Imaginary Media Crimes.

You may have heard of the heartbreaking and outrageous case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who has been convicted of adultery (which she denies) and sentenced to death by stoning. We might want to note, as we rightly condemn this kind of brutality, that the Old Testament mandates death by stoning for a large number of crimes, including worshiping other gods, not being a virgin on your wedding night (just for the ladies, of course), disobeying your parents, failing to keep the Sabbath, and -- you guessed it -- adultery. Just something to keep in mind next time you run into someone who says the Bible is the inerrant word of God and the foundation on which the American system was built.

But that's not what I want to talk about. Predictably, this case has been seized on by some conservatives to argue that liberals are on the wrong side of our war on Islam. What, you didn't know that liberals support harsh punishments for people accused of transgressing sexual norms? Then you're just not thinking creatively enough. Take a cue from National Review's Andrew McCarthy, who manages (as Adam mentioned yesterday) to argue that Elena Kagan is for all intents and purposes a supporter of this kind of vicious punishment. (Follow the logic: When Kagan was at the Harvard Law School, the university -- not the law school, but the university -- accepted a large donation from a Saudi prince to establish an Islamic Studies center. Therefore, Kagan is OK with the imposition of Sharia law in the United States, and therefore soft on stoning, like all Democrats. Makes perfect sense, no?) But I have to highlight this passage from McCarthy's piece:

Ms. Ashtiani is about to be stoned. That’s where they bury you up to your chest and hurl rocks at you until you die. The rocks can’t be too big. You see, this is real torture, religion-of-peace torture. It’s the kind that happens every day but that Democrats prefer not to talk about. With stoning (or “lapidation” as the press gently call it on those rare occasions when it is mentioned at all), the ordeal must not end too quickly.

That's a very interesting claim: The liberal media, loath to say anything that might reflect poorly on fundamentalist Islam, almost never mention stoning, and when they do, call it "lapidation." I found that rather striking, since I had never even heard the term "lapidation." But it couldn't be that McCarthy is just making this up, based on his general presumption that everything the media does is bad, since they're a bunch of liberals -- could it? Fortunately, this isn't a statement of opinion but an empirical claim, and one we can test using an obscure instrument called Lexis/Nexis.

As a first try, we'll go with the U.S. Newspapers and Wires database. And let's use the last five years, shall we? All right: The number of mentions of the word "stoning" in the last five years in that database was 2,558. That seems like quite a few, but if McCarthy is right, there ought to be at least five or 10 times as many mentions of "lapidation," right?

The number of mentions of "lapidation" in the last five years was ... three. So for every mention of "lapidation," there were 852 mentions of "stoning." Incidentally, one of those "lapidations" did come in that most hated liberal media outlet, The New York Times (it was in a book review, but still). How many times in the last five years has the Times mentioned "stoning"? It came up in 120 Times articles.

But wait -- maybe it's on television where McCarthy has seen the liberal media so often refer to stoning as lapidation, in order to make it seem less barbaric. Let's search the Transcripts database. And the the results are: "stoning," 2043 mentions; "lapidation," 0 mentions. Zero.

Ask anyone who teaches college students, and they'll tell you that one of the marks of inexperienced writers is their tendency to make sweeping empirical claims on the basis of their impressions, or the things they'd like to be true, without any actual evidence to support them. The hope is that after a few semesters of having professors write "How do you know this?" in the margins of their papers, the students learn that if they want to make that kind of claim, they should at least take a moment to determine whether it's true. But not, apparently, at National Review.

-- Paul Waldman

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