A Return to False Equivalency

Now that MSNBC has exploded over President Obama’s “compromise” with Republicans, I want to return to Jon Stewart’s claim that MSNBC and Fox News are guilty of the same kind of biased journalism. In my earlier False Equivalency blog I asked readers to compare how often Fox News and MSNBC commentators prop up a “straw man,” which is the debating technique that distorts an opponent’s belief, and then ridicules the distortion.

In the earlier blog I claimed MSNBC does this much less than Fox News, making a false equivalency of Jon Stewart’s claim that the two channels do the same thing from opposite perspectives. I told Stewart that political discernment makes him funny, and he needs more discernment before making MSNBC the liberal equivalent of Fox News.

But there is more to the “straw man” question than who does it more. Fox News and MSNBC are on opposite sides of America’s political debates. So propping up “straw men” is to be expected. And it is a legitimate technique, when it increases viewer clarity about their own beliefs and those of others. But legitimacy requires that the venue be a fair one. Neither Fox News nor MSNBC is a fair venue for the simple reason that they play by rules of ownership, not rules of debate.

Let me explain with a recollection. I distinctly remember the first time I heard Rush Limbaugh’s radio call-in show. I said to myself: “I will continue to listen to this show only if this loud-mouth (“loud-mouth” was a major slur in my family) allows the caller to have the final word on something — anything.” It never happened. It does not happen on Fox News or MSNBC, either.

I know — Bill O’Reilly often says, “You can have the last word on this.” It is usually something of little consequence, and he will follow the person’s comment with something like, “I guess you can have your opinion on that.” I laugh every time. It does not matter what the host says. Others don’t get the last word, unless the host agrees with it, or deems it an acceptable “last word.” How is that the last word?

“Ownership” is the key concept on the MSNBC side, too. Lawrence O’Donnell’s show is called “The Last Word.” This is probably because his show is last in MSNBC’s lineup. The name could be a reference to somebody other than O’Donnell getting the last word, but I have not seen that happen. Has anybody seen it?

(MSNBC and Fox can send me video, if I missed it on either side.)

Propping up a “straw man” can be legitimate and clarifying, when playing by debate rules, but this is not the case with either channel. Both play by ownership rules. Limbaugh is the perfect example. His job is to get and keep an audience. Fairness concerns and debate rules are not part of the equation.

The “straw man” technique, rules of debate, and questions of fairness raise the distinction Bill O’Reilly points to when others say he does not report facts. He reminds listeners that commentary is different from covering the news. In his words, he is an “opinion” guy, not a news guy.

Fox News and MSNBC are engaging in debate. They are “opinion” shows. Does that make the straw man technique acceptable? Even in an “opinion” show, isn’t it dishonorable to say, “It’s just my opinion that the other side believes the following silly things. . .” and then ridicule distortions of the other side’s beliefs? When the venue is Fox News, it’s dishonorable.

Note to Greta Van Susteren:

I hate to lump a fellow Xavier High School alumnus with the dishonorable likes of O’Reilly, Hannity, Beck, and others. Let me know if I need a little more discernment. You can comment, below, but I get the last word.

See the importance of the last word? Does Greta want to comment, now? If she is a smart debater, she knows she is disadvantaged because I own the website. I have the password. I edit it and approve what goes on. When playing by ownership rules, nothing else matters, and our country has become a place where a distortion of the golden rule is true — “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

Back to the Point

The first point of this blog is that propping up a “straw man” is dishonorable, even in “opinion” shows, because those whose beliefs are being distorted, have no recourse. That’s why, in a fair debate, the right to the last word must not be owned by one side or the other. When ownership keeps the last word we are left with dishonorable opinion guys on both sides.

For the second point of this blog I return to the MSNBC explosion over President Obama’s compromise. Others can discuss the details of the arrangement. I simply ask, “If MSNBC is the liberal equivalent of Fox News, when did Fox News explode against President Bush and Vice President Cheney?”

MSNBC’s programming this week is not even close to Fox News’ critiques of Republicans or Tea Partiers. Is Karl Rove’s critique of Sarah Palin’s presidential possibilities an example? This is not even close to what happened on MSNBC, which roundly criticized President Obama for a lack of commitment to his campaign pledges and principles of justice.

Let’s end this by asking, “When Bush and Cheney were in office, did Fox News commentators criticize them for not following through on campaign pledges?”

The answer is no.  Conservative politicians and their supporters treat campaign pledges like car litter from a trip. When the campaign is over, pledges are tossed in the nearest trash bin. Of course liberal politicians do this, too. The difference is in the reactions of their bases.

Conservatives (Fox News audience) realize campaign pledges are calculated expressions aimed at getting votes. That doesn’t bother them because it is consistent with their core value of self-interest. According to them, we all have self-interest and self-interest is good. Therefore, self-interested campaign pledges that get one elected are good — end of story.

If there was a Fox News broadcast in which commentators took Bush or Cheney to task for a lack of commitment to self-interest, please let me know. I will post the video to this blogsite.

On the other hand, liberals are driven by principles of honesty and justice. This week’s MSNBC explosion is evidence of both. The liberal base (MSNBC audience) expected Obama to carry out campaign pledges (silly them), and MSNBC commentators roundly criticized the president for the injustice of continuing President Bush’s tax policies.

The difference between the values of the conservative and liberal bases is the second reason Jon Stewart’s proclamation is a false equivalency. If he would have discerned this difference between liberals’ and conservatives’ philosophies, he could have seen the differences between their cheerleaders, too.

Jon — Will we hear an apology? Oh yes — I forgot. You are a comedian, not to be taken seriously. I will remember that from now on, whenever you want to be taken seriously.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 MSNBC and Fox are now equivalent — Six Virtues of the Educated Person on 09.19.12 at 1:36 pm

[…] MSNBC is now the liberal distorter of conservative views, just as Fox has always been the conservative distorter of liberal views. When Jon Stewart claimed this equivalency in November, 2010, I disagreed. […]

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