Wednesday, May 04, 2005

I own John Leo

John Leo's most recent column is devoted to something I usually attempt to undermine: the quick and thoughtless labeling of people. He comes out early with his thesis:

"Obvious point: When judging the credibility of controversial people in the news, readers and viewers deserve a fair account of their background and affiliations. If the issue is politics, we certainly need to know their political leanings."

Leo here conflates two things: the relevance of someone's background and affiliations to their credibility, and the relevance of someone's background and affiliations to the truth of the matter. With no thought to making a distinction between these issues, he only further muddies the waters he thinks he is clearing. He cites the example of the Italian journalist who was shot at in Iraq:

"Few news outlets reported all of the following facts, which surely bear on her probable credibility: She strongly opposed the American invasion, she identifies with the resistance to the United States in Iraq, she works for a Communist paper, and she is a Communist herself. "

Are those facts relevant to her credibility? Absolutely. Are they relevant to the fact of whether or not she was targeted on purpose? Absolutely not.

He uses a phrase I love to describe this data he feels is being withheld: "partisan connections." But the way the article is constructed, everyone has "partisan connections" except John Leo. What the hell is a partisan connection? Does John Leo really believe that there is a group of people who have no beliefs, preconceptions or agendas whatsoever, and that it is they who should be reporting on things so they can be objective? Fortunately for me and unfortunately for John Leo, his thesis collapses under its own weight, much like the statement "I am lying right now" does. For him to be consistent, he would need to start his article with "I'm John Leo, right-wing columnist with the following partisan connections..." Well, what are they, John?

More on defining "partisan" philosophically in my next posting.


At 4:34 PM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

I might actually go one farther. If “partisan connections” do so much explanatory work, especially when the audience is profoundly unsophisticated, then, if anything, we should be more cautious about revealing the “background and affiliations” of “controversial people in the news.” If Charles is correct (which he is) that assessing an individual’s circumstances helps gauge that individual’s credibility but not the truth value of the claim, then media providers should be very careful about how they reveal that information, if they do at all. In the case of Giuliana Sgrena, the New York Times did an admirable job of casting her affiliations as “leftist” because an American audience is so remarkably ignorant about what it means to be “Communist” in a 21st Century, European setting. If the NYT reported that Il Manifesto was a “Communist paper,” Americans would most likely conjure images of Pogroms and Five Year Plans. If background and affiliation are so important and if the audience has nothing but ignorant caricatures by which to interpret that background and affiliation, then there is no such thing as “accuracy in labeling,” only “knee-jerk disregard by labeling.”

At 9:41 AM, Blogger Mair said...

I think you guys are probably right...but I wouldn't be so quick to think that affiliations have no bearing on the "truth." Of course, my examples come from Sociology, not journalism or politics. One of my professor says "Never trust anyone with a hypothesis they believe in." Here's why. Arlie Hochschild wrote a landmark book - "The Second Shift", in which she uncovered the "truth" that in dual-earner families, women do the majority of the housework, childcare in addition to their full-time job outside the home. Well, in the appendix (who reads these, for real???) she says something like "Though the data actually show that this is not the case, I know that it MUST BE SO, and thus the data are inaccurate." In other words, she did a study, reported "findings" that were completely false, and misled everyone into thinking that women are still getting the short end of the stick in marriage. Thus, her affiliations (feminist, opression type leanings) actually were quite relevant in undermining the truth.

At 12:44 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

Mair, I think you make a good point, just one peripheral to the thoughts of j. morgan and myself. Affiliations are always relevant to spin and interpretation; in the case you cited, not just relevant, but fundamental. One of my points was that John Leo failed his own test, which was "All news stories must reveal the 'partisan connections' of their authors and subjects." For Ms. Hochschild, the introduction to her book in a Leo-ian system would have said "Partisan Connections: Angry Feminist." =)

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Mair said...

I'm so sick of angry feminists. I'm also bad at reading carefully the nuts and botls of philosophical banter. Thus, I amend my comment to include the statement:
"I wholeheartedly agree with you. Also offered for your consideration the following example of spin and interpretation based on affiliation..."

enter previous comment here.


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