Wednesday, August 19, 2009

NPR, the Crazy and the Principle of Charity

Rick Perlstein comments on the chaos occurring at congresspeople's town hall events. He writes, "The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America's flora. Only now, it's being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest." Perlstein longs for the days of Walter Cronkite who gave no credence and no voice to the crazies, but now the crazies get a loud public voice and are treated with respect.

Walter Cronkite's way of dealing with the crazy is one respectable method if you have the capacity to limit the voice of the crazy. If Cronkite, and the few other respected anchors at the time, did not talk about it, it didn't happen. On the other hand, now the crazy has millions of listeners on talk radio, viewers on Fox news and an untold number of internet readers/viewers. It's harder for the respectable media to sideline the crazy when it has so many outlets feeding it. At other times in US history the crazy has had a voice, but now it's voice is as loud, or louder, than the non-crazy.

That means the best response is to call out the crazy. Make it clear what these people--birthers, "death panel" believers, etc.--believe and show why their claims are false. NPR did a good job on this the other day debunking right wing claims about the British health care system (NHS) by interviewing the former chief administrator of the NHS. Specifically, the interview focused on false claims that the NHS would not pay for health care for the elderly if that care became expensive. The administrator did admit that the NHS did have some long wait times until they increased the total funding for it, and now with the additional funding there are not (he said) these problems any more. But the main point to be criticized were claims such as Iowa Senator Charles Grassley's claim that the NHS would not have treated Sen. Ted Kennedy, who is elderly and has brain cancer, because of the expense. This claim, the administrator explained, was not just false, deliberately so, but malicious and constituted fear-mongering.

Unfortunately, that's not the only way NPR treats the crazy. Most of the time, they follow the "he-said, she-said" or false equivalence paradigm in which they refuse to assert things that are demonstrably true or deny things that are demonstrably false. For example, claims which "the White House claims are misleading." The complaint is the death panel claim, that the health care bills would include bureaucratic panels which would decide who would be worthy of treatment, and essentially decide who would live or die. There are no such panels; there is no evidence that there are such panels. Such a thing would never happen; it's demonstrably and absurdly false, but hinting at the complaints and noting that one side claims they are false does not do enough to show that they are false. This gentle handling feeds the crazy.

In another case, NPR reported that Charles Grassley opposed parts of the health care bill that he said people could be misled about. This was demonstrably not what Grassley said, and not his reason for opposition. Grassley had claimed that people should be worried about the government deciding who would live or die, should be worried about the government killing your granny. So, what's wrong with this gentle treatment for Grassley? First, it is factually misleading. They did not report all the relevant matter he said, and they misreported some things he did say. Second, it makes no sense. Why would anyone oppose a bill that someone could be misled about? Does Grassley ever vote for any bills? If so, he's inconsistent because people could be misled about nearly anything. Third, it provides the imprimatur of a respected news organization to the crazy stuff he did say. If they take him seriously, it makes his opposition seem reasonable, and by not calling out the crazy, the crazy gets something resembling tacit acceptance by NPR. NPR is not actually endorsing the crazy ideas, but treating someone who's said things that are demonstrably crazy with respect makes the crazy ideas seem more respectable. Now, not all NPR listeners will know everything Grassley said, but the ones who do will see those other statements ("Obamacare will kill your granny!") as having the same tacit respectability.

You can refuse to give a voice to the crazy. You can call out the crazy. But you cannot report the crazy as something slightly less crazy because people who are crazy will take it as an endorsement of that crazier version of the idea, and people who are not crazy will have just a little less resistance to the crazier statement. And, of course, the last is what NPR was doing.

One further question: Why does NPR do this? I think it's because they want to maintain the fiction of civil and rational discourse in America, and if the sides of the debate are not civil and rational, trying to make them so will not help. This is the principle of charity run amok. You cannot take people's claims charitably (i.e. assume they are rational and based on facts as much as possible) once they have repeatedly demonstrated their irrationality. NPR should act to encourage civil and rational discourse by correcting errors, lies and irrationality, not by coddling them.

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