NYT Libels McCain

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Remember that ad used against Harold Ford that portrayed him as a philanderer in the 2006 Senate elections? Since Ford is black and the woman in the ad was white, a lot of people concluded that Tennessee voters were intended to draw the connection that this black boy was fooling around with their white womenfolk. I don't think there's any way to prove it in that case, but it sure was a lot more plausible as a possible play on racist sentiment than this current one.

So the McCain campaign comes along and compares Barack Obama to the substanceless Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Criticize the McCain all you want for its insinuation that Obama is like them, but please don't pretend that it's like the Harold Ford ad, as the New York Times editorial board does. The comparison is revealing, about those making it anyway, but it's logically invalid. I knew some people were touting it about, because someone on NPR mentioned it only to give a pretty decisive argument against it. Nevertheless, I'm a bit surprised to see it being endorsed by the NYT editors on their blog. That's pretty prominent for what I had thought was a position on the extremes.

There was no insinuation whatsoever in the ad that Obama is getting it on with these women. There was no suggestion at all that he's after white women. The ad compared Obama with these women, suggesting that he himself is like them, not that he's doing something with them. Even granting the premise that the anti-Ford ad is playing on racist fears of intermarriage, there simply is no argument that the McCain ad is remotely in the same ballpark. The ad criticizes Obama, but being black should not make remove someone from the possibility of criticism, even unfair criticism, especially in politics at this level. Criticism, even unfair criticism, is not the same thing as racism, and it's not the same thing as attempts to make use of others' racism. This is, in effect, the NYT editors' argument:

1. The anti-Ford ad had a black man and a hot white woman in it, and that was playing on racist fears of intermarriage.
2. The anti-Obama ad has a black man and hot white women in it.
3. Therefore, the anti-Obama ad is playing on racist fears of intermarriage.

It's not hard to see that the argument is logically invalid. There are any number of explanations for why an ad can have a black man and hot white women. The one offered in premise 1, even if it's true, is not the only one or even a remotely plausible one in this case. The ad portrays these white women as moronic celebrities, not as potential lovers for Obama. The point is absolutely clear to anyone with any political sense, and many pundits have criticized the ad in a way that recognizes its point without adding nonsense to it.

So why is the New York Times editorial board making it out to be racism? I have two theories. Either may be false, but I can't think of another, so I'm assuming one is true. Either (a) they're really, really stupid and can't see how fallacious this comparison is or (b) really, really immoral and want to make McCain look like a racist when they know there's no evidence in this ad that he or anyone in his campaign is. The first is uncharitable about their intelligence, and the second is uncharitable about their motivations, so the principle of charity can't help us out. There is no charitable explanation of their behavior.

If it's the latter explanation, then we have good reason to think this constitutes criminal defamation of character. If they know full well that they're lying to make him look like a racist, then it's legally prosecutable as libel. Perhaps they're not directly motivated by wanting him to look bad so much as to defend Obama's recent claims that the McCain campaign would use racist attacks by pointing out just such an attack, but I don't think that matters legally. They know they're lying about something that they know will defame his character. As I understand the law, that's sufficient for criminal defamation, and Wikipedia seems to confirm that judgment. On the other hand, they could believe the above argument is actually a good one, but then they'd be much dumber than you'd expect for people as highly educated as they are.

10 Comments

This one strikes me as pretty wide of the mark, Jeremy.

For one thing, and I say this just to get it out of the way, libel has to be false; to establish libel on the part of the New York Times would require establishing that the McCain attack did not intend to generate racial overtones; that there's insufficient evidence, or only a bad argument, to that effect is not nearly enough.

But more to the point, I don't think it's at all unreasonable to come to the conclusion the NYT editors did. In fact, I think it's probably correct. It strikes me as very likely that a motivating factor in the design of that ad was to invoke the deeply-held archetype of black man threatening white woman. I'm not at all SURE it's true -- maybe it was just a coincidence that the celebrities chosen by the McCain campaign were both blonde, white, female sex symbols. But I think it's more likely than not that this consideration had a role to play.

I'm not relying on the patently bad argument you outline; neither, charity suggests, is the New York Times (nor any of the other many commentators who have made this complaint). To me, it's a best-explanation argument: why was Obama juxtaposed with these particular celebrities instead of some other combination? Advertisers, including political advertisers, are extraordinarily savvy, and often rely on subconscious associations. It's not a stretch at all to theorize that activating racial fears might have been a goal of the ad -- even though, as you point out, there is nothing in the main content to suggest that Obama and Paris are likely lovers. Putting this black man against the background of the young, nubile white women is enough to activate this deeply-held archetype. The designers of this ad certainly know this.

Like I said, I'm not sure this ad was an attempt to play on the racist fears of the American public. But I have a very hard time believing that that didn't at least knowingly happen in this case. As far as I'm concerned that's approximately as bad.

Anyway, whether I'm right on the substance here or not, the suggestion that the New York Times editorial board, and the others who have printed similar things, are guilty of libel goes way too far.

I thought the reason those particular celebrities were chosen was pretty obvious. The impression you're supposed to get is that Obama is the irresponsible bimbo. Tom Cruise isn't seen as an irresponsible bimbo. Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are. Thus they go with them and not him. They could have picked Jessica Simpson too. There's definitely a reliance on a sexist stereotype, but there's nothing racial at all. As I've argued no one even notices the sexism when something combines sexism and racism, especially in this sort of thing because sexism is all over TV ads for all sorts of things.

I've given a pretty strong argument that it's false, not just evidenceless. It would be counterproductive to use an ad where Obama is compared with someone to insinuate that he's supposed to be going after them sexually. They're supposed to be him, not his lovers. He's not sexually preying on himself. The Ford ad really was a different sort of thing, one that is open to that interpretation whether it was intended to be or not. This ad is just not open to that interpretation. It's thus extremely unlikely that they intended anything like this, because it doesn't fit at all with what the ad is actually doing.

I don't think it's obvious either way whether an additional motivation behind the ad was to pander to racist unease by associating Obama with sex symbols. (If it was, this could succeed without literally suggesting that Obama was going after Paris. As Jonathan points out, the association alone is "enough to activate this deeply-held archetype".)

But your construal of the NYT editors as offering a deductive argument is really, really, ridiculous. You could reasonably argue (as you do in your above comment) that they're mistaken to think there's any racist pandering involved here, that the available evidence does not license such an inference (however tentative). But, I must say, your original post grotesquely misrepresents their argument.

[A pedantic aside:]
I think the following is also technically false: "being black should not make remove someone from the possibility of criticism, even unfair criticism"

It's analytic that no-one should face unfair criticism. That is, any condition whatsoever suffices to exempt one as a legitimate target for unfair criticism. A fortiori, being black suffices to exempt one as a legitimate target for unfair criticism. [/pedantry]

I didn't say they used this argument explicitly as a deductive argument. But they did present the premises and pretty much nothing else as the support of the conclusion, so it does commit the fallacy that the deductive argument commits.

Being black does suffice to exempt someone from being a legitimate target for unfair criticism. Being human does that. But I wasn't talking about being a legitimate target for unfair criticism. I was talking about criticism being called racist merely because it's unfair to someone who happens to be black, when being black plays no role in the criticism. When McCain releases a bunch of ads that get critical of Obama's policies, some of them involving the same kinds of stretches of the truth that Obama's own ads do, Obama brings out his suggestion from back in June that the McCain campaign will use his race against him. What's the connection between those two thoughts? None. When McCain uses an ad with sexist stereotypes criticizing Obama and suggesting him to be a substanceless bimbo, the NYT concocts a theory that the ad is really racist. Still no connection between the content and the charge. We're seeing a pattern here. It's as if any criticism is automatically grounds for charging the McCain campaign with racism. When you run for president you get criticized, and you should expect unfair criticism. That doesn't justify unfounded racism charges.

Maybe we're talking past each other on a critical point.

You're upset by the comparison between the new anti-Obama ad and the old anti-Ford ad. You think the comparison is inapt because the Obama ad, unlike the Ford ad, contained no suggestion that Obama is trying to have sex with Paris.

I agree that there is nothing in McCain's ad to suggest that Obama is trying to have sex with Paris. I disagree with the implicit suggestion that only if this were so could the ad be an attempt to play on the racial fears of the American public in a way very similar to the anti-Ford ad. I explained how this could be so in my first comment.

The 'pretty strong argument' that you describe is only an argument against the very specific charge that the ad intends to portray Obama as wanting to have sex with Paris. It's no argument at all against the broader charge that the ad was designed to elicit subconscious 'protect the white woman from the black man' response patterns.

As I said above, I'm positive that the designers of the ad knew that it would elicit these patterns. It strikes me as probably true -- and certainly not the sort of thing you could only say with reckless disregard for truth -- that eliciting this response was part of the intent.

I don't think we're talking past each other. I think it's extremely unlikely that people who write ads would use an ad like this to bring out that particular response. I'm not sure people who write ads are as likely to be constantly thinking about that kind of response anyway. I suspect most of them are from the same demographic as I am from (white, under-40 northeasterners or West Coasters with an Ivy League or similar education). In that demographic, hardly anyone bats an eye at interracial relationships, and it would never occur to them to connect the mere presence of a black man and a white woman with that old, becoming-very-localized fear. White ad writers who grew up watching MTV aren't the sort of people who would even think of this, never mind have it as one of their expectations of how people would respond to the ad.

It's different with an ad intended to be aired only in Tennessee, where it's more plausible that they'd be thinking about an attitude that most white people my age and with experiences similar to mine might be brought to think that racists are more likely to be in the audience, but I just don't think it's all that likely that it would even occur to them. This is a demographic much more likely to be ignorant about race and to try not to think about it at all (especially when subtle messages might be perceived) than to be using it deliberately in a way that has nothing to do with the main message of an ad. This is even more true of conservatives as well because of the push for color-blindness that those raised by conservatives and moderates in the 80s and 90s have grown up with and tried to adopt.

Ok. You think that the people who wrote the ad are more naive than I do. That's fine; as Richard said, reasonable people can disagree about this. I really do expect them to be much savvier -- I took only one advertising course in college, and was impressed by how carefully and slyly subconscious associations are typically activated. (And I'd fully expect the advertising people for both campaigns to have a certain expertise in various racial issues this year.) But fine -- I'm not trying to convince you to change your mind about the McCain campaign. I'm trying to convince you to change your mind about the New York Times editorial. You can strongly disagree with it, but accusations of libel go about three steps too far.

Keep in mind that I didn't declare definitively that this is libel, just that it's the more likely explanation of the only two that I think are plausible.

I do find it extremely hard to believe that they really believe McCain and his campaign are the ones who introduced the race issue, when Obama was the one who introduced it something like a month beforehand, which made enough waves that they should have been aware of it. They insinuated that it's a comparison between Obama and O.J. Simpson to take the common "playing the race card" expression and combine it with the common "playing a card from the bottom of the deck" expression, just because that expression has its etymological origin from Simpson's lawyer. They concocted an extremely unlikely account of the motivations of the McCain ad team when it's very plain what the motivation was, with a perfectly reasonable explanation of why they chose the celebrities they chose, and it was a bad enough motivation that they could easily have stopped there and had a perfectly good criticism without having to stoop to this kind of immoral charge.

"They concocted an extremely unlikely account of the motivations of the McCain ad team when it's very plain what the motivation was"

Jeremy, nobody denies that a motivation for the ad is plainly to portray Obama as a lightweight celebrity. But it's not at all obvious that this is the only motivation in play here. You seem to be assuming, for no reason I can fathom, that people can only ever be moved by one reason at a time; that 'a motivation' is therefore 'the motivation'. But that's so clearly an invalid inference that one might theorize that you are trying to libel the NYT.

(Sorry, couldn't help myself. But c'mon, this is getting beyond ridiculous.)

Here are the facts: the McCain campaign created an ad with - yes - a plainly non-racist (if unfair for other reasons) literal message. However, this ad also serves, intentionally or not, to activate certain subconscious racist associations in some viewers (to McCain's benefit).

Now the question is: did the McCain campaign intend this effect (in addition to their more obvious, non-racist purpose for the ad)? This seems pretty plausible to a lot of non-stupid people. But reasonable people can disagree. What's not reasonable is to think that anyone who disagrees with you on this point is either "really, really stupid" or else "really, really immoral". It could just be that you yourself are not really understanding their argument.

(Actually, reading the NYT, it's more 'tentative speculation' than 'argument'. They said the similarities with the Ford ad "gave us an uneasy feeling". Your response, that it is logically possible that McCain is not a racist given their premises, hardly establishes that their gut response misfired. And to accuse them of lying is simply outrageous.)

I will concede, at most, that it's possible that the ad activates a comparison between Obama's darker skin and their lighter skin to highlight that he's black and that it's possible (but I think extremely unlikely) that this was intentional. I will not concede that it's even remotely plausible that there was any intention of suggesting that Obama is going to take away white people's daughters the way I accepted that it's possible the Tennessee ad could have had such an intent. This wouldn't be the way to do that. Yet that's the connection the NYT editorial board's post insinuated.

The reason I think it's especially implausible to think the McCain campaign intended any racial connotation is that they know they've been walking on thin ice the whole campaign. They've been going out of their way to avoid talking about Obama's race or suggesting anything that might be taken as racist. I really don't think the ad would have aired if they had had any inkling that people might take it the way the NYT did. They know better than that. Racism, hypocrisy, and actual legal crimes are about the only thing that can kill a politician nowadays, and they've been scared to death of Obama using that advantage inappropriately, as he has now shown that he's happy to do.

I don't think this is merely a point about logical consistency. It's an argument for the extreme unlikelihood of something. Mere logical possibility is what their claim has, and mere logical possibility is certainly not enough for publishing about your uneasy feeling when so much rides on it, not unless you just have ill motivations toward the person you're suggesting is a racist.

Again, I didn't accuse them definitively of anything. I gave a disjunction, and any claim about what they were doing was at most one possibility among two.

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