Banter M Issue 56

In this issue of Banter M:

When Journalists Become True Believers - In the wake of the Rolling Stone/UVA rape story, Chez Pazienza examines what happens when journalists cease to look at facts objectively and begin to write the stories they want rather than reporting the actual facts. 

The Left's Blindness to Muslim Atrocities -  Bob Cesca opens up about his inability to understand the Left's cognitive dissonance over Muslim atrocities. Why is it OK to attack Christian dogma while insisting that any criticism of Islam is racist and worthy of viral social media floggings? It's a new position for Bob, but one he has come to through careful and considered thought

The Delusional, Ever Dangerous Tony Blair - Ben Cohen savages the delusional Tony Blair in the wake of the Chilcot inquiry and his continued denial that he lied and misled the British public about Weapons of Mass Destruction in the lead up to the Iraq war. 

When Journalists Become True Believers

by Chez Pazienza

My dad was an old school journalist. He came from a time before advocacy, before it became fashionable for reporters and investigators to begin their pursuits of "the  truth" with a set goal or preconceived notion already in mind. Granted, as Keith Olbermann has pointed out on more than one occasion, there's grand tradition and precedence for using journalism to further a particular point of view, so maybe it's more accurate to say that my father was raised in that specific era where news men and women were taught to shelve their feelings during stories because that was how you got to the facts -- that there was danger in assuming too much. Either way, that was how he raised me: to believe that while it was only natural to have biases, allowing them to infect your work from the outset was a recipe for disaster. Because once you believed something to be true, that belief could seep into your process in all kinds of pernicious and potentially catastrophic ways. It could distort reality, taint the outcome you strived for, maybe even trip you up and do colossal damage to you, the outlet you worked for, even innocent people.  

I have to wonder now whether there's ever been anyone -- a parent, friend, mentor or institution of learning -- who imparted this lesson to Sabrina Rubin Erdely. If you're having trouble recognizing the name off the top of your head, let me refresh your memory: Erdely was the freelance editor for Rolling Stone who reported the 2014 story titled "A Rape on Campus," which purported to detail the brutal fraternity gang-rape of a young woman named "Jackie" and the administrative resistance she met at every turn trying to get help in the aftermath. The piece was a 50 megaton airburst that detonated over not just the University of Virginia campus but college campuses in general. It turned the Pi Kappa Psi fraternity into the "rape house," sent UVA administrators running for cover, acted as a "told you so" moment and rallying cry for collegiate activists concerned with rape and "rape culture," and thrust Sabrina Rubin Erdely into the national spotlight as the reporter who'd ripped the cover of silence off a travesty of justice. Also, the whole report was bullshit. Top to bottom, back to front. Jackie's entire story was a lie.

Now, as UVA dean Nicole Eramo's instantly inevitable lawsuit against Rolling Stone proceeds, new information about what went wrong with the UVA rape story is coming to light on a near-weekly basis. Last Friday, new documents were submitted in court that outlined Sabrina Rubin Erdely's process in gathering information for her story -- and they show what can only be described as a shocking level of credulity on the part of a professional journalist at every step. Put simply, Erdely was so incurious about the many discrepancies in Jackie's story, she was so willing to overlook gaps and to simply chalk major issues up to a rape victim's trauma, that to follow the development of the article feels like watching someone building a timebomb. Each new piece just further ensures a violent explosion at the end. But more than Erdely's unwillingness to press Jackie for facts and corroboration out of fear of further tormenting a woman she believed wholeheartedly had been gang-raped, there's Erdely's entire premise, which highlighted the preconceptions she had about campus rape and how it was -- and wasn't -- being dealt with. Her bias was the poison tree from which all the rotten fruit of "A Rape on Campus" sprang. 

The newly released documents show that Sabrina Rubin Erdely believed Jackie's story to the bitter end, despite several instances that should have given her pause or at least pushed her to follow up with outside, corroborating sources. (Maybe the most unimaginable part of this entire investigation is that both Erdely and Rolling Stone were willing to base it all on a single source: Jackie.) While Jackie genuinely did seem traumatized, according to Erdely's copious notes -- at one point Erdely describes how, during a walk to the Phi Kappa Psi frat house, Jackie broke down in tears and ran away -- Erdely made the mistake of attributing any inconsistency at all to that alleged trauma. As Reason reports, this isn't a surprise given that from the beginning -- in the pitch for the story even -- she promised to rely on heavily biased campus sex assault experts Wendy Murphy and David Lisak to guide her through the thorns of the case. Murphy is one of primary proponents of filing Title IX lawsuits against colleges that don't immediately bend to the will of campus advocates for alleged rape victims, accusing them of creating a space where students can't actually learn because they live in fear. Lisak, meanwhile, is someone who sees rape around every corner of college campuses, making the American collegiate experience sound more like a trip to a third-world war zone for incoming female students. 

It was this outset bias that likely led Erdely to forgo speaking with three people who, had she done so, would have turned her story -- Jackie's story -- into a pile of unraveled string. First, because Jackie said he wouldn't speak to her -- and Erdely simply said, "Well, okay-doke" -- Erdely never interviewed Ryan Duffin, who Jackie claimed was a close friend but who, in reality, was a boy she had a crush on. Not only did Jackie say she hadn't spoken to Duffin in two years, despite their supposedly being friends -- which Erdely again just accepted as fact -- but she assured Erdely that Duffin wanted nothing to do with the story. So, once again, Erdely just caved without scratching her head and wondering why Jackie was being so evasive. Duffin, it turns out, might have been the impetus for the entire bullshit rape story as Jackie apparently made up her rapist as a means of luring Duffin close to her. The primary person who allegedly raped Jackie, "Haven Monahan," is someone she'd written to Duffin about previously, painting him as someone who scared her with his advances. The problem: Haven Monahan never existed. And Sabrina Rubin Erdely never bothered to confirm his existence. She didn't seek out the person who had allegedly committed the rape, precisely because she believed that doing so would re-traumatize Jackie. 

The third person Erdely didn't talk to was Jackie's mother, who could have shot down much of Jackie's story given that her daughter's movements as well as her appearance and behavior in the aftermath of the alleged rape were right there on display for her. Erdely relied solely on Jackie for everything, which is an unthinkable cardinal sin in journalism, the kind of screw-up it's honestly difficult imagining a freelance editor for Rolling Stone being so gullible as to make. Beyond that, there was the issue of the physical scars on Jackie's body -- or rather, the scars that should have been there. Jackie's story involved her being raped over and over again against the broken glass of a coffee table. But not only were no scars visible on any part of her body, reportedly no scars were ever visible. The most Erdely got out of a former friend of Jackie's was that she had seen a slash or two and thought it was the result of Jackie's cat. Believe it or not, Law & Order: SVU also played a role in the whole thing, according to Erdely's notes, because Jackie loved the show and even told Erdely that her assault reminded her of a particular episode of it. That this didn't set off alarm bells in Erdely's head is just mind-boggling. 

Among the hardest to read parts of Erdely's notes if you're a journalist is Erdely's eventual revelation that she'd been duped. The Washington Post's Richard Bradley was the first to show any skepticism about Erdely's reporting and he was of course lambasted by rape victim advocates and Third Wave feminist media outlets for it. But even as he exposed more and more inconsistencies within the Rolling Stone story, Erdely stood firmly behind it. (Bradley did talk to Jackie's friends, the ones Erdely ignored, and they shot holes in the story left and right.) But as more and more journalists began questioning the veracity of the piece, Erdely relented and contacted Jackie again, pressing her hard for the name of her attacker. (Jackie hadn't even revealed the true identity to Erdely up to that point.) It was then that Jackie hung up on Erdely, leaving Erdely to suddenly begin to understand just what was happening to her story -- what had been happening all along. She fired off an immediate e-mail to her Rolling Stone supervisors, the title line of which read simply "Our Worst Nightmare." It said that the story would have to be retracted.

If you return to the initial pitch for the story from Erdely, once again you find the seeds for the whole thing's eventual collapse. She approached the story with a set of firm beliefs about campus rape already in mind. She sought out the most brutal (read: unbelievable) case she could find. She suspended disbelief at every turn. In the end, on this story at least, Sabrina Rubin Erdely was a lousy journalist -- precisely because she wasn't being a journalist, she was being an advocate. And when you're an advocate, you're allowed to round off the sharp corners, overlook contradictory evidence, and focus solely on that which proves your case. That's what advocacy is; you present a proposition then leave it to your critics to try to refute you. But that's not what a journalist is. I've said this before but it bears repeating: Being a journalist is a lot like being a scientist. You have to constantly be trying to disprove your theses, because that's how you test the facts you have for signs of bias. Bias that can bring down your entire story. 

Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her Rolling Stone editors did nothing of the sort. In an admittedly admirable effort not to further hurt someone they truly believed was badly hurt, they went soft on her story. But that's the thing: Like it or not, fair or not, it was always up to Erdely not to entirely believe what Jackie was saying but to rather examine the facts and keep an open mind in each and every direction. Again, that's what a journalist does. Erdely didn't do that. She went in knowing exactly the kind of story she wanted. And she got it. It just turned out to be a giant lie -- and she has no one to blame but herself for falling for it.

Next: The Left's Blindness to Muslim Atrocities - by Bob Cesca

ISIS executes men, women and children found guilty of offenses against Islam

ISIS executes men, women and children found guilty of offenses against Islam

The Left's Blindness to Muslim Atrocities

by Bob Cesca

For whatever reason, my politics are growing closer to Bill Maher's. I don't imagine I'll ever agree with the HBO host and standup comic on everything, and I'm no one's disciple. But there it is. Maybe it's that I'm getting older and more cynical. The likely explanation is the same one I've always given for why I believe what I believe: my views generally emerge from what I observe to be a rational evaluation of each issue based on things like math, reality and factual consensus. In this regard, I'll never consider myself an ideologue -- my lack of unthinking loyalty to liberal dogma is, unfortunately, an aspect of my writing and podcasting that often irritates liberals who might otherwise follow my work. And, honestly, I don't care.

One of the areas where I simply can't go along with the views of my fellow leftists also happens to coincide with Maher's views, along with those of author and religion expert Sam Harris, generally speaking. Not so much by design, but mostly by coincidence. Specifically, as much as I've tried, I still can't grasp how the left can so easily castigate Christian dogma, including the crimes of the Catholic Church and the politics of evangelicalism, while insisting that any criticism of Islam is not just intolerant but downright racist, worthy of viral social media floggings.

It ought to be a given that I'm not talking about actual intolerance in the form of epithets and hate crimes. This, of course, is behavior that has no place in American society or otherwise. I'm talking about fact-based criticisms of a religion -- a religion that absolutely deserves to be condemned with the same gusto as other organized forms of theistic zealotry. 

I've certainly engaged in my fair share of outrage over Christian radicalism here and elsewhere throughout my twelve years of political writing/blogging, and I stand by most of it. Consequently, as far as self-evaluation is concerned, I don't feel like I need to pull punches when it comes to Islam. It's a matter of consistency and, again, an objective view of the facts. For as long as I've been doing this, I've followed other top-shelf liberal bloggers who routinely bash Christian fundamentalism (and not-so-fundamentalist worshipers, for that matter) as well as the militarism of Israel, but who also provide special latitude to Islamic fundamentalism. In terms of extremes, the lines of battle ought to be reversed, with far more criticism launched in the direction of Islamic fundamentalism than at Christian radicals who, at the end of the day, don't retain a national government mandate to execute or permanently mutilate gays, women and apostates. 

For whatever reason, it's okay for the left to circulate Flying Spaghetti Monster memes while bashing Christian extremists like the Duggars or the Christian evangelicalism of the Republican Party. But when Maher and Harris, or The Daily Banter's Luciano and Pazienza, for that matter, likewise target similar yet deadlier forms of Islam, they're labeled as racists or xenophobes, as if Islam has earned a special dispensation for some reason. (I hasten to qualify with the mandatory caveat: non-practicing and/or peaceful Muslims are obviously a not insignificant exception, but rarely is criticism of Islam aimed at them anyway.) 

Generally speaking, most critics of Islam, on the left, at least, are critics of religion across-the-board, and seldom do we find those critics defending radical Christians except as a means of drawing the obvious contrast: Christian theocracy in the modern world doesn't impose the same oppression and capital punishment on its people as Sharia law happens to impose. That's not to say Christianity is comparatively innocent of crimes against humanity -- it's not. It's just less horrendous than Islamic law.

Regarding that, it's important to underline that we're not just talking about jihadists here. Sure, they're the most visible purveyors of Islamic extremism. And, by the way, some members of the left have downplayed the terrorist threat -- including me. My downplaying of Islamic terrorism, however, isn't about suggesting it doesn't exist, but rather as a matter of degrees. The true threat isn't so much a gaggle of masked radicals waving ISIS flags. While I'm deeply concerned about the Islamic State acquiring fissile material, I'm far more concerned with the prevalence of Sharia as the rule of law in too many nations. This is usually where other liberals tend to bleed from the ears due to the cognitive dissonance evident in both opposing Christian theocratic movements here and ignoring Islamic theocracy when those who impose it reside in the Middle East and Africa.

While theocrats in the United States are busily trying to strike down legal same-sex marriage, homosexuality is still a punishable crime in 73 countries. Among them, same-sex intercourse is punishable by the death penalty in the Islamic states of Saudi Arabia (our partners in peace), Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and parts of Syria. Prison sentences, often involving torture, are mandatory in Pakistan, India, Ethiopia, Somalia, the UAE and Kuwait. 

In one-in-ten Islamic nations it's illegal to leave Islam. and 22 percent of all nations have bans on blasphemy. Many of the punishments include death. According to Pew:

We found that laws restricting apostasy and blasphemy are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 14 of the 20 countries (70%) criminalize blasphemy and 12 of the 20 countries (60%) criminalize apostasy. While apostasy laws exist in only two other regions of the world – Asia-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa – blasphemy laws can be found in all regions, including Europe (in 16% of countries) and the Americas (31%).  

Too many of these same nations also impose misogynistic laws that include lapidation for women who commit adultery, but merely caning for the men who do the same. The stonings usually involve women being buried up to their necks, with Sharia rules imposed for the minimum sizes of the rocks hurled at their heads until their bludgeoned to death. (While we're here, female genital mutilation is practiced in too many Islamic cultures, though it's not sanctioned by the Quran.)

Do Muslim people generally support Sharia, or is it imposed upon them by dictators? According to polls, yes they do.

  • 32% of Muslims in America believe that Sharia should be the supreme law of the land.  
  • 40% of British Muslims want Sharia in the UK  
  • 58% of Muslim-Americans believe criticism of Islam or Muhammad is not protected free speech under the First Amendment.  

Pew, again:

  • 82% of Egyptian Muslims favor stoning adulterers
  • 70% of Jordanian Muslims favor stoning adulterers
  • 42% of Indonesian Muslims favor stoning adulterers
  • 82% of Pakistanis favor stoning adulterers
  • 56% of Nigerian Muslims favor stoning adulterers

Pew Global:

  • 68% of Palestinian Muslims say suicide attacks against civilians in defense of Islam are justified.
  • 43% of Nigerian Muslims say suicide attacks against civilians in defense of Islam are justified.
  • 38% of Lebanese Muslims say suicide attacks against civilians in defense of Islam are justified.
  • 15% of Egyptian Muslims say suicide attacks against civilians in defense of Islam are justified.

Back in the U.S.:

  • 26% of younger Muslims in America believe suicide bombings are justified.
  • 35% of young Muslims in Britain believe suicide bombings are justified (24% overall).
  • 42% of young Muslims in France believe suicide bombings are justified (35% overall).
  • 22% of young Muslims in Germany believe suicide bombings are justified.(13% overall).
  • 29% of young Muslims in Spain believe suicide bombings are justified.(25% overall).

Yes, I get it. They attack us, we attack back, they retaliate and so forth. That's not the point. Brutality in the name of religion is, indeed, a larger and more dangerous feature of Islam than the left is willing to acknowledge for some reason. Despite it, the left seems more than happy to lampoon Christian fanatics like Mike Huckabee or Kim Davis or even the late Fred Phelps -- each of whom deserve as much scorn and ridicule as anyone. But why, then, are the repulsively horrifying aspects of Islamic law, whether it bastardizes the Quran or not, given a free pass by the left, or, at most, paid lip-service then rapidly accompanied by cries of racism against anyone who brings up polls or national laws overseas?

I have no idea. You tell me.

To be perfectly clear, this is really more about hypocrisy than the specifics of Sharia. When we're busily crucifying, say, the Catholic Church for allowing serial pedophilia, while we also crucify anyone who dares to point out the heart-wrenching penalties carried out in the name of Muhammad, I can't help but to wonder about these flagrantly conflicting views. By the way, we don't need to line up with Donald Trump's ridiculously unconstitutional Muslim ban to simply recognize that all religions are, to some degree, toxic. Islam in the modern world is easily the most poisonous of the batch, and saying so is merely a result of objective analysis -- not necessarily racism.

Next: The Delusional, Ever Dangerous Tony Blair - by Ben Cohen

The Delusional, Ever Dangerous Tony Blair

by Ben Cohen 

Sir John Chilcot, head of the Iraq war inquiry, delivered a damning indictment of Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 yesterday, concluding that military action in Iraq was not necessary. 

The Chilcot report was an independent inquiry into the UK's involvement in Iraq set up by Tony Blair's successor Gordon Brown in 2009 in response to the public's anger over the UK government's involvement in the conflict. A full 7 years after the inquiry began, Sir Chilcot compiled a 2.6m-words and 12-volume report that ultimate found Blair guilty of misleading the British public in the lead up to the war by misrepresenting intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), overstating Saddam Hussein's threat (the report indicated that there was none), and grossly mismanaging a post war Iraq. Most damningly, the report found the following:

We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.

As we now know, the Iraq war was a spectacular disaster in almost every regard, and the Chilcot inquiry -- an establishment report that many believed would attempt to whitewash Blair's wrong doings -- reinforces what is blindingly obvious. It was shockingly stark in its assessment of the Blair government and their grotesque negligence, taking apart almost every claim they made about Iraq before and after the invasion. 

“It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments. They were not challenged and they should have been,” Chilcot said.

Of Blair's assessment about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's supposed stockpile of WMDs, Chilcot pierced one of Blair's most egregious lies concluding that they were “presented with unjustified certainty". While worded carefully, the implication is clear: Tony Blair knowingly presented faulty intelligence to the British public and manipulated the facts to fit his government's narrative that Saddam presented an imminent danger.  The Chilcot inquiry's conclusion cannot be read any other way. Tony Blair lied and misled the country into a war that would not only kill thousands of people, but completely destabilize the region for years to come. 

The consequences of Blair's lying differentiate him from other politicians known to be loose with the facts. Fudging statistics on unemployment numbers is one thing, but manipulating evidence and spreading fear in order to go to war is of a completely different order. 

The after effects of the Iraq war are still being felt in the region, and the horrifying rise of ISIS can be directly attributed to this. Blair has admitted as much himself, but continues to take the line that he was simply doing what he felt was right at the time. 

Blair's critics have maintained that the war was illegal, but much to the disappointment of most of the British public, the inquiry was not explicit about this. Chilcot stated that:

We have, however, concluded that the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for military action were far from satisfactory

This is an important get out clause for Blair who unsurprisingly still denied any wrong doing “The report should lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies or deceit,” he said in a statement.

“Whether people agree or disagree with my decision to take military action against Saddam Hussein; I took it in good faith and in what I believed to be the best interests of the country.”

This is, for lack of a better term, utter bullshit. 

Never before seen private notes between Tony Blair and George W. Bush reveal the reality of Blair's 'good faith'. Blair told Bush eight months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq that “I will be with you, whatever”. 

Whatever the evidence, whatever the cost, and whatever the consequence.

Blair aligned himself with perhaps the most incompetent President in US history, a man who could barely formulate full sentences let alone lead the most powerful nation on earth. Not only that, but Bush was surrounded by some of the most dangerous politicians ever to hold office -- neo conservative ideologues like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld -- men who were dedicated to dominating the world through a mixture of extreme military violence and neo liberal economic reform. For Blair, a supposed liberal, to align himself with such monsters spoke volumes about his loyalty to his own country and the truth.  

While George Bush and his cabinet of violent chicken hawks were ultimately responsible for orchestrating and carrying out the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Tony Blair deserves a unique place in history for his cowardice in rolling over for the neo cons in Washington. Though millions of British citizens protested the war before it started, Blair had already decided that he would commit troops to fight alongside America. He did this because of his desire to be close to power, to ally himself with the world's biggest military force and to run around with the Commander in Chief. 

Tony Blair will be forever known as George W. Bush's poodle, a leader who used his formidable political talents to back the stupidest, bloodiest war in modern history and betray his own country. Blair professes himself to be a Christian, and routinely uses religious language to justify the enormous damage he has done. He talks about acting in "good faith", doing "what is right" and wanting to rid the world of "great evils". His political mentor John Burton stated that his protege was driven by the belief that "good should triumph over evil".

"It's very simple to explain the idea of Blair the Warrior," said Burton. "It was part of Tony living out his faith."

In Blair's black and white moral universe Blair is of course on the righteous side, believing himself to be a misunderstood force for good. 

What he does not understand though is that the public will never forgive a man whose moral vision needed to be realized through lying and ultimately enforced through murder.