A Modest Proposal

I would like to suggest a new word to be entered into the English vocabulary: “to fleischer”. Fleischering is to avoid answering a question by making a statement that is formally an answer but actually does not even address the topic of the question. For example, when asked if the president’s lack of comment on Sen. Santorum’s equation of homosexuality with incest and bestiality (and reference to priestly pedophilia as consensual homosexual intercourse) represented ” a conscious decision to just keep clear of this one?” on the part of the administration, fleischering’s namesake said:

Let me put it to you this way. The President typically never does comment on anything involving a Supreme Court case, a Supreme Court ruling or a Supreme Court finding — typically. And in this case, we also have no comment on anything that involves any one person’s interpretation of the legalities of an issue that may be considered before the Court.

This is neither an admittal or denial that the White House has chosen not to address Santorum’s statements, while at the same time downplaying their importance (as “one person’s interpretation of the legalities of an issue”). That’s a mild example, but I really don’t feel up to going through the White House press briefing transcripts for a really strong one from Ari.

Fortunately, I don’t have to, because now fleischering has gone public. Here’s an excellent example from an interview with Darl McBride, president and CEO of The SCO Group. SCO is a Unix company that has lodged a billion-dollar lawsuit against IBM over the release of SCO-licensed code by IBM to Linux developers (Linux being a powerful, free or low-cost alternative to SCO’s Unix):

CRN: Some are worried that a court case might give Microsoft a legal precedent that could be used to deaccelerate adoption of Linux at customer sites. What do you say to that?
McBride: In our case, Linux comes from Unix and we own the Unix operating system. How this plays out with other code bases, I don’t know.
CRN: What are you trying to do? Some say you are trying to compete against Linux by destroying it.
McBride: We will use our best efforts to protect our source code.

Truly a fine example of fleischering! The first question asks about the effect of SCO’s suit on Microsoft’s PR campaign, and McBride answers with an asseretion of ownership of Unix (and, by extension, Linux), and then avers a lack of opinion about Miscrosoft’s code, which was never even mentioned. The second question asks about the companies use of the lawsuit as a weapon against their competition, and is answered with a near non-sequiter about protecting their code base.

Fleischering is important because of the way it has shaped our political discourse. A freedom to ask questions is useless in a society where questions are not answered, where the give-and-take of a press briefing or interview is reshaped as a monologue interpersed with questions that are merely opportunities to expound, rather then to respond. There’s a great scene in the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement where Gregory Peck, playing a journalist pretends to be Jewish in order to write about how anti-Semitism is felt and experienced, confronts the manager of a restricted hotel. The manager refuses to come straight out and say that Jews are not allowed in the hotel, and the exchange grows more heated until, finally, the manager turns his back, walks into the back room, and closes the door, leaving Peck fuming but without any target for his righteous anger. This is what fleischering does–it refuses any “sticking point” for criticism of or challenge to one’s position. A little later in the press briefing I cited above, the following exchange occured, after Ari said that France was beginning to come around to America’s view regarding Iraqi sanctions, but had not gone far enough (“Greg” is apparently the next reporter in line for questions):

Q: You’re saying they’ve turned the corner, they just haven’t gone quite far enough?
MR. FLEISCHER: I’ll leave it as I put it.
Q: Why won’t you answer the question about —
MR. FLEISCHER: Greg.
Q: Hold on. We’re entitled to follow up, Ari — this isn’t homeroom.
MR. FLEISCHER: Greg.
Q: Why won’t you answer the question about whether or not — he said there are going to be consequences —
MR. FLEISCHER: David, there are other qualified reporters in here, too, who can follow-up.
Q: I didn’t say they were not qualified, Ari. I’m saying you’re running it like it’s homeroom, like we can’t follow-up when you’re refusing to answer a question that’s been posed twice to you, directly. The Secretary of State said that there would be consequences. Why won’t you say what they might be?
MR. FLEISCHER: Greg.
Q: Do you want to elaborate on what those consequences would be?
MR. FLEISCHER: I addressed it earlier. You heard what I said about consequences.
Q: You didn’t address it, which is the point. But you can’t tolerate that kind of dissent.
Q: [Assumedly Greg] On the home front, the Senate GOP is beginning the early discussions on their tax bill, which — a net of $350 billion. Does the White House have a preferred level of revenue raisers they’d like to see added to that bill that would allow you to extend, in effect, the overall size —

I think we can safely assume that David will join the crowd of exiled journalists in the back of the Press Room from here on in. The point is the absolute refusal to offer any sort of defense or explanation, the rejection of any concession to dialogue. Now, of course, press briefings are not necessarily about dialogue, but they are supposed to be about providing journalists the information they need to convey to the rest of us just what’s going on behind the Blue Curtain. David, whoever he is, was doing his job, trying to get the information that the majority of Americans who have questions about our relationship with foreign countries alienated by the unilateralism of this administration want and need to be informed citizens. It’s not, then, that Ari fleischered the journalist, but that he fleischered the journalist’s public–and that’s you and me. And it’s unacceptable. So I’d like to make sure that this tactic is perpetually linked with the infamy of the man who raised it not only to an art, but to public policy.

[Thanks to eschaton for the Ari Fleischer quotes.]

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