This isn’t about two wrongs not making a right. It’s about winning an election.
Prior to President Trump, we had President Obama, President Bush, and President Clinton. I recall a bet I made with my wife during the last couple of years of President Bush. We were in a Barnes & Noble and I gestured to their humor display.
“Right now,” I said, “there are almost two full shelves of books dedicated to mocking President Bush. I bet that three years in, there’s not even a quarter of that space filled with books mocking Obama.” I was trying to demonstrate media bias in a practical way. My forecast, for the record, was correct.
CNN was particularly evident in their spin during the Clinton era, so much so that talk radio grew strong in part by presenting themselves as the counterpoint to the “Clinton News Network”. MSNBC was blatantly sycophantic to Obama, filling their roster with hosts that seemed to view him as the second coming of Jesus (or Mohammed, for those hosts who were leery of Christianity.) Because of the bias, their news channels were derided by Republicans. Yearly awards were presented for the most outrageous examples of media bias.
The attacks against those networks rarely managed to pry loose any of their viewers. They turned people who followed Fox and talk radio into firmer devotees of those alternative resources, but they didn’t change the minds of CNN viewers.
Now we are seeing the reverse. Fox is continually presenting spin and even outright falsehoods in defense of Trump and the Republicans. Even though the deceptions are obvious and demonstrable, the Fox crowd will not be budged from their positions.
It might be time to ask why.
While the specific reasons will vary from individual to individual, the general groupthink explanations are wrong. It was never that liberals hate America, nor that Fox viewers are racist. Certainly, there were exceptions who did fall under those umbrellas (exceptions which were then presented as representative by their political opposition) but for the most part, the viewers were simply reacting reasonably to people who were lying to them. And the people who were lying to them were those who were calling out the falsehoods.
Every person who said “the mainstream media lies” or “Fox News is fake” was lying, and the viewers correctly knew it.
This is where conditional modifiers and specifics come into play.
If we tell a Republican “Fox News is fake”, we are doing two things simultaneously: we are presenting ourselves as an argumentative enemy and we are challenging their worldview. They aren’t going to want to listen to us because of the first component of this equation, but they may because we’re a friendly acquaintance, friend, or even relative. This means that we’d better be accurate in the second part of the equation.
By leaving it as a broad “fake”, we’re not being accurate.
Fox today, or MSNBC and CNN during the time of Obama or Clinton, is absolutely guilty of outright falsehoods. More often, they are guilty of lies of omission and reporting on rumors. More often than that, they spin. Then, when the coverage is of events which have no political aspect, they tell the truth.
What this means is that for an overwhelming amount of the time, the people on the news channels are telling the technical truth. If they’re reporting the Dow Jones numbers at the end of the day, that final number is going to be identical no matter what station one turns to.
When we present a channel as consistently spewing “fake news” and they can turn to it to see accurate news, we are going to be perceived as the liar.
If we were coming at the revelations as a sympathetic figure, they might be inclined to look only at the items we’re presenting. But we’re not. We’re challenging them, and they are going to be looking for a way to prove us wrong. When we make too broad a generalization, we grant them that proof.
This, I believe, is at the core of why challenges to the veracity of news channels consistently fail.
It’s shown in a rhetorical trick that radio hosts often use. They will get into an argument with a person who is accusing them of being wrong or biased, and they immediately home into specifics. “What have I said that is wrong?”
At that point, forced to move from generality to specifics, the caller is caught off-guard. Typically, they cannot call to mind exact quotes. It is lost on the listeners that even the most dedicated of them cannot recall exact quotes, either.
But, even if the caller had perfectly prepared notes, it wouldn’t matter. They haven’t contacted the host to present a challenge on one specific point or statement, they’ve called with a broad-brush attack on the host. This is why the call screener has let them through. Once that generalized attack has been launched, the caller has already lost the argument; they simply don’t know it. The listeners have heard the host make multiple easily-verified statements and therefore the person calling them a liar is the one who’s wrong, the one who’s the “real” liar.
I believe the answer to this has to be calling out Fox or One America Network or the Washington Examiner on specifics. There are plenty of opportunities which are offered… they have staffers who defend the most egregious lapses in judgement and behavior, all of them regularly post false or misleading stories, they have opinion writers who rail against things they’ve spent their careers praising.
It’s also in the presentation. The viewers or listeners have typically formed emotional bonds with their news sources, but they have rarely formed any attachment with the information itself. Saying “Sean Hannity lied when he said that Trump was exonerated” has two points of emotional connection: Sean Hannity and Trump. Saying instead “I wonder how many people realize that acquittal doesn’t mean exoneration” takes away the sensation of a direct attack and presents a better chance of starting an actual discussion.
There’s a steady stream of disinformation coming from these sources, far more than currently comes from the left-leaning media. This needs to be countered. There’s plenty of evidence to do so, but if we undermine our arguments from the onset we’re drastically limiting our effectiveness.
We can’t afford that if we’re going to work toward flushing the large-scale corruption that is presented by this administration. When we’re advocating truth, the inherent lie of a broad-brush attack is rhetorical suicide.