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.