Blood from a Stone

While the Republican presidential candidates are still wiping the spittle off their chins from their anger over the unfair treatment they received at the hands of the “liberal media,” in the last debate, the rest of the extreme right continues on its merry way toward joining them in a state of complete denial of reality.

I remember the first televised presidential debate in 1960 with John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.  The moderator for the event was Howard K. Smith from CBS, the host network.  The panel consisted of television journalists from ABC, CBS, NBC, and the Mutual Broadcasting System.  .  (That was ALL of them, by the way.)   There were four debates that year.  The first was hosted by CBS, the rest were hosted by ABC.  Each debate had panelists from all the major networks.  Journalists like Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, Sandor Vanocur, and print journalists like Harold Levy of Newsweek and Roscoe Drummand of the New York Herald Tribune participated on the panels.

The first debate was shot on a sparse stage against a block wall, all in black and white.  The candidates started in chairs and then moved to podiums with the moderator at a tiny desk between them.  The cameras stayed primarily focused on head shots, with the heads filling the screen.

There was an air of journalistic responsibility in those debates even though it was a new idea and had never been tried before.  In order to have them at all, Congress had to suspend the equal time provision of the Federal Communications Act of 1934.

Here’s the very first question in the very first debate:

FLEMING [Bob Fleming, ABC News]: Senator [Kennedy], the Vice President [Nixon] in his campaign has said that you were naive and at times immature. He has raised the question of leadership. On this issue, why do you think people should vote for you rather than the Vice President? [1]

Now I hate to rain on any current Republican candidate’s pity parade, but the very first presidential debate question ever asked was, by your definition, a gotcha question, and it was asked of a Democrat.

The issue for the Republicans here wasn’t really gotcha questions.  The issue wasn’t liberal media.  The issue was their expectation that the concept of journalism had been killed off so completely already that they could say whatever they felt like saying without ever being held to any sort of standard of truth.

In this age of mass communication and social media, we have nearly forgotten what the purpose of journalism has always been:   “…a systematic process – a discipline of verification – that journalists use to find not just the facts, but also the “truth about the facts.” [2]

And the Republican presidential candidates, in general, have little use for facts or the truth behind those facts.  Many facts, like science, are inconvenient truths.  They stand in the way of achieving ideological goals that are belief based.

As hard as the movement conservatives have worked to create a world in which facts are just whatever you happen to believe and where science has been discredited, they still live in a reality where the majority of the people have still not been corrupted by that thinking and where the idea of facts and the truth about facts is important.  In that regard, the Republican presidential candidates are really complaining about being forced to debate in the real world, rather than in the mythology of the conservative right.

Carly Fiorina stood before the country in the first debate and lied about the Planned Parenthood videos and no one called her on it at the time, perhaps because the moderators did not have the information necessary at the time; perhaps because they didn’t want to.

The CNBC moderators came prepared with research, facts, and information, however, and some – not all – of their questions reflected that.  There were no Howard K. Smith’s there, but they tried, now and then, to be journalists.

When Ben Carson was asked about his relationship with Mannatech, a pyramid scheme company that sells vitamins and nutritional supplements and which has had to pay millions to settle deceptive advertising practices, he first denied any relationship.  “I didn’t have any involvement with them. That is total propaganda. And this is what happens in our society: total propaganda,” said Carson.

So, no involvement… all propaganda.

A lie.

Then he went on, “Oh sure, I did a couple speeches for them. … They were paid speeches… It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of a relationship with them.”

A lie.

It was also a lie that was easy to prove was a lie and Carl Quintanilla of CNBC had done some research ahead of time.  Quintanilla asked about the fact that Carson had appeared on Mannatech’s homepage endorsing their products until just before the debates when they were removed.  Carson claimed they did that without his permission.  While it is harder to call this an outright lie, it is doubtful.  The endorsements are gone from the Mannatech site, but you can still see one here.  You’ll have to fast-forward to the very end to see the very real obvious relationship Carson had with Mannatech.  But if you do watch it, it will bring home the magnitude of the lies Carson told on stage that night.

Without that information at his fingertips, Quintanilla asked Carson if the fact that he supposedly didn’t even know that Mannatech was using endorsements he had made for them (while having no relationship with them of course) might raise questions of his judgement or his vetting process.  Before Carson could come up with another evasion the partisan crowd began to boo the moderator, allowing Dr. Carson to avoid answering the question at all.  “See,” said Carson, smiling, “They know.”

What they know is that the facts are not important.  What they know is that truth is completely a matter of what you want to believe.  And most importantly to the democratic process, what they know is that journalism as it has been practiced for decades in our country is nearly extinct and that if they and the presidential candidates on the right have their way; it will be banned from debates from now on.  The right does not want anyone pursuing:   “…a systematic process – a discipline of verification” – not just about the facts, but also the “truth about the facts.”  Not where they are concerned.

Since this country was founded, the role of journalism in informing the populace has been crucial.  In today’s world anyone can write.  Anyone can find an outlet for their writing.  There are words everywhere.  But we need more journalism, not less.  “The purpose of journalism is … to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.” [3]

From the very first presidential debate on, journalists like Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor and Howard K. Smith have helped the American people make the best possible decisions about their government choices by looking for the truth and dealing with the facts in our presidential debates.  Today’s Republican candidates want nothing to do with that.

Today’s Republican candidates want to hypnotize their base with a fantastical world where science isn’t important, economics is simply a matter of cutting taxes far enough, and where they can stop change in the world by staring Putin down and bombing the Middle East back to the middle ages.  They also want to be able to lie with impunity.

Journalists are getting in the way.  They want facts and the truth.  They want the candidates to deal with facts and the truth.  You might as well try to get blood from a stone.

Your Humble Servant,
Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon

3 thoughts on “Blood from a Stone

      • Well, you know what they say: “I say ‘tomato’, you say ‘dangerous dissemination of false information’. I say potato, you say ‘blatant disdain for intellectualism, active manipulation of the press & the un-informed, and rampant corruption ultimately leading to the fraying of journalistic integrity and an inevitable decline of the status of the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world'”

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