Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Lesson in Hyperbole

I've kept up with the Roger Clemens fiasco only enough to have a sense of what is going on. Unlike the rest of the mainstream media, I take no delight in crucifying an ex-hero for "letting us all down," especially since the media never really liked him in the first place, which matters more than any PED accusation. I also have no interest in watching someone aggressively and obnoxiously try to force back the tides of suspicion, as if the truth can be defeated by sneers, press releases, and unbelievably inappropriate taped phone conversations. The offensive cult of celebrity and empty controversy is attracting all of the scavengers and hangers-on to be expected where free publicity is to be given away.
So it was with some dismay that I read Howard Bryant's column today. 
I live in the real world, and I know that the media has a profits-driven duty to make any news event seem far more important and controversial than it actually is. The 2008 primaries are proving that, as each cable news outlet is competing for most obtuse metaphor for the process. Most of them use the old standards of fight, either in boxing terms or "horse race" ones, but my favorite is the "Ballot Bowl," which tries to make the primaries some sort of super-football contest. And we wonder why our country watches three or four 24-hour news networks and yet learns absolutely nothing substantive. Such is the ultimate goal of marketing.
Anyways, ESPN is guilty of this in the sports arena, but the dot-com columnists usually aren't as bad. As for Howard Bryant, he's a relatively new addition to the staff, and I haven't read much of his work. I did read his book Juicing the Game, but there was nothing overly sensationalized about that; if anything, it could have used a bit more vim and vigor.
So I was amazed to read Bryant's Feb. 12th column, a horrifying example of blurring the facts and realities of a situation to make it seem life-and-death. Here are some examples of what I'm talking about:

Bryant: "As titillating, tawdry and undignified as the blood feud between Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee has been, the real showdown Wednesday before Congress is not between Clemens and McNamee, but between Clemens and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell."

Me: Note the adjectives and the violent choice of words: "blood feud," "showdown." And, although this is the main theme of Bryant's article, I think it's very inaccurate to claim that the showdown in the hearings will be between Clemens and Mitchell. In the most literal sense, this is of course untrue; Clemens and Mitchell won't face off in a rancorous debate, but be questioned by the congressional committee. But even in the sense that Bryant implies, the "showdown" will be between Clemens and, respectively, Brian McNamee and Andy Pettitte, the two people who are most likely to directly refute his claims of innocence. Pettitte will not testify, because he was a good little boy and gave a deposition. He will not be required to face the committee and vigorously defend his public statements, as Clemens will. McNamee will have to appear and defend his claims, but I hereby predict that the committee will not attack and cross-examine McNamee's claims nearly as much as they will Clemens. This is because a) they (and America) have already decided that McNamee is telling the truth, and b) Brian McNamee hasn't won 300 games.
So it will be Clemens who gets the grilling from Congress. But Bryant's implication that this will somehow be a "showdown" with Mitchell is silly. In the very same article, Bryant details how the committee treated George Mitchell reverently the last time he testified, failing to seriously question his methods or the legal propriety of his "investigation." Mitchell will get another cakewalk. There will be no confrontation with Clemens, because it's not Mitchell who can directly implicate Clemens with anything other than hearsay.

Bryant: "For [George Mitchell's] report to be accurate and truthful means McNamee has been telling the truth, which by extension means Clemens is not. For Clemens to be telling the truth means McNamee is not. And if that's the case, Mitchell and the law enforcement agencies that produced the information from McNamee will have been guilty of serious incompetence and possible misconduct, and any shred of credibility the Mitchell report once had would go up in smoke."

Me: Nothing nearly as interesting as that is going to happen. There's virtually no chance that George Mitchell, or any other baseball official, is going to be accused of "serious incompetence and possible misconduct" and see their credibility shattered. So long as Brian McNamee's story holds, Mitchell will be fine. And if the story doesn't hold, then McNamee was a liar, and the worst thing Mitchell did was to believe him. I personally think Mitchell was far too ready to believe the uncorroborated accusations of McNamee and Radomski, but neither the Congress nor the public has thus far shown any interest in fairness or due process. And they're not going to start anytime soon. The only thing going up in smoke tomorrow is Roger Clemens' seat.

Bryant: "There is no way each entity can walk out of Wednesday's hearing with his story intact. Somebody is going to take a career-ending, legacy-destroying fall."

Me: I think that gross hyperbole speaks for itself. Of COURSE both sides can walk out of tomorrow's hearings in stalemate. If both McNamee and Clemens stick to their stories, there's nothing the committee can do but point out inconsistencies or inaccuracies in their stories. And if both Clemens and McNamee didn't already have an explanation/excuse/lie for every statement the other one has made, they wouldn't be appearing before Congress in the first place. Bryant is cheerleading the ESPN coverage of the hearings with doomsday language that's inexcusably hyperbolic for a responsible journalist.

Bryant: "Do not forget that the only reason this hearing is being conducted is that Clemens had the nerve to challenge Mitchell's findings after the report was released Dec. 13."

Me: This is somewhat true, but no other accused athlete has been forced into the entrenched denials that Clemens had to make due to his superstar status. It's also true that the committee's choice of witnesses to testify is hilariously inconsistent. Some accused of PED use get called, others don't. What's enlightening is that none of the baseball players actually suspended for use under MLB rules have ever been called to testify, even though these are the people who got caught and would presumably have something to say. The only admitted PED user called before Congress was Jose Canseco (called for reasons having nothing to do with truth or justice). And the only other admitted users to get close scrutiny are Andy Pettitte and Chuck Knoblauch, and that only because they are directly related to the Clemens/McNamee discussion.
And in the big picture, let's not really open the can of worms and ask why these hearings are being conducted. To do so would be to admit the mockery that our national legislature has become.

Bryant: ". . . committee members assumed McNamee was credible because Mitchell was credible. They assumed this with the knowledge that even as the Jan. 15 hearing had taken place, Clemens already had appeared on "60 Minutes" and had held a passionate -- if not bizarre -- news conference defending himself against McNamee's charges. Yet, when Mitchell appeared before the committee, members treated him as if he were Gandhi or the pope."

Me: True enough, but this only reminds us that the central conflict is between McNamee's statements and Clemens' statements. Mitchell is, in this case, ancillary. Bryant's characterization of his soft handling by the committee is spot-on, but that again just goes to show that if there is a showdown here, it will be a decidedly one-sided one.

Bryant: ". . . if Mitchell was wrong, that would mean the Mitchell report was wrong and the committee showed great naivete by not questioning a highly controversial document. It would mean the report cannot be trusted and that Mitchell could not, to a large extent, be trusted. If Clemens, the biggest name in the report, was wrongly accused, Mitchell would have to come forward and explain himself and repudiate his work. Scheeler's testimony would be viewed carefully by the baseball hierarchy."

Me: Translation: "If Mitchell was wrong, the earth will open up and feral creatures will feast on his entrails." There's only two actual "ifs" in the previous passage but about 900 implied ones. Making a direct connection between Mitchell being wrong and his public humilation is questionable and, again, an inflammatory attempt to make the hearings seem important.

Bryant: "Clemens has dug in so deeply and with such angry conviction that these proceedings can only result in his vindication."

Me: Umm ... what? Where in the hell does this claim come from? It immediately follows the previously quoted passage, so I was incredibly startled by it. Not only is it an absolute statement of predicted fact, it's completely unsupported by the rest of the article and doesn't even follow his previous thought. Here's what follows in the paragraph led by that sentence:

Bryant: "If he wavers, he will have destroyed himself."

Me: In which case, the proceedings would not have resulted in his vindication. It takes a lot of skill to offer a statement and a direct contradiction in two sentences; it's efficient.
Here's how Bryant wraps up the paragraph:

Bryant: "Since the report's release, there has been nothing equivocal about his defense. Therefore, he cannot plead the Fifth Amendment if he is cornered. One of his lawyers, Rusty Hardin, already has said Clemens will not take the Fifth on any questions. It will be interesting to see if that extends to the question as to McNamee's latest grenade, that he injected Clemens' wife, Debbie, with growth hormone. It's a charge that so far has not been denied by anyone in the Clemens camp."

Me: Again, Bryant spends the rest of the paragraph repudiating its lead sentence. I can only guess that the opening sentence wasn't meant to be taken literally. I think he meant something like "the proceedings have to result in his complete vindication if he wants to survive." Or maybe he meant to stress the word complete. Either way, I don't think he meant it as a definite statement, since he refutes it for the rest of the paragraph. Someone should have caught that, or maybe I'm just confused.
I also have to point out that statements like "It's a charge that so far has not been denied" just make me want to vomit. This is the sort of disregard for due process and honest journalism that has turned this whole issue into such a sham. The implication with statements like these is "they haven't denied it yet, so it must mean that they have something to hide." It's a loaded statement which intentionally misleads the reader. First of all, Roger Clemens and his wife have no duty to issue a media response to every personal attack, and it's unfortunate that the media takes its revenge with biased innuendo. And secondly, he just may not have had time. Those charges only emerged recently, and Clemens has a lot on his mind. I'm not saying that Clemens or his wife are innocent; I'm just saying that the lack of a public statement is no excuse to suggest guilt.

Bryant: "Clemens is asking the public to believe that his once-trusted personal trainer obtained and distributed growth hormone; that his friend and most loyal protégé, Pettitte, admitted using growth hormone administered by McNamee; and that Clemens' wife used growth hormone, also administered by McNamee … but Clemens himself did not."

Me: These sorts of theories make sense and can convince the public, but legally they're not on solid ground. If my friend sold drugs to all my other friends, I cannot be prosecuted by implication. If everyone else in my office was bribing public officials, I cannot be prosecuted for bribery just for that. Guilt by association always works to convince the public of someone's guilt, but it's not a sound legal argument. It's suspicious to say the least, but based on that alone we cannot assume someone's guilt. And neither Bryant nor the committee can prove all of those conditional statements beyond any sort of doubt. All Bryant can prove is that Roger Clemens' former personal trainer has claimed that he gave HGH to Clemens and Pettitte. Pettitte confirms getting it, but we don't know yet how he's responding to the charges against Clemens. If he doesn't have any direct evidence of Clemens getting it, it's irrelevant. Unless he saw Clemens getting it or Clemens told him about it, it's all circumstantial.
And here's a great example of Congress setting up a de facto courtroom without basic legal protection for "witnesses." My understanding (from watching TV) is that there is a legal standard of husband-wife confidentiality. A spouse is not obligated to reveal knowledge of criminal activity revealed under the spousal relationship. There are exceptions, I believe, such as if a third party is present or if the spouses are accomplices. But my understanding, and I could be wrong, is that if Clemens told his wife he took HGH, she is not legally bound to say so. If Clemens knew his wife was on HGH, he is not legally obligated to say so. I guess you could get around that by arguing that they, along with McNamee, were accomplices, but to go further would just expose my ignorance of the criminal code.

Bryant: "And then there is Pettitte, who will not attend the hearing but remains key. Pettitte already has been deposed, and if he said he believes Clemens used growth hormone, Clemens is finished. If Pettitte lied to the committee, then he soon will be finished. And if he knew Clemens did not use and said so, then the veracity of the Mitchell report again goes on trial."

Me: Translation: "Somebody's getting their ass whupped tomorrow. Watch it live!"

Bryant: "Going forward, McNamee is the least important player in the act. He already is finished. If he lied to Mitchell and law enforcement officials, then he likely will go to jail. If not, he retains his credibility to what he has testified about Clemens, but will remain ruined professionally, for no athlete in the country with half a brain would work with him again or take him into his confidence."

Me: I've already stated that I think McNamee is not the least important player here. Because he's the biggest weapon the government has against Clemens, unless Pettitte directly implicates him in his deposition. He's not done, because the veracity of his statements will go through the wringer tomorrow and again in the civil suits to follow.

Bryant: "Regardless of the collateral damage to baseball or Clemens, the most important outcome of these proceedings is if McNamee has told the truth. If he has not, then every citizen in this country has reason to fear the motives and competence of the justice system."

Me: So "the most important outcome of the proceedings" is coming from "the least important player in the act?" Again, Bryant contradicts himself with remarkable efficiency.

Bryant: "Wednesday will be a day of reckoning with numerous reputations at stake. Interpreting the significance of the steroid era has always been about the integrity of the institutions and individuals involved. It is only fitting that after months of defiance from Clemens and haughtiness from Mitchell, one will be forced to admit he isn't exactly what he's seemed."

Me: Day of reckoning, my ass.
Once again, check the adjectives for hyperbole. At least Bryant finishes with what he began -- the bizarre statement, contradicted by his own article, that the fight is between Clemens and Mitchell and someone is going down.

Look, as I said before, I'm aware of the unfortunate realities of our modern media. I'm aware that this is particularly true with ESPN, which has a symbiotic set of common interests with the major sports that make its journalistic intentions sometimes suspect. I just hate to see it so obviously manifested on the micro level.
I hate to pillory Bryant, and I can't say that he's doing this as a cynical way to hype the hearings. Maybe it's subconscious, or maybe he really does believe all 0f this. But either way, it's still reprehensible.

It's articles like this that drive me away from the mainstream media, with its outrageously conflicted interests, toward independent news outlets.

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