If you cast your mind back to your childhood, you might recall playing a game with your friends called "Chinese Whispers" or the less ethnocentric varietal, "The Telephone Game." It's a clever little amusement in which a simple sentence, passed silently from ear to ear, makes its way around those gathered to play and ends up getting transformed at the end of the line. I, myself recall an embarrassing instance in which my declaration of wanting to go to the movies somehow ended up being a rather raunchy declamation of an indelicate design I had on someone's mother.
At the moment, the political sphere is a-quiver with concern of some remarks made by Barack Obama at a gathering of funders in San Francisco. There are reasonable people who heard those remarks and felt alarmed and offended. There are other reasonable people who have sought to defend the candidate's statements. And, like it or not, the other two candidates have - quite reasonably, because this is a competitive election - sought to take advantage of the incident.
That's a debate that's going to rage on, both here, in our comment threads, and elsewhere, and I'm not going to jump up and down on anyone's head because they want to take a for or against position on Obama's remarks. My concern is that a game of Chinese Whispers is being played over the remarks in the media, and it's not just threatening the reasonable debate on the merits of Obama's statement as of now, it's threatening the discourse in general. Long after the "bitter" dust is settled, the ramifications of such distortions will remain.
Let's begin by presenting Obama's statement, as recorded and reported by our own Mayhill Fowler:
OBAMA: You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
That's precisely what he said. It should be no problem for the media to hew to this. After all, as Howard Kurtz ably demonstrated, when the need was great and the call went out to quote Eliot Spitzer's hooker correctly, media professionals stepped up and delivered. Yet in both traditional media and elsewhere, distortions of Obama's remarks are proliferating. The most egregious instance may be Pat Buchanan, who said that Obama said:
Thus, they cling to their bibles, and guns and bigotries toward strangers and people that aren't like them.
At the New Republic, John Judis has cannonballed into the pseudo-intellectual deep end, stretching the remark thusly:
In the speech, Obama appeared to say that Pennsylvania voters' opposition to gun control or abortion or immigration or free trade was pathological--a product of what Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse once called "false consciousness."
And, as John Tomasic points out, George Will used the occasion to distort another one of Obama's remarks: "George Will denounced Barack Obama as an 'elitist' and then told an outright lie about Obama, claiming that Obama had tried to "commiserate" with Iowans about high food prices by citing the price of Arugula at Whole Foods." This is an extraordinary example of intellectual bankrupty on Will's part, because in an earlier instance, he quite clearly seemed to understand the context of Obama's statement: "In that piece, however, Will accurately noted the context about farmers, how at places such as Whole Foods the prices were exorbitant and so farmers in places like Iowa should be entitled to some of the profits. So why is Will lying about it now?"
And while Yahoo Answers is hardly a mainstream media garrison, someone has framed their question in a way that's fitting to the discussion, asking, "Why did Obama say only bitter hicks are against free trade when it's been part of his platform since Iowa?" and then, hilariously, requesting that respondents "Please address the question and not the hyperbole." Uhm...that's going to be hard!
But even if you are not inclined to defend Obama in this instance (or at all), these examples of hyperbole, distortion, high-toned glaze and outright fabrication should be of concern to anyone, because it lays the foundation for future distortion and skew. Need a reminder of how bad it can get? Well, let's cast our minds back to an election of yesteryear, in which this:
"During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the internet."
"Al Gore says he invented the internet."
As it turns out, Gore, as a Senator, "secured the passage of the High Performance Computing and Communications Act in 1991" which "supported the National Research and Education Network (NREN) initiative that became one of the major vehicles for the spread of the internet beyond the field of computer science." These facts were readily available to anyone who cared to look, but instead, the distortion took hold and Gore could never shake it. If you recall, the Gore/Bush election was a razor thin decision--one less false frame, one more lie knocked down, and who knows? The world might look a lot different today.
These distortions are not confined to "bitterness" or to Barack Obama or to the active presidential candidates or, indeed, to the 2008 election. Or to elections in general (cf. Iraq War)! Whether it's a casual misquotation or a willfull, wonton distortion, lives can be impacted and potential good undone. There's nothing wrong with a vigorous debate on Obama's comments. But if you value the discourse, you should demand that the professionals get it right, no matter what side you're on.
Do you have an additional example of such a distortion, Obama or otherwise? Share it with us in the comments!