Sunday, May 14, 2006


Why are Dems Always Described as Calculating?

One of the more irritating habits reporters share is a reflexive tendency to describe everything Democrats do as "calculating" or "cautious." It's almost like a bad nervous habit -- the journalistic equivalent of nail-biting or a facial tic. Yesterday in a New York Times story saying that Dems are going to try to make an issue about the latest NSA revelations, reporter Carl Hulse wrote:
To date, however, Democrats have been careful to calibrate their public statements about the N.S.A.'s domestic eavesdropping and data-mining programs. Most have focused their criticisms on questions about the program's legal underpinnings and whether Congress was sufficiently consulted about it, with only a handful calling outright for an end to the efforts...

Still, Democrats are being extremely careful in their comments on the surveillance. Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who was defeated by Mr. Bush in 2004, said Friday that he was not ready to declare the newly disclosed collection of phone records illegal.

"It may be that they are doing this in a way that is manageable," Mr. Kerry said. "I don't know the answer to that yet."

Is this a "carefully calibrated" or "extremely careful" response? Actually, I'd argue that it's a responsible response. The bottom line is, there's tons we don't know about this program. We don't know if it's legal or not; we don't know many of the details of how it works. The right thing to do for any responsible public official is to be "careful" and, like Kerry, to say that he "doesn't know the answer" to the question of whether it's legal. Why is this "extremely careful," rather than simply the right thing to do? This is an extremely complex policy issue. Even Senator Chuck Hagel said that questions about the program needed to be answered, but reserved criticism. So why isn't he being "carefully calibrated"? Why is it that only Dems are being calculating when they are appropriately reserving judgment?

This isn't nitpicking. Reporters constantly add this sort of language to their copy when discussing Democrats, and it adds up over time to a more general impression that Dems are craven and political. If readers are constantly being told that Dems are "calibrated," it's no wonder that they constantly tell pollsters that they're not sure if Dems stand for anything.

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