Monday, December 8, 2008

From there to here: Disenchanted with HuffPo

In my first post about my journey from a (mostly) liberal to a (mostly) conservative state of mind, I gave the stream of consciousness version that I emailed to a new friend who asked about my political orientation. In this post I’ll talk more about the mechanism by which I was converted beginning with the realization that the sources I trusted to tell me the straight story - Huffington Post, MSNBC, and most of all Andrew Sullivan - were so biased that no hint of evenhandedness existed. I know this makes me sound stupid: after all, HuffPo and Sullivan never claimed to be unbiased. Nonetheless, I assumed I was getting the whole story from them. I understood that when they wrote a story about how terrible Bush was or how badly the Iraq War was going or how racist the Republicans were, I was getting their interpretation of the facts but I also believed I was getting all the facts.

Realizing differently took place in stages. I began to distrust HuffPo first over their eagerness to conflate immigration and illegal immigration. I started out believing they were simply being sloppy but I kept reading HuffPo articles that could be summed up as:

The United States is a country of immigrants. Immigrants are good. Immigrants are what make this country strong. You are the descendant of immigrants. How can you deny to other immigrants what your ancestors found here?

Therefore if you oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants you are a racist.

Finally I read enough of those to realize HuffPo’s confusing immigration and illegal immigration must be deliberate - and deliberately dishonest. That left a bad taste in my mouth and made me uneasy about HuffPo’s world view. Still it was just one issue and so I persevered with HuffPo.

Then came Jean Rohe’s HuffPo post about her “preemptive strike” against John McCain at the New School graduation. At first I found Rohe’s post merely that strange combination of puerileness and arrogance that seems common among the young who have worked themselves up into a righteous lather. Once I had actually read McCain’s speech, however, I realized Rohe was either unable to hear what McCain was saying - which made her stupid - or unwilling to do so - which made her terrifying. How could Rohe in her speech and in her post totally miss - or totally ignore - the very core of McCain’s speech:

Americans should argue about this war. ... I believe the benefits of success will justify the costs and risks we have incurred. But if an American feels the decision was unwise, then they should state their opposition, and argue for another course. It is your right and your obligation. I respect you for it. I would not respect you if you chose to ignore such an important responsibility. But I ask that you consider the possibility that I, too, am trying to meet my responsibilities, to follow my conscience, to do my duty as best as I can, as God has given me light to see that duty.

Americans deserve more than tolerance from one another, we deserve each other's respect ...

In one installment of her compelling “change story”, neo-neocon is speaking of changes that occurred during the Vietnam War. She focuses on changes to the media and says (emphasis mine):

during this time, the press turned from government associate to government adversary, and questioned not only tactics, theory, and judgment, but even the goodwill and motives of those in charge of decisions.

That change by the media, that willingness to attribute bad will and worse motives to government has now spread through our political discourse and in far too many people has mutated into a willingness to believe the worst about all those who do not think as they do. Jean Rohe’s “strike” on John McCain was the embodiment of this disastrous turn of events. In her speech and even more in her HuffPo piece she consistently assumed the worst of McCain, crediting him with only bad will and bad motives. McCain asked that she “consider the possibility that I, too, am trying to meet my responsibilities, to follow my conscience, to do my duty as best as I can, as God has given me light to see that duty.” Yet in her arrogance that is the very thing Rohe will not do.

For all my distress over Rohe’s blindness, she was young and - as McCain himself said in his speech - the young believe they are always right. Far more jarring to me than Rohe was the response to her: HuffPo chose to showcase her as a heroine and the vast majority of the commenters* hailed her for “speaking truth to power”. Rohe insulted a man who was a war hero, sitting Senator, and - most important - an invited guest and did so in perfect safety. Yet, through some alchemy beyond my understanding, she was magically equated with the iconic student who faced a tank in Tiananmen Square. Yeah, right.

This may have been the first significant crack in my political view. I realized that it was McCain whose speech and reaction sounded moderate, reasonable, compassionate, intelligent, and healing while it was Rohe and her supporters in the comments who sounded like the vicious, divisive partisans the left always accused Republicans of being. In my comment to her post, I quoted Joseph Addison: “A man must be both stupid and uncharitable who believes there is no virtue or truth but on his own side.” In this go-round, it was pretty clear it was Rohe and her supporters who were both stupid and uncharitable - not the dreaded Republican.

Hard on the heels of the Rohe post came the comment moderation disasters. First was the news that a HuffPo techie was posting comments in a possibly less than straightforward way; I found that disconcerting. Then came the confusion about HuffPo’s comment policy. Although the policy claimed comments were not edited or deleted based on political or ideological point of view, it became clear that individual posters were, in fact, deleting comments they didn’t like. Furthermore, one of the HuffPo co-founders - in a post that attempted to lay to rest the techie controversy - stated that (emphasis mine):

From a technical standpoint, it is challenging to process literally thousands of comments a day in a way that features the best comments and eliminates postings from spammers and trolls.

That sure sounded like editing for content.

This may sound trivial but it reinforced my earlier realization: by censoring those who disagreed, the very liberal Huffington Post was exhibiting the type of dissent-silencing behavior it regularly accused the Republicans of. Similarly, the techie’s forays into commenting and the co-founder’s first ignoring and later defending his behavior made it clear that at HuffPo the passionate conviction that one was right was sufficient to excuse unprincipled behavior - just like being “right” about amnesty for illegal immigrants excused deliberate dishonesty about the topic. But surely the idea that being on the side of the angels meant dishonesty was okay was the sort of bad belief the left claimed was the exclusive property of Republicans.

As I write all this down for the first time, I realize the incidents that bothered me so much at HuffPo arose out of issues I already had opinions about, opinions that conflicted with HuffPo’s stands. I opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants because I believe the law should be obeyed. If I had not, then HuffPo’s dishonest conflation of immigration with illegal immigration might never have registered with me. Similarly, I thought well of John McCain so Rohe’s attack on him made me want to read his speech for myself to see if what he said was really so awful. Had Rohe attacked someone I did not think well of, like George W. Bush, I would probably have accepted her interpretation of his remarks without further investigation. I would not have noticed that she did not include a link to his speech and I would certainly not have bothered to track it down on my own. Likewise for the comment imbroglio. Big on rules, I disliked the fact that a HuffPo techie was bending them. Since I commented rarely and then usually when I disagreed with a post, I had firsthand experience of my comments being stuck in moderation. Thus I was sensitive to the issue of how dissent was handled. If I had commented when I agreed with posts and had those comments been moderated promptly, I might never have thought twice about how HuffPo reacted to dissenting views.

These incidents weren’t enough to make me re-evaluate my self-identification as a liberal but they were enough to make me decide HuffPo was not a trustworthy source of information and they helped prepare the ground for the disillusionment I would suffer when the left turned misogynist - once again exhibiting a bad behavior it had always insisted was the sole province of Republicans.

At the same time I was reading - and becoming disenchanted with - the Huffington Post, I was also watching a little MSNBC and reading a lot of Andrew Sullivan. My disillusionment with them took longer but that’s a story for another day.


* You’ll have to take my word about the comments to Rohe’s post. Those comments are no longer available; instead the foot of her post says, “Comments for this entry are currently under maintenance but will be restored soon.” This message has been up since at least June 4, 2008. The same message is up on a number of older posts at HuffPo, perhaps on all HuffPo posts before a certain date.

1 comment:

Beard said...


Well, I agree with your philosophy as stated here, though I would fairly even-handedly apply the same criticisms to fanatics on both Left and Right.

I generally state my position in analogy with science. If you want to do good science, you need to look for ways that your own hypothesis might be wrong. Scientific methodology is a set of techniques for doing precisely that. Therefore, you need to cultivate intelligent disagreement. And by disagreeing with someone else, you are doing her/him a favor, shining a new sort of light on an issue they take seriously.

Not yet having read your first post, I don't see why this would take you from the Left to the Right, since many on both sides are equally challenged in terms of intellect and/or integrity.

Sturgeon's Law says, "Eighty percent of everything is crap." An optimist like me interprets that to mean that if I am experiencing less than 80% crap, I must be ahead of the game.