Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What Would Happen If the Media Covered the Yoo Memos More?

Thinking more about the tiff between two of my favorite bloggers, I'm wondering if more coverage in the MSM of the Yoo torture memoranda would backfire against those of us in the anti-torture crowd.

I say this because of the practice in today's television news to turn every political issue into a one-on-one debate in which "each side" gets an "equal hearing." This turns every issue - no matter how one-sided amongst the actual experts - into a very real "debate." In this case, the legal issue of whether the torture memos are legally defensible would then be decided for public opinion purposes by two talking heads in the course of a two-minute debate. This debate would epitomize everything that is wrong with the concept of "majority rules." In such debates, the correctness of your point matters a hell of a lot less than your ability to tell people what they want (or think they want) to hear. Any nuance or expert-level discussion will either be absent from the debate or will go completely over the average person's head.

A couple of examples:

1. If you are an environmentalist, think of the way in which "talking head" one-on-one debate has poisoned public opinion, leaving Americans largely divided on whether global warming is real at a time when global opinion is close to unanimous.

2. If you are a libertarian, think of the way in which the debate over things like Social Security and health care are colored by people's complete lack of understanding of free market economics, or the way in which Reaganomics became known as "trickle-down economics."

3. If you are a civil libertarian more generally, think of every criminal case that has been dismissed because of a Fourth Amendment violation but resulted in public outrage because the defendant was a [insert criminal allegation here].

4. If you believe in greater immigration to this country, think of the way the immigration debate has been colored by bogus arguments about security, population density, and welfare abuse.

My point is this: when the MSM decides to cover an issue in depth, it becomes a "debate" rather than a cut-and-dry case. In such a debate, facts and expertise matter extremely little. What matter is which participant can evince the strongest emotions amongst the audience, ie, which participant is the better debater. If the Yoo memos were to be "debated" on television, torture opponents would be resorting to discussion of things most Americans don't understand like the Geneva Conventions, and that thing called the Constitution. Meanwhile, the other side would be ranting and raving about how this program has made us safer, that it does not authorize torture (even though it does), and that these people are only the worst of the worst terrorists and should be shown no quarter by the US. These are arguments with an immense emotional appeal, even though they happen to all be factually wrong or deep exagerrations of the truth.

So while it's likely that more people than currently would become outraged by the memos, the other side to the story is that even more people would become supportive of the memos.