Them's Fighting Words

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It's been two weeks now since General Petraeus offered his assessment of the success of the "surge" in Iraq. And have we been discussing his testimony? Ehhhhh, not so much. Well, maybe a little, but with nowhere near the volume or depth that we've discussed that MoveOn ad. In this writer's eyes, the debate hit its pinnacle when President Bush took the time to assail the ad in his Thursday press conference, conflating the ad's message with insulting America's soldiers on the ground in Iraq, saying ""I felt like the ad was an attack, not only on Gen. Petraeus, but on the U.S. military."

And yesterday the New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt came out with a stinging rebuke of the Times accepting the MoveOn ad – as well as the discounted rate the interest group received:
For nearly two weeks, The New York Times has been defending a political advertisement that critics say was an unfair shot at the American commander in Iraq.

But I think the ad violated The Times's own written standards, and the paper now says that the advertiser got a price break it was not entitled to…
By the end of last week the ad appeared to have backfired on both MoveOn.org and fellow opponents of the war in Iraq — and on The Times. It gave the Bush administration and its allies an opportunity to change the subject from questions about an unpopular war to defense of a respected general with nine rows of ribbons on his chest, including a Bronze Star with a V for valor. And it gave fresh ammunition to a cottage industry that loves to bash The Times as a bastion of the "liberal media."
One of the freshest perspectives on this debate came from Time's Michael Kinsley – in one of his best writings in years – who discussed how our media culture allows outrage to be a substitute for actual debate:
It's all phony, of course. The war's backers are obviously delighted to have this ad from which they can make an issue … These days, mock outrage is used by every side of every dispute. It's fair enough to criticize something your opponent said while secretly thanking your lucky stars that he said it. The fuss over this MoveOn.org ad is something else: it is the result of a desperate scavenging for umbrage material. When so many people are clamoring for a chance to swoon that they each have to take a number and when the landscape is so littered with folks lying prostrate and pretending to be dead that it starts to look like the end of a Civil War battle re-enactment, this isn't spontaneous mass outrage. This is choreography.
Have we hit such a Kabuki Theater rock bottom point in American debate where everything matter-of-factly stated is underreported and everything strident is reported ad infinitum, ad nauseum? Where does that leave us when we're looking for reasoned discourse? (In this case, an educated guess about Iraq.)

In a hypercompetitive ratings-starved environment – Ahmadinejad! Lesbian Brady Girls! -- we've hit a point of Media Darwinism, where only the loud and outrageous and strident are heard. Let's call it the Eminem Approach, and it's kept Ann Coulter in business.

The inherent problem is that media consumers see those on the angry extremes as representing a one-or-the-other choice of views: Should I go with screaming conservative or screaming liberal? Well, dear readers, I'm here to tell you to that the reality nearly always exists between the two. Just remember the immortal words of Stealers Wheel:
Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see that it makes no sense at all …
Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.
  • Matthew Felling

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