the great unlearning

The best part of watching CNN on the day the CIA torture report was released was Diane Feinstein’s exquisitely detailed outline of what the report contains, complete with source citations, and John McCain’s impassioned defense of the report’s release.

The worst part of watching CNN was everything else.

On a day that saw much good reporting and writing – I followed the New York Times, the Intercept and the Dish’s live blog – watching CNN was a study in how cable news can grind anything to dust. Essentially, I watched the same thing over and over again, with different anchors, various guests and slightly different lead-ins. It went something like…

Anchor: “So one of the report’s central claims is that torture was ineffective, that it didn’t produce useful information. Do you think that’s true?”

Guest, who was usually ex-CIA or otherwise connected to the Bush era: “No, I know for a fact that it isn’t. I know the information we got through enhanced interrogation techniques (or, as they became abbreviated Tuesday, ‘EIT’) saved lives.”

Anchor: “You’re sure? The report says it didn’t.”

Guest: “I’m sure – and I was there.”

This was the tip, over and over again, of the misdirection spear. Even a cursory reading of the summary report – or even reading the New York Times’ summary of the summary – lays out in detail, with documentation and context, why torture simply didn’t get us anywhere. As of the report’s release, it’s no longer a matter of what somebody thinks. It’s just a fact – unless you’re CNN, in which case you more or less ignore the details as presented, skip to the conclusion those details support, and ask someone who is certain to disagree with the conclusion if, in fact, he disagrees.

This is not far from saying to someone “Scientists have established that the earth rotates completely once every 24 hours, and as a result, the sun will come up tomorrow. Do you agree?” It’s the most toxic thing about cable news, how it reduces everything to contending opinions, and CNN is the worst offender, because it has fewer fixed positions than either Fox or MSNBC. I think it’s what I was hearing in Feinstein’s voice when Wolf Blitzer tried to engage her on the topic and she essentially threw her hands up and said, ‘Just read the report.’

Really, it’s about that simple. The report itself, some of the reporting on it, and the rebuttals, if they have anything useful to contribute in the way of fact checking. Everything else is just rhetoric, and in this awful case, the facts are all that count.

(I’m not letting Fox off the hook – it’s just that they’re entirely predictable, and don’t make any bones about where they stand. They skipped out of Feinstein today before she got to the report’s conclusions, and last I saw, someone was suggesting that the report came out to distract the public from the real story, how Obamacare supporter Jonathan Gruber was getting grilled by Congress after calling the public “stupid.”

Maddow on MSNBC is doing the best job I’ve seen on cable today, at least in part because she has actually read the documents and is using them to tell the story, instead of glossing over these inconvenient truths. Best line – “It was not just a torture program; it was a very poorly run torture program.”)


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