The Spinsanity.org website has on occasion published insightful commentaries on misleading uses of political rhetoric in the United States. In July 2002, however, Spinsanity itself published a deceptive attack on the media watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). After FAIR criticized U.S. newspapers which applauded the April 2002 attempted military coup against Venezuela's elected president, Spinsanity editor Ben Fritz rose to the defense of the newspapers, accusing FAIR of "selective quotation" and being "intellectually dishonest." PR Watch editor Sheldon Rampton penned a critique of Fritz's position, arguing that Fritz himself engaged in selective quotation and that his position "betrays a terrible disregard for democracy and human life in Latin America."
To its credit, Spinsanity.org published Rampton's letter — accompanied, unfortunately, by a response from Fritz which contained a glaring error and new rhetorical distortions. In response, Rampton sent the letter which appears below.
To: Ben Fritz
From: Sheldon Rampton
Date: July 8, 2002
Thank you for posting my critique of your article. However, Ben Fritz's response to my critique contains a statement which is simply a falsehood. He wrote:
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.
How on earth can Fritz dare claim that FAIR "didn't quote" the sentence in question "to make its point"? Here is the relevant passage from the FAIR commentary:
The Tribune stuck unapologetically to its pro-coup line even after Chavez had been restored to power. Chavez's return may have come as "good news to Latin American governments that had condemned his removal as just another military coup," wrote the Tribune in an April 16 editorial, "but that doesn't mean it's good news for democracy." 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."
As anyone can see who has eyes, FAIR did indeed quote the very sentence which Fritz claims it "didn't quote to make its point." Please note the relationship between the phrase which FAIR quoted from the Chicago Tribune -- "that doesn't mean it's good news for democracy" -- and FAIR's interpretation, which follows in the very next sentence. It should be clear to any honest reader that the sentence which FAIR quoted served as the textual basis for its claim that the Tribune suggested "the coup would have been no bad thing." I am frankly amazed that Fritz would write that this sentence is "not relevant" because "FAIR didn't quote it to make its point." I do not want to lightly accuse him of deliberate lying, but at best his statement reflects extraordinarily sloppy reading.
Moreover, the overall tenor of the Chicago Tribune's April 16 editorial supports FAIR's interpretation. The editorial characterized the coup as "the lesser of the available evils" in light of Chavez's "authoritarian tendencies," adding that this "perception evaporated" only after "the transitional government failed to demonstrate its own commitment to democratic norms," so that "What began as a broad-based popular uprising seemed to have been hijacked by a wealthy elite." One hardly knows where to begin rebutting this heap of steaming bullshit. It is obvious from these phrases that the Chicago Tribune did equate the Venezuelan military's abrogation of democracy with "a broad-based popular uprising" that "would have been no bad thing" (to use FAIR's paraphrase) if only it had "demonstrated its own commitment to democratic norms" -- which is akin to suggesting that a rape at gunpoint would have been nice if only it had been consensual. Either Ben Fritz never actually read the Tribune's editorial, or he shares its morally repugnant belief that the forcible overthrow of an elected government is okay if you do so "democratically" against a government which you think has "authoritarian tendencies." By this standard, I should feel completely justified in asking some buddies with guns to join me today in taking over the Bush White House.
Fritz concludes his response by writing,
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.
I don't think Fritz has demonstrated that FAIR misrepresented the editorials in question. To the contrary, Fritz himself misrepresented the editorials, in order to score political points against FAIR. The New York Times itself belatedly admitted that it and other voices in the U.S. media "applauded" the military coup which attempted to remove Venezuela's elected government. Everything that Ben Fritz has written on this topic is calculated to obscure this point, which was the central point of FAIR's critique. Fritz called it "malicious" for FAIR to criticize the Chicago Tribune's suggestion that the military overthrow of Venezuela's president was good news for democracy. He also says it was "malicious" for me to see disregard for democracy in his own pedantic defense of the newspapers which applauded the coup. Tough. I am sure that FAIR stands by its conclusions, and I certainly stand by mine.
Editor, PR Watch