response to Conor
A few days ago Conor wrote:
[C]able news networks should ban Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin (I haven’t listened to the other hosts enough to make a judgment one way or another) — not because they are talk radio hosts, but because as radio personalities they consistently prove themselves to be intellectually dishonest, intemperate partisans whose very approach to public discourse is deeply destructive of it.
To which I replied, in the comments:
Intellectual dishonesty is not something you can scientifically pin down. One man’s intellectually dishonest pundit is another man’s political mentor. I generally don’t like these pundits, Conor, but the notion of banning them from cable news shows because you think they’re dishonest is reprehensible to me.
And, to just wrap up this lengthy quotation session, Conor, in a follow-up post asks:
I’ve got a question for E.D. and other like-minded commenters: Is there anything that would cause you to classify a political commentator like Rush Limbaugh as intellectually dishonest? What if I could demonstrate, for example, that he makes factually inaccurate statements, plays misleadingly edited audio clips, misrepresents the views of his political opponents, and uses obviously fallacious reasoning every single fortnight he is on the air, for years on end? Would that be sufficient evidence to objectively deem him intellectually dishonest, or would it still just be a matter of my opinion? Would it be sufficient to justify his exclusion from news programs?
Now, my response to this is fairly straightforward.
First off, I could care less whether or not a talk-radio pundit is intellectually dishonest. I don’t think that disqualifies them or anyone else from appearing on a cable talk show. I’m sure Conor could find an abundance of “misleadingly edited audio clips” for each of these talking heads, and I would even agree that these and others – including many cable TV talk show hosts – actively engage in falsity and propaganda. Even so, that is part of political discourse. We can’t just wish it away. Misinformation will accompany us wherever we go.
Second, if we’re going to start limiting who appears on cable news shows based on the standards Conor lists in his post, we’ll soon be out of guests. Apparently no politician will ever be allowed on cable tv, ever again. Logically, if we’re going to ban the talking heads involved in Conor’s own talk-radio jihad, we’ll have to start banning other commentators and pundits that other people dislike. Sorry Andrew Sullivan, you’re out. Lots of people think you’re intellectually dishonest and so you must be banned – lest your “obviously fallacious reasoning” violate their sensitive sensibilities. Sorry Paul Krugman, you accused a bunch of us of being “traitors” recently, which is not only repugnant but also dishonest. We must protect the viewers from your lies and falsehoods! And so on, and so forth.
Third, shouldn’t we be encouraging debate between both the ostensibly honest and those we think of as dishonest? Call it the Jon Stewart approach, if you will. Look at his debate with Jim Cramer of CNBC, or his various forays into the labyrinthine mind of Bill O’Reilly, for just a couple examples of the value of dialogue – even with (or especially with!) those we might cast as a bit shady or less-than-aboveboard. Truth comes to light only when lies are brought out into the open. Yes, of course a higher pedestal means they’ll reach more people, but it also means more exposure and more of an opportunity for others to point out the fallacies and inconsistencies in their arguments.
Fourth, cable talk shows are not just about – or really ever about – journalism or news. They are, by nature, about two things: the trading of opinions and the sparring of ideas and angles; and that holiest of television holies – entertainment. That people get their news from either the Daily Show or the No Spin Zone is a sad fact of modern life, but it isn’t the fault of those shows or their guests.
In any case, banning Mark Levin from CNN won’t help, and not just because Lou Dobbs is a host on CNN, either. Ratings are important to these shows, and opinionated people drive ratings. This doesn’t make it good or bad or anything else. But they all do it. Rachel Maddow and Keith Olberman and Sean Hannity and Stephen Colbert – all, to one degree or another, and in their own unique styles, do what they do to entertain and to push their own agenda. They are not news shows and the guests they have are not merely there to present the facts. They are there to trade in opinions, to pose as “experts” or “strategists” or “best-selling authors.” I’d wager more than half of them are inconsistent, at-times fallacious, and probably the more political they happen to be, also the more “intellectually dishonest” they are likely to be.
In the end, we can’t go around calling for networks or cable shows to start banning people just because we’re on a personal vendetta or consider them dishonest. Conor may truly believe that the Limbaughs, Becks, and Levins of the world are doing more of a disservice to conservative causes – and he may very well be right – but this notion that the proper approach to countering this is to shut them down or ban them from cable talk pulpits is simply wrong-headed. And it puts me on the side of the talking heads, damnit. In the end I suspect that it really is style that bothers Conor so much about Levin and others like him, not their substance. If all these cats were lying through their teeth but doing it politely, I don’t think we’d even be having this conversation.
James Joyner chimes in:
[V]irtually every pundit who is controversial enough to be repeatedly invited back on television does all of those things (save perhaps for the audio clips) as a matter of course. So, application of this rule — presuming the coding is done by people unsympathetic to the pundit — would essentially eliminate the entire pundit class from appearing on television. Which may be a good thing!
The basic format of television “debate” programs promotes and rewards intellectual dishonesty of this type. The “Firing Line” model of intellectuals blathering on back and forth on a single topic for an hour is long dead. In the modern era, TV discussions are brisk, loud, and pit black vs. white with no grays permitted. Analysts who fail to make bold, decisive judgments without a lot of pesky caveats simply don’t fit in.
I’d say it probably would be a good thing, too. But we have to judge with our wallets, I’m afraid. I don’t watch those shows or listen to them. If enough people do likewise, ratings will have spoken. Banning is simply not practical or ethical, however shallow, loud, or obnoxious we find these shows and their guests.