Wednesday, February 01, 2006

In Defense of Opinion Journalism

The Competitive Enterprise Institute's Iain Murray has a great talent for analyzing the arguments bandied about in the press as various blowhards attempt to bludgeon their opponents into submission through the use of laughably poor so-called arguments based almost entirely on abuse of the opposition's motives. In today's edition of the American Spectator online, Murray superbly rebuts the latest attempt by the Left to quash arguments it cannot answer with facts and reason:

FOR MANY YEARS NOW, opinion pieces have been the main vehicle by which conservatives have taken their philosophy to the American people. It was the Austrian economist and enemy of socialism F. A. Hayek who first spelled out to conservatives that they were engaged in a war of ideas. Since the rise of Reaganism, conservatives have been winning this war and the opinion pages of newspapers are one of the chief battlegrounds.

It is therefore in the Left's interest to deny this ground to their enemy. A campaign waged against private financial ties serves not only this purpose but has proved beneficial in other ways. The acquiescence of editors and news services has enabled a sustained witch hunt. The war of ideas, unwinnable for the Left, has been replaced by a war on writers based on prejudice.

Murray understands precisely what is at stake in the attacks on Doug Bandow, Mike Fumento, and other writers who support market freedom:

The self-important witch finders blazing with moral righteousness have only one goal in mind: to deny the public access to the ideas advanced by the writers they target. This is not about trust, or ethics, or any other moral consideration. It is about suppression of free speech and public debate.

Murray, however, is not engaging in any ad hominem assault himself: he goes on to point out the precise fallacies on which these arguments are based, and his own argument is superb. Read it here.

21 comments:

Hunter Baker said...

I agree with you entirely with one exception, which is when the identity of the author is part of the argument. In other words, Democrat who supports conservative idea or person with tremendous public credibility endorses a position and changes the debate merely be lending their support -- read General Washington.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Iain modestly refrains from recounting many of the accusations I'm sure he himself has had to endure; I know when I worked at CEI the greater part of any joint panel appearance with a leftie would consist of listening to a litany of all the filthy corporate pigs that had bought my soul with their ill-gotten lucre. What was so infurating is that I'd get back to the office and get an earful from a donor because I'd written something pro-market that he didn't like. It takes a rare talent to piss off all of the people all of the time.

The trend Iain describes was behind the Vanguard nonsense at the Alito hearing as well. No one could point to any way in which any possible ruling on Alito's part could have financially benefitted him, yet he was guilty of the "appearance of impropriety," a charge which is unrebuttable because the impropriety is, of course, in the eye of the accuser. The code of ethics binding on attorneys is one of the strictest of any professions; you can be disbarred for things that an ordinary person wouldn't think twice about. Yet no one could point to an actual offense.

KeithM, Indy said...

Sounds to me like they wamt to use McCarthy's tactics except this time using it against Capitalists...

Are you now, or have you ever been associated with Capitalists?

Uh, why yes.

AH HA!!! says the anti-capitalist.

JC said...

Nice article, except for one thing.... the word "fallacious" gets on my nerves. It just sounds weird, and when someone uses it, we often find it scattered about in the same area like powdered sugar. I have no problem with someone observing a "fallacy" here and there, but articles describing arguments as "fallacious" (especially several times in a row) nauseate me.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, disagrees:

"Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. This kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak. It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses."

An undisclosed financial relationship with the possible beneficiary of an opinion piece undermines any perception of ethics (ethos, character) on the part of the writer. He is putting forth arguments and data that are usually beyond the ken of the reader, and we are asked to trust them and his analysis of them.

A simple disclosure like "Joe Doe is a consultant to the Megacorp Corp." is sufficient to put the reader on notice that the claims of the author deserve special scrutiny, and cannot be taken at face value as the dispassionate passion of a disinterested third party.

We give disinterested third parties the greatest weight when deciding issues, as we should. A paid consultant is a party of the first part, and cannot be yielded the same rhetorical benefit of the doubt.

connie deady said...

The war of ideas, unwinnable for the Left, has been replaced by a war on writers based on prejudice.

I'm sorry that or anyone else believes that. No wonder we have such division.

I cannot deal with anyone who believes that their "side" has an exclusive handle on truth and right.

Most of life's big issues are about values. I'd like to think I can use reason as well as anyone else or I wasted a lot of my education. But ultimately we will differ because our values and our priorities differ.

James Elliott said...

Mr. Murray - and via his promotion, Mr. Karnick - are throwing a lot of different things into one mushy pile here.

It is one thing to write an op-ed for something you believe in and also get paid for. Dr. Zycher often writes pieces that plug certain positions that are of economic benefit to, say, the pharmaceutical industry, who also fund or help fund one or more of the institutes he is connected to. Dr. Zycher is ethically pure as the driven snow, because he acknowledges his financial ties, no matter how tenuous, either in the body of the op-ed or in his bio attached to the piece. The reader is then able to understand that there is a possibility of bias within the piece, and may make an informed decision as to their interpretation of the content.

This may seem like a nitpicky distinction, but it is utterly crucial. There is a myth that opinion journalism doesn't need to abide by the standards and ethics of journalism. That is taking the "opinion" and chucking "journalism" out the window. That's just "opinion writing," and it's not the same damn thing. "After all," they say, "it's just my opinion. So what if I don't get every little thing right." Well, the problem is with the reading public's perception: They trust a journalist to be fundamentally honest and truthful, to be writing something informed. They trust that he or she doesn't have a personal stake in one particular outcome, or that if they do, they'll be upfront about it. They trust a journalist to be truthful.

Now, I'm all for taking a side in journalism, even if I don't agree with it. But there must be honesty, truth, and and adherence to an ethical obligation to hold them up. A person, say, who writes articles or opinion pieces claiming there is no such thing as global warming and then fails to acknowledge that he received $50,000 from Shell Oil is fundamentally dishonest and robbing his or her readers of the chance to make an informed evaluation.

Warren Ellis, in his opinion journalism opus, "Transmetropolitan," put it perfectly: "I'm a journalist; I can't change s---. All I can do is point you in the direction of the Truth and give you the tools and information you need to evaluate it."

Opinion journalism as Murray, Karnick, and even Baker and Hutchins see it, defies a commitment to Truth or the honest evaluation of available information. It is a relativistic spin of the shallowest kind, devoid of rigor or adherence to intellectual honesty. It applies the shallow rules of politics to the dissemination of information. That way lies disaster.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Elliott, Van Dyke, and Aristotle all agree. Case closed.

James Elliott said...

It would appear that Tom and I are in agreement on this subject. Who'd'athunkit?

connie deady said...

I'll agree too. How could a woman not agree with such intelligent and charming men.

Is this like the Staples button that when pushed results in the end of the world as we know it.

I'm not ready for armegeddon just yet.

Hunter Baker said...

As my son would say, "I think I'm right."

The irreducible FACT is that an argument should stand or fall on its own merits. I'm on record as saying it is wrong to withhold relevant info about who is paying whom and what the relationships are, but thinking those things should be known does not mean the lack of that information invalidates a perfectly good argument.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Take it up with Aristotle, HB.

Seriously, let's try it another way: we are not discussing science or fact, we are discussing the op-ed, which falls into the category of rhetoric.

I'm particularly annoyed at Mr. Fumento, whom I have found to be a bold and unique thinker, investigator, and writer. He has thrown into disrepute a lot of stuff I agree with.

Now, Iain Murray is quite right that the sophists are using the self-inflicted vulnerability of Fumento's (et al.) credibility to invalidate the underlying facts of their rhetoric. But the nature of rhetoric is exactly as Aristotle described---we often don't truly understand what the author is presenting; we have no choice but to lean on our perception of his ethos.

The wolf may still be correct on a given issue, but to wear sheep's clothing is fundamentally dishonest, and worse, inimical to his own purpose. If the wolf can still make his case despite obviously being a wolf, he's scored the greatest and soundest success of all.

aardvark said...

OP: "The war of ideas, unwinnable for the Left, has been replaced by a war on writers based on prejudice."

Thank you for sharing that, sir. I am glad I found that out now rather than later.

CD: "I'm sorry that or anyone else believes that. No wonder we have such division."

This remark begs for a sarcastic response. Unfortunately, my talents lie elsewhere...

As such is the case, I will simply state that I am grateful that you were able to articulate so eloquently that which I have wrestled with for so long.

CD: "I cannot deal with anyone who believes that their "side" has an exclusive handle on truth and right."

The longer I lurk here, the better that option seems for a variety of reasons -- chief of which are my sanity and serenity.

CD: "...I'd like to think I can use reason as well as anyone else ... ultimately we will differ because our values and our priorities differ."

Sad, but -- in all likelihood -- true. It appears that you may never see eye-to-eye on anything. This reminds me of a rather apropos quote from Event Horizon's Dr. Weir:

"Where we're going, you won't need eyes..."

Kathy Hutchins said...

Opinion journalism as Murray, Karnick, and even Baker and Hutchins see it, defies a commitment to Truth or the honest evaluation of available information.

Opinion journalism as Elliott and van Dyke see it is apparently a cesspool of self-interest and mendacity, where no one is required to evaluate an argument, one need only evaluate the arguer, and even then need not evaluate the arguer with a care towards fairness. Aristotle I will leave out of it, as I believe van Dyke is misusing him.

If you are too lazy or too dumb to evaluate an argument on its merits, you have no business opining on the subject. If you can't evaluate my written opinion on, say, Sarbanes-Oxley, without knowing that in 1992 Arthur Andersen co-wrote a portion of my Hudson Institute salary, then you should fold over the page and do the Sudoku puzzle.

Yes, this is a cranky comment. I've worked in think tanks, government agencies, and universities for 25 years and I've never published or uttered one word I knew to be false. Neither, do I firmly believe, have Michael Fumento or Doug Bandow. Full disclosure: I once sat next to Doug Bandow at a Liberty Fund dinner and found him charming; I have worked for some of the same people Fumento has worked for, met him a few times, and liked him. He might even have bought me a drink at the Hawk and Dove once, although that could have been Peter Huber. I'm not sure now.

Hunter Baker said...

There is a point where disclosure becomes ridiculous and we have to take a responsibility to pick out the facts from the glosses. For instance, I like Tim Russert. However, he had a serious Democratic party political career long before he became a newsman. I know that will affect the way he interviews, writes, perceives, etc. and I apply a filter accordingly. However, I do not think he should have to open every show by telling us about his political career and how he was tied to the Democratic party, DESPITE the fact that it is basically relevant to every bit of programming he does on national politics.

JC said...

I think Aristotle, generally, is full of (nonsense). This serves only to further that belief.

There are times when credibility matters, and times when it does not. The difference is whether the speaker's credibility is a premise for his arguments. For example,
1. Speaker witnessed a murder. His argument is "I saw Mr. X do it, and I'm credible, so you should believe that Mr. X did it." Here, one could legitimately attack the speaker's credibility and it would not be ad hominem since you are attacking a premise.
2. Speaker says, "Killing people is always morally wrong, so the death penalty is never justified." The speaker's credibility has nothing to do with his argument; it doesn't matter if he's been payed nothing or a million dollars by the ACLU to say that. Any attempt to impugn the speaker's motives would be ad hominem and illogical.

aardvark said...

JE:"It is a relativistic spin of the shallowest kind, devoid of rigor or adherence to intellectual honesty."

Funny you should say that. I hope that my earlier effort to distinguish between "intellect" and "intelligence" makes more sense in this context.

You know, now that I think of it, I have never encountered any person (intelligent or otherwise) use the phrase "intelligently dishonest."

I can only posit that such malapropism would be unbecoming of those disinterested in engaging in "intellectual dishonesty."

If you need proof of the use of such phrases, ask Google.

"It applies the shallow rules of politics to the dissemination of information. That way lies disaster."

There are so many ways to respond to this, but I shall choose the one that I think is best:

Hear, hear.

James Elliott said...

Opinion journalism as Elliott and van Dyke see it is apparently a cesspool of self-interest and mendacity, where no one is required to evaluate an argument, one need only evaluate the arguer, and even then need not evaluate the arguer with a care towards fairness. Aristotle I will leave out of it, as I believe van Dyke is misusing him.

Mrs. Hutchins, that is, frankly, nonsense in my opinion. Not only is it putting words in my mouth, they're not even vaguely accurate. As I pointed out, Dr. Zycher is a perfect example of acceptable ethical behavior in op-ed writing. The vast majority of op-ed writers behave in similar fashion to he. I am also of the opinion that all bloggers who are not op-ed writers - myself included - really, really wish someone would pay them to be op-ed writers. This is the origin of bloggers' mainstream media hatred - namely, that the MSM is getting paid to do what they have to do in their free time. It all comes back to that green-eyed monster.

But on to the "substantive" portion of your fare. Look at your own example. If I am to accurately interpret your piece on Sarbanes-Oxley, it is my responsibility as the reader to delve into the financial niceties of your think-tank? What if you wrote that piece in the Wall Street Journal or some other publication not tied to your think tank, and you fail to ackowledge the think tank in your bio? My job as a reader is to Google you to death when a simple added six or seven words on your part would give the reader the information they needed to decide whether or how to filter the information you present? This is the ethical equivalent of saying, "It's not my duty to obey the law; it's law enforcement's duty to catch me breaking it."

Indeed, that word "filter" is half the problem with opinion writing today. It places the ethical obligation on the other without embracing it oneself. As I pointed out earlier, this takes the "journalism" out of the equation entirely and places everything on the fulcrum of "opinion." "It's just my opinion that Bill Clinton is a child-raping Satanist! He can't sue me for libel!" I call bull-honkey on that whole line of thought.

JC said...

Mr. Elliott, perhaps you misunderstood her. I don't think she's saying the reader should have to uncover these "conflicts of interest;" rather, they are irrelevant if the reader is capable of analyzing the argument on its own merits rather than judging the argument by the credibility of the author. I mentioned above the times that I think credibility is important. If you're just submitting an argument, and not testimony as to the truthfulness of a particular fact, then I don't care who paid you to say it.

Tim Lambert said...

Murray is wrong. Here is why.

Tim Worstall said...

" But ultimately we will differ because our values and our priorities differ."

If only that were true, life would be so much simpler. I’m only a very minor player (writing for TCS mostly) but the thrust of my writing has always been that I share most of the desired ends of many on the left. Better education, better health care, a cleaner world and a richer one (in more things than just money). Iain Murray does as well (at least as far as our email conversations have gone).

The values and priorities are the same. The disagreement comes in the processes by which those goals will be reached.