Tapper’s interview with Tillerson: How the media promotes dishonor through slant and faulty logic
In his interview with CNN, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington “seems to relish gossip, rumor, innuendo.” Whether or not this is true for Washington, it appeared to be true during parts of Jake Tapper’s interview, and in the media’s coverage of it.
Below, we’ll explain how the media uses faulty reasoning and emphasizes rumors instead of facts, and how this can promote dishonor.
Consider the following abridged exchange between CNN anchor Jake Tapper and Tillerson (full transcript).
Tapper: “Did you call [President Donald Trump] a moron?”
Tillerson: “I’m just not going to dignify the question”
Tapper: “Look, you’re a serious guy. For you to say something like that suggests a real frustration with the commander in chief.”
Tapper: “So, when you don’t answer the question, it makes people think that you probably did say it.”
There is more than one error in reasoning here (see how many you can spot), but we’ll examine Tapper’s conclusion that by not answering his question, it “makes people think that [Tillerson] probably did” call Trump a “moron.”
By saying this is what people would think, Tapper is condoning the underlying logic that if you’ve been accused of something, and you don’t answer the question “did you do it?” then you probably did it.
Many readers have probably heard an argument similar to this before, perhaps in a different context, and some may find it intuitively makes sense to them. However, the possibility that Tillerson did call Trump a “moron” is not the only reason to not answer Tapper’s question. Even saying this is “probably” the reason, as Tapper does, is problematic because it’s conjecture; it’s an opinion based on incomplete information since no evidence is provided to back it. There could be a number of reasons why Tillerson chose not to answer the question. For example, his stated intent was to not “dignify” it with an answer, perhaps based on principle.
The above faulty reasoning may be damaging to Tillerson’s reputation by implying that not answering the question means he’s withholding an answer out of negative intent, such as to hide that he did call Trump a “moron,” or something else. If he has nothing to hide or did nothing wrong, then there’s no downside to answering the question, right? Not necessarily.
Other media outlets compound the issues with the above flawed logic when they make Tapper’s questions about the unconfirmed “moron” comment the main focus of their coverage. Tillerson draws attention to this in the interview when he says to Tapper, “I’m a little surprised you want to spend so much time on it, when there are so many important issues around the world to deal with.”
In the coverage of the interview, the Associated Press (AP) and CNN add their own emphasis to the reported “moron” comment by discussing it in their headline, lead sentence, or both. For example, AP’s lead sentence says Tillerson:
“…ducked, danced and sidestepped the question of whether he truly called President Donald Trump a ’moron,’ dismissing the brouhaha as the ‘petty stuff’ of Washington.
By emphasizing and sensationalizing the reported “moron” comment, the media is participating in spreading a rumor – a widely circulated, unverified story. This doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t report unverified information, but putting it in the headline or lead sentence may keep the rumor mills going. The extra emphasis may also be disparaging towards Trump given the nature of the reported comment, and the suggestion he may be at odds with a cabinet member.
Why does this matter?
Tapper’s implication that Tillerson did call Trump a “moron,” or is at least hiding something, and the media’s emphasis on this part of the interview promotes dishonor. It makes the interview more about gossip than other, arguably more substantive, issues, such as diplomacy with North Korea and the Iran deal. Dishonorable communication is also destructive in nature, as it downplays the good in things, such as the possibility that there are principled reasons to not answer Tapper’s question—whether that was Tillerson’s intent or not.
The more we’re aware of and identify dishonor, the more we can understand it and the more likely we are to stop it.
Written by Shane Mottishaw and Julia Berry López
Edited by Shane Mottishaw and Jens Erik Gould
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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