Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with 





reason
Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

PR Watch Editor Sheldon Rampton criticizes "Foul Cry" -- Ben Fritz responds

July 7, 2002

(Click here for part two of the exchange)

I was very disappointed in Ben Fritz's discussion of FAIR, in connection with FAIR's critique of newspaper editorials regarding the April attempted coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Fritz wrote:

A recent media advisory from FAIR reaches exactly the same type of misguided conclusion about media coverage of the aborted coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Titled "U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move," the piece selectively quotes from numerous newspaper editorials to make it appear that they supported a coup against Chavez, much as the Bush administration was initially accused of having done. But most examples singled out for scorn by FAIR were ambiguous at best.
FAIR criticized the Chicago Tribune, for instance, for editorializing that "It's not every day that a democracy benefits from the military's intervention to force out an elected president" and characterizing the paper as "excited by the coup." While this quote on its own might give such an impression, FAIR omits the Tribune's extensive criticism of Chavez for his antidemocratic policies. "Chavez, however, had gone to great lengths since gaining [the presidency] in 1999 to forfeit his legitimacy," the editorial stated, noting that he "weakened the opposition-controlled congress, politicized the military, stripped the judiciary of its independence, and curbed the press." In that context, it's clear the quotation selected by FAIR far from indicated "excitement" by the Tribune.

To the contrary, the context which you have added DEMONSTRATES the Tribune's "excitement" at the coup. The "extensive criticism of Chavez" which you cite are the REASONS which the Tribune gives to JUSTIFY its endorsement of the coup.

Let's try this thought experiment: Suppose that Ben Fritz were murdered in a drive-by shooting and I were to write an editorial stating, "That bastard had it coming. He was drunk and a wife-beater and a lousy writer besides. The world is a better place with him dead."

Suppose, then, that FAIR were to write, "Sheldon Rampton was excited and pleased by Fritz's murder. In an editorial, he stated, 'The world is a better place with him dead.'"

Would it be honest to respond, "While this quote on its own might give such an impression, FAIR omits Rampton's extensive criticism of Fritz for his drunkenness, wife-beating and lousy writing. ... In that context, it's clear the quotation selected by FAIR far from indicated 'excitement' by Rampton"?

You're blowing smoke. Moreover, you're simply accepting at face value the Tribune's harsh criticisms of Hugo Chavez, whose performance as a leader is mixed but arguably no worse than the performance of many elected U.S. presidents. (In fact, the entire litany of Chicago Tribune allegations against Chavez could equally be leveled against George W. Bush.)

Even more maliciously, FAIR slams a follow-up editorial in the Tribune two days later by saying that the paper "seemed to suggest that the coup would have been no bad thing if not for 'the heavy-handed bungling of [Chavez's] successors.'" The entire quote, however, reads, "Chavez had managed to alienate most Venezuelans before Friday, and his resurrection owes much to the heavy-handed bungling of his successors." The Tribune was explaining how the bungled coup made Chavez's return to power possible, not that it "would have been no bad thing."

The phrase "even more maliciously" with which you begin this passage is simply rhetorical deck-stacking. You are also engaging in selective quotation from the Tribune's follow-up editorial. Specifically, you omit the passage in which the Tribune editorialists wrote that Chavez's return "doesn't mean it's good news for democracy."

The question here is whether a military coup against an elected president is good for democracy. The Tribune answered with an emphatic yes at the time the coup occurred, and after the fact its response can best be characterized as grumpy disapppointment. By omitting the passage which I have quoted above, you eliminate the evidence for FAIR's claim that the paper "seemed to suggest that the coup would have been no bad thing." This is dishonest of you.

And the one newspaper that actually apologized to its readers for not condemning the coup was still criticized by FAIR. The New York Times admitted that its first editorial on the coup "overlooked the undemocratic manner in which [Chavez] was removed" and slapped itself hard on the wrist: "Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer." Yet this was characterized as "half-apologizing" by FAIR. It even describes the Times' hope that Chavez's policies will improve -- "We hope Mr. Chavez will act as a more responsible and moderate leader now that he seems to realize the anger he stirred" -- as the paper "[standing] its ground ... on the value of a timely military coup for teaching a president a lesson."

Once again, you have engaged in selective quotation. To begin with, you omit the passage in which the NYT apology stated that Chavez's "forced departure last week drew applause at home and in Washington. That reaction, which we shared, overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed." In this passage, the NYT frankly admits that it and other U.S. voices "cheered" and "applauded" the military coup -- an admission that Ben Fritz seems unwilling to make. "Cheering" and "applauding" are qualitatively different from "not condemning" -- the weasel words with which Fritz attempts to soften the nature of the original NYT editorial.

Fritz goes on to criticize FAIR for criticizing the NYT's self-criticism because FAIR called the self-criticism a "half-apology." Here, Fritz gets into a level of nit-picking that doesn't deserve inclusion in a serious commentary. If the NYT's original editorial amounted to cheerleading for a military coup -- as the NYT itself admits -- why isn't it legitimate for FAIR to criticize the original editorial? As for the NYT's second editorial, characterizing a military coup as evidence of "anger" that Chavez himself "stirred" is blaming the victim. Let's modify my previous thought experiment. This time, let's suppose that someone ATTEMPTS a drive-by shooting of Ben Fritz, but Fritz survives with minor wounds. Sheldon Rampton, after writing a first editorial which erroneously celebrated Fritz's death, now writes a second piece which states, "Street violence is never something to celebrate, even when the victim is a wife-beating drunk like Ben Fritz. I hope that he will act as a more responsible and moderate member of the community now that he seems to realize the anger he stirred." Would Fritz, as he nurses his wounds, honestly disagree if FAIR characterized this second editorial as a "half-apology"?

Perhaps you think my use of a thought experiment involving the attempted assassination of Ben Fritz is a bit insolent. Let me remind you that I am using this example as an analogy for editorials that were written regarding a military coup, in which human lives were lost and the life of Hugo Chavez himself was placed in immediate danger. The NYT and the Chicago Tribune joined other newspapers in denouncing Chavez as a "demagogue" and a "would-be dictator" at the very moment when guns were pointed at Chavez's head. To suggest that this sort of editorial irresponsibility is above criticism from FAIR betrays a terrible disregard for democracy and human life in Latin America.

Sheldon Rampton
Editor, PR Watch


Ben Fritz responds:

While Sheldon Rampton is welcome to disagree with the Tribune and Times editorials discussed in my column, he makes the common mistake of confusing my criticism of FAIR's representation of those editorials with a defense of their content. My purpose was to call FAIR on a dishonest portrayal of what the Tribune and Times wrote, not to comment on the merits of Chavez's rule or the attempted coup against him.

Rampton begins by writing that "[t]he 'extensive criticism of Chavez' which you cite are the REASONS which the Tribune gives to JUSTIFY its endorsement of the coup." However, he fails to prove that the Tribune actually endorsed the coup or was excited by it. As I previously wrote, the Tribune's argument was that the cause of democracy was advanced by the coup on balance because Chavez's rule has been so undemocratic. If FAIR wants to argue that a coup can never have be positive overall for democracy, then it has every right to do so. But instead, it distorts the Tribune's position as simply being "excited".

To illustrate this point, I'd like to offer a different thought experiment. Last month, when mob boss John Gotti died of cancer, many obituaries noted his numerous crimes. Does this mean that the newspaper that ran the obituaries were excited about cancer? Do they endorse it? Or would it be fair to say that while they aren't happy to see anybody die of a disease that we can hopefully cure one day, it's perfectly valid to note what an awful person Gotti was and hope that organized crime will decline as a result of his death?

Rampton also accuses me of "simply accepting at face value the Tribune's harsh criticisms of Hugo Chavez, whose performance as a leader is mixed but arguably no worse than the performance of many elected U.S. presidents." But the accuracy of the Tribune's description of Chavez's performance is not relevant to my criticism of FAIR. Given that FAIR itself never disputed the newspapers' description of Chavez's rule, this is a totally irrelevant point.

Rampton then takes me to task for criticizing FAIR's statement that the Tribune "seemed to suggest that the coup would have been no bad thing if not for 'the heavy-handed bungling of [Chavez's] successors.'" He accuses me of selective quotation for not also noting that the Tribune said Chavez's return "doesn't mean it's good news for democracy." This sentence is not relevant, though, as FAIR didn't quote it to make its point. What's relevant is the sentence from which FAIR took the quote "the heavy-handed bungling of Chavez's succesors."As I demonstrated, FAIR took that quote entirely out of context to make a misleading point. FAIR is the one engaging in selective quotation -- not me.

I accept Rampton's criticism that my description of the original New York Times editorial as "not condemning the coup" made it appear less pro-coup than it actually was. This is not relevant to my argument, however, since I never challenged FAIR's criticism of that editorial.

I certainly stand by my description of the second Times editorial, which admitted that it had given short shrift to the undemocratic nature of the coup, as much more than a half-apology. Rampton, however, suggests with his second thought-experiment that the fact that the Times continued to criticize Chavez's rule in the second editorial proves that it wasn't really apologizing. As I have repeatedly stated, though, condemning or condoning the coup and criticizing Chavez's rule are two entirely separate issues. Just because the New York Times continues to criticize the way Chavez rules doesn't make its apology for condoning the coup any less genuine.

Finally, I must take deep umbrage with Rampton on this claim:

The NYT and the Chicago Tribune joined other newspapers in denouncing Chavez as a "demagogue" and a "would-be dictator" at the very moment when guns were pointed at Chavez's head. To suggest that this sort of editorial irresponsibility is above criticism from FAIR betrays a terrible disregard for democracy and human life in Latin America.

If FAIR wanted to argue, as Rampton does, that it's inappropriate to criticize Chavez's rule during the crisis in Venezuela, then it should have done so. I never stated that FAIR should not criticize the newspapers for what they wrote. The issue at hand, though, is how FAIR characterized what the papers actually wrote about the coup. As I believe I demonstrated, FAIR misrepresented their editorials in order to score political points. Suggesting that I have a "terrible disregard for democracy and human life in Latin America" because I called FAIR on this is malicious and deeply unfair.

Correction 7/9 5:02 PM EST: My statement that "This sentence is not relevant, though, as FAIR didn't quote it to make its point," is not correct. In fact, FAIR did quote the phrase "but that doesn't mean it's good news for democracy," in its criticism of a Chicago Tribune editorial about Chavez's return to power. I regret the error.

I still maintain my criticism, however, of FAIR for taking the phrase "the heavy-handed bungling of Chavez's succesors" out of context to make it appear that the Tribune said "the coup would have been no bad thing if not for 'the heavy-handed bungling of [Chavez's] successors.'" As I wrote in my original piece, it's clear in the sentence from which FAIR takes this phrase that the Tribune is explaining how it is that Chavez returned, not placing a value judgment on the coup.

Update 7/13 11:25 AM EST: Click here for part two of the exchange

[Email this to a friend]     [Subscribe to our email list]

Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

This website is copyright (c) 2001-2002 by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan. Please send letters to the editor for publication to letters@spinsanity.org and private questions or comments to feedback@spinsanity.org.