Sunday, March 22, 2009

Too distracting to get right

In the New York Times Week in Review, Sheryl Gay Stolberg discusses the phenomenon of the political distraction -- the seemingly minor contretemps that blows up into a much bigger issue than the underlying issue of which it is a part. Looking to find bipartisan distractions, she cites the Dubai Ports World case --

George W. Bush was blindsided by an executive branch decision to contract with Dubai Ports World, an Arab-owned company, to manage terminals in six American ports.

What these stories share is a simple and clear narrative that captures the public imagination by tapping into some larger fear or existing perception — “a proxy for a bigger concern,” in the words of Ed Gillespie, former counselor to Mr. Bush ... Eric Ueland, who was chief of staff to one Republican critic, the former Senate majority leader Bill Frist. “A lot of elements combined, so that when somebody said, quite simply, ‘The Bush administration is turning ports over to a Middle Eastern government,’ you got a lot of resonance.”

While the interpretation is right, the description of the underlying facts is not. The Bush administration did not give any contracts to DPW. Instead, a committee charged with review of overseas takeovers of US entities approved the DPW takeover of P&O (itself a furrin company) which ran those 6 ports in the US.

Thus there's an unintentional illustration of one reason why "distractions" accelerate in the media: they don't get described properly, to the point where the meta-narrative into which they are inserted infects the underlying facts. The transition from truth to truthiness, if you will. And it's happening again. Here's Frank Rich (in an otherwise good column) today --

Summers was even more highhanded in addressing the “retention bonuses” handed to the very employees who brokered all those bad bets.

The very employees who ran AIG into the ground are long gone. That's part of the problem. If we had negative bonuses for them, we'd be getting somewhere.

UPDATE: It's been brought to our attention that the DPW imbroglio was eventually solved by selling the ports to ... AIG!

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