Thursday, December 30, 2010

Excuse Me, Did We Read the Same Editorial?

On Christmas Eve, I read a letter in the Los Angeles Times responding to its December 17 editorial “Fox’s Unbalancing Act,” which concluded that the cable-news station isn’t living up to its “fair and balanced” motto. The editorial ended: “Fox should either come clean about [its furthering a conservative agenda] and crack down on such partisanship in its news ranks, or it should stop pretending to be an objective news source.

What prompted the Times to take this stand was an internal Fox News memo by Washinton managing editor Bill Sammon, a memo leaked by the liberal group Media Matters for America, in which Sammon required the station’s “hard-news” reporters (as opposed to its opinionated pundits) to cast doubt on any scientific theories that support global warming.

The responding letter, written by Lea Osborne of Woodland Hills, reads as follows:

I find it ironic that you criticize Fox News for instructing reporters to avoid the phrase “public option” and use “government option” instead during the healthcare debate.

In the very next editorial you state that Gov.-elect Jerry Brown “will probably call for a revenue-raising initiative.” Isn't a revenue-raising initiative the same thing as tax increase? Why don't you call it what it is?

You say that Fox News should come clean and stop pretending to be an objective news source. Perhaps The Times needs to look in the mirror.

While the Times certainly criticized Fox News for its misleading stance on global warming, did the paper also criticize the channel for the latter’s use of the term “government option” instead of “public option,” the crux of Ms. Osborne’s letter? The pertinent passage of the December 17 editorial reads:

The first time Media Matters unveiled a leaked e-mail from Bill Sammon, Fox News’ Washington managing editor, it was hardly worthy of mention. On Dec. 9 the group’s website revealed that Sammon had instructed reporters to avoid the phrase “public option” when referring to a proposed government-sponsored healthcare plan.The memo, sent out on Oct. 27, 2009, when debate over the Democratic healthcare bill was raging in Congress, came two months after Republican pollster Frank Luntz had appeared on [Sean] Hannity’s show and encouraged him to use the phrase “government option” instead, because such terminology decreased public support for the proposal. “Please use the term ‘government-run health insurance’ or, when brevity is a concern, ‘government option’ whenever possible,” Sammon told reporters.

Liberal bloggers were furious, but few mainstream journalists could muster much outrage. Arguments over semantics and perceived bias are commonplace and seldom fruitful. “Government option” is no less valid a descriptor for the proposal than the more commonly used “public option,” and if Fox News was demonstrating bias by using the former, one could accuse mainstream outlets of the same for using the latter.

Clearly, the answer is no. In fact, the Times criticizes those critical of the phrase “government option,” precisely the opposite of what Ms. Osborne said the paper did. Not only that, but the Times makes the same point in its editorial that Ms. Osborne makes in her letter. She premises her highly reprimanding remarks on something that simply isn’t true.

This strikes me as more than an instance of a straw man (misrepresenting an opponent’s position and arguing against the misrepresentation instead of the actual position). I can only conclude that either Ms. Osborne didn’t read the editorial or she did read it and saw something that wasn’t there. And it’s on this something not there that she based her cocksure opinion.

But basing smug and self-righteous opinions on things untrue is an all too common tendency is politics these days. Are you angry that Obama raised taxes? Actually, he lowered them. Are you infuriated that the President tripled government spending and the national debt? He didn’t do that either. Are you apoplectic that a mosque is being built directly at the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Well, that’s not an accurate picture of what’s happening. Nevertheless, these phantom outrages have served as grist for the mill of conservative fury throughout much of this past year, yet when it came to actual problems, there was no there there. Now, in this dubious tradition, Ms. Osborne is indignant at the Times for something that it didn’t do.

I guess the really weird thing is that the paper ran her letter without correcting her.

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