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Jewish World Review May 15, 2001 / 22 Iyar, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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Facts are elusive on TV talk shows -- ALTHOUGH we now have more access to what is alleged to be information, actual facts are getting harder to find. That is particularly true of the increasing number of bombastic, Punch-and-Judy-style talk shows. Two egregious examples of George Orwell's warning that "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts" took place on CNN's "Capital Gang" on April 21. But that television program and network hardly have a patent on what Orwell described as "newspeak."

During a discussion of whether the FBI was blameworthy in the killing of 76 Branch Davidians -- 27 of whom were children -- in Waco, Texas, Robert Novak cited a recent investigative report by the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. The report persuasively reveals unacknowledged facts about Janet Reno's and the FBI's cover-up of their recklessness.

Panelist Al Hunt is the resident liberal of The Wall Street Journal, where the invaluable Dorothy Rabinowitz at long last received this year's Pulitzer Prize for commentary. On "Capital Gang," Hunt shot from the hip, scorning the Cato Institute as "some kind of wacky institute that will come out with a paper in order to placate some wacky contributors."

The libertarian Cato Institute has done more than any other Washington think tank to illuminate the manifold abuses of the Constitution during the Clinton regime. The Institute published Tim Lynch's "Dereliction of Duty: The Constitutional Record of President Clinton" (Cato Institute policy analysis, 1997) and "The Rule of Law in the Wake of Clinton" (Cato Institute, 2000), edited by Roger Pilon. Both of these works have gone much deeper than the mainstream or the alternative press -- and certainly more than broadcast or cable television -- into Clinton's and the Republican's contempt for civil liberties. Both parties joined Clinton's radical limitations on the oldest right of the English-speaking peoples, habeas corpus. There was bipartisan support for the use of secret evidence in deportation proceedings and an increase in the FBI's aggressive use of wiretapping.

In "The Rule of Law in the Wake of Clinton," American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen documents what she accurately calls Clinton's "brazen disregard" for civil liberties. In the Clinton years, however, the media largely ignored that part of his record to focus on Clinton's adventurous sexual practices.

I don't agree with all of the Cato Institute's policy conclusions, especially its Alice-in-Wonderland notion that free trade with China will eventually end that Stalinist regime's pervasive imprisonment and torture of those of its people who advocate democracy.

In this regard, on the same "Capital Gang" show, Robert Novak, without pausing for a second, said: "There's no question that the individual freedoms in China over the last 12 years have increased dramatically. And that's why there's an anti-Americanism. A lot of people (in China) are saying 'What is all this yelling about human rights?' They have never had it so good."

As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more or less."

"The question," Alice answered, "is whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question," said Humpty Dumpty, "is which is to be master -- that's all."

Al Hunt and Bob Novak should take a look at "Alice in Wonderland."

I was surprised that Mr. Novak, who is not indifferent to attacks on religious as well as civic freedoms, made no mention of the recent State Department report on the significantly worsening conditions for those in China who are continually punished -- often brutally -- for trying to exercise freedom of conscience. In January, Catholic sources in Hong Kong reported that two nuns were forced to renounce their faith in Eastern China amid renewed crackdowns against the underground Catholic community there.

"Two nuns and a laywoman were taken November 4 to a government office in Fengshan town, where they were denied food for two days and not allowed to sleep. On November 7, under verbal sexual harassment, the nuns were forced to sign a prepared document saying they renounced their faith."

I hope that both Robert Novak and the Cato Institute will send those former nuns their assurances that free trade will one day allow them to practice their faith again.

What might help consumers who tune in to this torrent of television talk is a regular critical review of the programs. CNN does have "Informed Sources" on Sunday, but much of that review of the press is more talk and not enough insistent separation of newspeak from the missing facts.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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