Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Slippery slope

I'm not fond of slippery slope arguments. The idea that, if you accept one thing, then you must accept the next, and so forth into infinity, and the infinity is unacceptable, so you cannot accept the first, is logically untenable. It also leads to questionable policy when governments use it (if we let the Communists take Vietnam, then they'll take Hawaii...).

However, slippery slope arguments need to be carefully differentiated from implication arguments. While the line is not always clear, it is fair to create a chain of implications (B follows A, C follows B, D follows C; A; then D), even if it is difficult to create all of the implications.

This musing on logic comes as a result of a letter in today's Chicago Tribune. I wouldn't normally make a big deal about a single letter, but I think the sentiment expressed is one that a surprising number of people, including our administration and possibly one of our presidential candidates, hold:
This is in response to the recent article in the Chicago Tribune that carried the headline "Attacks rage in Baghdad; Shiites loyal to Sadr denounce crackdown" (Page 1, March 28).

It was disturbing to open my Chicago Tribune to a front-page photo from Iraq with that accompanying headline.

This highlighted to the world the deeds of those who wish to bring defeat to this nation.

The terrorists are news savvy.

They do listen to what politicians are saying.

They do pay attention to how the media are reporting the war.

Terrorists groups must love the Tribune and other media publications as they assist the enemy in their media games.

Bad news and sensational headlines from Iraq might sell papers here in the United States.

This same bad news also gives hope to the enemy.

The terrorists are well aware that negative news coverage here in America will increase the calls to withdraw from Iraq.

Time and patience are on the side of the terrorists.

Unfortunately many Americans seem oblivious to the fact there is a global war being waged by Islamic jihadists.

Iraq is just one theater in this war.

And this war threatens not only America but all of Western civilization.

The terrorists are listening.

Words do matter.

Newspapers must be held responsible for the impressions they create in the minds of their readers.
So here is my possibly slippery slope argument: Should the media have withheld coverage of the World Trade Center attacks because it gave "hope to the enemy"? Would we really be stronger if the only coverage we received was happy news, making the terrorists think that we were unaffected by their challenge? The parallels to Bush's "call to go shopping" are unmistakable.

Perhaps the most remarkable sentence in the letter is the last. Newspapers have enough problems these days without being held responsible for whatever ideas pop up in the heads of anyone with 75 cents to spend. There are questions of objectivity and fairness with which the best newspapers struggle, not always successfully; if they go further and only write stories that create favorable impressions, they won't be doing their job at all.

More to the point, they won't be informing the public of those things that permit democracy to work. It's difficult to imagine what our nation would be like if we didn't have journalists providing a counterpoint, no matter how often flawed, to the official spin. I can be critical of journalists at times, but I have never once questioned that their job is necessary and important. It's a shame that fear causes other people to see it differently.

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