Ask Mister Q, Dan Quayle, and he will confirm: the miscues and missed cues of political figures immediately circulate through the culture, assisted by the news media. He thought “potato” could use an extra “e” at the end, just like his own name, and overnight he was deluged by ridicule. But there is an irony here that goes unnoticed. Namely, that no one makes more booboos than radio and TV broadcasters who have to talk fast while thinking fast and often find that their tongues are too slippery to wrap around the tougher words. Yet we only get to hear those errors once. The papers and networks will not throw each other under the bus, so you won’t find CBS running a hilarious botch by an NBC reporter.
Still, if you listen fast you can catch some entertaining ones. Back in 2000, ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton said over the air that this was the first time in history that the Supreme Court decided an “erection.” In an ultimate irony, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, asked about President Bush’s speaking skills, said that he has a tendency to make major “floopers.” She corrected herself quickly to say flubs and bloopers, but she could no longer argue that this showed a weak mind. But anyone who didn’t hear her say it then certainly was not going to hear it replayed later.
This fact is merely annoying. Where it becomes multiplied to a downright frustrating level is when TV and radio personalities show basic ignorance of laws or rules. To hear a political reporter explain the status of some debate in a manner that clearly indicates a lack of understanding of the principles at stake is maddening. What is the worst media sin of all, the apex, the zenith, the pinnacle? When they are not only know-nothings, they use their incorrect perception to lambaste a public figure as incorrect. A particularly horrible example of this was just perpetrated by Time Magazine’s Joe Klein against Governor and VP-candidate Sarah Palin.
In a pre-debate forum on CNN, a number of participants were jabbing Palin for being unable to tell Katie Couric of a single Supreme Court decision other that Roe v. Wade that she disliked. At this point Klein jumped in to trump them with a much more substantive critique. What was so embarrassing, he said, was that she disagreed with Roe but stated that she believed there is a right to privacy in the Constitution. This despite the fact that the decision in Roe v. Wade was based on the premise that there is a Constitutional right to privacy! None of the other panelists challenged Klein on this point. The viewer was left to conclude that only a neophyte or an airhead could think both those things were true.
In truth, Klein is unmasked as an idiot, as behind the times, behind the learning curve and completely out of touch. (I don’t include “boorish,” because he needs no unmasking in that area: simply read any of his columns at random.) The sitting Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, believes that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided but that a right to privacy does exist. During his confirmation hearings, he was asked if such a right existed and he said that it did. In fact, Barack Obama, in his remarks explaining why he voted against Roberts said this: “In those 5 percent of hard cases, the constitutional text will not be directly on point…. In those circumstances, your decisions about whether affirmative action is an appropriate response to the history of discrimination in this country or whether a general right to privacy encompasses a more specific right of women to control their reproductive decisions… the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.”
What John Roberts achieved by his testimony is the decoupling of the right to privacy with the right to abort. By assigning a degree of personhood to the unborn child, the mother’s right to privacy cannot allow her to abort any more than it allows her to shoot her mother-in-law in the privacy of her living room. The right to privacy can be used to protect reading choices, viewing choices, even sexual choices, but it cannot allow one life to blot out another just because it is developing inside her body.
The point here is not to debate abortion jurisprudence. The larger point is the abuse of the press role of providing public information. Not only was Sarah Palin’s stated position neither ridiculous nor contradictory, it was the view of the presiding Chief Justice.