The New York Times' coverage of the Planned Parenthood videos is a primer on how to derail productive discussion.
As students return to school in the coming months, freshmen the world over will open their Philosophy 101 textbooks and make the first steps to learning the art of critical thinking. Critical thinking, discursive reasoning, and the art of argumentation all go hand-in-hand. As the capacity for rational thinking is among the most characteristic traits of our common humanity, learning how to think well is among the most important steps in learning how to live life well.
But learning how to think well and reason properly also requires studying where thinking breaks-down; what philosophy calls the “logical fallacies." While examples of false and abortive attempts at reasoning abound throughout the history of human discourse, in the past weeks the media have presented us with fresh examples of all of them.
Take, for example, a front-page article by the New York Times on July 21 titled “With Planned Parenthood Videos, Activist Ignites Abortion Issue”. This is not, note well, an opinion piece (there is a separate opinion piece written by the Editors in the same issue of the NYT entitled “The Campaign of Deception Against Planned Parenthood”). This is an article purporting to report on the second video on Planned Parenthood and the sale of baby parts.
(Link to first video. Link to second video. Link to third video. Link to fourth video. StemExpress, the company which supplies the fetal parts has taken out an injunction against the release of the next video in a series of 12.)
The argument that Center for Medical Progress lead researcher David Daleiden is posing for us in his series of videos is contained, fleetingly, in the opening lines of the NYT article, where writers cite that Daleiden is “alleging that Planned Parenthood clinics are selling tissue from aborted fetuses for profit”, to which the NYT immediately adds: “…a charge the group denies.” Daleiden himself says in the very opening sentence of the article “I don’t think I’m the story.” The argument, the discussion, should be about – as Daleiden reminds us – Planned Parenthood selling baby body parts. And yet, see how the NYT twists its report by introducing a number of classic logical fallacies:
Ad hominem: The whole article is built on this one. Daleiden is “the man behind the story and the hidden camera – the anti-abortion activist who has provoked a storm with his video stings”, which sets the pace of the piece. It proceeds to be all about Daleiden, suppressing the videos and the graphic reality they reveal.
Straw man: “Once again, Planned Parenthood condemned the scam for deceptively characterizing its handling fees for covering expenses,” continues the Times, shifting attention with sleight-of-hand language and focus. The article mis-frames the argument by calling it a scam, and a deceptive characterization of allegedly legal practices, thus moving away from the main story of selling baby body parts.
Appeal to emotion: “(Daleiden) guessed he had enough recordings for perhaps a dozen videos that he can release at the rate of one a week for the next few months. The time frame all but ensures political tumult ahead.” Recall, this did not appear in the opinion section on the editorial pages.
Begging the question: This fallacy of presenting a circular argument in which the conclusion is wrapped in the premise is woven throughout (Daleiden is untrustworthy, therefore his ‘deceptive scam’ is untrustworthy; Planned Parenthood is a solid health care provider, therefore its practices are solid and beyond reproach.)
Bandwagon: The videos arrives as the large field of Republicans seeking their party’s presidential nomination takes shape, and already “rivals are competing to denounce Planned Parenthood as they seek to appeal to anti-abortion conservatives in the party’s base.” This plays into the Times’ readership, largely liberal and aligned with the Democratic party.