Saturday, June 10, 2006

Tierney Lowers the Journalism Bar

Unbelievable. New York Times columnist John Tierney actually gives credibility to Ann Coulter's disgustingly framed, bogus assertion that one is somehow prevented from conducting a political argument with grieving relatives.

Where has Tierney been? Arguments against the 9/11 Families (, Michael Berg, Cindy Sheehan and others are made hourly 24/7 on CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, ABC, NBC, CBS and thousands of affiliate stations, newspapers, websites, and magazines.

Anyone who has followed the activities of Iraq Veterans Against the War and similar anti-war groups knows that no one is afraid to disagree with them, and there is no lack of those who attempt to discredit them.

The New York Times should be ashamed to print Tierney's propagandistic poppycock. On top of that, they should be apologizing to readers like me for making us pay for the privilege of reading this garbage.

Mourning in America
By John Tierney
The New York Times
Michael Berg, a Green Party candidate for Congress on Long Island, announced on national television that he regretted the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He didn't blame Zarqawi for beheading an American contractor. The man responsible was President Bush — "the real terrorist."

Any other politician would have been vilified for saying that. But Berg, as the father of the American who was beheaded, belongs to a new politically invulnerable class. Arguing with someone in mourning just isn't done — unless, of course, you are Ann Coulter and you have a new book to sell.

She managed to offend everyone from Hillary Clinton to Bill O'Reilly by suggesting that some of the activist widows of the Sept. 11 victims were enjoying their husbands' deaths. That's over the top even for Coulter. But she has identified a real problem: how do you conduct a political argument with grieving relatives?

Coulter faults liberals for exploiting victims and their relatives as human shields for their arguments against the war and in favor of gun control. But conservatives use these tactics too. President Bush had the parents of a slain Iraqi soldier stand up during the State of the Union address as a tacit endorsement of his policy. Republican widows of Sept. 11 victims have been exploiting their status to oppose the Democratic widows.

America is supposed to be a government of laws, not men, but the surest way to pass a law is to name it after someone, ideally a girl or woman. Dozens of states have passed Megan's Law. There's another measure against sex offenders in Ohio called Nicole's Law, not to be confused with the Nicole's Law in Massachusetts, which requires carbon-monoxide detectors in homes.

There is a federal Katie's Law (giving money to rural police agencies), a New Mexico Katie's Law (requiring DNA samples to be collected from suspects), and a Minnesota Katie's Law (providing money to track sex offenders).

The ultimate in custom legislation was Terri's Law, designed solely to prolong Terri Schiavo's life.

There's also Kristen's Act, Jennifer's Law, Amiee's Law, Brian's Bill, and the Hillary J. Sarias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prevention Act.

Some of these laws undoubtedly make sense, but the names appended to them cut short the sort of debate required.

Grieving relatives certainly have a right to be heard, and their stories need to be considered by legislators and judges. But having tragedy strike your family does not make you an expert on public policy. Instead, it warps your perspective. You become the most narrow special-interest group, obsessed with redressing a personal loss no matter what the cost to society.

When Michael Dukakis was asked during a presidential debate if he'd want to execute a man who raped his wife, he blundered by calmly explaining his opposition to capital punishment. The audience wanted to hear an angry, vengeful husband, but Dukakis tried to be a dispassionate arbiter of justice — a completely different role.

When those roles are conflated by victims-turned-activists, the result tends to be good television and bad policy. The parents of abducted children couldn't anticipate all the wasted police resources and harassment of innocent adults that resulted from their laws. Putting photogenic patients in front of Congressional committees is not the best way to divvy up budgets for medical research.

The widows and widowers of the victims of Sept. 11 are not urban planners who should get veto power over the rebuilding at Ground Zero. The parents of Americans killed in Iraq do not have special expertise in foreign policy.

Whether they support the war or not, they are expressing their personal views, and not necessarily even their slain children's. Cindy Sheehan camped outside President Bush's ranch in Texas to protest the war, but her son voluntarily re-enlisted before his death.

But as long as television viewers respond to pictures of tearful relatives, there's no way to stop them from having a disproportionate influence.

I can't imagine how I would feel if my child were killed. Nor could I imagine how my family would feel if I met a violent death, but I'm pretty sure I would rather not become a symbol for anyone else's cause. The world doesn't need a John's law.

Photo credit: John Tierney. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)


UncleBeal said...

John Tierney was not acting in the role of a journalist. He was acting in the role of a commentator, which is what he is paid to do. I disagree with what Ann Coulter said and found it in bad taste, at best, more likely reprehensible. But that Tierney would agree does not taint journalism. It merely devalues his opinion, to me anyway.

One need only watch the evening news to see the "snippet and soundbyte" approach that truly taints journalism.

The Unknown Candidate said...

journalist |ˈjərnl-ist| noun
a person who writes for newspapers or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio or television.

Based on the above definition, Journalists are not limited to hard news. Writing op eds does not eliminate a journalist's responsibility to base his opinions on facts, which is not what Tierney does here--as both you and I have referenced.

He is as much a shill as other right-wing commentators and political operatives who have come to Coulter's defense for her utterly defenseless comments.

To me, that is taking journalism (in the broad sense of the profession) to new lows.