This analysis of a news program provides an idea of what the "payoff" is of the techniques of interpretation that deal with image and action. Many of the central ideas of the book can be seen being applied here, including ideas about the way all debate and discussion is permeated by power plays, sadism, and image manipulation. The analysis was written soon after the program aired and so some of the circumstances it describes have changed.*

This Week With David Brinkley

On Sunday, Sept. 23, 1990, "This Week With David Brinkley" explored whether the American political establishment is losing credibility with voters. As part of the program, it presented interviews with two challengers to the system - John Silber, the Democratic nominee for Governor of Massachusetts who, as the program showed, portrayed himself in campaign advertisements as "the outsider the insiders are afraid of," and Sharon Pratt Dixon, who won the nomination for mayor of Washington D.C. by promising "To clean house." There to interview the two sacrificial victims and presumably ferret out some truth were the three clearly defined characters who are identified with the program: George Will, the prudishly conservative and philosophical commentator who likes to argue that the public needs to swallow unpleasant medicine; Sam Donaldson, the cold-blooded news sadist who is always ready to lay a trap and then perform the equivalent on politicians of tearing the wings off insects, and David Brinkley, the authority figure with a sardonic view of all politics as politics as usual.

As in virtually every gathering like this, the encounter immediately became a contest over who would exert power, who would end up looking good and who would be discredited. In the left hand column below are a few excerpts that give an idea how all this unfolded. On the right are my interpretations of the strategies and games oriented toward image and power, that can be discovered in the quotes. Included on the right, in italics, are "creative" quotes of my own devising, in which I attempt to reveal what I believe the participants were really saying.

As you will see, something revealing took place in this encounter. Sam Donaldson successfully degraded John Silber and then, in a fascinating turn, Donaldson divided in two and while one part ineptly attacked Ms. Dixon, the other part allied itself with her to discredit himself. In effect, Donaldson ended up turning himself into one of the program's sacrificial victims. All there, as they say, on their Sunday morning program.


Note: to "discredit" is to depict someone or something in a negative way, asserting that they have negatively valued or devalued characteristics. Put another way, it is to attack the image of someone or something.

To "credit" someone or something is to depict them in a positive way. Put another way, it is to enhance or defend the image of someone or something.

Quotes from the program.
Interpretations of the meaning of the quotes. Includes creative "quotes" in italics, written by the author of this site, that offer an interpretation of what the speaker is really saying.

Brinkley: "Mr. Silber and Ms. Dixon, thank you both very much for coming in. Glad to have you with us.

Now, first, I have a question of a very general nature for both of you and we'll get to specifics later. But first tell me what you think about this. Is something new happening in American politics? Is there an anti-political view growing in this country? Are incumbents in danger? Dr. Silber, what do you think?"

An interpretation of what Brinkley is saying: "Greetings and social amenities. First, I'm going to treat you both as guest experts and invite you to enhance your own image by expounding on events and also introducing the theme of today's program. We'll get to the rough and tumble and treat you like newsmakers in a minute."

Brinkley immediately introduces the story-line of the day's program into the interview with Dixon and Silber, in which politicians and the political system are being discredited.

He does it in the form of a question, which is also an invitation for the two guests to support the story line.


Brinkley discredits the political system, claiming voters discredit it or see it negatively in their views.

Brinkley invites Silber and Dixon to discredit the system.

Brinkley implicitly credits Dixon and Silber as experts or knowledgeable observers.

Silber: "Well, I think they are. But I also think that there is an anti-media sentiment growing in this country. I think that power tends to corrupt people in journalism and in television no less than in other walks of life and I think that played a critical role in Massachusetts where I had to talk passed the media in order to get my word out to the voters."

An interpretation of what Silber is saying: "The answer is a quick yes. Now I'd like to use this as an opportunity to launch a discrediting attack against the news media to get revenge for the way it mistreated me in the primary."

Silber introduces a different story line in which the news media that is discrediting the politicians is itself discredited by the people. It is discredited, he says, because it is corrupt, as shown by his experience in which it tried to keep the candidate from communicating with voters.


Silber discredits the news media very likely to get revenge for its discrediting attacks on him: (A discredits B because B has discredited A.)

Silber also credits himself or enhances his own image -- he fought the media to communicate directly with voters.

The obvious question is - is Silber also launching an unstated discrediting attack on the journalists on the program, since they are television journalists?

Brinkley: "Are you talking about the Massachusetts media now?"

An interpretation of what Brinkley is saying: "Or is that us you are referring to?"

Brinkley invites Silber to explain if he is discrediting the journalists on the program for abusing power and interfering with his message. As we will see, they will end up doing just that.

Silber: "That's right. But I don't think that they're aberrant in that. I think the reduction of political discourse to sound bites is one of the worst things that has happened to American political life...." Silber: "It's all of you, although I will refrain from confronting you directly and instead attack television news in general..."

Silber discredits the media for dumbing down discourse.

As part of the above statement, Silber then enunciates the message he had to get passed the media, which is "to take back the control of the Democratic Party, give it back to the hard working men and women who are the backbone of that party and subordinate the pet schemes and the private interests and the special agendas that are litmus tests for some politicians, to the fundamental issues of schools, of safety in our streets, of jobs...."

Silber's message is a blend of the philosophy of the Democrats and Republicans. Like the Republicans, he rails against the excesses of government but not to get government out of the way. Rather, he says he wants to improve government to achieve something supported by Democrats - so it will deliver services better to the working and middle class.

Silber here offers a political action program, with a story line of what is wrong and what must be done to fix it and why. It is: government is controlled by corrupt interests for their own benefit. We must take it back so it will do the job it should be doing. he doesn't make clear, here, whether or not he is attacking the Democratic left, but code phrases, such as "special agendas" indicate he is.

There is also a theme emerging: media and government, Silber is claiming, are both in the hands of corrupt interests that are out of touch with the people. The media interferes with good politicians who want to reestablish contact with the people and thus, the media supports the corruption of politics. But just as Silber didn't make clear who in the media he was attacking, beyond the media in Massachusetts, so he doesn't make clear who in the Democratic Party he is attacking, although it is a good guess it is the left.

Among the actions he engages in:

Silber discredits those who control the Democratic Party for pet schemes, private interests and special agendas.

Silber credits, or enhances the image of, working people as "the backbone of that party."

Silber implicitly credits himself as a crusader for right and for the people, against corrupt interests.

Silber credits the philosophy that says schools, crime and jobs are the issue.

We thus have his basic story line: Silber for the people, versus the corrupt media and political interests.

(After an exchange between Brinkely and Dixon...)

George Will: "Dr. Silber, if the Democratic Party nationally were to take your message, what would the message be, very concisely. You deplore sound bytes but give us one"

In fact, Silber just enunciated his message. It is obvious that Will is following a prepared script that didn't take that possibility into account.

What Will is doing here will become clear. One indication can be found in an earlier segment in which Will made the point that Silber is a Democrat who sounds more like a Republican, which represents a threat to a Republican Party whose message is becoming blurred. He is obviously asking Silber here to sound Republican.

As for Will's reference to the sound bite, the message is: "Since you've subjected television's use of sound bytes to a discrediting attack, I'd better acknowledge that I know I'm asking you to reduce your message to just such a sound bite, so as to forestall any attack by you on this issue, while also asserting my right as questioner to ask you to give us such a sound byte."

Will invites Silber to give his political action program.

Will depicts Silber as discrediting sound bites for dumbing down debate, in part, to forestall a discrediting attack from Silber for asking for a sound bite.

In response to Will's request, Silber repeats the basic idea but with more emphasis on delivering needed services. Silber fails to act the role of a puppet and sounds more like a Democrat than a Republican.

Will: "Ms. Dixon now you are not only active in Democratic politics in this capital, you are also deeply involved in the Democratic Party nationally and I'm sure you've paid attention to what Dr. Silber has been saying. As a Democrat does he sound like a good productive member of the Democratic Party that you can support?"

It is obvious now that Will has been trying to set up Silber for an attack. Will: "Ms. Dixon, you have the credibility as a Democratic insider to speak for the party and denounce those who have violated the moral order of the party. I'd like to invite you to engage in just such a discrediting attack on Silber as a Republican Democrat, now that you've heard his message, so you will provide an illustration of the insight I am trying to offer viewers about what is happening to the Democrats. I know he failed to exactly sound like a Republican but I'm following a script here and it didn't take that into account."

Will credits Dixon as a Democratic insider and spokesman so she will have the legitimacy to discredit Silber as not a good Democrat.


Will credits Dixon

Will invites Dixon to discredit Silber. (A invites B to discredit C.)

This is a favorite game of the news media: let's you and him fight.

It is obvious that he wanted a sound bite from Silber because he needed a succinct declaration of views for Dixon to attack.

Dixon: "Well, there are certainly parts of what he's talking about that make sense. I mean, I think that people are saying that they want us to deal with substance...

Like all real people, as opposed to fictional characters, Dixon refuses to allow someone else to be the author of her actions and refuses to turn herself into a living illustration of an idea in George Will's mind.

Dixon: "I'd rather speak in generalities and focus on what I agree with so as not to engage in a discrediting attack and get into a fight with a fellow Democrat from another state. But I also want to imply that yes, there are parts of his message I disagree with by saying there are parts I agree with. "

Dixon credits part of what Silber is saying and thereby discredits other parts.

Dixon credits Silber for dealing with substance.

Will: "But speak a little bit, speak a little bit specifically about Mr. Silber's message. Do you hear anything in it that you think is inappropriate for a national Democrat?" Will now tries to exert the power of the questioner to demand an answer, in another attempt to get Dixon to launch a discrediting attack on Silber. A exerts power over B so she will discredit C.

Dixon: "Well, I think that as long as he's talking about an all-inclusive program, I think its appropriate for the Democratic Party. I think that is the challenge. I think too often my own party has failed to appreciate that we all want to be a part of the American dream...''

Dixon: "I'll tell you what. I'll provide the litmus test Silber must pass to not be subject to discrediting attacks. He must not appear to exclude anyone and exclude them from a chance at success. I'll also attack the Democrats in general instead of Silber in particular. I know you were using the party as the standard by which we should judge Mr. Silber but the party in general is a handy - and safer - object of attack."

Dixon makes clear what Silber's political action program must be to forestall a discrediting attack based on not being Democratic enough.

Dixon credits the political action program of the civil rights movement and the left, which fights for efforts to include excluded groups.

Dixon discredits the Democratic Party for insensitivity and excluding people (" own party has failed to appreciate that we all want to be a part of the American dream...'')

Dixon launches a partly disguised discrediting attack on Silber for being one of the people in the party who manifest insensitivity and who exclude people.

Thus Dixon discredits some Democrats, in general, to discredit Silber, without naming him. She displaces her attack from Silber to some Democrats. (A discredits B as a stand-in for C.)

Donaldson: "Dr. Silber, many of your critics complain that you often say things which are outrageous or at least outrageous to some. It didn't seem to hurt you in election day. But I'd like to ask you about something you said - sound bite if you will - and have you amplify on it. You once said that - talking about Jesse Jackson - you said (Donaldson then quotes Silber, I assume accurately) `The words were the words of Jesse but the voice was the voice of Adolf Hitler. Now get old Jesse Jackson at the end, speaking in a high-pitched voice, just like Hitler. That's insane. That's electrifying. You can feel him grip an audience.' What did you mean by that?"

Donaldson: "Your critics complain that you say things that violate the moral order of society, which would make you an unworthy leader, at least they think these are violations of the moral order, although the voters who define that order didn't seem to think so. But on the other hand isn't it such a violation and doesn't it discredit you that you launched a discrediting attack on an accepted national leader that compared him to someone so evil? We'd all like to see you squirm as you try to explain this. Yes, I also am aware that the quote I am using is a sound bite's worth of information, so don't attack me on that."

Now it is Sam Donaldson's turn. Donaldson isn't interested in discrediting anyone in the service of an insight. He has come up with what he believes is a discrediting goodie on Silber for engaging in an inappropriate act of discredit against Jesse Jackson and he will use it to full advantage. The act of discredit against Jackson is viewed as inappropriate obviously because it is so extreme and falsely implies great evil on Jackson's part. There is also, inevitably, an implication of racism, which plays right into the idea that Silber might exclude certain people from the American dream.

Let's look at Donaldson's actions in more detail:

Donaldson: "Dr. Silber, many of your critics complain that you often say things which are outrageous or at least outrageous to some."

A (Donaldson) depicts B (critics) as discrediting C (Silber) for saying outrageous things. In so doing, A discredits C. Just as Dixon displaced the object of her attack from Silber to some Democrats, to avoid the more direct confrontation that Will wanted, so, here, Donaldson displaces the attacker from himself to "many...critics," so as to not take responsibility for discrediting Silber himself. This is a common technique - quote other people's attacks, as a way of engaging in a disguised attack.

Donaldson then qualifies the attack further by saying "or at least outrageous to some," meaning it isn't generally agreed but is in dispute as to whether some of the things Silber says are outrageous.

Donaldson: "It didn't seem to hurt you in election day."

This is another qualifier - or an extension of the previous qualifier - mitigating the attack. Here, Donaldson is saying many voters viewed Silber as being of positive value. Voters implicitly credited Silber by voting for him.

Donaldson: "But I'd like to ask you about something you said, a sound bite if you will, and have you amplify on it."

Donaldson is beginning a discrediting attack, disguised as a request that he "amplify" a remark.

"You once said that talking about Jesse Jackson, you said (Donaldson then quotes Silber, I assume accurately) `the words were the words of Jesse but the voice was the voice of Adolf Hitler. Now get old Jesse Jackson at the end, speaking in a high pitched voice, just like Hitler; that's insane; that's electrifying. You can feel him grip an audience.' What did you mean by that?"

Donaldson tries to discredit Silber merely by presenting something discreditable that Silber said, without directly saying to the audience that it is discreditable, because he knows they will perceive it as discreditable. Of course, the earlier reference to Silber saying outrageous things means that Donaldson has already implied, by juxtaposition, that what he will quote it discreditable.

In the quote, Silber discredits Jackson, claiming Jackson is involved in demagoguery of an extreme kind, that is like that of Hitler. A discredits B by comparing him to C, who is already viewed as discredited. But Silber's attack is, itself, so extreme, he ends up being vulnerable to a discrediting attack from the news media for carrying out an inappropriate discrediting attack. The media attacks a lot of politicians for this.

Silber: "Well I meant exactly what I said. I think the television stations should sometime put both of them on camera in a split screen and watch the cadences and watch the movements. I think it is critical to the success of democracy to avoid that kind of demagoguery and to have rational discussion. I think there are arguments and evidence that is relevant to political discourse. For example when I talk about a pre-school program I want that pre-school program open every working day of the year...

Silber: "I stand firm in the moral correctness of my statement. This was an attack not on Mr. Jackson but on his demagoguery, which deserves to be discredited but which you in television have failed to expose, although I'll phrase that only as a recommendation that you do expose it, since we are trying to avoid directly fighting here. But let me get the hell away from this question and also demonstrate that I am really pro-black and so have credibility in this area by talking about my support for pre-school programs..."

Silber has attacked the media for distorting communication and interfering with democratic debate, and in this quote he attacks Jackson on the same grounds. When he says - "I think it is critical to the success of democracy to avoid that kind of demagoguery and to have rational discussion," - he is referring to Jackson. He may also be making a disguised attack on Donaldson, but there isn't enough information to make an educated guess. He also says the media should discredit Jackson by juxtaposing a speech by him with one by Hitler, to reveal what Silber claims are the similarities.

Donaldson: "Well I understand Dr. Silber but of course when you compare someone to Adolf Hitler are you not comparing somebody to one of the great evil tyrants of our time." Donaldson: "Well, let me come out and say it: didn't you violate the moral order?"

Here, Donaldson goes beyond discrediting by simply depicting a discreditable act, and in addition, he tells the audience why it is discreditable, namely because the accusation is so extreme, it seems unfair. Donaldson claims Silber, in the quoted remarks, compared Jackson to Hitler and that Silber therefore implied that Jackson has the same degree of evil.

Silber: "You see, this shows the corruption of language. I did not compare Jesse Jackson to Adolf Hitler. I compared the pattern of speech..."

Silber: "I am angry at the way you are unfairly attacking and misrepresenting me just like the news media always do. But I will avoid confronting you and instead discredit the way you are misusing language, without directly saying it is you who are misusing it."

Silber discredits the misuse of language as a displaced act of discredit aimed at Donaldson. A discredits B as a disguised way of discrediting C. What is interesting, of course, is that Silber had attacked Jackson for the misuse of language, as well. Earlier, Silber's attack on the media was for interfering with his own ability to use language to communicate with voters.

Donaldson, in an indulgent and almost sympathetic tone: "Alright, you were just saying they were both demagogues. You didn't mean that Adolf Hitler and Jesse Jackson were in any other way alike." Donaldson appears to be almost coming to Silber's defense, explaining Silber's position for him, providing an example of pseudo-benevolent domination that is really an act of sadism. He is speaking to Silber the way one might speak to an erring little boy: "And, of course you would never disobey us and do such and such," as the chastened little boy shakes his head "No," in agreement.

A discredits B while pretending to be defending B.

Silber: "Of course not. I'm a great admirer of what Jesse Jackson did with Operation Push. I think that Jesse Jackson has has - " By being seen here crediting Jackson, or enhancing Jackson's image, Silber hopes to avoid being discredited by the audience for unfairly discrediting Jackson.

A (Silber) enhances B (Jackson) to defend A (Silber) from a discrediting attack by D (the audience.)

Donaldson: "And you're not an admirer of Adolf Hitler's?"

Donaldson is again pretending to help Silber defend himself by explaining Silber's position, and making clear that Silber harbors no unsavory admirations. In a sense, Donaldson pretends to divide in two. The sympathetic half sides with Silber and defends him against the attacking half. This is an interesting variation on "Good cop; Bad cop" since Donaldson plays both roles. To some degree, we have B (sympathetic Donaldson) pretending to defend A (Silber) from C (attacking Donaldson.)

Donaldson's remark is only phrased like a question. It is actually an act of degradation disguised as a defense that is phrased as a question. It is also an invitation for Silber to join in defending himself.

Of course, Donaldson's "question" bears no relation to the content of anything Silber has said, because Silber was obviously using Hitler only as a standard of evil and not hinting that Hitler had anything of value about him. In reality, Donaldson is doing to Silber what he accuses Silber of doing to Jackson, namely unfairly suggesting that Silber might have some connection to Hitler. But Donaldson disguises this as a supportive question.

Donaldson knows the question is absurd but it allows him to engage in a little degradation ceremony. He is putting Silber in the defensive mode and then trying to use a pseudo-benevolent tone and clever phrasing to get Silber to believe that, in order to defend himself, he must submit to an insulting question and agree that no, he doesn't admire Hitler. How will this hard-edged politician, who started out lashing out at the media, respond?

Silber, very briefly looking down, and responding to Donaldson's question: "Certainly not. I think Jesse did a great deal to talk about the need for individual responsibility if we are to have any solution to our social problems and I commend that."

Silber plays right into Donaldson's hands and participates in his own debasement, allowing himself to be turned into an erring little boy who has promised to sin no more. Donaldson has succeeded in an act of domination and degradation, forcing Silber into the defensive, apologetic, position.

Silber then finishes what he was going to say before, enhancing Jackson's image to defend his own image, and simultaneously getting out part of the Republican-like message that George Will tried to demonstrate earlier, namely that blacks must be responsible for solving many of their own problems.

A (Silber) enhances the image of B (Jackson) to defend A.

Donaldson to Sharon Pratt Dixon: "Ms. Norton, I want to ask you about something..."

Having scored a victory, Donaldson suddenly undoes himself, just as he is telling the next guest it is her turn to go on the chopping block. He discredits himself by failing to show proper respect to Dixon, by referring to her by the wrong name. Both Donaldson and Dixon have implied that Silber has a demeaning attitude toward blacks and now Donaldson manifests just such a demeaning attitude himself by showing a lack of respect for a black guest by failing to attend to her correct name.

In essence, Donaldson is giving Dixon a tool she can use against him. Donaldson invites Dixon to discredit him and also discredits himself: A invites B to discredit A; and A discredits A.

"Ms. Dixon," she says laughing as a number of others repeat her name to Donaldson as well, correcting him. Dixon and others: "You violated the moral order of society, presumably because of incompetence, by referring to me as someone else and thereby failing to show proper respect."

A (Dixon and others) discredit B (Donaldson) for what, presumably, is a lack of competence in getting the name correct.

"I'm sorry, Ms. Dixon. You anticipated what I'm going to ask you about or at least my fuzzy mind this Sunday morning did. You're for good government and you won because you criticized, you're the only one that really had the guts to criticize, Marion Barry while you were running. But you are now running on a ticket really with Eleanor Holmes Norton who is running for the nonvoting delegate for the District of Columbia and it turned out during the latter days of the campaign that she had not paid her District of Columbia taxes for many years, I believe since '82; finally ended up paying about $88,000 in back taxes and penalties. Now, how can you support someone who simply neglected to pay their taxes all those years."

Donaldson: "Oops! I'll restore myself by apologizing for the slight. In fact, with that slip you anticipated the attack I was about to make on you. Oh, I guess that was me who made the slip and revealed my attack strategy ahead of time. I'll separate myself in two (again) and engage in a discrediting attack on my own mind for the error, while excusing it and explaining it is fuzzy because this is a Sunday morning. Now then, you are a person who claims to have credibility as an upholder of the moral order of good and honest government, and indeed you presumably demonstrated that by being the only one with the courage to criticize a violator of that order. But aren't you really a hypocrite putting on a phony face of morality because you are running with someone who is also, like Barry, a violator of the moral order?"

As Donaldson makes clear, here, the name confusion is a Freudian slip betraying his own motivations. He is about to try to discredit Dixon and imply she is unworthy of running for mayor, because, he will claim, she is contaminated by her support for Norton. By confusing Dixon with Norton, he:

1. Refers to Dixon as the person with the lesser position on the ticket, running for a nonvoting position, in effect bringing her down.

2. Refers to Dixon as Norton, the person who, he claims, violated the moral order. In effect, he reveals that he will accuse Dixon of violating morality by accidentally referring to her as someone else who is alleged to have violated morality.

3. Implies Dixon lacks the importance of someone whose name deserves to be remembered.

By revealing Norton's name, before he springs the trap, Donaldson also gives away his strategy and confesses that he wants to discredit Dixon and bring her down. In effect, he performs the journalistic equivalent of premature ejaculation. In the process, he also holds himself up to discrediting attacks. The error thus ranks as a kind of masochism of the kind described elsewhere, although it may also express a desire to be done with the disguises and directly express aggressive desires.

It is interesting that, after scoring a victory (against Silber), Donaldson defeats himself. This is a common syndrome, in which people atone for their earlier victory and try to forestall a retaliatory attack for it by attacking themselves and putting themselves in the down position. There isn't enough information - yet - to be certain that Donaldson's error is caused by this, or a similar, unconscious motivation.

(Just as Donaldson reveals that his question relates to the unpaid taxes, George Will can be seen turning to Brinkley and allowing his hand to drop from his chair and hang down.) Will may here be engaging in one of his common reactions of exasperation to Donaldson's misdeeds, looking to authority figure/peer Brinkley for confirmation of his reaction, so the two can engage in a collusive and private act of discrediting Donaldson. If so - and I don't have enough visual detail to know - whoever controls the camera has caught it, perhaps in an attempt to publicly discredit Donaldson or unintentionally.

Dixon: "Well, I think the key here is that the voters chose Mrs. Norton in the primary. I mean we have to respect that primary process. We do believe in the American system and the voters have spoken. I think that we all are troubled by the fact that there is this tax problem and all eager for her to put this behind her in a fashion that is responsible..."

Dixon, responding to Donaldson's attack: "Your attempt at discrediting me totally misses the mark, because you are trying to blame me for something I have no control over. Voters chose Ms. Norton and I am actually upholding the moral order of democracy by respecting the voter's will. You seem to imply we should not respect their choice. But in addition, I maintain my credentials as an upholder of the moral order and nonhypocrite by criticizing Ms. Norton, although in very gentle and euphemistic terms, and I hope she will come forth with whatever apologies, accounts, actions and signs of repentance are necessary so the news media will decide she has realized her error against the moral order and made amends."


Dixon defends herself by saying her alliance is based on a choice by voters, not her.

Dixon enhances democracy to defend herself.

Dixon attacks Norton to defend herself.

"...but you didn't respect the will of the voters when you thought Marion Barry ought to be criticized." Donaldson discredits Dixon for hypocrisy for failing to engage in a discrediting attack on Norton the way she did on Barry. Donaldson is trying to force Dixon into submission, as he did to Silber.

A (Donaldson) discredits B (Dixon) for not discrediting C (Norton), as a way of exerting power over B and thus subjecting her to another form of discredit (being shown in a defeated position on television.)

"Well, I can criticize Mrs. Norton where appropriate and I have done so as I did with Marion I don't think that there's any departure from my past conduct." Norton defends herself by claiming she has discredited Norton as she did Barry, and so isn't a hypocrite.
After another, less adversarial round between Will and Silber in which Silber uses the opportunity to charge that the Boston Globe deliberately slanted a poll to affect the election, Donaldson then says: "Ms. Norton, let me ask you a question about - " Donaldson's once again refers to Dixon as her "running mate", Norton.

He again slips up in what is clearly an act of degradation toward Dixon and, perhaps, a confession of his own aggressive desires.

"Mrs. Dixon..." she again corrects him, with more subdued laughter.  
Donaldson "I'm sorry. I'll get up and start again." Here, Donaldson again refers to the fact that it is morning as a cause of his social misdemeanor. He apologizes and says he has an excuse -- the fuzzy mind of morning. Both the apology and excuse are defenses, intended to forestall a discrediting attack for a lack of competence in mental capacity, social graces, and so on.
Soon after, Brinkley concludes the segment: "Dr. Silber and Ms. Dixon, thank you both; pleasure to have you with us." The cold-blooded work of the media is often smoothed over by social amenities -- Please and thank you and now lets see what we can do to your reputation. Brinkley implicitly credits himself as a person of social grace, who shows respect for other people.
Dixon, laughing after she speaks: "Glad you got the name right," Dixon now has them all on the defensive, implying that they are all responsible for these slights to her dignity.

Donaldson "The offense was mine alone."

Donaldson tries to rescue Brinkley and transfer the attention to himself, so Brinkley won't be in the position of being blamed for Donaldson's failings.

In other words:

A (Donaldson) discredits A (Donaldson) to defend B (Brinkley) and also to defend A (himself). As in all apologies, Donaldson divides in two. The apologizing Donaldson discredits the Donaldson who violated the moral order and sides with the victim. Since Brinkley is the authority figure who hosts the program, Donaldson is in a situation in which someone nominally in charge is being blamed for his sins, a situation he tries to undo by putting himself in the down position and doing some appropriate groveling.

Meanwhile, Silber is taking vicarious pleasure in his fellow victim's successful attack on their attackers, and he is smiling.

Brinkley, laughing, perhaps embarrassed or taken aback, as Dixon and Silber are both laughing: "Well, of course we got the name right."  
Donaldson: (Inaudible) was mine and I apologize for it."  

In the next segment, a "round table" discussion, Donaldson expounds on Gorbachev and says: "and so the question is will Gorbarhuv - cuv - Gorbachev - survive. We keep asking that. I think there's a good chance now that he won't, that a Yeltsin will take over...."

Just when Donaldson is talking about Gorbachev being discredited and brought down by the second most powerful man in the Soviet Union, he gets the name wrong.

Donaldson got Dixon's name wrong when referring to her relation to Norton, now he gets Gorbachev's name wrong when referring to Gorbachev's relation to Yeltsin. Donaldson wanted Dixon to attack her ally, Norton. Here. he speculates that a former ally of Gorbachev, "a Yeltsin" will unseat Gorbachev. But as he does so, he gets the name wrong.

Something is clearly going on, here. Here is a hypothesis, which is sounder than wild speculation, but not based on enough information to be more than educated speculation:

* Donaldson views D.C. mayoral candidate Dixon as the head of the ticket with Norton, who is running only for a nonvoting House seat. He gets her name wrong as he tries to start a fight between them and gives himself away as he tries to bring Dixon down.

* Donaldson gets Gorbachev's name wrong as he talks about the man who was once his close ally, Yeltsin, getting into a fight and unseating Gorbachev.

This is only speculation but what is really tripping him up and causing him to falter is his relationship to Brinkley. Donaldson is second in command and substitutes for Brinkley when Brinkley is away. He would clearly like to unseat Brinkley, the way he speculates, second fiddle Yeltsin might unseat Gorbachev and the way he tried to bring Dixon down and cause a fight between her and Norton. Given that much of Donaldson's career has been about bringing down authority figures, the way he did with Silber, this would seem to be a central motivation for him.

His unconscious motive would be the following: he gives himself away and brings himself down with his verbal mistakes, to forestall attack from authority for his desires. Of course, as we saw, by getting Dixon's name wrong, Donaldson also brought discredit on Brinkley, whose program it is. There isn't enough information - not enough of a pattern - for this to be any more than speculation. Of course, one can work this speculation a number of ways, particularly since it isn't clear what the perceived power relation is between Dixon and Norton. An analysis of more of Donaldson's interactions would undoubtedly add a good deal more to the pattern of information.

Leaving aside the speculations about Donaldson, we can see that this program offers numerous examples of strategies involving image, aggression and power. Over and over, the participants shape the image of themselves and each other by referring to themselves and each other as embodying positive or negative values. And over and over they do it as part of strategies to overpower, harm and degrade, and defend themselves and each other.

Each also has a story line or theme, which is implicit or explicit, which is bound up with their personal and professional identity and for which the acts of credit and discredit help bolster and carry forward. In a sense, their acts of enhancing, defending and attacking people and ideas, are their story line in action.

For Donaldson, the theme or story line is that all politicians are hypocrites and deceivers, and he is their nemesis because he gets at the truth. And, indeed, he is a ferreter out of truth. But his efforts to get at truth are, in part, a tool of sadism. They are an effort to hurt people, which is one of the central pathologies of the news media.

For Silber, the theme is him as populist crusader for good government and a rational society, persecuted and opposed by corrupt media and politicians. Unfortunately, he often, himself, fails to manifest the rationality he is fighting for. And there are other, more sophisticated, players in the corrupt media and political system who can outmaneuver him and bring him down.

For Dixon, the theme is inclusion and the Democratic ideology of the mainstream left. An analysis of the entire program, this day, rather than these excerpts, shows that for Will, the theme is that the Republicans have got to be Republicans if they want to win elections, and the Democrats should not be.

But the program is only about these ideas, to a limited degree. While some of these issues are discussed, the encounter is more like an absurd game over power and guilt than a debate about politics and policy. Over and over we see how truth is used as a weapon to harm and overpower other players, how it is employed as a tool of strategy. We see how dishonest the participants are in what they are doing and how the quest for truth is constantly contaminated by the desire to damage reputations.

And yet, as noted, there is also a search for truth and an effort to stand up for ethics going on here. Will is right: Silber and Dixon should be open about their differences, and these differences reveal something important about a split in the Democratic party. Donaldson is right: in a truly ethical system, Dixon would apply the same standard to Norton as she did to Barry. Donaldson is right that Silber's description of Jesse Jackson is full of inappropriate connotation. But, when they should be enunciating these values, challenging their guests and seeking after important truths, they are disguising their positions and actions, setting people up for attacks, and (in the case of Donaldson) using truth as a weapon against reputation, a tool of sadism.

This is news as it should not be - and as it is.

And yet an analysis of the entire day's program reveals something else: although the interviews with Dixon and Silber are deficient in substance and although all the program is saturated by the kind of games described, here, nevertheless, the program did, in a superficial way, discuss and address a fundamental issue. A change was taking place in which voters were turning against the government and the program examined that change. The change in sentiment ultimately resulted in the overthrow of the Democratic leadership in Congress; the creation of the Reform Party and an unprecedented degree of cynicism about government and politics.

Silber went on to destroy his own candidacy for governor because he let his righteous indignation get out of control. Donaldson got his wish and he now hosts the program, with Cokie Roberts, although he has also softened and lost some of his edge.

Finally, one more note: this analysis is also a form of action, pushing a story line or theme about how journalism and politics are contaminated by unacknowledged games involving power, degradation and image. It too discredits some of those it describes in the service of its own idea, and presents an image of itself and its author, as competently standing up for fairness and honesty and opposing a corrupt system. Does it live up to those ideals? Is it fair to Donaldson? Does it scapegoat and pick on Donaldson the way he scapegoats and picks on the guests?

Thus: A (me) discredits Will, Dixon, Donaldson, and Silber on various values including those involving honesty, forthrightness and directness, fairness, competence, and consciousness of what one is doing. In fact, this analysis does something that the news media also frequently does -- it makes all the people it describes look like game players and, to some degree, fools. It inevitably tries to manipulate your psychology and emotions, in the way it selects and presents information. It invites you to look down on Silber as somewhat pathetic in the way he is manipulated and defeated by Donaldson. It invites you to respond to him with sadistic sympathy. It tries to evoke your hate of Donaldson, depicting him as a persecutor.

So you, the reader, will have to judge my judgment, and depict my depiction in your own thoughts. I just hope you will be fairer to me than Donaldson was to Silber. But, than, I'm doing it again aren't I?

All of which raises the essential ethical question: if all of us are inevitably immersed in a world of strategy, full of image manipulation, power and aggression, how can we make it more transparent, fairer, and more functional, so public debate and private experience can be made more whole than they are now? It is the job of social science and an informed journalism to give us the tools that can help bring that about.


* Note to the reader: The quotes used here were transcribed directly from a videotape of the program, which I have since lost access to (I probably copied it over unwittingly). There are a few places where my transcription varies from the official transcript provided by Journal Graphics. In each case, I have used my own in the belief (hope) that I got it right when I transcribed it. All of the differences are minor, involving a word here and there, and one phrase, and none will alter the reader's perception or affect the analysis.

For example, my version has Brinkley saying: "Now, first, I have a question of a very general nature for both of you and we'll get to specifics later." The official transcript leaves out the word "and." My version has Silber saying: "I think the reduction of political discourse to sound bites is one of the worst things that has happened to American political life...." The official transcript has him saying: "I think the reduction of political discourse to sound bites is one of the worst things that's happened in American political life...."

I'll check this against a tape when the opportunity arises.

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