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Running Out of Context

Modern media style’s context gap is a danger for all—and an opportunity for some

By Peter P.M. Buttigieg

In the middle of a book of short sayings and poems, the great Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) wrote, “Half of what I am telling you has no meaning. But I am telling it to you so that you will understand the meaning of the other half.” It is a defense of the importance of context and it is timely today. In a presidential election year, context is as acutely necessary as it is rare.

We often hear the word used, typically in the maligned politician’s plea that his absurd-sounding quote was “taken out of context.” Watch TV news, and you may begin to feel like the whole election is out of context, and it’s going to be up to the voter to put it all together. The very structure of television media minimizes context, since only the skeleton of a story can survive the cutting that it takes to reduce a complex issue into a two minute “package” or, worse, a 15-second “tell.”

A few years ago, in the context of a lengthy and fascinating videotaped deposition, Bill Clinton’s famous remark that a lot “depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” was a clever response to the question put to him. Clinton had been asked if there “is” a relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and had felt free to say no because the relationship had ended. He hadn’t volunteered any more information, of course, largely because he rightly suspected that it was a trick question designed to get him to lie under oath (this incredible piece of context was confirmed too late to save the nation from impeachment). His sarcastic remark on the video was his way of pointing out that he hadn’t lied, even though he hadn’t been forthcoming. But out of context, it came to symbolize something else we all felt about the slippery president, and the sentence will go down in history with an unintended meaning.

Dick Cheney, for one, seems keenly aware of the context effect, and has learned to use it to great advantage. Last Wednesday, in an important speech mostly blasted out of the news cycle by another suicide bombing in Iraq, Cheney took issue with the claim of Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., that soldiers who want body armor and other needed equipment have to purchase it on eBay, because the military does not provide it. But Cheney didn’t refute the claim at all. Instead, he pointed out that Kerry voted against an appropriation of $87 billion requested by the president for the Iraq effort, giving the impression that the lack of equipment was Kerry’s fault. Cheney correctly gambled that no one would ask about the implications of the context—the fact that, as he noted, the bill passed anyway. Reporters had no time to ask the question begged by the context: Why, if Bush got his Iraq money, do the troops still go without body armor? In the speech, Cheney also said Kerry spoke “as if only those who openly oppose America’s objectives have a chance of earning his respect.” It was a stunning insinuation, given the context of Kerry’s heroic war record.

The popularity of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” is a good example of our sensitivity to context. Unlike other nighttime political humor on the Leno-Letterman-Conan axis, Stewart relies less on jokes that begin with a nugget of news, followed by a made-up punch line. For the most part, the humor of his “fake” news routine lies in the fact that it’s not fake at all…he allows politicians and journalists to mock themselves. My friends and I often blink in disbelief at the footage Stewart collects, saying “this can’t be real.” But, sadly, it always is. The best laughs come when he merely rolls a tape of someone like George W. Bush saying something like, “if you’re going to make an accusation in the course of a presidential campaign, you ought to back it up with facts.” (Bush, apparently oblivious to the irony given the context of his own relationship to accusations and facts, said this in response to Kerry’s obviously accurate but woefully impolitic assertion that he knows foreign leaders who want Bush to lose.) The screen then returns to Stewart, making a stunned face at the camera, needing to say no more. The humor is in Bush’s straight face, not Stewart’s funny one—all Stewart does is supply the context. Last year, simply showing the footage of Bush aboard the famous aircraft carrier, scored by the “The Daily Show” theme song, did the work of a million mockeries before a joke was delivered.

The emerging Medicare fiasco will be a test of how readily context can be assembled in the news media. We learned last week that the chief federal Medicare actuary was ordered, under penalty of unemployment, to withhold from Congress his knowledge that the administration was understating the Bush prescription drug bill’s cost by about $150 billion. This is shocking on its own, but more so in context—namely, that the bill passed by one vote after GOP leaders persuaded some opposing Congress members to change their votes on the floor. In context, these revelations mean that the administration tricked Congress into passing a bill. Reporters so far have treated this gingerly, reporting that “it is possible” that the bill would not have passed without the deception. In fact, enough (that is, more than one) Congress members said at the time they would have voted differently if it cost any more than they then thought, that it’s more “definite” than “possible” that the cheating saved the bill. Whether the context of this scandal is properly reported by the press, and internalized by the public, will be reflected in how seriously the issue is taken in coming weeks.

The scarcity of context will be a problem for John Kerry, who is increasingly known for his “nuance” and deliberation. His success will largely depend on whether he can either succinctly supply context for his words and actions, or structure them so they can make sense on their own. Unfortunately, the luxury of crafting words in broad layers, saying things that make sense only in light of the “other half,” is one thing that separates the poet from the politician.

Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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