Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A rant about the media's treatment of Rand Paul yesterday

Yesterday Rand Paul did an interview for CNBC with Kelly Evans. To put it charitably, the interview was a deliberate and transparent smear-job against Paul and his views. You can watch it here: I'm going to dissect it minute by minute.

Evans began the interview with the following question: "I just have to begin by asking did you REALLY just say to Laura Ingraham that you think most vaccines in this country should be quote 'VOLUNARY'?". The capitalization is my shorthand for patronizing voice inflection. Condescension is a bad way to start a conversation with a Senator and major presidential candidate in any case, but it would at least be understandable if the position she was attacking were actually extreme or uncommon. But voluntary vaccination is not some wacko libertarian outlier proposal – it’s the status quo! Most states even allow parents to decline their kids medical treatment for diseases they already have, whether for religious or other reasons. The idea that parents get to decide what goes in their children's bodies is hardly unorthodox.

At 0:22, after Paul expressed this sentiment, Evans continued: "Maybe you're not aware, but there's a huge problem right now with Disney theme parks having to close down because of...measles mumps and rubella, because their parents have decided for whatever reason that it is voluntary. And I can tell you plenty of the people that I work with are really concerned about their kids getting sick at school." This is a transparent smear for at least three reasons:

1. Once again, the "maybe you're not aware" is just dripping with vitriol - obviously he's frickin' aware, as she just quoted an earlier interview he did on the subject that same day. It’s fine to disagree with Paul’s position, and to say so forcefully. But phrasing it with such sarcasm implies that the only way anyone could possibly disagree with her is if they were woefully under-informed about current events – which, sadly, is a common attitude on the modern left. Feigning incredulity that someone could both be informed AND disagree with you is disrespectful from anyone, but especially from news-outlets that claim some semblance of objectivity.

2. At no point in these sentences does Evans ask Paul a question. Before the interview has even begun, it’s devolved into her announcing her opinions, and challenging Paul to rebuke them. I somehow doubt that the people who tuned in to watch Evans interview Rand Paul did so because they were so intrigued to hear what
Evans had to say about vaccines.

3. Evans states that measles is coming back because the parents of unvaccinated children “
have decided…that [vaccines are] voluntary.” That’s not what those parents decided; they decided that vaccines are bad: that on net, they do more harm than good, or pose more risk than it’s worth taking. THAT is why measles is coming back. The casual observer may not pick up on the relevance of Evans’ word choice, but it is a classic deception of the statist mindset: the assumption that everything bad should be banned, everything good should be mandatory, and that obviously everyone everywhere believes this so they’re equivalent. When you conflate the belief that vaccines are bad with the belief that vaccines should be voluntary, you can lump people like Rand Paul in with the loony science-deniers who think vaccines are actually dangerous (and, as you’ll see, this is precisely what the media hoped to accomplish in this interview all along).

(The same illogic is applied to debates on health insurance, birth control, drug control, and others. Most reasonable and informed people agree that health insurance is good to have, birth control should be available to those who want to buy it, and narcotics are bad for your health. It does not follow that buying health insurance should be mandatory, providing employees with free birth control should be mandatory, and doing drugs should be illegal. So far as I can tell, the entire political left is utterly unable to wrap their minds around this distinction. And yes, Kelly Evans, that was exaggeratory sarcasm.)

In response, Rand Paul went on to express his views about vaccines:
·       0:41 – “I think vaccines are one of the greatest medical breakthroughs that we’ve had. I’m a big fan.”
·       1:10 – “I think public awareness of how good vaccines are for kids, and how good they are for public health is a great idea.”
·       1:20 – “[Vaccines are] things that we should promote as good for our health.”
·       1:48 – “Do I think [the Hepatits B vaccine] is ultimately a good idea? Yeah.”
·       1:55 – “I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”
·       2:02 (immediately after the above) – “I’m not saying vaccines are bad! I think they’re a good thing. But I think the parent should have some input.”

So, upon reading the totality of those quotes, do you get the impression that Rand Paul’s position on vaccines is favorable, or unfavorable?

Now, read this headline from the Huffington Post a few hours later, and ask yourself if it gives you the same impression:
 Leave aside that repeatedly saying vaccines are good hardly counts as “vacillating.” To hear the totality of the comments I just quoted, and select out “Vaccinated Children Got Profound Mental Disorders” as the representative snippet, is to deliberately misrepresent what was said – and not merely to exaggerate it, but to make it appear to be the total opposite. To go further, and immediately contrast that snippet with a “Vaccinate your kids” paraphrase from Obama (in a different color, no less) is to make it appear as if Obama and Paul disagree when in fact they do not: both support vaccines unequivocally, and neither have pushed to make them mandatory. And to follow that deception with warnings about a large measles outbreak only serves to intensify and raise alarm about that (nonexistent) contrast. CNN, NBC, Salon and plenty others each did the same thing.

In the snippet they selected, Paul said he had “heard of” cases in which a mental disorders came “after” the vaccines. But even that sentence did not claim causation of one to the other, merely sequence. And most importantly, it was sandwiched immediately between five other sentences that took great pains to clarify how supportive he is of vaccines! Only someone reading the transcript eager to find something that sounds bad out of context would choose that phrase in particular to summarize his views.

Indeed, Paul clarified that this “temporal relation” is all he was referring to the next day to the New York Times, which reported Paul “believed the science was definitive on the matter and that vaccines are not harmful. As a physician himself (he is an ophthalmologist), he said he was irked to see his views characterized otherwise.”  As Paul himself put it, “there’s 400 headlines now that say ‘Paul says vaccines cause mental disorders,”. That’s not what I said. I said I’ve heard of people who’ve had vaccines and they see a temporal association and they believe that.” I suppose expecting the media to consider any sort of nuance or context is apparently too much to ask when it’s about someone they’re desperate to skewer.

Sadly, the interview did not get better from then on. After describing his newly introduced tax holiday proposal, Evans asked one of the most preposterously slanted “questions” I’ve ever heard on TV: “Senator, I’m sure you know that most of the evidence on these tax holidays indicate that they actually cost more money than they save…”

Listen, the merits of the corporate tax holiday proposal are a matter on which reasonable, intelligent, educated people can and do disagree. It’s a debate that should have taken place on the show. But when you kick off the discussion by essentially saying “I’m sure you know that most of the evidence says you’re wrong and I’m right,” it cuts off the debate before it can begin. And when you do it just after the condescending exchange I described above, it’s bound to get the person on the other end a bit agitated.

For his part, Paul tried to salvage the debate by interjecting with a study showing the opposite – he quoted it by author and year, and summarized its findings. But as soon as he’d transitioned from that to begin making the case for the law he was endorsing on the Senate floor – perhaps the primary reason he’d agreed to do the interview at all – Evans interrupted with her own counterargument, and that’s when Paul decided he’d had enough. He stopped her, shushed her, and told her to calm down. Good for him!
Of course, the same media outlets which contorted Paul’s statements on vaccines didn’t find it so awesome as I did, accusing him of unprofessionalism and even sexism. But when your question boils down to "why do you support something which is so bad?", and then you talk over the guest’s response, you deserve to be shushed. When each of the questions you ask are preposterously slanted, thinly-veiled hit pieces designed to make Paul look stupid for bad reasons, you deserve to have your objectivity called into question. I think even Evans realized this, which is why she apologized on air.

The third question about Audit the Fed was fine, but the final question was more of the same. Using the segway “speaking of conflict of interest, any response to the Washington Post piece about the sort of self-appointed board of colleagues and relatives that were part of your opthamology group in Kentucky?” This is less bad than the other questions, but still a pretty obvious excuse to give undue and misleading attention to petty criticisms from his past. First off, as a libertarian, Paul likely doubts the necessity of any state medical licensing board at all; even if the allegations were true, it wouldn’t be inconsistent with his ideology to try to subvert requirements he doesn’t think should exist in the first place. But the allegations are not true, because it wasn’t just a small ring of family and friends that were involved: he led a protest of over 700 doctors against this policy, and the policy was pretty blatantly unfair.

So basically, she asked him four questions in the entire interview, which can be roughly translated as follows:
  • "How can you possibly believe something so preposterous about vaccines???”
  • “Why do you support a taxing policy which all the studies show doesn’t work???”
  •  “Isn’t Audit the Fed just an excuse to ‘second guess’ the fed?”
  • “Why did you make this backchannel loophole to help out all your doctor buddies?”

Ultimately, it was clear to me CNBC did not want to interview Rand Paul; they wanted to discredit Rand Paul, spout their opinions in the presence of Rand Paul, and distort cherry-picked, out-of-context segments of his irritated response into something that meant the polar opposite of what he actually said. Huffington Post, NBC and a whole gamut of other media outlets were all too eager to follow suit. As the presidential election season kicks into gear, I have a sneaking suspicion that this will not be the last time the media gives Rand Paul an unfair shake. 

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