservatives did exactly the opposite. Writing in the Washington Times, Inside Politics columnist Greg Pierce ran an item predictably titled 'Cheering the enemy' on March 18, which claimed that Kamiya 'confirms what some Americans have only suspected: Liberals were cheering for the enemy in Iraq.' He then quotes Kamiya out of context, stating that the Salon editor believes '[m]ore casualties would have been a preferred alternative to the "larger moral negative" of a victory that boosted President Bush's chances for re-election.'"

Not only does Pierce quote Kamiya out of context, but he jumps to the conclusion that "[all] liberals were cheering for the enemy", based upon Kamiya's confession. Even if Kamiya and the others that he mentioned occasionally had such feelings, it doesn't follow that all, or even most, liberals felt the same. Kamiya and his friends are not necessarily a representative sample of American liberals.


Thursday, May 01, 2003 ( 2:25 AM ) (Permalink)

Thank You!

At the risk of committing the post hoc fallacy, I assume that the jump in Amazon orders from this site over the last week was in response to my post on April 23rd. Thanks for your support!

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