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Greta Van Susteren: Lies, truth and journalism


Greta Van Susteren has given me the opportunity to write about something I’ve wanted to explore in depth for some time. She left her job as a Fox News commentator last year, and then signed onto NBC News; she now anchors an MSNBC show, For the Record with Greta. Greta recently replied to a comment I made on her Facebook page. More on that in a moment.

When her MSNBC show was announced, I remember thinking how odd it was that someone who had worked for arch-conservative, rapidly pro-Trump Fox News could be comfortable, not to mention credible, at MSNBC which, of course, is leading the anti-Trump charge among the cable networks. When I finally got around to watching her show, I thought, how vanilla. Her “on the one hand, on the other” format was non-informative and, worse, missed the entire point of journalism, which is to distinguish between truth and fiction. Still, I thought I knew what Greta was trying to do: fair and balanced journalism, the kind Fox News claims, falsely, to practice. Get both sides together and have a reasoned discussion, to see if there’s common ground.

Normally, I could respect that, but these are not normal times. With Trump, the stakes are much too high for dithering. So, a few days ago, I sent a comment to Greta. I suggested that her “cocktail-style” format is more suitable for Wolf Blitzer’s CNN—a network that is befuddled and hapless in the face of Trump’s onslaught of lies.

Greta, who seems like an enormously decent person, was kind enough to reply. “If you want to listen to someone who just takes sides…you are right…I am not your person. I look at the facts and try to figure out what is fair and right….I don’t just take sides.” To which I responded, “The two sides [i.e., lies and truth] are not intellectually or honestly equal. Surely you know that.”

Sometimes it’s appropriate for people with opposing views to sit down and work things out. Let’s say you think the Stones are better than the Beatles. I disagree. We can have a reasonable and informed conversation without, perhaps, ever coming to agreement, because, in a sense, we’re both right. Who’s to say?

But not all dialecticals lend themselves to such equal treatment. Let me make an extreme example. Imagine a debate between someone who believes the Earth is round and someone who thinks it’s flat. (I actually had this conversation with a friend.) The person who thinks it’s flat (my friend) argues that photographs of our planet taken from outer space prove that the world is flat. When the other person (me) points out that that’s crazy, that every photograph ever taken of Earth from space shows that it’s round, the flat-earther declares those photos have been faked.

Now, if you take the Greta Van Susteren point of view, both sides are entitled to equal treatment. You sit them down and give each a chance. Greta might ask the person who thinks the Earth is round, “Can you prove that the photos of round Earth have not been faked?” That would be the approach of someone who “does not take sides.”

But, obviously, that approach would be ludicrous. There is no intellectual equivalence between a flat earther and a round earther! Why would someone like Greta, with her massive power of hosting a national T.V. program, give a flat earther air time, and waste the valuable time of her viewers? Is it in the interest of “fairness,” or does it merely perpetuate disinformation?

But that’s what her “Both sides have a right to speak” results in: a debate between truth and rubbish: for example, between Kellyanne Conway defending Trump’s statement that his inaugural crowd was the biggest in history, against actual photographs proving that it was dwarfed by Obama’s. How can a T.V. news host possibly not take sides? Why would she not want to defend truth and order the truth denier off her stage?

Greta subscribes to the old newspaper ideology that both sides in a debate deserve to be listened to respectfully by us, the public. That once was true in journalism, but it’s now an anachronism. Trump neutralized it, at least for the time being, with his very first birther lie, and he and his surrogates continue their assault on truth. Networks like CNN, which lacked the courage to repudiate Trump’s lies, succeeded merely in normalizing him. There is a difference between truth and lies—a stark, epistomological difference that must be acknowledged if human reason is to rule over superstition. Pretending that truth and lies both deserve respectful treatment is deliberate, and dangerous, obfuscation.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    From The Wall Street Journal “Review” Section
    (June 10-11, 2017, Page C4):

    “The Roots of The ‘What About?’Ploy”


    By Ben Zimmer
    “Word on the Street” Column


    “Whataboutism” is another name for the logical fallacy of “tu quoque” (Latin for “you also”), in which an accusation is met with a counter-accusation, pivoting away from the original criticism.

  2. Conservatives have figured out how to game the media system. Journalism’s obsession with “the view from nowhere,” and the notion that objective journalism means simply regurgitating the views of both sides, is an easy thing to exploit. Simply make more and more outrageous claims. Invent whatever facts you need to justify your policy positions (“tax cuts will actually reduce the deficit!” “we need to ignore civil rights and police abuse, because crime rates are going through the roof!”). The media will never dare declare that you are wrong: at most, they will note that “most experts say” differently, but they will still dutifully quote whichever hack a friendly think-tank drags out and give him or her equal time and column space.

    Paul Krugman was writing about this nearly two decades ago, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first:

    “If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ”Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.” After all, the earth isn’t perfectly spherical.”

  3. I agree 100% with this post. These are not times to give all a prime time outlet to discuss alternative facts. I’m surprised at the direction MSNBC is taking and dismayed.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    “Why would someone like Greta, with her massive power of hosting a national T.V. program, give a flat earther air time, and waste the valuable time of her viewers?”

    Hmmm . . . let’s conduct a little thought experiment.

    Consider substituting the following words:

    “Why would someone like Robert Parker, with his massive power of writing an international wine review journal, publish reviews of wines scoring less than 85 points, and waste the valuable time of his readers?”

    Actually, he doesn’t . . . now.

    But jump into the H.G. Wells time machine and go back with me to 1987.

    [See my next comment.]

  5. Bob Henry says:

    “Grade inflation at a glance: a look at Robert Parker’s 1987 Wine Buyer’s Guide”


    [See my next comment.]

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Robert Parker’s 1989 interview with Wine Times (later rebranded Wine Enthusiast):

    WINE TIMES: How is your scoring system different from The Wine Spectator’s?

    PARKER: . . . mine from the very beginning is a 50-point system. If you start at 50 and go to 100, it is clear it’s a 50-point system, and it has always been clear. Mine is basically two 20-point systems with a 10-point cushion on top for wines that have the ability to age. . . .

    WINE TIMES: . . . Are there lots of wines you taste that you don’t evaluate?

    PARKER: Yes. I try to focus on the best wines in The Wine Advocate, or especially when I do the BUYER’s GUIDE, MY PUBLISHER DOESN’T WANT TO TAKE UP SPACE WITH 50s, 60s, OR EVEN 70s [SCORES]. When I’m looking for a best buy, I might go through hundreds of wines, or when I go through the wines of Hungary or Yugoslavia, I’ll never put most of them in The Wine Advocate. I could never justify taking two or three pages to publish those results.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Robert Parker’s 1989 interview with Wine Times (continued):

    WINE TIMES: The answer is partly to give you credibility. Right now the argument is that your average score in The Wine Advocate is in the 80s, and it doesn’t matter if its 81 or 84. If it’s in the newsletter, buy it.

    PARKER: No. I buy wines, and I BUY WINES THAT ARE 85 OR 86, NOT BELOW THAT. But to me 90 is a special score and should be considered “outstanding” for its type.

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