The Search for Truth in an Untruthful World
These are trying times for our world. War, natural disasters and environmental catastrophe are looming from every corner and no easy solutions are apparent. One can't help but feel that unless we, as a species, begin to make some very good decisions in the near future, the future will be very dark indeed. Yet in the very moment that cool heads and clear reasoning are most needed, they seem least available to us. I don't recall a time when there has been so much vitriolic discussion and so little sense. So few facts, so much hyperbole.
I've made it a personal crusade to try and live an ethical life that makes sense to me. I try to stay independent of the biased spew of the mainstream media, and the ideological jeremiads launched from both ends of the political spectrum. In order to make a reasoned judgment and reach supportable conclusions, I dig really hard to get to the facts underlying current events by searching broadly among many different points of view. I trust my intellect and the rules of fact-based rational thought to guide me once I know what really happened. I don't need a talking head to "analyze" the news for me, just tell the story in a straighforward unbiased manner and I'll take it from there. I'm not looking for consensus opinion, or persuasive rhetoric, just enough independent snippets of fact that allow me to feel confident that I've gotten within one standard deviation of The Truth. It doesn't seem like much to ask.
Sadly, I find that the simple search for The Truth as I've described it above has become a pretty tedious chore. In short, my quest for facts requires me to triangulate like made between the gadzillions of news sources on the net, television and press. As an example, today, I browsed the following disparate news sources:
- The Wall Street Journal, "Gen. Sanchez indicted everyone involved in Iraq, including the media and Congress."
- Reuters, "For conservative New Yorkers, Giuliani isn’t their man"
- The Washington Times, "A Mexican national infected with a highly contagious form of tuberculosis crossed the U.S. border 76 times"
- The National Review Online, "Congress should stick to its constitutional mandate and quit the publicity gestures."
- The Chicago Sun Times, "Churchgoers' support for Giuliani perplexes religious right"
- The New York Times Online, "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that she was reconsidering her pledge to force a vote on a resolution condemning as genocide the mass killing of Armenians"
- The Economist, "He is amiable and popular, but Fred Thompson has yet to demonstrate that he is a heavyweight"
- Fox News, "House Democrats dig in, but are unlikely to override President Bush's veto of State Children's Health Insurance Program"
- The Moderate Voice, " S-CHIP: Battle Lost, But On To the War"
- Watching America, (Liberation France) "It was as if the Norwegian committee had an ulterior motive: to embarrass President Bush and propel his unfortunate rival of 2000 into the White House."
- The Jerusalem Post, "Ashraf Keisi, an Israeli Arab, was sentenced Thursday by the Tel Aviv District Court to five life sentences plus twenty years for driving the suicide bomber who killed five Israelis"
- The Guardian, "Crime recorded by the police in England and Wales fell by 7%"
- Al Jazeera.Net: "China angered by Dalai Lama award"
- The Daily Koz, "President Bush's statements about children's health shouldn't be taken any more seriously than his lies about the war in Iraq. The truth is that Bush just likes to blow things up."
- National Public Radio, "Sarkozy's Woes: Workers Strike, Marriage in Crisis"
- USA Today, "The controversy that started when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said the words "phony soldiers" and continued with a war of words between Limbaugh and some Senate Democrats appears to be about to generate some money for charity that provides scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel and law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty."
The last story on the list was particularly interesting to me because it happens to be one with which I'm personally acquainted. In addition to the news sources listed above, I sometimes tune into Mr. Limbaugh's radio show to add his traditional conservative perspective into the mix. As it happens, when the "Phony Soldiers" story developed, I was among the millions listening in. Because the catalyst for the event was a segment of that radio broadcast I, along with many others, heard Limbaugh's comments personally and can vouchsafe exactly what was said and how it was said.
Because I'd heard the broadcast personally, I was a little surprised to learn, the next day that Limbaugh's comments had been picked up by a liberal advocacy website, mediamatters.org who trumpeted the following incendiary headline: "Limbaugh: Service members who support U.S. withdrawal are "phony soldiers"1 This initially struck me as simply clueless, because it was an obviously incorrect statement of what Limbaugh had said. The Media Matters story continued more explicitly, During the September 26 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh called service members who advocate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq "phony soldiers."
I've got no ax to grind here and so I'm going to stipulate to you that the MediaMatters story simply isn't true. It's not a subtle distortion of what was said, it's not a plausible alternative interpretation of what was said, it's just a nasty political smear. A lie. I believe that I can prove the case to anyone who doubts my word, but suffice it to say that Limbaugh's support for the U.S. Military is widely known, and nothing he said could be plausibly misconstrued as MediaMatters reported it. Limbaugh had earlier discussed the phenomenon of people who have impersonated soldiers in order to malign the troops and the war in Iraq. I don't think he actually coined the term "Phony Soldiers," but he among others used it to describe them. The case that Mr. Limbaugh specifically referenced at the time was Jesse Macbeth a cause celebre among the anti-war contingent because Mr. Macbeth claimed he told the world about the abuses he had witnessed in Iraq, American soldiers killing unarmed civilians, hundreds of men, women, even children. As it turned out, Macbeth was recently tried by a military court and sentenced to five months in jail and three years probation for falsifying a Department of Veterans Affairs claim and his Army discharge records. He was in the Army for a total of forty-four days before he washed out of boot camp. By any account, he was a "phony soldier" and Limbaugh was right in identifying him as such.
Phony Soldiers, Stolen Valor
The phony soldier phenomenon isn't new, the silent screen star Tom Mix claimed to have been at San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. actually, Mix never saw real combat except for the time his wife shot him. The U.S. Military records list Tom Mix as a deserter. If you're interested take a minute to Google the following names: John Salling, the "Oldest Living Confederate," Walter Williams, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, David Duke, Senate candidate and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, Pulitzer Prize historian Joseph Ellis, William Gehris, Dan Rather signed up with the Marines once, but "never got through Marine recruit training because he couldn't do the physical activity," Scott Thomas Beauchamp, wrote articles for The New Republic detailing fake atrocities, Thomas Larez, Michael David Heit, Larry Lewis Porter, Glenn Marshall ... ABC News recently did a report on these shameful miscreants. The problem is bad enough that the U.S. Congress has passed legislation, called the Stolen Valor Act that imposes stiff sentences on offenders.
Let's not pretend to be shocked by all this. The author of the original piece, A.J. Walzer is an intern at Media Matters for America and he was probably just doing his job in aggressively advocating for a liberal point of view by attacking Limbaugh. A.J. Walzer has gotten his 15 minutes of fame and he's welcome to it. This kind of ideological reporting is increasingly commonplace nowadays and it comes from both ends of the political spectrum. I find it annoying but I'm not going to pretend to be surprised at it. I assumed that since millions of people had actually heard the broadcast, it would soon be debunked and fade from view.
In fact the opposite was the case. Within days, the American mainstream media had picked up the story and run with it. Apparently without any further fact checking, the major American newspapers and television stations were publicizing the MediaMatters story. An editorial in the New York Times on October 3, 2007 claimed, "... Rush Limbaugh -- displaying the same style he exhibited in his recent claim that members of the military who oppose the Iraq war are ''phony soldiers.''2 The Christian Science Monitor chimed in with this, "Comments by conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh that troops who oppose the Iraq war are "phony soldiers" are still stinging more than a week after he made them."3 Slate.com reiterated the theme, "Now some Democrats are trying to offer a similar response to Rush Limbaugh, who used the phrase "phony soldiers" during a call-in conversation about American soldiers who oppose the war." 4
Partisans from the far left and the far right both routinely criticize the media as biased towards their opponents. For my money, the mainstream media mostly seems to favor liberal causes, liberal celebrities and liberal viewpoints. Hey, who wouldn't, liberals put on much better parties and they show up with more attractive women, and men for that matter. Face it, you're not gonna meet Halle, Brangelina, or George Clooney at a Republican fundraiser. I don't even much mind the consistent liberal bias in the news, I just factor it out and quickly sieve for the basic facts. The strange thing is when the media whip up a real frenzy, with real-world consequences over what is basically a lie, and that's what happened next in the Phony Soldiers story.
The Democrat Bully Pulpit
On October 1, 2007, the Democrats in the U.S. Congress launched into attacks on Limbaugh. Rep. Mark Udall from Colorado authored legislation condemning Limbaugh's remarks, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to Limbaugh's boss, Mark Mays of ClearChannel Communications, asking him to disavow them. Harry Reid's letter repeated the false claims made by Media matters and it was signed by 41 Democratic Senators. I believe that's the first time the U.S. Senate has ever formally condemned a private citizen regardless of what they think was said. Needless to say, I found this a remarkable development.
It has been widely speculated that the entire episode was a thinly veiled attempt by the Democrats to respond to a recent embarrassment caused them when another liberal advocacy front group, MoveOn.org purchased an ad in the New York Times characterizing the leader of the U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq, General David H. Petraeus as "General Betray Us." The New York Times was later found to have sold the ad to the MoveOn group at a discounted rate and MoveOn later was forced to pay the difference under public pressure and in order to avoid problems with the campaign finance laws. Whatever the reason, the action by the House and Senate Democrats highlights the sorry state of political debate in this country today. I see it as a cautionary tale, a warning that it's more important than ever to take the time to dig out the original sources for virtually everything these days.
One might be excused for believing that a landmark personal condemnation of an American citizen by the U.S. Senate would be enough excitement for one news cycle but on 12 October, in a remarkable display of political jujitsu, Limbaugh upped the ante by posting the original copy of Senator Reid's letter for auction on Ebay. As I mentioned above, I'm not a Limbaugh fan, but you've got to admire the machiavellian shrewdness of this gambit. The proceeds of the auction will be matched by Limbaugh and donated entirely to the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation, a non-profit charity that funds college scholarships for the children of military families. To cap the deal, Limbaugh has challenged the Senators who signed Harry Reid's letter to show their support for the troops by also matching his gift. So far none of the senators involved have taken up the gauntlet and the same media outlets that trumpeted the original MediaMatters claim have, by and large, ignored the followup story.
Lots of people really hate Rush Limbaugh. They really HATE him, in the same instinctive unreasoning way that others HATE Hillary Clinton, or Harry Reid for that matter. I think that one of the reasons politics in America is so dysfunctional these days is because it focuses more on emotion than thought. We need cool heads and yet political ideologues and the media exhort us to rely on our anger and fears. That tactic really scares me because no matter whether the left or the right "wins" these little skirmishes, the net effect is non-productive polarization. More heat and less light.
The Ebay auction for the letter ends on Friday, 19 October and the current bid, is over $2,100,000 dollars. I suspect the big money is waiting till the very end. If you'd like to follow the auction, I've added a link below6 . Mr. Limbaugh has made a PDF copy of the Reid Letter available for download on his website5, so if you want to own a piece of (shameful) history go take a look.
I just watched the last grains of digital sand run through the Ebay auction clock as Betty Casey, a wealthy philanthropist, won the Phony Soldiers letter for $2,100,100. Limbaugh is matching the sum, for a total of $4,200,200. Think for a minute about how much money that is!
An hour ago, on the floor of the Senate, with the C-Span cameras rolling, the Democratic Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid from Nevada, took the floor to deliver what is surely one of the most cynical and hypocritical bits of demagoguery that I've ever been horrified to experience.
Reid had the chutzpah to try and claim credit by insinuating that he and Limbaugh had "buried the hatchet" and were in some sort of vague partnership to raise funds for a worthy charity. He lied about what Limbaugh said, tried to get him fired, still hasn't apologized for smearing him and then attempted to claim some credit for the unexpectedly positive outcome. I don't care where you stand in the political spectrum, that's just plain wrong.
Under the circumstances, I think Mr. Limbaugh deserves the last word here:
"It wasn't your letter, Senator Reid, that raised this money, it was the blatant abuse of power by you and your Democratic colleagues that is unprecedented in modern American history."
6 Ebay auction page: http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&rd=1&item=260170172469&ssPageName=STRK:MEWA:IT&ih=016