We Need to Remember What an Argument Looks Like

Having lived through another multi-year deluge of dubious ideas badly argued, its good to pause and remember what rational discussion should look like. I’m not talking about “arguing” here, but about the unit of discourse known as an “argument.” There are established and widely accepted rules that apply.  

In the courts, news interviews, and even simpler discussions with acquaintances, any assertion about “the way things are” deserves a good defense. In a debate we would expect assertions to be supported by evidence.  In a less formal conversation it is not unreasonable to also assume that at least some compelling evidence will be offered, especially if a conversational partner expresses doubt. A judge would expect evidence that is more than just hearsay, also rejecting truth claims from those not in a position to make them. If a more informal exchange happens over a holiday gathering, you owe it to everyone in the room to do more than make an unsubstantiated claim and call it a day.

An argument considered in isolation can take many forms. But its basic structure is simple and contains at least two parts: (1) An assertion or claim and (2) supporting evidence or good reasons. In schematic terms it is laid out like this:

That’s it. In its most basic form it is an assertion of fact supported with statements of proof to back it up: perhaps expert testimony, representative examples, solid research, statistical summaries, and so on.  The asserted claim is not enough, unless it is so obvious that no one would disagree. But we are focusing here on consequential assertions that others have doubted or denied. Somehow, we must relearn a basic tenet of civil affairs that a claim by itself is insufficient.

For example, consider the claim that “the 2020 presidential election was free of fraud.” If I stop there in the presence of a MAGA true-believer, I’m uttering a statement that—in formal terms—lacks “force.” To be sure, we are only too happy to display our opinions like flags. They signal our attitudes and beliefs. But they have no power to bind others to seriously consider them.

How can I meaningfully assert that the election was fair and accurate? Where is my evidence?  I ought to be able to supply it, and not—as the President does with its counter-argument—by offer a rewording of the claim to make it seem like a reason. So, if I am making a claim, I ought to be able to put “because” after it and find that the reasons that follow will make sense: will sound right.  Our example might unfold in the following sequence.

“The Election was free of fraud.”
                                    Because. . .
I. The Attorney General in the Trump Administration said so.
II. The administration’s cyber-security head said so.
III. No state government found evidence of significant instances of fraud.
IV. Virtually all respected journalists covering the election found no significant evidence of a corrupted vote.
V. A vast array of American courts couldn’t even find enough evidence to proceed to a trial.

To be sure, each of these assertions may need their own specifics or testimony. An example for the first claim could include Attorney General William Barr’s own words: “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” As testimony, Barr’s words are especially credible because he is (1) in a position to know, and (2) he is a “reluctant” source, meaning that Barr’s natural bias would be to support the views of the president who appointed him.

Arguments work best with truth claims. What can you do with your Uncle Fred’s assertion that he “believes” many dead Democrats “voted?” You can ask him for evidence. But Fred may use the intellectual slight-of-hand of converting what he “believes” into what he “knows.” That’s dishonest, but telling him so probably will not keep him up at nights. People uttering belief statements are best left to their magical thinking. You cannot usually do much about fantasies that individuals need to believe.

How Much Media Oxygen Will He Get?

All of the news media must ask whether it serves their readers or viewers to keep feeding them news from the swamplands of insurgency politics.

Donald Trump is right to note that most in the mainstream press disliked his administration and him personally. After all, he did make a habit of calling the ‘fourth estate’ the “enemy of the people.”  So they eventually repaid the favor after slowly shedding their regard for his version of the Office of the Presidency.  They rarely took their eyes off the unfolding train wreck of his years in office. Now, as his administration stumbles to its last days, a looming question remains about how much coverage the publicity-craving Trump will receive. My fear is that an odd symbiosis will remain. Trump will be suitably outlandish and stoke more coverage, especially from the cable news networks. There is no way President-elect Biden or Vice President-elect Harris can compete with the arrogance and excess that whets news appetites.

CNN is one significant reason why Trump got so much “free media” traction in 2016.

In 2016 CNN especially treated even minor Trump primary successes as deserving lavish coverage. Jeff Zuckerman’s network at times simply turned over their air to garish displays of  stunning excess: jaw-dropping expressions of self-regard combined with pitches for Trump Steaks and Wine. I remember commenting to my wife after one of these lavish shows that I hoped there where a few fist fights in the New York control room.  At least some producers should have been furious with their network’s apparent inability to cut away to cover anything else.

CNN is one significant reason why Trump got so much “free media” traction in 2016.  Zuckerman has heard the criticism before and offered the strange, inverted view that “We wanted access and Donald Trump gave it to us.”  It would be more accurate to note that Trump wanted access and CNN fully obliged. All candidates want free media coverage.

This is old news, but also a cautionary tale. All of the news media must ask whether it serves their readers, viewers or the nation to keep feeding them stories from the marginal swampland of insurgency politics. Reporters never want to be told what to cover. But I am sure Trump believes he can continue to create spectacular attacks that trigger coverage.  Conflict is a positive news value.

To be sure, Trump was also good for ratings. But there was a time when networks ran their news operations as “loss leaders,” providing a civic service without necessarily expecting a high return from their news divisions. Now, the cable networks live for high numbers. It’s too bad because the parent companies of Fox (Fox Corp.), CNN (AT & T) and MSNBC (Comcast) have deep pockets. The cable news networks would do better journalism without always trying to pack the circus tent.

There is a difference to providing essential information in a civil society and falling for public relations stunts. CNN might check its impulses against more the sober and balanced editing of other mainstream sources like The Associated Press or Vox News. Cable News needs to begin to act on the premise that they can cover more than one or two stories at a time, some even about public policies that actually matter.