Every evening on MSNBC's Countdown, host Keith Olbermann does a segment called "Worst Person in the World," which he usually uses as a forum to publicly harass Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. True to form, on the Nov. 30 broadcast, O'Reilly came in second place. But San Diegans might be more interested in who came in third: former mayor and current radio talk-show host Roger Hedgecock.
What bugged Olbermann is something Hedgecock had said while filling in for Rush Limbaugh. Griping about NBC's decision to refer to what's going on in Iraq as a "civil war," Hedgecock said the murder rate in Washington, D.C., is higher than that of Baghdad. So, what, he asked, does that mean there's a civil war raging in our nation's capital?
Olbermann didn't bother to quibble with what a civil war is and what a civil war is not. But he could have. He could have said "civil war" is generally defined as a violent clash between multiple factions fighting for control of a country's government, which doesn't exactly describe Washington, D.C. Instead, Olbermann chose simply to report that the murder rate in Baghdad is seven times higher than that of D.C., citing the Brookings Institution as the source of his information. He also made passing fun of the name "Hedgecock." ("No, that's not really his name, is it?")
The next day, Hedgecock responded on the air: "What Olbermann, of course, does is what you do when you don't like the point being made, and that is you take the last two months. The last two months in Baghdad have been extraordinarily violent, and more than Washington, D.C. But the statistics for the year previous were that the rate per hundred thousand-of murder rate-which is the way they do it in American cities, was lower than Washington, D.C., so it's still true." One problem with that logic springs to mind: NBC isn't saying there was a civil war in Iraq during some previous year; it's saying there's one now.
Hedgecock then one-upped himself, predicting with glee that this nugget would surely cause liberals fits: He said the combined number of military men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan "does not equal one year of deaths caused to Americans citizens by illegal aliens in our country." Presumably, that means Hedgecock believes the per-annum number of Americans murdered by illegal immigrants tops 3,260.
He cited a source for neither the Baghdad-Washington comparison nor the illegal-alien matter. For now, we'll leave the latter one alone and focus on the former.
We asked Hedgecock's producer, the affable Jimmy Valentine, where his host got his numbers. Valentine responded by sending us a link to a May 16 column by New York Sun columnist Alicia Colon, which at the time must have set a new standard for rosy, Bush-administration-approved wartime propaganda. Colon ended with this amusing gem: "The reality is that the Iraqi people and the coalition forces are winning the battle to rid the country of the murderous Islamofascists. In a few years, tourists will be flocking to Iraq, site of the most famous ancient city, Babylon, and other cultural treasures. That's the truth-believe it or not."
Criticizing Colon's blather is too easy for us, so we'll turn it over to the fine bloggers at Gawker.com, who once opined thusly about a different Colon piece: "This is a whole column full of crazy; to single anything out would be to unfairly suggest that the other items were somehow less completely and utterly insane."
What Hedgecock apparently found amongst the insanity in Colon's May 16 column were violent-death stats for various foreign countries and American cities-such as Colombia, Jamaica, Baltimore and Atlanta-all with rates higher than Iraq's, which Colon reports is 25.71 violent deaths per 100,000 people. By comparison, she says, South Africa's rate is 49.6, so she seems to be arguing the strife is twice as bad there than in Iraq.
And where does she get her numbers? From a speech, which Valentine also forwarded to CityBeat, by Republican Congressman Steve King from Iowa (who, incidentally, once called Joseph McCarthy "a hero for America"). The numbers, King said, show that walking down a St. Louis street, for example, is a more dangerous endeavor than walking down a street in Iraq. In his speech, King never mentions where he gets his numbers for Iraq. According to the right-wing website Newsmax.com, King used "Pentagon statistics cross-checked with independent research," but it remains unclear what this "independent research" is, so there's really no way to assess the information. The funny thing is that Hedgecock seems to have decided to turn King's "Iraq" into "Baghdad." In other words, King was comparing an orange (a whole country) to an apple (the most violent city in the U.S.), and then Hedgecock takes the orange and says it's an apple.
The problem with all this is that no one agrees on how many Iraqis have died. We've heard estimates as low as 27,000 (King, quoting some other member of Congress) and as high as 654,965 (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study, as of Oct. 11, 2006). The Iraqi government earlier this year had the number at around 40,000. Iraq Body Count.org, whose methods are pretty meticulous, says the number is somewhere between 49,642 and 55,048, as of Dec. 5.
The bottom line is that Roger Hedgecock used baseless information to argue against NBC's correct and past-due decision to say there's a civil war in Iraq (multiple internal factions are fighting violently for control of the government!). The reason he, Colon, Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and rest of this ilk do this sort of thing-like waste time comparing war-torn locales with places plagued by garden-variety violence-is because not doing so would mean they'd have to acknowledge reality, and reality shines a rather unflattering light on the guy they put all their money on, the president.
If there's a lesson that emerges from the King-Colon-Hedgecock game of rhetorical telephone, it's that questionable information has a way of taking on a life of its own. That's why it's so scary that when Hedgecock said what he said, millions of people were listening.