Just What Is "Out of Line"?

One of the things that led to the creation of this blog was my conviction that new media and social networking could be a powerful tool for defending democracy and liberty in the modern age. In part, I came to this conviction because of the roll of Enlightenment Era "new media and social networking" in the creation of this country and in part it was due to... The Daily Show.

At the time, news had just broken that a study had shown that The Daily Show had just as much substantive content as the network evening news. Combined with studies that showed that about as many 18-29 years got their news from it as from the network news and that Daily Show viewers tended to skepticism about government and the news media, but confidence in their own political understanding, it gave a picture of a generation whose politics were substantially influenced by a fake news show on a comedy channel.

While many in my generation view that notion with considerable trepidation, I took it as essentially good news. The combination of faith in themselves and skepticism of those in power could result in voters who are more concerned with liberty, civil rights and such. The down side is that the skepticism could discourage them from voting, but that's a problem that can be worked, and in future posts I will address some of the ways that I see of doing this.

The Daily Show also provides another valuable service. It puts the mainstream press into a sharp and critical light. Probably the best known example of this is the president of CNN, Jonathan Klein's citing of Jon Stewart as one of the causes for the cancellation of Crossfire, a show that Stewart appeared on, accusing them of being bad for America, and that as a news show, he at least, had higher expectations of them than they did, expectations the failed to live up to.

Another example came up this week. Last week Wolfe Blitzer on his show The Situation Room had tried to question Vice President Dick Cheney on the negative statements made by his supporters regarding his lesbian daughter's pregnancy. The VP objected strenuously to the question even being asked. This week, Stewart did a long segment on whether the question was legitimate.

Chrissy Gephardt on The Daily ShowThe first part was a typical Daily Show satire, but the second half was an interview with Chrissy Gephardt, the openly gay daughter of Dick Gephardt who claimed it was a perfectly legitimate question. The way he conducted the interview was interesting and relevant. (If you haven't seen it, take the time to watch it at Comedy Central or iFilm.) Jon never actually mentioned that Chrissy was gay. Instead, he said that like Mary she is a political activist and the daughter of a national political figure, and interviewed her on how hard it is being the daughter of a politician, whether he chose to be a politician or was born that way, and whether politicians should have children. He then asked her if Wolfe's question was fair, and when she replied that it was, he framed the question of the hypocrisy of not defending people who are like your daughter in terms of the "hypothetical" case of segregationist Strom Thurmond having a black daughter.

Turning the religious right's question of whether gays and lesbians should have children and the claim that the lives of such children are unfairly difficult around is both good humor, and as satire makes the point that who we are and the decisions we make can make life hard for our children, but that what is important is how we treat them, how we treat others, and whether we are honest and consistent in our beliefs and actions. It also kept the piece being about the issues rather than on who Mary and Chrissy are.

This segment stands out because:

  1. Jon asked a question that the mainstream media should have, but didn't.
  2. Chrissy was articulate, funny and made the point excellently.
  3. He assumed that the viewer knew that Chrissy was a lesbian and that Thurmond actually had a mixed-race daughter. It treated the audience as knowledgeable and intelligent.

What we have here is a "fake news" comedy show that treats its viewers and guests with respect and asks questions that mainstream journalism ought to be asking, but too often aren't. On the one hand, the good news is that someone is asking the questions and someone is getting through to young people. But that leaves us with the question of why it is up to a comedy show to examine the appropriateness of Wolfe's question? Many news media reported that Cheney rebuffed Blitzer's question as "out of line", and video media showed Wolfe's chagrin and awkward backpedaling, which carried the obvious implication that he recognized his guilt. But few brought up the issue of whether the question was actually out of line, or whether the criticisms, by people who helped get Cheney elected, of his daughter weren't even more out of line, or needing response.

A couple of days later Mary Cheney also criticized Blitzter's question and the media carried that, usually highlighting her statement that her baby "is a blessing from God. It is not a political statement. It is not a prop to be used in a debate by people on either side of an issue". Interestingly, that phrasing appeared within hours of Cheney's appearance on The Situation Room in a discussion of the show on an internet gossip site (emphasis is mine):

15. Cheney is obviously ashamed of his daughter, despite what he proclaims or he wouldn't have such a hissy-fit when asked a question like this. Cheney's in the public eye and should be accustomed to being asked this type of question repeatedly. It is an interesting news item. Here's a man who's aligned with a party that hates homosexuals, and the #2 man has a daughter that is gay. I found it rather interesting to hear it referred to on a news program some weeks back that Cheney's daughter's partner was the "wife", yet Cheney's daughter is the one pregnant. I guess in a confused relationship like this, gay women as husband's are now capable of having children; sort of like being the mom and dad rolled into one. I'm sure the kid will be loved, but it's also going to grow up really confused, which will lead to other psychological issues. Pity the child. Cheney's daughter is only concerned about herself and her partner; afterall, the kid is merely a political statement and a liefestyle choice prop.

Posted at 6:47PM on Jan 24th 2007 by TH

I suspect that it is no coincidence that when Mary spoke out a few days later she used the same wording as this comment. I suspect that it or a repetition of it reached her ears and was very hurtful, with its claim that her father is ashamed of her, that the party that both he and she campaigned for hates homosexuals, and that she is moved by selfishness rather than love.

Given that it led to such hurtful things being said, mightn't there be some truth to the claim that the question is over the line and shouldn't be asked? Doesn't she have a point that she deserves some privacy and respect? Yes. Those are valid points, and deserve consideration. But, the counterpoints that she is open about her sexuality, publicly announced the pregnancy, worked on her father's campaign, and has written a book about her life are also valid. And the issue didn't start on The Situation Room. Wolfe was only citing very negative, and probably quite hurtful claims made the Cheneys' political allies, and asking if they shouldn't be answered or rebutted. Is Wolfe more at fault for asking the father if he would care to reply to those who criticize his daughter than the ones actually criticizing her?

In the end, by the time that she has announced her pregnancy, the right has attacked her, Wolfe has brought the topic up, Cheney has rebuked him, and Mary has said that neither side should be using her baby, the issue of whether it was a legitimate question is an open issue, that you would expect the press to consider. And if it is out of line to ask the VP to address the topic, if Mary Cheney's pregnancy is nobody's business, how does that affect the whole issue of the privacy of gay and lesbian couples in general? Do they as a class deserve to be left alone, or is it just the families of the rich and powerful?

And now we're finally back around to the question that this blog as a whole is always concerned with, whether we are in danger of sacrificing liberty, whether we are laying the foundation for turning Republic into Empire. We have heard that it is only a "private family matter" when the President's two daughters are charged with alcohol related crimes, and when his brother Jeb's sons and daughter have similar brushes with law involving liquor, sex, drugs and the like. Yet both the President and the Governor supposedly believe in being tough on crime, strong on "values", tough on drugs, and such, and trot out other people's families for display at public speeches. It sounds like asking for special treatment, and in past years the press has argued that even in the cases of the under-age Bush children there was a legitimate story.

But now, a few years later, in the case of Cheney's adult, political activist, public figure daughter, the argument that respect for the VP should dictate discretion in what questions he is asked seems to be taken to heart. The press appears to be learning to show deference, and I cannot help but wonder if after all the talk about the President's inherent power, the way that major votes on habeas corpus, wire tapping, detention without trial, and even torture are being voted on on party lines, out of "loyalty to the President" or in opposition to him, if we aren't shifting our mental habits to the rule of men rather than the rule of law. The President and Vice President are due greater respect than the common man, because of their power and position. The press having learned in the five years since 9/11 not to "embolden the enemy", not to appear disloyal or unpatriotic, is getting used to the habit of deferring to power.

For myself, I can see going a little easy on the private lives of the families of public figures, to at the very least offering them the same discreet privacy that we would show the families of the common man. But in the case of an adult who is a political activist and a public figure in her own right, when she is criticized or attacked in a way that embodies the ways that others are also treated, I don't see the reason for extraordinary deference. Gay rights, gay marriage, gay adoption, and gay parenting are all very vital issues of the day. The debate over them has at times sunk to the level of death treats against gay families. Addressing these issues in polite public debate is important.

It is a sad commentary that it is left to a comedy show to address such serious issues, but it is a hopeful sign that a large and growing fraction of our younger citizens are attending to these issues, informed through such a show.

As ever, don't take my word for it. Watch the shows; read what's been written; get involved; speak out and make a change.