Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I'm not a theologian...

...but I play one on the radio!

I mentioned that there wasn't much "news" behind last week's New York Times story about the curious Catholic practice of seeking indulgences. Nevertheless, the topic generated enough interest that I ended up trying to explain how indulgences work on Canadian public radio! The interview I did for Commonweal made the final segment of last night's As It Happens on CBC Radio One. You can hear all six minutes on the As It Happens website: Click on "Listen to Part 3" and skip ahead to 22:47.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Isn't it pretty to think so?

On February 11, the Wall Street Journal ran a brief editorial entitled "Obama's Press List." As you might recall, President Bush was criticized for avoiding and disdaining the press, whereas President Obama has (so far) been making an effort to hold frequent press conferences and to seem generally respectful of the Fourth Estate. Of course, White House press conferences are painful to watch no matter who presides. If you want to learn how to avoid answering a direct question, they're master classes. If you want actual information, they're generally a waste of time. But I digress. Objectively, Obama is working harder to respect and accommodate the media than Bush did. But what about those members of the media who worked hard to respect and accommodate Bush? Isn't there a way for them to turn this state of affairs on its head, making a comparison that is somehow unflattering to Obama?

The WSJ editorial snidely called Obama out for working from a predetermined list as he called on members of the press. "Presidents are free to conduct press conferences however they like, but the decision to preselect questioners is an odd one, especially for a White House famously pledged to openness," it declared. "We doubt that President Bush, who was notorious for being parsimonious with follow-ups, would have gotten away with prescreening his interlocutors."

Comparisons aren't arguments; they're substitutes for arguments. But if you're going to play the "What if the situation were different?" game, you ought to at least make sure your comparison isn't ignoring what happened when the situation actually was different. Because -- in case you haven't guessed -- President Bush did, of course, "prescreen his interlocutors."

We know this because then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said so during a press conference in 2003. (H/t to Media Matters.) At least, that seems to be the gist of this choppy transcript:
Q: Last night, after the fifth time has looked down at an apparent list of reporters, he smiled and he said, this is scripted.

MR. FLEISCHER: Are you going to complain he didn't call on you?

Q: No, no, no. No, no. Which surely suggests that he did not write that script which gave two questions to one network, two questions to one wire service, and one to other vague and wealthy media -- but left all the rest, including Helen Thomas, ruled out in advance of any chance to ask, and left to serve only as window dressing.

And my question is, since you are always fair, Ari, in recognizing all of us, who was it that wrote that script that the President confessed to? Was it Karl Rove or Karen or who?

MR. FLEISCHER: It was me who gave the President a suggestion on the reporters to call. And the President called on all reporters, the President did not call on any columnists.
Oh, but that was all the way back in 2003, you say. Yes, but Fleischer explained the process in greater detail earlier this week -- this week -- on The O'Reilly Factor. O'Reilly tried to make the same flimsy argument the WSJ is advancing in their editorial, only to be corrected by his guest, Fleischer, who explained that George Bush did indeed have "a list of guys he was going to call on" in his press conferences. Read all about it at the FAIR blog.

Here's how the editorial ends:
Few accounts of Monday night's event even mentioned the curious fact that the White House had picked its speakers in advance. We hope that omission wasn't out of fear of being left off the list the next time.
Zing! Except it wasn't so much an "omission" as it was a "failure to comment on a routine detail," and it was probably not identified as "curious" "out of fear" of being totally wrong.

So, just to recap: The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial in which they tried to paint Obama and his administration as controlling and untrustworthy, alleging that his behavior was "odd" and that President Bush would never have gotten away with a similar affront to the media. But, in fact, the procedure in question is standard, and Bush did just what Obama did. And, QED, he "got away with it." AND, perhaps most humiliating, this whole silly accusation was already advanced and debunked on Bill "no relation!" O'Reilly's show two days earlier. So... that's something to keep in mind when you're trying to decide whether to linger over the WSJ editorial page.

Meanwhile, The Daily Show did its own Bush/Obama press-conference-style comparison a month ago. But they went to the tapes. And it paid off. (The part about 2 minutes in is particularly relevant.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Everything old is new again

I feel like I should do some outreach here. But rather than catalog the many minor inaccuracies and distortions in yesterday's front-page New York Times article about the practice of granting indulgences (it's not "absolution"; the practice never really went anywhere; this particular indulgence has been available since June, and not just locally; etc.), may I just point you to the relevant post at dotCommonweal? By coincidence, we talked about heaven, hell, purgatory, etc. in our RCIA group this week, so I've been doing a lot of research and reading on the topic. Googling has been a depressing activity since this article surfaced (and became the "most e-mailed" on the NYT site! For two days now!): so much misinformation, so many nasty remarks about those backward Catholics out there in the blogosphere. But the discussion at dotCommonweal has been lively (and mostly good-natured). Believe it or not, there are intelligent people who take this idea seriously, and some of them even have a sense of humor about it! Why not indulge your curiosity? (See what I did there?)