May 12, 2005

Indirect Discourse Reports

via Atrios, needs to take Indirect Discourse 101.

[UPDATE: Ah, just read Kieran Healy.]

[UPDATE 2: Though this does remind me of the Onion "What Do You Think?" a few weeks back: "I heard Tom DeLay's blood was in the water and the sharks were circling him, but unfortunately, it turned out to be a metaphor."]

They say that People for the American Way is running a 'distorting ad' that:

(1) says of Janice Rogers Brown, "She's so radical that she says, with programs like Social Security and Medicare, seniors are cannibalizing their grandchildren!"--in relation to this quote: "My grandparents' generation thought being on the government dole was disgraceful, a blight on the family’s honor. Today’s senior citizens blithely cannibalize their grandchildren because they have a right to get as much "free" stuff as the political system will permit them to extract." (factcheck's emphasis)

(2) says of Priscilla Owen that "President Bush’s own attorney general criticized her ten times," when (factcheck points out) "Alberto Gonzales wasn't Bush's attorney general at the time he made the 10 statements PFAW cites," and "[i]n some of his written opinions he did indeed disagree strongly with Owen's legal reasoning, but he never criticized her personally, or by name."
Dealing with (2) first--given that Alberto Gonzales is now Attorney General, it should be uncontroversial that we can replace "Alberto Gonzales did X" with "Bush's own attorney general did X"; all we have to do is let the definite description have wide scope over the past tense. Perhaps the fear is that the ad misleads by letting us think that Gonzales criticized her as Attorney General, but I think that fear is exaggerated.

(Contrast the Progress for America claim that Owen was "endorsed by major newspapers." Yes she was--but for a different job. That seems to me like an intentional attempt to mislead, especially given that two of those newspapers have since expressed reservations about Owen's nomination.)

Also; did Gonzales criticize her? Even if he didn't name her, to say that acting on Owen's opinion "would be an unconscionable act of judicial activism" seems like it would be fairly described as criticizing her. (As factcheck points out, it seems like it would also be fairly described as "calling her an activist judge," despite what Gonzales says.)

As for (1)--as David Kaplan says, "Direct quotation is rarely charitable." Brown did say what PFAW says she said--it seems impossible to avoid the conclusion. If PFAW were speaking in a context in which it might be thought that they were saying that seniors are literally eating their grandchildren, then it would be fair to criticize them for misleading direct quotation. But, you know, they aren't. And it's important for PFAW to capture the metaphor Brown uses--it's not just that she thinks (wrongly) that today's seniors are burdening their grandchildren, it's the visceral hatred she has for Social Security and Medicare.

What this shows is that indirect discourse reports can be tricky, if you're being deliberately stupid. Cappelen and Lepore in Insensitive Semantics quote a couple of cases--Nixon's "Smoking Gun" utterance, Bush on "imminent threat"--where what the speaker was rightly taken to say went far beyond the literal meaning of his words. As Cappelen and Lepore observe (and I've mentioned Wettstein on this as well) it's probably impossible to formulate hard and fast rules for when indirect discourse reports are true. And--I think Wettstein and I think this, not sure about C & L--some reports are more or less accurate rather than just true or false.

With people of good will that can create some problems, but not too many. We can agree that Brown said what PFAW said, speaking metaphorically; we can agree that Gonzales criticized Owen; we can agree that the newspapers didn't endorse Owen for the federal bench (though perhaps it is relevant that they endorsed her for the Texas Supreme Court).

The problem is that in politics we often aren't dealing with people of good will. We are dealing with people who take the sentence "President Bush based his famous and false claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger on a set of crudely forged documents" and respond "Bush did not mention Niger, but rather Africa." (The rest of the claims in that post seem to have beamed in from Uqbar--Bush stated what British intelligence found, an analysis that has never been revoked and has recently been confirmed"? Oy.) We're dealing with people who say "the battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001" and then describe that by saying "We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda." And I could go on. And the problem is, given the flexibility of discourse reports, it's hard to nail them to the wall and say that what they said is absolutely false.

Factcheck and the like could have a role to play here. They could say, "Here's what was said, here's what everyone knows was meant, and it gives an inaccurate impression or it doesn't." Unfortunately, they choose not to do that. When they run an article subheaded "both sides twist facts," they give the impression that both sides are twisting the facts evenly; not that one is seriously distorting the intent of quotes and the other is doing it accurately. Admittedly, if you read closely, they say that "Readers can decide for themselves" whether Brown's views are radical, and they are quite sarcastic about Gonzales' attempt to distinguish activism from activism. But that's not the message people will take home. In their insistence that both sides must be equally wrong, factcheck is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Posted by Matt Weiner at May 12, 2005 01:29 PM

Yes, it's all absolutely INFURIATING. But what to do?

Well, there's yelling a lot.

Posted by: bitchphd at May 12, 2005 04:02 PM

Yeah, I enjoy that.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at May 12, 2005 04:04 PM