A Philosopher's Blog

The Press & McCain

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 22, 2008

As almost everyone knows, the New York Times launched an attack on Senator McCain. The full text of the article can be found here.

While I believe that the media has an important role to play in exposing corruption and misdeeds on the part of politicians, journalists need to base such exposures on adequate evidence. After all, without evidence such assertions are just that-mere assertions and hence should not be accepted as true. Journalists also should retain their professional objectivity-when a journalist is writing to further an agenda, then that person has crossed over from being a journalist to being a propagandist. Yes, everyone has a view that colors his or her perception. But reporters have an obligation to overcome that bias and to try to present the information in an objective manner. If a reported cannot do that, then s/he should make it clear that s/he is writing an opinionated editorial piece and not actual reporting the news. The NY Times article seems to sin on both accounts-it is not adequately supported and certainly seems to cross the line between merely reporting the news and being an intentional attack aimed at a political purpose (harming McCain’s chances of being President).

“A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.”

While reporters do need to rely on anonymous sources, there are significant problems with using them as evidence for claims.

The first problem is a straightforward matter in the realm of critical thinking. When a journalist (or anyone) cites a source to support a claim they are using an argument from authority. The basic idea is that the claim should be accepted as true because the person cited is a legitimate expert in the field and is therefore likely to say true things in her field. The quality of the argument rests, naturally enough, on the quality of the alleged expert. The quality of an expert is assessed in terms of a variety of factors such as the person’s education, degree of bias, positions held, and amount of experience. If the expert in question is a legitimate expert, then the claims she makes in her field should be regarded as very plausible and typically accepted as true.

One obvious problem with anonymous sources is that the audience has little, if any, basis upon which to assess the quality of the alleged authority. At most the audience might be given vague information about the person’s job. For example, the source might be identified as “a high government official” or “a military expert on terrorism.” Given such a dearth of information, the audience cannot make a reasonable judgment about the quality of the source and hence cannot reasonably accept the claim as plausible on the basis of the alleged authority.

Of course, journalists do expect the audience to believe these claims. If they did not, they would obviously not bother to report them. Since the authorities are not adequately identified another basis is needed for the audience to rationally accept such claims. In such cases, the audience is supposed to accept that the claims made by source are correct because the journalist accepts them as a legitimate expert. In short, the audience is relying on the critical thinking ability of the journalist. Unfortunately for the audience, journalists are generally not experts in critical thinking nor do they tend to be experts in the areas they are writing about. Because of this lack of expertise, there are reasonable grounds for concern when journalists rely on anonymous sources. To be specific, unless it has been established that the journalist is adequately skilled at assessing the expertise of her sources, then there is no reason to accept the anonymous sources as credible on the basis of the journalist’s say so. This is not to say that the claims should be rejected, but the rational course is to suspend judgment in regards to such claims.

What is also interesting about the article is that it never actually presents any evidence that McCain did anything wrong in the relevant events. As the above quote indicates, there is just the claim that certain unnamed people said they believed that McCain might be involved with the woman. That is certainly far from a solid foundation.

Ironically, if this was intended as an attack on McCain, it might have backfired. It has helped to unite many conservatives with McCain against the assault of the “liberal media.” It has also generated sympathy among some non-conservatives. Most people find apparently baseless innuendo to be unacceptable and this makes Senator McCain look like the victim of an unfair attack. He has also handled the matter with great restraint-thus enhancing his standing in the eyes of some.

If the NY Times has solid evidence, then they should bring that forward and settle the matter. If not, they at least owe Senator McCain and the world an apology.

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