Right up front I’m going to say Austin American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman and I have been friends for years. That doesn’t mean I always agree with his political views. It means I can have friends who don’t think exactly the same way I do.
So it ticked me off when I saw Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple’s article: Texas columnist commits egregious Alex Jones-oriented false equivalence. And, of course, that columnist was Ken Herman.
Ken’s column was easy fodder for Wemple because it was focused on a city council candidate who favors the global conspiracy theories of radio personality Alex Jones. The InfoWars and Prison Planet personality is so out there that he is hard to resist, and one of my own stories is proudly displayed on his web site, even though it clearly is written tongue in cheek:
AUSTIN — Black helicopters, the Illuminati, Gov. Rick Perry and the Trans-Texas Corridor are all now part of the vernacular of the global domination conspiracy theorists.
Perry’s push for the Trans-Texas Corridor super highway is part of a secret plan, the conspiracy theorists say, to create the North American Union — a single nation consisting of Canada, Mexico and the United States with a currency called the Amero.
But back to Wemple and Herman. The WaPo writer clearly takes portions of Herman’s column out of context to make it sound like he is giving an endorsement to some of the far-out ideas of Jones and City Council runoff candidate Laura Pressley as she revealed during an appearance on Jones’ radio program.
Austin American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman breaks down that appearance, which covered issues such as how the smart meters of Austin Energy made Pressley’s legs twitch every 25 seconds. Pressley’s activism on this problem, reports Herman, prompted Austin Energy to enable its customers to refuse the meters — something that Jones declared “a major victory against the globalists …”
OK, after 35 years in the business, I know the old journalist’s joke: Take it out of context and blow it out of proportion. I could live with that, because I know what Wemple is selling to his audience is Alex Jones, not Ken Herman. But Wemple is a media critic, so it has to be about a member of the mainstream media.
What ticked me off was Wemple’s closing paragraphs:
Herman shows skepticism toward Jones, though not nearly enough. Here’s the false-equivalence-loaded paragraph that he uses to sum up the shock jock’s place in the world:
To some, Jones is the only person telling the truth about government gone wild. To others, he’s a supercaffeinated paranoid nutball. Our planet is large enough for both schools of thought. I’m more aligned with the one that thinks he ought to occasionally consider the decaf option.
Jones ought to be very pleased with that assessment.
First, take an actual look at Ken’s column. He notes that Pressley appeared on Jone’s show to promote her idea that smart electric meters were making her legs twitch. Herman wrote:
Jones, referring to another Pressley cause, said, “Isn’t this just like fluoride? They knew the Soviets and Nazis used it to control people. … And now they’re doing this to us. This is population reduction.”
Agreeing to appear on Jones’ show tells you something about a candidate.
An intelligent person can miss the implications of Ken’s statement only if they intentionally want to do so.
And Ken in the column was fairly gracious in noting the Alex Jones controversy surrounding Pressley was brought out by some of the local alternative media, not by the Statesman.
(Kudos to the Austin Chronicle and Austin Monitor for bringing this to their readers’ attention in October. And it was not my newspaper’s finest moment when its initial endorsement of Pressley was rescinded in the wake of other news outlets’ reporting about her comments.)
So back to Wemple’s criticism of Herman for a “false equivalence,” a term the WaPo’s media critic clearly does not understand, which dramatically undermines his credibility as a media critic.
A false equivalence in its most basic form is a logical fallacy, such as sharks and octopi live in the ocean so they are the same creature. The logic is based on a single point of similarity. The term often is used in politics to excuse a sin by claiming the other side does it as well. An example might be one unmarried Democrat emails out pictures of himself naked to women while a married Republican uses prostitutes and claiming both men are the same. They are not. They both might be sleazy, but one violated both the law and his marriage vows.
What Wemple would have come closer to is “false balance,” which frankly a lot of the news media is blameworthy of doing. A minority of the House Republican caucus wants to shut down government unless the Obama Administration agrees to kill its signature piece of legislation, an act that would defy political logic, but then the media treats the shutdown as equally blameworthy of both parties. That is a false balance, often mistaken as a false equivalence by knee-jerk partisans.
Closer to home, some years ago a liberal friend of mine complained that a newspaper had covered a U.S. Fish and Wildlife hearing in the Hill Country about protecting an endangered species. Something like 200 ranchers showed up to testify, as did five environmentalists. This friend was upset that the environmentalists did not have equal space in the story to the ranchers. I explained that the story was about the hearing and that to give the environmentalists equal coverage would have been unfair, though I noted that when the paper wrote about the debate as an issue, the environmentalists usually got the bulk of the story. He was not satisfied.
But look at what Wemple considers to be Herman’s key sin: “To some, Jones is the only person telling the truth about government gone wild. To others, he’s a supercaffeinated paranoid nutball. Our planet is large enough for both schools of thought.”
Herman does indeed throw a nugget to the Alex Jones crowd — they are, after all, zealots. But Herman in no way is saying Jones’ ideas are equal to the mainstream. The totality of his column clearly shows Jones and Pressley as out of the mainstream. Herman clearly in this article demonstrates he does not agree with Jones, but that freedom of speech clearly gives Jones the right to have his screwy ideas.
Before Erik Wemple tramples the First Amendment, perhaps he should remember one of the world’s most famous quotes about freedom of speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”