An exercise on detecting fallacies in newspapers

Posted: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 | Posted by Debajyoti Datta | Labels: ,



I am quite fond of Justice M. Katju, the newly appointed chairman of the Press Council of India. For starters, he has correctly identified the deep seated rot within the Indian media. Will he able to do something about it? Only time will tell and I certainly hope he does but already the apologists for the New Media are coming out the woodwork and twisting his words to portray him a negative light. Some of these articles criticizing Justice Katju are out right non-sense and don’t deserve any attention of our grey cells but others are putting the spin with much more subtlety. Case in point being this piece published in the Hindu by Nirupama Subramanian. Unless you read the article critically you might end up agreeing to the points of the author. So let me deconstruct the article and point out the fallacies.

While deconstructing I would make references to SCHOPENHAUER'S 38 STRATAGEMS or 38 ways to win an argument, please note that it is something of a satire and really tells you how not to argue. So I begin my first salvo –

Nirupama Subramanian wrote: 
“Yet I find myself disagreeing with Justice Katju's broad swipe. It is easy to tar the entire media with one broad brush of criticism. But not all journalists are the same, just as not all judges are the same. There are many journalists who are doing exactly what Justice Katju thinks journalists should be doing, and they are not necessarily all high-profile.”

I refer to Schopenhauer’s first and sixth points - 
Carry your opponent's proposition beyond its natural limits; exaggerate it. The more general your opponent's statement becomes, the more objections you can find against it. The more restricted and narrow his or her propositions remain, the easier they are to defend by him or her.
And
Another plan is to confuse the issue by changing your opponent's words or what he or she seeks to prove.

Why do I say so? Nirupama Subramanian grossly exaggerates and misrepresents what justice Katju is saying. This is what Justice Katju actually said
"I am not saying that there are no good journalists at all in the media. There are many excellent journalists. P. Sainath is one of them, whose name should be written in letters of gold in the history of Indian journalism."

So Niruspama Subramanian constructs a straw man of her own and then proceeds to argue against the straw man. Unless we recognize she is arguing against a straw man we might think she is right but in reality she is hopelessly wrong as Justice Katju never said what she would like us to believe he said.

Secondly, Nirupama Subramanian wrote: 
“It also needs to be said that the media have made a lot more positive contribution than they are given credit for. Much of the corruption that has come to light over the last one year, all the scams that are currently churning the Indian polity, would have gone unnoticed had it not been for exposés by news organisations.”

This is a very common divisionary tactic used to deflect criticism called “whataboutery”. There are two forms of whataboutery, the author uses the second from which goes like this – it is an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the behavior being criticized by pointing to topics the commenter considers to be more important. 

To give a more straight forward example - consider a man who beats up his wife regularly. When produced in court, the accused gives the excuse, "My Lord, but I always obeyed the law before, I paid my taxes, I help my neighbors". Now should the man not be punished for beating up his wife based on this excuse? Compare with what the author is saying that the media is involved in paid news etc but in media's defense they have also uncovered scams so they shouldn't be criticized for paid news! The argument put forward is ridiculous. Justice Katju has never denied the good work done by the media; instead he is criticizing those aspects of the media which he considers unethical. By putting forward the argument of whataboutery, Nirupama Subramanian already concedes that Justice Katju is correct, so she tries to direct our attention to what she considers the good aspects of the media.

Lastly, Nirupama Subramanian wrote: 
“But it is also expected of the chairman of the Press Council to separate himself from Everyman, and take a more nuanced view of the complex terrain before him.”

In this she reveals her true intentions. Why must Justice Katju distance himself from the ordinary individual? Why are journalists so afraid of ordinary individuals? Is it because they realize that we mere mortals can see through their nonsense? What complex terrain is there? What is so complex in understanding that paid news is unethical and should be punishable? What does she mean by nuanced view? This is the prime example of the mentality of the some journalists, who fashion themselves as intellectuals. They seem to consider to us as retarded who will eat whatever they feed us.

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