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Dealing with Partisan Writing: Some Practical Suggestions

Posted by Rick · June 13th, 2004 · No Comments

Last week, in “Partisanship vs. Advocacy: A Meta-Discussion on Blogging Politics,” I wrote about “meta-issues” and the ways in which they can warp understanding and communication. In particular, I was concerned about the deliberate impact of meta-issues upon blogging about politics.

I ended that article with a promise to write a follow-up article on how to deal with partisan writing.

This is that article.

Partisan writing, as I noted before, is a kind of advocacy. It is a dishonest advocacy, an advocacy that impliedly advances the view that the ends justify the means. In one example, John Kerry, the “Botox-addicted poodle,” is considered by the partisan writer to be unfit for the Presidency. Why? You may never really know. The partisan writer will be so firm in his belief that he will say anything, write anything, to bring about the goal to which he aspires: the prevention of a Kerry Presidency. In an example from the other side — so as not to appear too partisan myself by my choice of examples — equally unscrupulous writers railing against the Bush Administration may focus on his sneer, his pout, or his connections with Halliburton presented without reasoned explanation of why those connections are issues. The partisan doesn’t care about this, though; for him, the ends justify the means.

At any rate, I said that I would provide practical advice for dealing with partisan writing. At the time I said that, I had not completely thought through what such advice might be; I merely knew that I didn’t want to write a purely philosophical argument and give no information about how to apply the understanding obtained by that exercise. It subsequently occurs to me that the advice given will depend upon the venue in which partisanship is encountered. And even though I was originally writing about the distinctions between advocacy and partisanship specifically applied to blogging about politics, there are still at least two different groups of people who might be concerned about partisanship in that arena: readers of blogs and owners of blogs that allow comments by readers to be posted. Since I think most people (unfortunately) are not actually that interested in this topic, or believe (perhaps correctly, but I have my doubts) that they already know how to handle this themselves, I want this to be a short article; I wish to get back to writing the “more interesting” articles about law, politics, and social issues. Thus, I’m only going to propose how people in these two groups might deal with partisan writing and, specifically, how they might deal with it on blogs. I’m also not going to rehash any of the specifics about meta-issues; for that, you can read the prior article.

Blog Readers

Firstly, Blog readers need tools for spotting likely partisan writing. I say “likely” because — as I mentioned in the other article — advocacy shades into partisanship; sometimes it’s difficult to tell when writing is merely strong advocacy and when it’s clearly partisan. A partisan “argument” can appear to be a real argument, as it did in Nat Dawson’s comment entitled, “Infanticide, Buchenwald and core values” which I extensively dissected in another post.

As a temporary side-trip here — but not really that far off topic — Mr. Dawson’s comment provided what at first seems to be a clear-cut indication of partisan writing: it compared the target of his writing, the Clintons, to Nazis. In fact, it went farther than that: it claimed that the Clintons deliberately emulated the Nazis. This point was hammered on both by repeatedly referring to Mrs. Clinton as “Hitlary” and by bald statements that she was taking pages from Goebbels’ playbook. I’m guessing that by the occasional use of “Hitlary Klinton” Dawson also intended to somehow connect them with the Ku Klux Klan — that’s just a guess on my part, though.

Now there may very well be times when it’s actually appropriate to compare something someone has done or is doing to what Hitler and the Nazis did. Whether or when this is appropriate is itself often a touchy subject. Many people feel, quite rightly, that any attempt to compare contemporary bad behavior with the atrocities of H’Shoah, the Holocaust, is insensitive, to say the least. Just as someone forgetting a family member’s birthday does not compare to a burglary, rape, or murder so, too, is comparing even political policies with which you disagree to Naziism — merely because you disagree — absurd. When you consider what Naziism was really about, making such comparisons is much more than absurd, it’s a form of evil in itself.

So one of the first ways to spot partisan writing is when you see such techniques apparent in the writing. Calling one’s opponent a Nazi is perhaps not 100% of the time an indication of a faulty, or deceitful, partisan argument. There really are people in the world who share the ideals of the Nazis and the blogs you’re reading might actually be able to make out an argument for how those about whom they are writing are Nazis. Nevertheless, at the very least this should raise a flag or two for you, particularly if it is merely asserted and no case for saying it is actually made out. Either way, you’ll want to pay much more careful attention to the possibility of partisan writing.

Partisanship is usually much more subtle than this. In fact, most often it involves taking a part of the truth and stating it as if it were, as they used to say on Perry Mason, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” These days the implied addendum, “So help me G-d,” will also be present. The problem with this type of writing is that you cannot usually appeal to something within the writing itself to know that what you’re being fed is partisan tripe. Again, our best example was recently give to us by Mr. Dawson and and cited by me in the companion to this article, “Partisanship vs. Advocacy: A Meta-Discussion on Blogging Politics.” This was the example of the report that the Viet Cong had honored Kerry by placing his picture in the “protesters’ section” of one of a “war crimes museum.” At first blush, the article he quoted may appear to even a somewhat discerning reader as devastating to the character of John Kerry. The only clue that there’s a problem comes from knowledge you have to obtain from outside that article. Knowing a little something about Vietnamese propaganda techniques and about Kerry, one might question the “facts” being stated. A responsible reader will want to do a little research on their own to verify the story. And, indeed, just a few minutes of searching on the Internet reveals that the story is full of holes — in fact, what is missing is the whole. A piece of the story — that John Kerry’s picture is in a museum in Ho Chi Minh City — is told. In this case a small lie — that it is there to honor him for providing succor to the enemy by protesting the war — is added. Left out is that a) Kerry fought against the Viet Cong, was shot at repeatedly by them and received numerous medals from the United States for that, b) Kerry’s picture was taken as part of a delegation of Veterans’ groups present in Viet Nam as part of an attempt to build relations with a country no longer at war with us and find out what happened to fellow soldiers who had not yet returned, c) that numerous other officials and representatives were there, also, d) that their pictures were, also, taken and that e) pictures of them hang alongside Kerry’s in that same section of that same museum, f) which is not, in fact, called “the protesters’ section” — no such section exists — and the museum is no longer named a “War Crimes” museum.

Again, this type of partisan writing, extremely prevalent today, particularly with right-wing writers — and you can verify my claim for yourself by fact-checkng enough of right-wing, middle-of-the-road and left-wing writers — is very difficult to spot without making yourself well-read.

Now, frankly, being an informed citizen is hard work. You have to read a lot. And you have to vary your reading. Reading “a lot” of Rush Limbaugh is not going to make you a well-informed citizen, not even about pharmaceuticals. Reading “a lot” of Al Franken is not going to make you a well-informed citizen, although you’ll be able to parrot an armory of ready quips. So the only way to become an informed citizen, thus avoiding being hoodwinked by this type of partisan writing, is to read from a variety of sources. The more you read, of course, the better informed you will be — so long as you vary the sources. You may even wish to read newspapers from outside the United States and even from those other than the hardcore allies (e.g., other than Great Britain and Australia). To do any less is to risk acquiring the opposite of Paul Harvey’s famous line; you’ll get something less than “the rest of the story.”

When you encounter partisan writing on blogs that allow comments, you should participate in the discussion. Leaving a blatantly false argument untouched means those who come behind you, who may not be as devoted to the idea that government functions well to the extent that the citizens stay informed and make sure of it functioning well, will fall into the partisan writer’s trap. Besides, to the extent that you contribute the truths you know and others do as well, everyone benefits.

As you add information via the comment section of blogs that allow this, you should be sure to try and document your claims whenever possible. Reference the book, article, or newspaper story in such a way that interested others can find it for themselves. This adds to your credibility while simultaneously providing a way for others to become better informed. Failing to document your counter-claims makes it impossible to distinguish who, if anyone, is the partisan. At the same time, there’s nothing really wrong with saying, “I’m not so sure about this. What about [fill in the blank]? I heard this somewhere, but right now I can’t find the source.” Doing that honestly can, at the very least, raise a flag for others, who can then try to validate the claim if they wish.

This is what I consider to be one of the greatest potential benefits of blogs and particular blogs that write about political topics and allow comments. We each, as responsible citizens, can become better informed and help our fellow citizens — potential voters — to be better informed. The more true information, the more likely we, the People, make responsible choices when voting.

Blog Owners

Responsible blog owners who write about politics, particularly those who advocate particular political views or support particular candidates, as opposed to those who focus on reporting about political issues, have a difficult job. (Even those who report, though, have to avoid the Fox “News” syndrome, whereby the news is transmogrified into nearly useless partisan tripe.)

For one thing, blog owners who write are, by definition, going to also be readers and need to consider all that was said above when researching and reading. When researching a political issue about which to write, blog owners qua readers have to carefully consider and validate their sources. To the extent that the source is a known source, one might feel safe doing less validation; the less you know about your source, the greater the need to validate.

But in addition to that comes another problem: How do you write in a way that advocates without slipping into partisanship? This is particularly difficult the more passionately you feel about the topic under consideration. It is also difficult when you encounter others — particularly those who comment on your blog (but more on this below) who are blatantly, seriously, unblinkingly dishonest partisan writers — whose writings you are compelled to answer, but to whom the response is utterly wasted, like so many Flat Earth Society members.

One difficulty is to find a way to discuss the issues involved in a way that doesn’t come across as an attack upon people with whom you disagree. Sometimes, that’s impossible. In the mix of writing, though, I think what we have to figure out is how to communicate the real message about the issues and policies. After all, we — or at least, I (not knowing what really drives everyone else, I can only speak for myself) — dislike certain political figures because of their policies and for no other reason.

So the chore is to write in a way that keeps that clear. And, perhaps, it might even be wise to mention, in some way, some of the positive elements.

Allow me to use an example. I’m a law student. And lately I’ve been writing motions and appeals for lawyers. When you write one of these, you’re essentially asking a court to do something for your client. Maybe you want the client released from jail, or you want some evidence against them which was illegally obtained and/or possibly irrelevant suppressed. In writing your motion (or appeal), it’s necessary to cite precedent — e.g., cases or statutes that deal with the issue — and there will nearly always be some that go against you. (Otherwise, it’s doubtful you’d be needing to write a motion, because most likely there would be no issue in the first place.) In writing of this type, you cannot simply ignore the cases (or statutes) that go against you. The court does not simply take your word for what you write; they validate your arguments. Often other clerks, like yourself, work for the court doing nothing but checking the cases or statutes you reference — and finding others that are relevant which you did not find. So you have discuss those cases or statutes and meet them head-on.

In writing a motion, there is a certain decorum that has to be observed even in attacking a contrary case or point of view. You’ll get nowhere by telling the court that your opponent is a Botox-addicted poodle. I feel safe in saying no motion ever succeeded on these (or similar) grounds.

I think this sort of thing is important to remember in blogging about politics. There are too many people out there who disagree with your point of view. This is true whether you’re a left-wing, right-wing, or some other type of writer. If you wish to sway these people, it won’t happen by attacking their deepest beliefs. I think there has to be a way to acknowledge and even perhaps validate those beliefs, while simultaneously advocating another point of view.

I can’t claim, by the way, that I’ve figured out how to do what I just said: I’m only saying it’s something I’ve been thinking about and the more I think about it, the more important it seems to me to be that I find a way to do it.

What about when you allow readers to comment? How do you handle partisan writing in your readership?

As with developing an approach to effective advocacy, this is something with which I’ve struggled and which I have yet to fully figure out. It’s important to note that I’m an American writer. As such, I have an exposure to a particular application of constitutional issues of freedom of speech. (I say this because the Russian Constitution, which actually reads better than the Constitution of the United States, also explicitly protects freedom of speech and mass media (in Section One, Chapter 2, Article 29), but, in fact, freedom of speech has a greater tradition and reality in the United States.) And even though blog owners are not required by any law — in fact, cannot be required to honor the First Amendment on their blogs, I have tried desperately to adhere to its principles. This has occasionally been detrimental to my blog when comments from virulently partisan readers are posted. I don’t wish to respond to many of them, because they are time-consuming, distract from real discourse and/or the writing of other blog articles and they’re usually full of outright lies. Some of these lies are easy enough to spot: One writer, for example, continues to write as if I were a proponent of abortion; anyone who has read my blog knows that the only comments I’ve made about my personal feelings on abortion are that I am against abortion and that I don’t even think it’s impermissible to make certain types of abortion illegal. Other lies are harder to spot. In all cases, I feel compelled to respond. This can be, as I said, a big time-waster. It’s particularly loathesome to have to do this when the posts are virtually devoid of argument and nearly purely contain lies. To leave them stand unanswered, though, is to possibly allow others, who may not have had the opportunity to read other factual articles sufficient to allow them to recognize the lies, to be mislead.

Other readers, cognizant of the situation, have suggested various approaches, including banning the offenders. I dislike this option for reasons stated above concerning freedom of speech, even though, again, the blog owner who chooses to do this is not violating any law. It’s interesting, by the way, that right-wing writers — I’ve not yet seen a left-wing writer do this, but perhaps some do — frequently try to argue that not allowing them to write false stories, even when irrelevant to your primary article upon which they are “commenting” by using the comments tools of your blog, is a violation of their freedom of speech, or somehow shows that you’re unfair. One such reader commenting on this blog has used this approach, accusing me of censoring him, in spite of the fact that you can read somewhere near a hundred vitriolic, false and irrelevant posts of his on this blog. At the same time, he has suggested that one way to deal with the things people say here with which he disagrees is to report my blog to the FCC, or by variously suggesting that myself and others should “STFU” — if I tell you that “S” stands for “Shut,” “T” stands for “The” and “U” stands for “Up,” you can perhaps fill in the missing word yourself. So much for free speech ideals, at least from that right-winger.

Nevertheless, you may rightly decide that your blog is your blog. You may decide that while others are free to say whatever they want, you are not thereby obligated to give them the tools to do it. Unless you are a government entity in a state that requires such a thing, you are under no requirement to allow your blog to be used thusly.

My own approach, at first, was to write comments responding to the lies, omissions, or twisting of facts. Subsequently, I have decided to insert “Editor’s Note” paragraphs in brackets, directly into the post. This allows for a shorter argument, because I can refute and/or fill in the facts for each point as it comes up. The other benefit, I feel, is that any falsehood or missing element is immediately addressed; it isn’t necessary to make the reader wait to see a “rebuttal” of the lies, which they may never read far enough to see. This also allows me to continue allowing the incompetent partisan commenters to say their piece — thus continuing to endorse First Amendment principles — while significantly reducing the impact of the lie through immediate negation.

Another solution offered to me by one of my readers was to create a “playpen” or “whiners” or some similar area into which I could move posts that fit particular criteria; e.g., those that were off-topic, primarily containing ad hominem, or those that were filled with lies. Again, the result is that those comments are allowed to continue to exist, but one blanket explanation of the purpose of the “playpen” and the fact that I’ve moved a post there means I wouldn’t have to specifically dissect every spurious claim. I have not yet done this, partly because the method I mentioned in the primary paragraph appears to have worked well.

Still another possibility for blog owners is to merely delete posts that do not meet civilized criteria set by yourself. Many blog owners do this and I see nothing wrong with this. As I said, even U.S.-based blogs belonging to non-governmental entities are not required to be mouthpieces for dishonest, deceitful, lying partisans who are incapable of creating their own blogs or blog populations where they may lie to their hearts content.

Lastly, blog owners may just decide not to permit comments at all. Many blog owners do this; any discussion or debate with them about their blog content would have to be conducted via email. It’s thus not available to numerous people to engage in simultaneous discussion. This is why I have not chosen this path, but it may work for you.


This article, I hope, has given people some things to think about. Firstly, it has talked a bit more about partisan writing and briefly noted more ways that it differs from advocacy writing. Anyone interested in a more philosophical understanding of this, including particularly a discussion of “meta-issues” of political blogging, should read my article, “Partisanship vs. Advocacy: A Meta-Discussion on Blogging Politics.” Secondly, I have tried to give some suggestions to both blog readers and blog owners regarding how to deal with partisan writing and writers.

And now, lastly, I want to say that I believe that particularly in my country, the United States of America, our inability to engage in political discourse in a way that recognizes the inherent goodness of most Americans and advocates our views or positions without sliding into illegitimate partisan “argumentation” is one of the greatest threats to the future of our country.

Charles Beard (1874-1948) once said that “one of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the great struggle for independence.” And so, let me close by noting that what I’ve said here is particularly dangerous. If we adopt advocacy as the proper presentation of our views and castigate partisanship, while continuing nevertheless to endorse the freedom to engage in either, our freedoms may appear to be at risk. Those who believe our nation to be so fragile that endorsing the Constitution could destroy us have failed to recognize that by acting upon this belief, the United States would already be destroyed. For, in the end, the United States is a nation founded upon the principle that we, the People, should rule this country and that we should do so each for ourselves.

There is but one way to ensure this can happen.

I am persuaded that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors, and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. — Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787

And the People, to take advantage of this and to develop good sense, must read well, often and with a critical attention to what — and how — the information is provided.

Categories: Blogs & Blogging


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