Thursday, October 25, 2012

On Victims, Bayonets and Paying Attention

In "The Elephants of Style," I examined a couple of examples of instant historical amnesia -- cases of the news media and the public just not paying enough attention to get a story right even in the first telling. No, George H.W. Bush did not accidentally say "September 7" in a slip of the tongue when he meant to say "December 7." He showed up on Sept. 7 and started talking about it being Pearl Harbor Day. No, the powers that be did not compromise with Tonya Harding in allowing her to skate in the Olympics. They capitulated when she threatened legal action.

Well, we're still not paying attention. Take two examples from the current presidential campaign. Remember when Mitt Romney called 47 percent of the American people "victims"? Yeah, no.

What Romney said in the leaked cellphone video of a speech to wealthy campaign contributors was that the approximately 47 percent of working-age Americans who do not pay federal income tax "believe that they are victims." The implication, of course, is that they are wrong to believe such a thing: Not only did he not call people victims; he said, or at least implied, the exact opposite.

And yet many news organizations focused on people being called victims, and some angry YouTube responses even insisted "I'm not a victim!"

I can see how one might feel belittled at the general aura of being called a victim, had Romney actually done that, but stop and think for a minute: Whatever you think of this line of reasoning, isn't a key component of the argument against Romney, and the Republican Party in general, something along the lines of "I am a victim"? If you lost a big chunk of your retirement savings and you think Wall Street shenanigans were to blame, aren't you saying you were victimized? If you lost your house and you think mortgage-lending high jinks were to blame, aren't you saying you were victimized? If you lost your job and you think outsourcing or profit-chasing or excessive executive compensation was to blame, aren't you saying you were victimized?

Then there were the bayonets.

Whatever you think of President Obama's debate zinger -- "You mention the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets" -- you cannot honestly think you are debunking that remark by pointing out that bayonets still exist, and that the U.S. military still uses them. "Fewer" does not mean "none." Partisan outlets do what partisan outlets do, and I understand that, but even mainstream news organizations seemed to be reacting to something Obama never said.

Now, if indeed the armed forces have more bayonets than they did 96 years ago, as some are reporting, that's a debunking.