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March 16, 2009

On Kathleen Parker and Rebuttals from "Real Conservatives"

I don't agree with Kathleen Parker much of the time.

But when I disagree with something she has written, I generally find it more persuasive to address her reasoning or the factual basis for her conclusions on a point by point basis than to airily dismiss her with a meretricious put-down that fails to demonstrate why her arguments are wrong.

If this sort of thing epitomizes the principled and muscular defense of conservative principles we've been hearing so much about lately, we're in more trouble than I thought.

I'm not interested in controlling the terms of the debate; mostly because I believe the notion that we can "control" a conversation in which different parties filter what is said through their respective biases to be a bit silly. The fact is, none of us can control how other people interpret what we say. We can articulate our ideas as clearly as possible. We can, if misunderstood either willfully or due to some ambiguity in our communications, attempt to clarify our intent.

But short of performing the Vulcan Mind Meld on every single member of our audiences, I don't know of any way to force other people to accept our arguments, agree with what we say we meant, or substitute our perspective for theirs.

What we can do is argue our principles forcefully and unapolagetically. We can argue in clear and unambiguous language that doesn't needlessly antagonize those we are trying to persuade. We can argue from a solid set of facts, using credible sources as persuasive authority to support our arguments. We can, without surrendering or compromising our principles, recognize what every sensible person understands: that people are both emotional and rational creatures and that if you're pitching an argument to a broad audience and want to maximize the number of people in that audience who are persuaded by our arguments, it's probably a good idea to avoid needlessly antagonizing them. Viewing a conversation about ideas as a turf battle where the object is "control" doesn't seem terribly productive if your goal is to persuade free men and women.

The real irony here is that the problem many conservatives have with Parker owes just as much to the way she argues as it does with what she's saying (though on many occasions they've disagreed with her analysis, too). Like Rush Limbaugh, Parker's rhetorical style is sometimes unnecessarily contempuous and confrontational:

The biggest challenge facing America's struggling newspaper industry may not be the high cost of newsprint or lost ad revenue, but ignorance stoked by drive-by punditry.

Yes, Dittoheads, you heard it right.

There's no getting around the fact that Parker chose to begin her argument with a put down. If she's trying to convince conservatives (as opposed to impressing those who enjoy conservative bashing) that's not helpful. There are many ways to demonstrate your supposed neutrality. Insulting a little under half of your audience doesn't do that effectively.

That said, how many conservatives, if they honestly attempt to put aside their annoyance with Parker's style for a moment, would argue with this statement?

... the greater truth is that newspaper reporters, editors and institutions are responsible for the boots-on-the-ground grub work that produces the news stories and performs the government watchdog role so crucial to a democratic republic.

Though I disagree with Parker's analysis of the facts and dislike her presentation, it's hard to argue the world would be a better place without reporters. Where would the news come from, if all the newspapers in this country folded tomorrow? What about all the great small town reporters who do such a fantastic job of supporting soldiers and Marines? I couldn't write the tributes I've been writing for years without reporters like these. Is Jules Crittenden's work worthless? Does anyone seriously believe TV news, in general, does as thorough a job of covering the news as print journalists?

I don't. And I think many conservatives have lost sight of a competent and useful forest on account of some biased and intellectually dishonest trees. And then there's this:

Unfortunately, the chorus of media bashing from certain quarters has succeeded in convincing many Americans that they don't need newspapers. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press recently found that fewer than half of Americans -- 43 percent -- say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community "a lot." Only 33 percent say they would miss the local paper if it were no longer available.

Now one may well take issue with Parker's assertion that it is "media bashing" that has convinced Americans they don't need newspapers. But to be fair, isn't the public's rising distrust of the media due (at least in part) to the fact that they've been successfully fact-checked so many times by alternative media like blogs?

Are we really disputing that? Or are we just disputing the impolitic moniker Parker assigned to that activity (media bashing vs. fact checking)? It's hard to bash anything persuasively without evidence. What we object to is the the implication that media bashing is unjustified.

And then there's this:

A younger generation, meanwhile, has little understanding or appreciation of the relationship between a free press and a free society. Pew found that just 27 percent of Americans born since 1977 read a newspaper the previous day.

Does anyone think it's a good thing that most young people can't be bothered to read newspapers? Haven't conservatives been complaining about the ever shrinking attention spans of younger voters?

And for those of you who say, "Well, they're just getting their news from newer, more accurate sources", does anyone seriously maintain that the vast majority of content we bloggers comment upon each day doesn't come from newspapers, or that we frequently rebut more biased mainstream media coverage via less biased mainstream media coverage?

And did Parker argue that there's no such thing as media bias? No, she didn't:

There is surely room for media criticism, and a few bad actors in recent years have badly frayed public trust. And, yes, some newspapers are more liberal than their readership and do a lousy job of concealing it.

Bias is part of the problem. But it's hardly the entire problem, and though I've relentlessly critiqued the media nearly every day since 2003, to blame the decline of the news industry entirely on media bias requires one to completely ignore other factors such as a stubbornly outmoded business model that hasn't figured out how to turn a profit from online readers - a rapidly growing demographic.

As a blogger, I don't want to see newspapers die. I use newspapers every day and they are vital to the functions bloggers perform. I'm also honest enough to admit that there are many fine journalists out there and that some (like David Gregory and Jake Tapper) appear to be playing it down the middle. There's nothing wrong with refuting bad reporting when it occurs, but intellectually honest critics must be willing to acknowledge good reporting or they lose all credibility.

And while I disagree strongly with much of Parker's analysis, she makes several excellent points. It will be interesting to see if conservatives who argue that in order to 'control the terms of the debate', the audience's subjective interpretations must be subordinated to the speaker's intent will admit that as soon as Parker insulted the intelligence of Rush and his listeners, most conservatives stopped listening to anything she had to say, regardless of whether it had merit?

I doubt Parker meant to insult anyone. Nonetheless, she did. And they stopped listening to her as a result. Any way you look at that, it's not a good outcome.


Posted by Cassandra at March 16, 2009 09:05 AM

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OK, 2 quick comments.

It seems likely to me that most people would not consider cnn.com, msnbc.com or foxnews.com "newspapers". They might not even do so for nytimes.com. So when people say they wouldn't miss it if newspapers collapsed, I think they are referring more to the dead tree variety.

Even locally, I think more people would be concerned about losing the local TV/radio news than the newspaper (online or not).

I don't hold that the loss of newspapers will necessarily mean the end of reporters. Not any more than the introduction of the household refridgerator meant the end of the Ice house who brought gigantic blocks of ice to people's homes. They just smashed that big block into little chunks and over-charged you for the plastic bag they put it in.

Reporters won't go away. There *is* a demand for their services. But, as you said, the business model must change. They can no longer consider themselves the arbiters of "The Truth". To paraphrase Indiana Jones, reporting is about the search for Facts, not Truth. If it is Truth you're interested in, there's a church down the street.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at March 16, 2009 01:25 PM

Well, my local paper has just cut the Monday edition out to save money.

And I would greatly miss the local paper, which covers many stories of interest to people living in Fredneck that don't make the mainstream media. And I like print media (whether online or in paper form) better than TV news, which (since it occurs in real time) is difficult to "play back" and fact check.

Posted by: Cass at March 16, 2009 01:38 PM

I read KP's piece a couple of times yesterday and had to admit that she made a couple of good points. So I reluctantly removed the squash casserole from the trebuchet and returned it to the table. Disappointing... =8^}

"intellectually honest critics must be willing to acknowledge good reporting or they lose all credibility."
dang it...
"Bias is part of the problem. But it's hardly the entire problem, and though I've relentlessly critiqued the media nearly every day since 2003, to blame the decline of the news industry entirely on media bias requires one to completely ignore other factors such as a stubbornly outmoded business model that hasn't figured out how to turn a profit from online readers - a rapidly growing demographic."
Your observations on the business model and the medium are correct. But in my mind there is no doubt that bias hastened the decline. And maybe the rate of decline diverted the focus of business management preventing an adaptation to the changing markets and news consumers. Otherwise, I have no ideas on why the major print medium continues to figuratively lop off their noses to spite their customer's faces. If you want my money, give me a product I appreciate and value, not a leftists save Universe yet again from evil conservative empire screed.

I dropped my subscription to the AJC years ago. I could no longer stand to read the AJC every morning since it had ventured so far to the left of my world view on every single issue. Up to that point, and for most of my life, I had read the AJC from front to back, every single day, even as a youngun. It covered Dixie like the dew.

I doubt Parker meant to insult anyone. "
Oh I don't know about that. As you point out but one of the many recent backhands,
"The biggest challenge facing America's struggling newspaper industry may not be the high cost of newsprint or lost ad revenue, but ignorance stoked by drive-by punditry.

Yes, Dittoheads, you heard it right. "

I register an empathetic smack even though I don't consider myself a dittohead.

We all stumble in our daily communications from time to time, but when someone consistently hits the raw spots, especially someone with a fair degree of intellect and sophistication, there must be a desire to insult, diminish, needle or provoke the target, whether it is conscious or not.

I too prefer print over television, just not the Pravda edition.

Posted by: bthun at March 16, 2009 01:50 PM

While your refutes are more level-headed and point-by-point, in a way you still come across as your disagreement is better than theirs.(the meritricious put-down, etc.)


Mud-slinging happens. Everyone is capable and no matter how educated or eloquent one may be, it happens. Conservatives and Libs can be like children of parents going through a really nasty divorce. Each kid picks a side and the name-calling begins.


Sometimes you don't want to reason. Sometimes the way someone says something just sets you off and you have no patience for educating the opposition. Sometimes people just piss you off and that's that. It may be regressive, it may hinder bridge-building, but that's the way it is sometimes. And sometimes it just feels good.

Posted by: Red at March 16, 2009 02:02 PM

I too prefer print over television

Yes, I imagine that most of us here do. But we aren't exactly representative of the majority when it comes to political involvement either.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at March 16, 2009 02:07 PM

airily dismiss her with a meretricious put-down that fails to demonstrate why her arguments are wrong.

You mean you don't consider RS McCain's description of Parker as "one of the better Clever Girl Columnists who got the affirmative-action leg up in that manner" a serious intellectual argument? Funny neither do I. Ugh!

RS' "analysis" would be vacuous even if true but it turns out he didn't do his homework. Although her age is elusive - the only number I saw was 58 and that was unsourced - it only took me about 5 minutes to dig up Parker's bio. She started as a columnist in her mid-30s while she was working as a staff writer for the Orlando Sentinel after "working her way up journalism’s ladder from smaller papers to larger ones". If the age I saw is correct, she was in her mid-30s when she became a columnist. Not exactly a Girl Columnist brought in for her "youth".

Hmm. I guess RS McCain pushed my buttons just like Parker pushed his. I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere.

Posted by: Elise at March 16, 2009 03:10 PM

You mean you don't consider RS McCain's description of Parker as "one of the better Clever Girl Columnists who got the affirmative-action leg up in that manner" a serious intellectual argument?

To say that my head pretty much exploded when I read that is an understatement :p

I've been doing this a long time and have little patience for either the political correctness or the whininess of female bloggers who complain they're being "ignored" by male bloggers.

That said, his post was not only *not* a rebuttal of anything Parker said. It was ... well, you tell me how many poorly reasoned columns result in the designation "boy columnist". The list of illogical op-eds written by male columnists goes on and on and on.

The thing is, I don't attribute their lack of reasoning to their being male or to their only having columns b/c of the old boy network. I look at whether there's any merit to what they wrote.

What a concept.

Ironically, I first was exposed to Parker's columns after 9/11 when my husband said he enjoyed reading her and thought I would, too. Given that he's a tough critic, I paid attention.

Again, though I haven't always agreed with her conclusions (especially lately) I can read an argument I disagree with without assuming the person who wrote it is a complete twit. George Will is a good example of a columnist I often disagree with, but who sometimes forces me to think.

In this case, much of what Parker wrote was not unreasonable. It was a shame that her noted dislike of what she thinks of as extreme hard righties tempted her to emulate the very things she wishes they wouldn't do.

Posted by: Cass at March 16, 2009 03:40 PM

While your refutes are more level-headed and point-by-point, in a way you still come across as your disagreement is better than theirs.(the meritricious put-down, etc.)

That's undoubtedly true, Red. I'm human like everyone else, and sometimes - hell, nearly every day - I get pissed off. I don't much like myself when I let peevishness creep into my posts, but I wouldn't argue that it never happens. I do try to minimize that sort of thing.

But limiting your riposte to belittling the author without addressing a single one of their arguments doesn't seem like a great thing to do at any time. And if I've done that, I've been wrong.

Posted by: Cass at March 16, 2009 03:46 PM

Lol, this may be awful but I do find some delight in peevishness. Husband likes to call me out for being "snarky". A little snark never really hurt anyone.

My friend Paul likes to quote Mae West. "If you can't say something nice, come sit next to me."

Generally, I find your posts thoughtful and reasonable and if some snark creeps in, so be it.

I'm just saying, don't fight it. Embrace it :-)
Snark needs love too. Lol.

Posted by: Red at March 16, 2009 03:57 PM

Oh, I'm not beating myself up about it!

I am never going to change, and I do get angry a lot of the time. It's just that I have never been fond of the "Oh yeah??? Well he's a mean spirited poopy head" school of rhetoric.

I think you can get away with a bit of snark if it's the icing on a fairly cohesive argument. I also think it's funny how outraged conservatives get when the snark cannon is turned on them. For a bunch of people who are always arguing that liberals are too touchy-feely, we sure do get our Hanes Ultrasheers all in a wad quickly :p

I guess I just think it's better policy to address the argument than attack the messenger.

Posted by: Cass at March 16, 2009 04:07 PM

What?? You mean exercise diplomacy and tact with reason? Can you hear yourself?!


It's on both sides of the fence. Libs are touchy-feely and Conservatives are the same. Just different buttons to push.

Posted by: Red at March 16, 2009 04:40 PM

Being part of the solution (Addressing the argument) is for people who aren't cool (mean-spirited) enough to be part of the problem (poop on the head of the messenger).

Posted by: Snark Le'Puss at March 16, 2009 04:42 PM

Plus, it'll get you more traffic every time :p

People like controversy. They absolutely do (in the aggregate) have short attention spans and little capacity to appreciate nuanced points and complex arguments.

That may be sad, but it's reality in a world were an bewildering number of sources must compete for our rapidly dwindling attention.

Posted by: Cass at March 16, 2009 05:03 PM

I nearly laughed myself silly at Parker's column. It's the perfect description of what's wrong with journalism in general, and newspapers in particular.

Who? What? Why? When? Where? How?

Ms. Parker's take:

Who? The readers are turning against us.
What? Newspapers.
Why? Our business model is flawed, and inchoate readers.
When? Recently.
Where? Not sure.
How? Rush Limbaugh, bloggers, and others have turned our readers against us.

Some of the reality:

Who? The readers are turning against us.
What? All forms of "professional" journalism.
Why? Journalists are considered less trustworthy then Members of Congress
When? It's been that way for at least 15 years, really Kathleen check some of the polling data.
Where? Everywhere.
How? When people don't trust you why should they pay for it?

It's just too funny, a journalist seeking answers, and ignoring some basic facts. Then pontificating on journalistic integrity and fact seeking.

Posted by: Allen at March 16, 2009 06:04 PM

I agree - that was the worst part of it.

But I don't think conservatives who maintain the only reason newspapers are failing is loss of credibility are any better.

Both are oversimplifications. 15 years ago the newspapers weren't failing. What has changed?

The Internet and the corresponding ability of large numbers of people to get access to newspaper articles without paying for a subscription. That's a real problem, and ironically both Parker and many conservatives are ignoring or discounting it in favor of their pet theories (ignorance/loss of credibility).

Posted by: Cass at March 16, 2009 06:51 PM

Actually the proliferation of programs like the Daily Show, which de construct the news in a liberal fashion in the guise of an actual news
show; is another factor. Collectively, Parker's collumns after the election, arguing for a bailout of newspapers, thereby avoiding the contentious consumer thing, the divine right of kings for Caroline Kennedy, a slavish devotion to Obama, make her a very poor judge of what are the major issues.

Posted by: narciso at March 16, 2009 08:53 PM

I agree, narciso.

I also think that in an odd way what the media consistently aimed for the entire time the Bush administration was in office (the erosion of respect for any authority whatsoever and the notion that there is no such thing as objective truth) have undercut faith in the media as a news authority that should be respected or trusted.

Funny how that works...

Posted by: Cass at March 16, 2009 09:06 PM

One is tempted to say, 'deconstruction, it's what's for dinner' Parker is looking at the tail when she should be looking at the torso of the elephant or possibly the trunk. Media Research
and Rush Limbaugh really depend on close reading, whereas Media Matters and the Daily Show, almost
ignore the facts entirely. McClatchy, the chain that owns my hometown daily the Herald, was among
the most aggressive in this approach. It's true that the Youth are more attuned to MySpace, Facebook and Youtube, the last specially shares all the biases of their legitimate superiors.

Posted by: narciso at March 16, 2009 09:50 PM

I don't want to see local and national newspapers and print reporters disappear altogether. I wouldn't mind seeing some particular newspapers go out of business, though, if that's what it takes to show publishers that they can't get away with using their newspapers as propaganda organs. If newspapers must betray an ideological bias outside of the OpEd page, I'd prefer to see a variety of biases competing with each other in print. Failing that, their potential market will continue to look elsewhere for their news.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 17, 2009 10:34 AM

... the greater truth is that newspaper reporters, editors and institutions are responsible for the boots-on-the-ground grub work that produces the news stories and performs the government watchdog role so crucial to a democratic republic.

On my opinion, the boots on the ground grub work only performs a watchdog role with regard to government when the government official is a Republican. This has completely damaged their credibility in my eyes and their adulation of Barack Obama, the fawning and licking and rolling over, rather than the snarling, nipping and occasionally biting which they should be doing, has made them entirely useless as gov. watchdog group in my eyes.

Juvenal asked: "Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (But who will guard the guards?) The short answer is the bloggers and radio talkers. This ticks Parker off. I say: "Too damn bad." If you have a problem with it, get your house in order so you don't have to be watchdogged.

Posted by: Tony at March 18, 2009 03:55 PM

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