Sean Hannity has taken journalism to a level even Joseph Goebbels would have to admire. In Hannity’s hands, insinuation and guilt by association are art forms. Indeed, his ability to make the worse argument appear better is virtually unmatched by any rhetorician I know of. He may be the finest sophist America has. But let’s give credit where credit is due. After all, Hannity’s success depends critically on the virtually unlimited obtuseness of his audience. It takes a rare and exceptional mind to fall for the same fallacies over and over again, but Hannity’s viewers are unvaryingly consistent in their credulity.
How does Hannity manage to pull the wool over the eyes of his audience while viewers flock away from liberal commentators? I believe this has something to do with the fact that the politics of fear and resentment has proven a winning strategy for the right wing in the past. Put simply, for a lot of voters it’s easier to imagine things that make them angry than to envision ways of solving the challenges that make them fearful and angry in the first place. Hannity’s genius, and that of his compatriots, is to deftly turn public figures like Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama into emblems that stir the anxiety and ire of a significant portion of the electorate.
Hannity and his ilk do this by twisting the words, exploiting gaffes, and manipulating images in ways that make candidates they oppose seem foreign, condescending, and disloyal to America. For instance, prior to the 2000 election Al Gore said he took the initiative in creating the Internet (which was true). But this was twisted to make it seem like Gore was claiming credit for inventing the Internet, which was supposed to feed into the notion that the VP was a serial exaggerator. Conservative commentators had a field day with John Kerry’s windsurfing, which they used to pigeonhole him as a flip-flopping elitist.
The tactics Hannity and company are using to disparage Barack Obama are no less inane, but they are arguably more subtle and potentially more pernicious. It is essential to expose the sophistic ploys they use to manipulate public opinion so that the 2008 election is decided on basis of ideas and character, not character assassination.
Hannity and like-minded conservative commentators are determined to paint Obama as not one of us. They have to eschew overt forms of bigotry, of course, so rather than attack Obama directly they resort to guilt by association. For example, there are determined to link Obama to a figure named William Ayers. Ayres was once a member of an extremist group that protested the Vietnam War forty years ago by building and setting off bombs. Ayres is now an English professor who happens to live in the same neighborhood as Obama. The two also sat on the board of an anti-poverty foundation. Barack Obama was eight years old when Ayers was engaging in his subversive activities and has condemned the acts in question as "detestable."
If standards of logic and reason were applied there few if any inferences one could deduce from Obama’s tenuous association with Ayres. However, Hannity and his crowd are experts at twisting facts in order to generate and pin a negative emotional connotation on Obama. Here’s how they do it. First, they deliberately exaggerate Ayers’ moral culpability. They do this by stating that Ayers was part of a terrorist group that set off bombs that killed people, but they fail to mention two important facts: 1) Ayers did set off bombs, but no one was killed. 2) Three members of Ayers’ group were killed when a bomb they were making exploded accidentally, but these are the only deaths caused by the group. In other words, attempts to paint Ayers as public enemy number one are overblown.
Ayers, however, had the misfortune of publishing a book on the same day as 9/11. In it he says, "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough." Ayers claims that "I feel we didn’t do enough" refers to the efforts to end the war and that he did not mean that he wished he had set of more bombs. In fact, he has acknowledged feeling embarrassed by the arrogance, rigidity, and narcissism he and his compatriots exhibited at the time. Ayers, however, as clearly provided Hannity with the opening he needs to portray him as a terrorist in the same moral category as bin Laden, which he does by depicting Ayers as some one who unrepentantly hates America. After all, as Hannity boils over with righteous indignation, Ayers had audacity to make his "I feel we didn’t do enough" comment on 9/11.
Hannity next step is to keep referring to Ayers as a terrorist while mention the coincidental 9/11 connection over and over again. The idea is to plant in the minds of viewers that Ayers is a guy who attacked America and said these dreadful things on 9/11. Never mind that Hannity has interpreted Ayers’ views out of context -- and in the worst possible way -- while deliberately conflating Ayers and 9/11 in a disingenuous way. The final step of course, is to make the leap that because Obama sat on the same board and knew Ayers that this is the kind of person he surrounds himself.
Hannity also takes a relatively innocuous event, such as Obama’s participation in the Million Man march, and links him to radical black leader Louis Farrakhan. Snippets of Farrakhan are played repeatedly as Hannity makes insinuations about Obama’s associations: There’s a pattern here . . . he’s not who we think he is . . . he’s hiding something . . . etc.
The flap over Obama’s pastor, Reverend Wright, is a variation on this theme. Obama has repudiated the comments his pastor made. But by playing them in an endless loop, and piling one dubious insinuation upon another, Hannity makes several flimsy arguments seem more persuasive than they really are. He does through repetition and the juxtaposition of incendiary images (Rev Wright, Louis Farrakhan, and William Ayers) when discussing Obama. All of this is designed to create and imprint negative emotional feelings towards the likely Democratic nominee. Hannity’s method here is only slightly subtler than the conditioning Pavlov used to train dogs to salivate at the sound of a dinner bell.
Guilt by association, conflation, and other rhetorical slights of hand techniques are the same methods the Bush administration deployed to fallaciously link Saddam to 9/11 in the public mind. Can a well-oiled but increasingly decrepit right-wing propaganda machine hoodwink the American people once again? There’s an old saying, "Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me." The American people cannot afford to be fooled again.