Journalists and the Gish Gallop

This was the topic on the Diane Rehm show when I tuned in yesterday:

Declining Access to Abortion Services Nationwide

Two years ago, Texas passed a law requiring all clinics that offer abortions to meet the same standards as hospital surgical centers. On Tuesday, a federal court upheld the Texas law, saying it did not place an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions. And in Wisconsin this week, a bill that would ban all abortions after 20 weeks passed the state senate. Fourteen states now have a similar ban on the books. Supporters of these laws say they are needed to protect the health and safety of women. But critics say they are unconstitutional and simply make it harder for women to obtain abortions. Diane and guests discuss new state laws restricting abortion and how courts are responding.

– Erik Eckholm national correspondent, The New York Times
– Wendy Davis former state senator, Texas district 10
– Elizabeth Nash Senior State Issues Associate, The Guttmacher Institute
– Mary Lazich Republican state senator, Wisconsin’s 28th district

Sen. Lazich had me pounding my keyboard so hard as I tweeted at the nonsense coming out of her mouth that it was starting to smolder.

Clearly, I disagree with Sen. Lazich’s political position on abortion. I appreciated the calm, factual information that the other guests brought to the table.

Sen. Lazich, lacking actual facts to back up her position, resorted to a technique known as the Gish Gallop in delivering her remarks.

This technique involves a person spouting as many rapid-fire lies, half-truths, distortions, unsubstantiated allegations, and innuendos as possible in a short period of time, knowing that a debate opponent, or journalist interviewing them on a television or radio show, cannot possibly have enough time to counter every claim. Here’s a helpful in-depth description of the technique.

When asked about exceptions to abortion bans for victims of rape and incest, for example, Sen. Lazich quickly made up a lie about how most victims of rape or incest get abortions in the first few weeks of pregnancy, pivoted to a tirade about a concept of fetal pain that is medically unsubstantiated in peer-reviewed scientific literature, using medical-sounding terms that are not actually accepted terms for any procedure in the medical community, then covered up her own inability to point to legitimate studies by going on the offensive about detail critiquing one Journal of the American Medical Association by saying it was invalid because it was a survey of other research, which is, actually, a very valid type of scientific paper.

A question about victims of rape and incest becomes a debate about the meaning of certain terms and the validity of scientific research papers. You’ve got a minute to respond. Where do you start?

The Gish Gallop can be stopped—here’s a great story of Joe Biden thwarting it—and journalists are well-positioned to do so. Diane Rehm tried, by insisting that Sen. Lazich address her original question about rape and incest survivors, but she was ignored, and the time constraints and format of her show meant she could not follow up to counter the misinformation aired on her show.

I’d like to see journalists spell out the rules ahead of time when interviewing public officials and candidates:

  1. I will ask a question.
  2. If you give me a non-responsive answer that contains a torrent of information to which I cannot possibly respond, I will remind you to answer the original question.
  3. If you duck it again, I will comment on the fact that you are avoiding the question by using a technique designed to disguise the truth and confuse the issue, then end the interview without giving you a final word.

I’m sure some people would not commit to being interviewed under these conditions. So be it. The internet is a big place, and I’m sure they can find a sympathetic outlet to air their propaganda.

We know politicians like to duck questions. They’re grown-ups (chronologically, at least), and should be able to either say I won’t answer that, or defend a position, without resorting to a technique that runs everything off the rails.

I believe journalists feel constrained by a requirement to be fair and balanced—which is reasonable—but a society in which fair and balanced has been perverted to mean you have to allow someone to lie because they have some inherent right to lie.

Conversations and debate over political issues won’t always be constructive, and by nature, will contain dissent as often as agreement. The Gish Gallop, however, is used by people intent upon disrupting civic discourse entirely with positions that are indefensible and will not hold up to scrutiny.

Why should broadcast journalists be forced to give air time to intentionally misleading information? Print journalists have the (relative) time and luxury of being able to fact-check before publishing. Having a policy of cutting off Gish Gallopers would give broadcast journalists the same opportunity.

This entry was posted in advice you didn't ask for, politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Journalists and the Gish Gallop

  1. Pingback: Eye on Williamson » TPA Blog Round Up (June 15, 2015)

  2. Pingback: Texas Progressive Alliance Blog Roundup June 15, 2015 | nonsequiteuse

  3. Pingback: Texas blog roundup for the week of June 15 – Off the Kuff

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