In the 1996 sci-fi thriller Independence Day, threat of annihilation from alien invaders united the people of the planet who put aside their political differences to contend with a common foe. Either because the current Coronavirus threat is not one of global extermination, or because Hollywood was too optimistic about how the public would behave in the face of a shared enemy, we seem not to have left our political beliefs behind as we hide in our homes against infection.
One example of our unchanged nature has been President Trump’s daily press briefings and the reaction to them. As the crisis unfolded, the President decided to hold regular extended press conferences which include information about the federal response to the crisis, but also attacks on political and media enemies and long digressions, some of them not backed up by facts. This has caused some critics to demand that the press stop covering the President’s “pressers” in their entirety, every day.
One of the most plain-spoken arguments to shut down coverage of Trump’s briefings appeared in a petition – currently signed by over 300,000 people – started by the political organization MoveOn.org. The petition language is brief, so I’ve reproduced it below:
Please stop covering the President’s daily live campaign rally (thinly disguised as a coronavirus “news conference”). There is no need to do so. News organizations can monitor the briefings in real time and have your anchors and correspondents quickly share appropriately edited valuable, accurate parts, which will come from medical experts. That will leave the President’s insults, false braggadocio, and outright lies on the editing room floor, where they belong.
Why is this important?
President Trump is blatantly using the news organizations’ extensive, live coverage to freely campaign for a second term. It is wrong and dangerous to provide so much unfettered airtime to someone who is happily, shamelessly spreading terrible, damaging misinformation that is already costing fellow Americans their lives.
Please tell national and local media outlets to monitor and then broadcast valid, accurate information from medical experts, rather than feelings and diatribes from the President that only serve his own electoral interests.
Before analyzing this argument based on the argument types we’ve been talking about, we should begin by acknowledging that it comes from a partisan source (the progressive political organization MoveOn.org) and that it contains contentious language not likely to convince anyone who does not already share a negative attitude towards President Trump and his press performances.
As you have seen before, however, there is something to learn when looking at an argument from a biased source, as long as we recognize it as such and do not let our own prejudices distort our evaluation of the argument's strengths and weaknesses.
If we look at this argument in the context of argument types (forensic, demonstrative and deliberative), the argument’s most combative assertions have to do with what President Trump has already done, including accusations that he has used news coverage of his Covid press conferences to campaign for reelection, spreading damaging (and deadly) misinformation, and engaging in insults, braggadocio and lies. These are all accusations based on the President’s previous behavior and are thus forensic elements of an overall argument to shut down, or significantly scale back, media coverage of his events.
In contrast, the argument also proposes a solution to the problem they have identified: having news organizations provide edited coverage of Trump’s briefings so that they will only report on “valuable, accurate parts,” presumably vetted by medical experts. This is a practical recommendation for the future and is thus deliberative.
If one had to pick which aspect of the argument would be most effective in convincing someone not already hostile to the President or wary of how he behaves during those press conferences, the demonstrative argument that proposes a solution to what the petition claims is a serious problem would likely work much better than forensic arguments that cast blame and condemnation.
In fact, one could build a solid argument asking the media to revisit coverage of presidential press conferences, pointing out that – with the exception of special events like inaugural addresses and State of the Union speeches – networks tend to cover long presentations by politicians through edited short segments, leaving complete coverage to outlets like C-SPAN.
Now one could counter that argument by claiming the President’s daily addresses are extraordinary events like a State of the Union, given the crisis we’re living through. Although one could also question that objection by asking whether networks continue to point the camera at the President because of the importance of what he is saying or because of the ratings those speeches seem to draw (something we saw during the 2016 Presidential race).
Notice how an argument that proceeds down these lines does not require one to condemn the President as an irresponsible liar putting Americans’ lives at risk, or claim to know his internal motivations, accusations likely to cause many to dismiss the original MoveOn petition in its entirety without considering the important (deliberative) argument it contains.
If the MoveOn petition was designed to rally the troops by giving them a common thing to be angry about and advocate for, then it seems to be working well – at least for the 300,000+ people who have signed on so far. But as an argument designed to persuade a broad audience (including those who do not loathe the current President), the overuse of forensic argumentation designed to condemn obscures and overwhelms the deliberate part of the argument that could convince people to accept the argument’s conclusion/call to action.
Given that arguments are designed to convince people to change their minds, rather than rally those who already share the same opinions, I’m going to have to assign MoveOn’s argument just 2/5 dumbbells, despite the fact that hints of a stronger argument are buried within it.