Daniel W. Drezner

The New York Times goes Vizzini on the word “split”

In honor of The Princess Bride, your humble blogger describes someone as “going Vizzini” when they repeatedly use a word in a way that doesn’t correspond to how the rest of society would use it.   Today’s example is the New York Times story, “Attacks on Detainee Lawyers Split Conservatives.”  The lead:  A conservative advocacy organization ...

thebadastronomer/flickr
thebadastronomer/flickr

In honor of The Princess Bride, your humble blogger describes someone as “going Vizzini” when they repeatedly use a word in a way that doesn’t correspond to how the rest of society would use it.  

Today’s example is the New York Times story, “Attacks on Detainee Lawyers Split Conservatives.”  The lead: 

A conservative advocacy organization in Washington, Keep America Safe, kicked up a storm last week when it released a video that questioned the loyalty of Justice Department lawyers who worked in the past on behalf of detained terrorism suspects.

But beyond the expected liberal outrage, the tactics of the group, which is run by Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president, have also split the tightly knit world of conservative legal scholars. (emphasis added)

The story repeatedly argues that the conservative legal community is deeply divided on the issue. Now, I understand split as implying that members of this community are lining up on one side or the other. The thing is, I’m not seeing a lot of evidence that anyone in the conservative legal community is really lining up behind Keep America Safe. The Times story by John Schwartz has a quote by John Yoo that kinda sorta supports the ad, but it’s really weak tea — Yoo “said he had not seen the material from Ms. Cheney’s group,” according to the story.    

Then we get to this section: 

A Keep America Safe spokesman responded to a request for comment by passing along links to essays by supporters like Marc A. Thiessen, a columnist for The Washington Post, who wrote on Monday that the detainees did not deserve the same level of representation as criminal defendants.

The lawyers, Mr. Thiessen wrote, “were not doing their constitutional duty to defend unpopular criminal defendants.” He said, “They were using the federal courts as a tool to undermine our military’s ability to keep dangerous enemy combatants off the battlefield in a time of war.”

Thiessen is not a lawyer (he’s not the best debater in the world either).  I would describe the conservative legal blogososphere as not really supportive of the ad.   

Even if we expand our orbit to include other prominent conservatives, it seems pretty clear that beyond Thiessen, Bill Kristol, Michelle Malkin, and the Cheneys, there ain’t a lotta conservative love for the attack ad.  Over at The Cable, Josh Rogin tried to get a GOP Senator to endorse the ad and failed.  I wouldn’t characterize Glenn Greenwald as a defender of the right, but even he notes that, “only the hardest-core ideological dead-enders are defending them.” 

The more interesting way to frame this story would have been to show that professional norms do act as a serious constraint on political behavior.  Schwartz quotes David B. Rivkin Jr., co-chairman of the Center for Law and Counterterrorism in exactly this fashion:

“I appreciate the partisan advantage to be gained here,” Mr. Rivkin said, but “it’s not the right way to proceed.” He said he preferred “principled ways for debating where this administration is wrong — there’s no reason to resort to ad hominem attacks.”

So, just to sum up — the Times got to this story at least a day later than everyone else, and then used an inappropriate frame to describe the situation. There’s no conservative legal split — there’s a pretty strong consensus that the Keep America Safe ad crossed the line. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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