It’s no secret that Fox News and MSNBC have different biases when it comes to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. But they also have something in common.
First the obvious differences. Here are some comments last week by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Fox News’ Sean Hannity:
Hannity: Mueller and his team are “extremely biased” and the investigation is a “witch hunt.”
Maddow: The “weird” responses from Trump’s lawyers to recent developments are “sign[s]” that the White House is “rattled.”
So how were they similar? Both hosts demonstrated faulty reasoning during these shows. Below, we highlight two logical fallacies: “Guilt by Association” from Maddow and “Hasty Generalization” by Hannity.
Guilt by Association
Guilt by Association is when you conclude someone is guilty because of who or what the person is associated with. It takes the following form:
Premise: Person or Group A has made some error or done something bad or illegal
Premise: Person B is somehow connected to or associated with A
Conclusion: B is also guilty.
Here’s an example of how this plays out in Maddow’s monologue:
Premise: Germany’s Deutsche Bank “launder[ed] billions of dollars out of Russia in a scheme that appears to have been tied to the Russian government”
Premise: At the same time, the bank was “inexplicably generous” to Trump.
Conclusion (implied): Trump also has financial, if not illicit, ties to the Russian government.
Note that Maddow didn’t explicitly state this conclusion, but the above premises and the slant of the article generally point in this direction. So it’s possible, if not likely, that readers would arrive at this conclusion.
There are a few errors in the reasoning above. First, the bank’s “inexplicable gener[osity]” – seemingly referring to the bank’s decision to continue lending Trump money after he did not pay back a previous loan – is a premise worth questioning. “Inexplicable” implies the likely reason the bank would lend Trump money under these circumstances is if it were somehow tied to Russia. But is there no other reasonable explanation? Second, just because the bank was “generous” to Trump doesn’t mean Trump had something to do with the alleged money laundering or the ties between Deutsche Bank and Russia.
A Hasty Generalization happens when a broad conclusion is drawn from a small, sometimes cherry picked, selection of evidence. It sometime takes the form:
Premise: There are some specific instances where X is (or may be) true
Conclusion: X is true in general
In Hannity’s monologue, he gives a number of examples of what he calls “bias” among Mueller and his team, such as:
“At least eight out of 16 lawyers” on Mueller’s team reportedly donated money to Democrats, and…
“Not a single attorney Mueller appointed or hired donated to the Trump or other any Republican presidential campaign.”
From these examples and others, Hannity concluded Mueller and his team were “abusively biased.”
Simply put, the specific evidence provided is insufficient to prove the broader claim that Mueller’s team is biased. For example, someone donating money to Democrats doesn’t guarantee that person will discriminate against Republicans. Hannity’s comments also suggest lawyers can’t separate personal political beliefs from their professional work. It’s possible this is true for some attorneys but not for all. To establish bias, one must show that Mueller and his team are taking the actions they are taking because of the alleged “bias” and without it, the investigation would proceed differently or maybe even conclude.
Beware the Fallacy Fallacy
At this point, it may be tempting to reject Hannity’s and Maddow’s claims as false. But this would be committing a different error in reasoning: The Fallacy Fallacy. This is when you presume a claim (e.g. Mueller is biased or Trump colluded with Russia) is false because an error in reasoning was made. However, it’s possible for someone to make a claim that is true but justify it with faulty logic.
In this case, we simply are not given enough evidence to prove Mueller’s team is biased, and it would be premature to conclude Trump’s guilt before the investigation is over (not to mention it would mean violating the principle of innocent until proven guilty).
According to a Marist Poll published in November, 50 percent of adult respondents in the U.S. said the “tone” of the political discourse in the country was “negative” and an additional 36 percent described it as “angry.” There are potentially many explanations for these results, one of which could be the divisive, partisan conclusions like those explored above.
By recognizing the faulty reasoning that is often behind these black-and-white views, citizens may start to see the shades of grey that reveal more than just two opposing worldviews. And that could be at least one path towards fostering more civil discourse.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News