Why Tom Ricks’s Fox Appearance Was Less Impressive Than You Think

You’ve probably already seen Tom Ricks’s Fox News appearance from yesterday that has created so much buzz on social media. His buzz-inspiring line came at the end of a short debate about Benghazi, when Ricks said, “I think the emphasis on Benghazi has been extremely political, partly because Fox is operating as the wing of the Republican Party.” The interview promptly ended after that remark. Since then, Ricks’s interview has been hailed in many quarters as a minor act of heroism, particularly by liberal commentators and others who simply don’t like Fox. And Ricks seems to agree, judging from his comments on the incident to the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple:

I also have been thinking a lot about George Marshall, the Army chief of staff during World War II, and one of the heroes of my new book. He got his job by speaking truth to power, and I have been thinking that we all could benefit by following his example as much as we can.

After I went off the air I saw some surprised faces in the hallway. One staff person said she thought I had been rude. My feeling was that they asked my opinion and I gave it.

Put bluntly, Ricks’s Fox appearance is far less impressive than his supporters believe, and in fact I think it’s clear that he was out of line if people assess the appearance objectively. To provide some context before I bear out this point, I am speaking as someone who thought Benghazi was overblown as a campaign issue on the Republican side, and did find the coverage overly politicized. Don’t just take my word for this: this appearance on a conservative talk radio show, The Jon Justice Show, does a fairly good job of illustrating where I stood on the issue. So this critique isn’t the product of sour grapes by someone who disagrees about Benghazi. But describing Fox as a “wing of the Republican Party” during the course of the interview is weak stuff.

The first reason: it’s nothing more than an ad hominem attack. Ad hominem attacks are recognized as logical fallacies because they distract from the argument, instead turning attention to the person making the argument. But someone’s bad character, lack of intelligence, etc. does not speak to the truth or falsehood of their argument. As Bill James, the idol of baseball nerds everywhere, has said, “If an undergraduate with a C average can show by clear and convincing evidence that leading scientists are wrong about something, the scientists will not say, or should not say, ‘Who are you to argue with Jonas Salk?’ What counts is evidence, not the authority of the person making the claim.”

So let’s turn this particular case around. What if Jon Scott, the anchor, had said to Ricks: “Of course you’d take that position, since you’re a Democrat”? Is there any way in which that would be a proper question or line of argument? Virtually nobody, other than the most partisan observers, would think that was proper, precisely because it is attacking his character and motivation. But that is essentially what Ricks was doing to Fox. Rather than contributing to a conservations, ad hominem attacks are conversation-enders.

Incidentally, this makes the early termination of Ricks’s interview utterly unsurprising. Wemple writes, in his blog, “What happens when you agree to come on Fox News and then proceed to hammer the network for serving as a ‘wing of the Republican Party?’ Answer: You don’t stay on the air too long.” Wemple thus implies that this is either surprising or sinister. But come on: it’s really not. Try going on MSNBC and slamming them as a wing of the Democratic party, or going on Al Jazeera and hammering them for serving Qatari state interests. You’re probably not going to stay on the air too long there, either.

The second reason: Ricks’s attack on Fox is hypocritical. There are two layers to this hypocrisy. The first is that, though Ricks is no shill, he hasn’t made a habit of insulting every media outlet whose bias shows through in a segment. For example, Ricks utterly confounded Keith Olbermann during Olbermann’s MSNBC days, when the anchor had brought Ricks on with the expectation that he would slam John Boehner. But Ricks got through the entire segment without insulting either the network or Olbermann: instead, he respectfully but firmly refuted Olbermann’s extremely biased presentation of facts. Ricks defended his practice of insulting Fox by saying that “they asked my opinion and I gave it.” Then why not similarly insult MSNBC? He certainly had time to do so. If Ricks is going to make a practice of “speaking truth to power” by insulting networks who bring him on, he should be sure to insult his hosts whenever he senses bias.

I might even respect, in some perverse way, a public commentator who habitually insulted networks and hosts of all political stripes during appearances. I still wouldn’t find it particularly useful: not only would doing so still constitute needless ad hominem attacks, but also it’s not like we need a Tom Ricks on the air to know that Fox skews conservative in its coverage and MSNBC liberal. But, anyway, the available evidence suggests that while Ricks is not a shill for one political party, he also isn’t the guy who will insult all comers.

The second layer to Ricks’s hypocrisy: why did he appear on Fox in the first place, if he has so little respect for the network? I mean, you can’t avoid insulting the network when confronted with a line of questioning with which you disagree, but they’re good enough to appear on to pimp your new book?

Third, does Fox News represent “power”? You might have noticed that in the last election the Democrats won the presidency and retained the Senate. I think Ricks’s statement that Fox is a wing of the Republican party is hyperbolic, just as it would be hyperbolic to call MSNBC a wing of the Democratic party. But even if the relationship were what Ricks claims, isn’t there more of a need for a network that will consistently try to hold the party in power accountable rather than a network that will tend to defend the party in power? In other words, isn’t Ricks’s calculus backward? Wouldn’t Fox have represented “power” during the eight years of the Bush administration, and wouldn’t MSNBC now be the network representative of “power”?

Further, it isn’t at all clear that the administration is blameless in the Benghazi fiasco. I tended to avoid this issue during the election precisely because the reporting was far too politicized for me to get a good sense of what had actually gone down. But to consign Benghazi to being an issue that only a wing of the Republican party might care about seems awfully incurious for a former journalist.

Fourth, rather than “speaking truth to power,” Ricks seems to be “kicking the fat kid.” I have always liked the idea of speaking truth to power, but in practice often (though not always) find that those claiming to do this are in fact exercising power by extending discursive norms in a direction that delegitimizes their opponent’s opinion without actually refuting it. Let’s face it: among liberal intelligentsia, Fox is the proverbial fat kid, and no news organ is more consistently mocked and disrespected. Ricks’s comments were sure to find a ready audience within the preexisting and rather widespread sentiments that hold Fox, and the viewpoints it represents, to be illegitimate in some fundamental way. For a guy like Ricks, Fox is a very easy target. Sure, his segment gets cut short, but he then gets to boast about how he spoke truth to power and spend the next few days basking as a minor hero.

You may enjoy what Ricks did. But we shouldn’t pretend it’s particularly courageous, nor should we pretend that it has in some way enhanced the public sphere.

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11 Responses to Why Tom Ricks’s Fox Appearance Was Less Impressive Than You Think

  1. Total says:

    Baloney. Ricks was pointing out that Fox was not reporting the news, it was reporting the partisan agenda of one particular party. That’s a fair comment and exactly on point. If the anchor had pushed back and said “No, you’re a partisan of the Democrats and simply echoing their partisan agenda” that would have been on point as well. Fox says that it is “fair and balanced.” It thus opens itself to criticisms that it is carrying water for one particular political party. All your handwaving (1300+) words don’t obfuscate that.

    • Daveed Gartenstein-Ross says:

      The problem with this response is that I never claimed Fox is not open to criticism. It most definitely is; but insulting a network in the midst of an appearance is in my book an extremely poor way to either mount this criticism, or to pursue an argument. Ricks’s ad hominem attack is both not probative in itself, and is also a conversation-ender, and thus the only people he’ll persuade are those who already agree with his conclusion. Further, insulting Fox when you disagree with its political slant while neglecting to do the same on MSNBC is hypocritical.

      I understand that you want to dismiss this post as “handwaving,” but it presents four distinct arguments that directly relate to Ricks’s appearance; I am hardly obfuscating. In fact, someone adhering to a literal definition of handwaving might describe your comment as employing that technique, since it does not address the arguments contained in the post.

      • Total says:

        Your response just digs the hole deeper. You seem to have decided that Ricks’ appearance should be demythologized and have scrambled for a fruit salad’s worth of reasons to do so. The problem is that none of them hold up.

        It wasn’t an ad hominem attack, it was a quite reasonable criticism of Fox for carrying one particular side’s water when it claims to be “fair and balanced.” And I’m not clear why someone should lie about something simply because they are appearing on a particular network (which Ricks would have had to do to not criticize Fox).

        Not doing the same thing on MSNBC is largely irrelevant to the discussion of whether or not Ricks should have done it on Fox (and Ricks refused to go on MSNBC for the same reasons he criticized Fox: http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/11/tom-ricks-isnt-a-fan-of-msnbc-either.html ).

        Third, are you really asserting that Fox News isn’t a powerful organization with the ability to influence the public discourse? Really?

        Fourth, whether the administration is blameless is irrelevant to whether Fox News is overhyping the issue. Unless you’re arguing that one side must be completely without blame before the other side can be criticized?

        Fifth, again, really? The highest rated cable news network is the “fat kid”? Please.

        You’re struggling to find reasons to critique Ricks and failing.

  2. eric k says:

    It’s kind of tough to compare MSNBC to Fox because Fox is a total subsidiary of the RNC whereas MSNBC just skews liberal– it’s not set up a a propaganda outfit. A propaganda outfit would not have reacted as MSNBC had after the first debate, whereas Fox would have (and did in later debates) closed ranks and denied reality. Big difference.

    • Shush says:

      “whereas MSNBC just skews liberal– it’s not set up a a propaganda outfit.”


      • J Taj Bozeman says:

        Umm you do realize that the Obama white house has had several well known meetings with groups of MSNBC reporters, right?

  3. The United West says:

    There is a lot of whining going on here.

    This is one of the conservatives greatest strengths and also one of our greatest weaknesses.

    Most Conservatives are thinking beings rather than emotionally driven beings.

    Ad Hominem attacks may be intellectually repulsive but that is how politics is played these days so until the adult Conservatives get their hands dirty and kick below the belt we will never get our message out.

    • Adam says:

      “until the adult Conservatives get their hands dirty and kick below the belt”

      What world have you lived in the last 12 years?

      not this one.

  4. JDanaStuster says:

    For what it’s worth, on that second point about hypocrisy, Tom generally makes it a point not to appear on MSNBC or Fox News. I’ve worked for him (take that as a full disclosure disclaimer as well as some context) and heard him tell a room full of people he’s not interested in talking to either network and that he believes they are hurting journalism and the national discourse. I suspect his recent appearances on both channels have more to do with his publisher’s promotion strategy than what Tom would really like to be doing with his time.

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