Journalistic Big Fish

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on January 21, 2016

Journalistic Big Fish

SC Rep. Mike Pitts

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.

Journalistic Big Fish
“A Republican lawmaker . . . doesn’t think just anyone calling him or herself a journalist ought to be able to work in South Carolina,” the Washington Post’s Callum Borchers writes:

The Post and Courier of Charleston reported Tuesday afternoon that state Rep. Mike Pitts (R) had introduced a bill called the “South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law.” Reporter Gavin Jackson posted a summary of the bill—which includes “fines and criminal penalties for violation of the chapter”—on Twitter, but wrote that the full text was not yet available.

Borchers, as you might expect, thinks it’s a terrible idea:

My visceral reaction isn’t printable but can be summarized thusly: This is a naked attack on the First Amendment—you know, the one that says “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” I realize we’re talking about a state legislature here, not Congress, but we’re also talking about one of the nation’s founding principles.

That aside, this kind of law would be completely unworkable. Look, there’s plenty of media garbage out there, but everyone has a different definition of what garbage is. Does anyone want a bunch of self-interested government officials setting the standard?

We would agree, except for one thing. Borchers doesn’t mention that the proposal isn’t serious; it’s designed to make a point:

Pitts told The Post and Courier his bill is not a reaction to any news story featuring him and that he is “not a press hater.” Rather, it’s to stimulate discussion over how he sees Second Amendment rights being treated by the printed press and television news. He added that the bill is modeled directly after the “concealed weapons permitting law.”

“It strikes me as ironic that the first question is constitutionality from a press that has no problem demonizing firearms,” Pitts said. “With this statement I’m talking primarily about printed press and TV. The TV stations, the six o’clock news and the printed press has no qualms demonizing gun owners and gun ownership.”

In other words, Pitts was trolling. And he caught himself a big fish at the Washington Post.

Incidentally, many journalists favor laws that would ban certain political speech, with an exception for “media corporations.” How exactly does that serious idea differ from Pitts’s playful one?

The Scarlet ‘A’
When last we met David Brooks, he was undertaking a one-man smear campaign against Ted Cruz based on a misleading account of a case Cruz argued as Texas’ solicitor general. Now Brooks is asking for help. He wants “the Republican governing class” to join him in what the headline of his latest New York Times column calls a “conspiracy” aimed at ensuring that neither Cruz nor Donald Trump wins the GOP presidential nomination.

Nominating either Cruz or Trump, Brooks believes, “would lead to a party-decimating general election.” And if Brooks turns out to be wrong about that, it would be even worse! Trump is so “solipsistic” and Cruz so “off-putting” that either man would “genuinely endanger their own nation.” In case that isn’t enough, Brooks tacks on “and beyond.”

It’s hardly surprising Brooks dislikes Trump, who is almost as unpopular among conservative intellectuals as among liberal ones. And plenty of politicians and pundits find Cruz off-putting, although there is a weird intensity to Brooks’s loathing. Even PBS’s Judy Woodruff was taken aback recently when Brooks referred on air to “the dark and satanic tones that Cruz has.”

One line in Brooks’s latest column caught our attention: “As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams has found, the key trait that identifies Trump followers is authoritarianism.” Brooks elaborates:

[Trump’s] central image is a wall. With their emphasis on anger and shutting people out, Trump and Cruz are more like European conservatives than American ones.

Which “European conservatives” does Brooks have in mind? He doesn’t say, but “authoritarianism” primes readers to think of names like Mussolini, Franco and Le Pen as opposed to, say, Angela Merkel.

You can see where the “authoritarianism” factoid would be useful for Brooks’s anti-Trump “conspiracy.” If you’re a Trump-curious reader of David Brooks—they must exist—it is a strong appeal to social-acceptability bias. It’s not an argument against Trump per se, but against his supporters: They’re the wrong kind of people, and you wouldn’t want to become one of them.

But is it true? Brooks helpfully includes a link to the MacWilliams study, published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Politico. (MacWilliams turns out to be an aspiring political scientist, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.) MacWilliams, unlike Brooks, makes explicit the European association he has in mind, and it’s more invidious than Mussolini:

Authoritarianism is not a new, untested concept in the American electorate. Since the rise of Nazi Germany, it has been one of the most widely studied ideas in social science. While its causes are still debated, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to “make America great again” by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.

Note that MacWilliams omits Trump’s qualifications of those last two proposals. As Politico’s Nick Gass notes, Trump has said it will be necessary to close those mosques where “bad things are happening,” and his proposed ban on Muslim immigration would be temporary.

Still, let’s concede that MacWilliams’s characterization of these ideas as “authoritarian” is a legitimate opinion, whether one agrees with it or not. But MacWilliams isn’t just saying he regards Trump’s proposals as authoritarian. He claims to have scientific evidence that Trump’s supporters have authoritarian inclinations:

My finding is the result of a national poll I conducted in the last five days of December under the auspices of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sampling 1,800 registered voters across the country and the political spectrum. Running a standard statistical analysis, I found that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate. Only two of the variables I looked at were statistically significant: authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter.

You may wonder: How in the world does one detect a tendency toward “authoritarianism” in a polity that has little direct experience of it? A poll that asked Americans’ attitudes toward Hitler—generally regarded as a totalitarian dictator, not an authoritarian one, but it was MacWilliams who cited Nazi Germany—would surely turn up almost unanimous hostility. Other historical and contemporary authoritarian figures like Mussolini, Franco and Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen may not have enough name recognition in the U.S. to yield any useful guidance about American attitudes.

It turns out MacWilliams’s method is entirely different:

My poll asked a set of four simple survey questions that political scientists have employed since 1992 to measure inclination toward authoritarianism. These questions pertain to child-rearing: whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant; well-behaved or considerate; and well-mannered or curious. Respondents who pick the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian.

In other words, what the poll found was that Republicans who want their children to be respectful, obedient, well-behaved and well-mannered have a propensity to support Trump. When you put it that way, it doesn’t reflect badly on him—or on them—at all.

MacWilliams commits the fallacy of equivocation, which a fact sheet from the Texas State University Philosophy Department defines as “when a key term or phrase in an argument is used in an ambiguous way, with one meaning in one portion of the argument and then another meaning in another portion of the argument.” The Texan philosophers provide some humorous examples, among them:

Noisy children are a real headache. Two aspirin will make a headache go away. Therefore, two aspirin will make noisy children go away. . . .

Sure philosophy helps you argue better, but do we really need to encourage people to argue? There’s enough hostility in this world.

MacWilliams—and, according to him, other political scientists since 1992—defines “authoritarianism” as an inclination to exerciseparental authority. He then conflates that esoteric meaning with the more common political usage of the term, which he applies as a scarlet letter to Trump and his supporters.

There is an abuse of authority here—in the application of a veneer of science to a political attack that is not only empirically baseless but logically fallacious. Oh well, at least that’s good enough for David Brooks.

For more “Best of the Web” click here and look for the “Best of the Web Today” link in the middle column below “Today’s Columnists.”