Thursday, December 30, 2010

Newsflash for Greta Van Susteren: Sarah Palin is just not that bright

Greta Van Susteren, Fox News talking head and defender of all that is fair and balanced in the coverage of news, wants to know what criteria fellow Fox pundit Juan Williams used when he stated that Sarah Palin is not on the same "intellectual stage" as President Obama.

You may recall that Williams once worked for National Public Radio but lost that job because of comments he made about Muslims on airplanes that NPR thought insensitive. Then Fox gave him a full-time gig – mostly to provide them leverage to criticize NPR for not supporting free speech. In any case, Fox is probably sorry it did that because Williams says the occasional thing that doesn't sit well with the Fox narrative, such as the aforementioned slight about Palin's intellect.

There is nothing particularly new about people taking shots at Palin's intelligence. Even conservatives have been lining up to do that for some time now.

What I find interesting, however, is the benchmark that Van Susteren uses to suggest that Williams has no basis for making the claim. She writes:

Has Juan interviewed either [Palin or Obama] so as to have any knowledge about which he speaks or is he just talking? Knowing if he interviewed (first hand knowledge) either and to what depth can help guide you as to whether you should credit his opinion or not.

Van Susteren goes on to say that her purpose was not to defend Palin from Williams, or to target Williams, but to: 

drive home the point that there is a big difference between fact and opinion, and that when we express opinion, we should make sure that it is rooted in fact or experience or good judgment -- and not simply slinging insults.

Is Van Susteren really suggesting that the only way one can determine the quality of another person's intellect is to actually interview them personally? Is that really what she is saying?

Does Van Susteren seriously believe that Americans should refrain from making judgements about the intelligence of candidates running for office unless they have had the chance to sit down with them for a good chin wag?

It seems that this would take a very long time. 

Van Susterern's comments are simply stupid and just another way of suggesting that Palin is really some sort of bright light whose abilities are obscured by "lamestream" media types who insist on asking loaded questions for the sole purpose of making Palin look foolish. Yeah, right.

I have to think that what Van Susteren is really doing is admitting that Palin comes across as less than capable in most interviews, other than those conducted by Fox News, but that if each American had the chance to sit down with her, one-on-one, they would see how smart she really is. That must be what Greta really means. I don't think she is right about this, but that must be what she means.

Obviously, we all make judgements about other people's intellectual capacity, whether or not they are running for office. In the world of politics, people who work for media companies are paid to ask the questions, either directly or indirectly, and the candidates or candidates-in-waiting answer the questions as best they can while we, the people, decide who has the requisite ability and who does not.

Criteria for assessing intelligence is important but, to be fair, there is hardly a scientific consensus about it. SAT scores and university degrees are likely a very poor proxy. The accumulation of facts, the ability to appreciate a range of opinions, empathetic imagination, problem-solving competencies, communications skills, a capacity for abstract thought, and more are certainly ways to think about intelligence. But, at the end of the day, our judgement is all we have to tell us whether or not we think another person ranks higher or lower on the scale. Perhaps the best we can do is to say that whatever intelligence is, we know it when we see it (or fail to see it).

Whatever else is true, we get to decide, though face time, while no doubt helpful, is probably not absolutely essential and certainly not practical.

Sorry Greta, but as for Ms. Palin, most people have already decided that she is just not that bright or at least not bright enough – under the most important definitions for the highest political office in the land.

Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have never interviewed Sarah Palin or President Obama, but still reserve the right to express an opinion about the relative qualities of their intelligence, just like Juan Williams. Call it the American in me.

(Cross-posted to Lippmann's Ghost.)

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