We’re So Sorry, Mr. Webster

September 15, 2011

Stretch your imagination with me for a moment. Imagine that in oh, say Libya, there is a major news magazine that millions of people read each week. Imagine that this week they decided to put on the cover a full-face photo of President Obama. The cover story is an interview with the President in which he calls Moammar Kadafi a murderous dictator. Now imagine that the chief editor of this major news magazine appears on a popular Libyan morning news program to talk about the cover story. When asked about the President’s description of their leader (now former, but stick with the story), the editor says, “Well, President Obama might not define murderous dictator the same way that you and I do, but that’s okay. That’s politics.”

Back to (questionable) reality, this is pretty much what I heard this morning when I caught a few minutes of Morning Joe on MSNBC. Rick Stengel, the Managing Editor of Time Magazine was on to talk about this week’s issue of his magazine, an issue that features an exclusive interview with GOP presidential candidate, Governor Rick Perry (R, Texas). Governor Perry has made a name for himself in the race as one who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. One of these mind bits happens to be that of calling President Obama a socialist. While he’s hardly alone in this (one of the employees of the insurance company across the street from my home drives a car with a bumper sticker declaring the end of socialism will happen in 2012), he has repeated it ad nauseum, beginning well before he entered the GOP race. Carl Bernstein asked Mr. Stengel about this during the program. He asked Mr. Stengel if Governor Perry, in repeating this mantra, was either showing his ignorance or simply pandering to a particular audience. Mr. Stengel’s reply was that the Governor might not define socialism in the same way that Mr. Bernstein does, or even in the way he himself does, but that it ‘s okay because it’s all part and parcel of politics.

And here is the point when I pause and ponder…

Governor Perry majored in animal science at Texas A&M University and so maybe he never took a political science class. It’s quite obvious that Mr. Stengel was never in a position to grade papers for a political science or economics class. Perhaps not even a basic high school government class. I’m imagining again. I’m imagining, in any other setting other than politics, a person being asked to define a quite definable ideology, a quite clear political philosophy and economic system, and answering by saying, “Just look at President Obama.” It is not only ignorant, it’s absurd. And if you did it in school, you’d get a flat out “F”.

For me, this calls into question, yet again, the role of journalism in our society. It makes me wonder when and how and why we have allowed a political system to arise where candidates can make blatantly false statements not only about individuals, but about entire governments (because you know, there are real socialist leaders of real socialist countries in this world) without ever being called on it. What in the world is Mr. Stengel saying, that because an individual seeks to hold one of the most politically powerful positions in the world, the “anything goes” rule is in play? The ends justify the means, regardless? Pandering to a particular group when you good and well know that it plays to that group’s own ignorance is deplorable. Hardly the quality of a person of integrity (regardless of party, ideology, or bent) and hardly something that should go unchecked by those covering the candidates.

I’m at a loss.

Another news item mentioned during this morning’s show was that students’ reading scores on the SAT are at the lowest point in 40 years. Is it any wonder? With the definition of words so up for grabs, who can be expected to read and comprehend very well any more?