Khrehbiel Rhetoric Busting

Fellow Henrico County, Virginia blogger Thomas Krehbiel dissects television talk show host Keith Olbermann's latest "special commentary" in a recent post on his normally excellent blog. Olbermann set out to debunk Bush's claimed successes in the "War on Terror" in the recent State of the Union address to Congress. Krehbiel has some problems with Olbermann's honesty in his critiques, but I think he simply read more into Olbermann's commentary than he needed to (certainly Olbermann's commentary had more substance than Krehbiel's).

Nevertheless, I concede that in some cases Olbermann may have exaggerated several points beyond strict journalistic practice (Christ, does that even exist anymore?). This doesn't degrade the authenticity of the editorial as a subjective statement of opinion, though. Moreover, such a critique of Olbermann fails to apply equal standards to each participant in the debate. If anybody should be held to a strict standard of truth, it should be the President, no? What bothers me about Krehbiel's attack is not that he points out any shallowness inherent in Olbermann's argument (anybody working for MSNBC would not get along with me in a political discussion), but rather the prejudice with which he selectively applies his critique.

First of all, Bush is under no obligation to back any of his success claims up with any sort of genuine, factual proof that could be verified by an independent, non-interested, unpolitical third party. It is indeed proper to hold Olbermann to this standard, but not as a way to prove Bush's superior position, especially when said President regularly exercises this executive prerogative for secrecy. Now, that's not a disproof of Bush's claims - it's simply a fact that he's making claims that cannot be easily falsified by the general public.

Remember that in as much as neither Limbaugh nor Olbermann are journalists, strictly speaking, neither is Bush - in fact, far less so. Therefore, trusting Bush's version of events - where there are even more political reasons to bend the truth, due to secrecy privileges - is just as, if not more, dubious. I mean, at least you can do research on the facts Olbermann is using. But Bush has privileged access to the entire corpus of U.S. intelligence.

Finally, since there's no (legal) way to disprove his claims in the context of intelligence law in this country, Olbermann has no way to refute his claims in any final sense. That doesn't preclude a critique and a severe questioning of Bush's facts, even though us lowly citizens are prevented from knowing all the relevant corollaries. And it certainly doesn't disqualify a citizen from expressing skepticism and cynicism, both of which I think Bush's antics deserve in spades. One is forced to wonder whether Krehbiel is attacking the tone or the facts, since a great deal of his rebuttals to Olbermann's points serve to highlight the factual murkiness of these situations, not to introduce important missing data.

While Krehbiel's entitlement to his point of view poses no problem to me, it doesn't strike me as particularly centrist when you uncritically accept whatever the mouthpiece of neoconservative policy puts out there - anymore than it would be if you believed everything coming out of Olbermann's mouth. I don't so much have a problem with the caution Krehbiel is applying to Olbermann's critique, but that he applies no similar skepticism to a much, much more accountable figure. Maybe his point was solely intended to focus on Olbermann's process. Still, the outcome of either rhetorical course is largely equivalent: by applying different standards to different people, one poisons the very debate in which we, as a society, should engage.

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Written on Thursday, February 01, 2007