Mansplaining a Journalist: A Lesson in Rhetoric

First things first, here’s the video clip from which I’m going to work:

This is a segment from Tucker Carlson Tonight on the Fox News channel.  It’s about a ten minute back-and-forth between the host, Carlson, and his guest, the journalist Lauren Duca, who’s been put in the spotlight since her piece for Teen Vogue “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America” went viral last month.  Duca was asked to come on Carlson’s show to discuss her opinion about a recent incident where Ivanka Trump was harassed on an airplane by a passenger over her role in her father’s racist, sexist, bigoted presidential campaign.  On Twitter, Duca tweeted out this shortly after the incident on the plane:

That’s pretty much all the context needed to get into the video itself.

What I want to do here is take a look at this exchange, and try to note some rhetorical strategies and fallacies that Carlson uses to try to discredit Duca.  To be upfront, my opinion is that Carlson’s highly dishonest in the way he approaches Duca during this conversation, and he consistently argues in bad faith.  He has no real substantive arguments to offer in response to Duca’s opinion, so he instead resorts to cheap tactics that play on subconscious sexism in order to try to discredit Duca’s argument.  Even when she repeats that she agrees with him about the basic point that no one should be harassed on an airplane, he keeps trying to misrepresent her position so he can stay on the offensive.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the video.

In the lead up to the interview, Carlson gives his own bit of background on the event that he wants to discuss.  Of the harassment, he says at 0:40, “Even a lot of liberals say his behavior went way too far, but not all of them thought that.  Some of them thought it was justified, and that includes our next guest.”  So Carlson has invited Duca onto his show, and the frame he’s presenting is that she is in favor of Trump being harassed on an airplane in front of her children, largely based on the above tweet.

At 1:23, Carlson asks his first question, “What are the venues where you shouldn’t scream your political views at people?”  Duca responds by saying that, “I think what is a nonpartisan issue is that air travel is horrific, and I don’t think anybody should be enduring confrontations in the air be it Ivanka Trump with her children or any other human being in a tin can[…].”  Right from the beginning, Duca is clarifying that she’s not in favor of harassment.

At 1:50, Duca pivots from her disavowal of harassing people on airplanes to a more in-depth discussion of Trump as a public figure and where the boundaries lie for criticizing her role in the incoming administration.  At 2:05 she says of Trump, “At the same time, she does have an incredibly powerful position, and she’s not just a mother.  She’s a powerful, powerful woman who’s connected very closely to the president-elect, not just as his daughter, but in many ways as a business confidant and advisor, and I think we haven’t quite been able to define what all those roles mean.”  Duca’s building her case for why Trump should be treated as a public figure in a political space who is worthy of discussion and critique.  She reiterates that no one should be harassed while stuck on an airplane before continuing to speculate on the question of how far Trump’s private role as a mother should extend to protect her from her public actions.

At 2:53, Carlson interrupts Duca to bring up a separate tweet from the one that began the segment.  Keep in mind that at this point in the conversation Duca has thoroughly responded to Carlson’s first question and debunked his assertion that she approves of the harassment Trump received on the plane with her children.  Instead of acknowledging that point of agreement, he changes the subject of the conversation over to Duca’s tweets on the topic of Trump’s role in her father’s political operation.  This move’s a standard red herring fallacy with a bit of false equivalence and straw man argument thrown in.  Nothing in Duca’s original tweets suggests she approves of the incident being discussed, but her proposition that Trump is a public figure worthy of vigorous critique is presented as standing in for the less defensible position of public harassment of people in spaces where they are unable to retreat.  Duca knows that’s not a defensible position, so she’s said several times already she doesn’t support it.  The false equivalence comes in at 3:04 when Carlson says, “Look, Ivanka Trump was in the news because she was screamed at on the airplane, and you said, ‘Don’t let her off the hook,’ and then you go on to say in another tweet, ‘Ivanka HAS IT ALL, & by that I mean, “a job, a family, & sinister complicity in aiding the most aggressively anti-woman candidate of our time.”‘”  He connects Duca’s criticism of Trump with the airplane incident even though there’s nothing in the text of the original tweets to suggest Duca is actually praising the airplane harasser.

Now, here’s where the first really obvious bit of sexism seeps into the conversation.  Immediately after highlighting the quote about Trump’s complicity “in aiding the most aggressively anti-woman candidate of our time,” Carlson adds, “‘Sinister complicity,’ what does that even mean?  She’s his daughter.”  Carlson presents a number of assumptions with this comment that aim to erase Trump’s agency; the broadest one is that a family member would be inclined to help another family member, and this instinct to help kin is above criticism; the second is that such an impulse is even stronger in the parent-child relationship; the third, and most sexist, is that in the case of daughters this behavior is a matter of course.  Trump can’t be criticized for supporting her father because as a daughter she lacks the agency to do anything else in this situation.

At 3:27 Duca offers her explanation that Trump is complicit in her father’s campaign because she acted as a surrogate for him, especially with regard to women’s issues.  At 3:33 Carlson interrupts, “Isn’t she pretty liberal on women’s issues?”  This moment is derailing.  Duca continues on to expand upon her point that Trump acted as a representative of her father, but Carlson is hoping that his interruption will distract her from her thought with the fig leaf that Trump leans left on issues that are important to women.  He’s trying to take advantage of his male privilege to redirect the conversation.  We’ll see this get more extreme as the segment proceeds.  Duca finishes her explanation of Trump’s complicity with a response to Carlson’s question, highlighting the fact that there does appear to be discontinuity between Trump’s positions on issues like abortion and the funding of Planned Parenthood and her father’s stated policies and noting that this discontinuity deserves further inspection and interrogation.  The stinger on this point from Duca carries an extra implication; she finishes this statement (at 4:01) by saying, “I think we need to investigate those things a little more critically, a little more rigorously and not be blinded by the fact that she looks like she smells like vanilla.”  Duca’s pushing back directly against the narrative that’s implicit in Carlson’s arguments up to this point that because Trump is a conventionally attractive white woman she is both protected from and not a worthy target for criticism.  Duca’s actually showing Trump a great deal more respect than Carlson in this one moment, since she’s treating her like a fully agent person capable of acting and making her own choices in the public sphere.

At 4:08, Carlson offers his response.  We’re about to get another attempt at derailment: “Okay, ‘she looks like she smells like vanilla’?  I mean, who’s objectifying women here?”  Carlson suddenly moves the goal posts instead of contending with Duca’s claim.  Rather than get mired in an indefensible position (Carlson knows that arguing against Trump’s agency puts him in a tight spot), he changes the subject to a common distractor in discussions about women’s personhood: the argument that acknowledging a person’s conventional, physical beauty is the same as sexual objectification of that person.  It’s blatantly dishonest, and here it’s meant to keep the audience from thinking seriously about the claim that Trump can make her own decisions.

It’s at this point in the video where things break down considerably.  Until now, Carlson and Duca have been engaging in a relatively well structured back-and-forth.  Carlson’s been mostly trying to play gotcha with out-of-context quotes from Duca and trying to paint her as making a straw man argument.  This particular feint blows the conversation wide open though.  Duca refuses to play to the bait and laughs at Carlson on air.  She knows he’s throwing out red herrings in an attempt to derail her from her point, and she’s not having it.  At 4:23, once Duca finishes laughing at Carlson, she offers this clarification of her previous quip: “I’m saying that she is incredibly welcoming, she is gorgeous and smart.  I mean, she’s, in a lot of ways, many elements of her persona are, you know, admirable, and something to look up to.”  Duca acknowledges that she made a joke, and she clarifies since Carlson acts confused by it; even though she probably doesn’t believe he really is, she continues to act in good faith.

At this point, Carlson retreats from his objectification derailment and decides to go back to Duca’s tweets.  He quotes her again about Trump’s “sinister complicity” in her father’s campaign, and Duca immediately owns her position.  At 4:42: “I’m not backing down from that at all.”  Carlson makes another attempt at pushing the assumption from earlier, asking how it’s sinister for a daughter to support her father’s campaign.  He throws in a bit of speculation about this being “sinister” because Duca dislikes Trump’s father, which is meant to discredit her opinion as politically motivated.  Carlson’s doubling down on the “children don’t have agency under their parents” assumption.  He wants to deflect criticism of Trump as meant for her father, thereby closing off the possibility of critiquing a member of the president-elect’s inner circle while claiming that the member in question, again, can’t make her own decisions.

Duca swats away that assumption in her response about the methods and messaging Trump used in campaigning for her father.  At 4:51, “It’s sinister for a daughter to capitalize on the power of feminism, and uniting women, and empowering women, while supporting a candidate who is the most anti-woman candidate this country has seen in decades.”  She’s calling out the problem inherent in using feminist-styled messaging to promote a man who has said on record that “you have to treat [women] like shit.”  That’s a contradiction of values, and Duca is arguing that Trump’s agency makes her complicit in her father’s anti-woman policies when she acts as his surrogate regardless of what she personally espouses.

At 5:06, Carlson plays stupid.  He asks, “What does that even mean?” with a look of incomprehension on his face.  He goes on, doing a false equivocation as he switches between saying that Trump’s father is anti-woman and that Trump herself is anti-woman.  Duca immediately calls him on it: “Is that what I said?  […]  That is most certainly not what I said.”  Carlson’s response is derisive laughter.  This is a moment where it’s clear that Duca understands how Carlson is trying to undermine her point, and when she matter-of-factly corrects him, he has no response other than to throw up a rhetorical feint.  He’s not taking what she’s saying seriously, so his audience shouldn’t either.  His response here is to repeat an incomplete version of Duca’s argument back at her, removing important context.  At 5:20, “She’s guilty because he’s anti-woman.  She’s complicit in his ‘anti-woman’ positions.”  This is an attempt to equivocate; Carlson suggests that Duca’s opinion is that Trump is responsible for what her father thinks and says; Duca clarifies that she’s saying Trump is responsible for promoting the positions of a candidate who is anti-woman.

At 5:29, Carlson responds again with, “But it’s her dad!” again pushing the assumption that family bonds are a panacea for personal culpability.  He doesn’t have anything else, so he’s just going to keep harping on that unspoken assumption that he thinks his audience shares.  Carlson takes a moment to regroup then offers up what he wants the audience to think Duca’s position is on this topic at 5:34: “You’re [Duca] drawing this kind of world where everyone who’s not on your side is evil and is, as you put it, ‘fair game.'”  Carlson tries to pin this straw man argument on Duca by implying he’s quoting her calling Trump “fair game,” but he doesn’t ever present where this quote comes from.  That’s a failure to provide promised evidence, and it leaves Carlson in a poor argumentative position.  Duca immediately responds that she didn’t “say that anybody who disagrees with [her] is evil.”  Instead of pausing to straighten out this confusion about quotes and positions, Carlson changes the subject.

At 5:50 Carlson says, “Then I’m gonna ask you again, what do you disagree with that she has said?  What position that she holds do you disagree with?”  This moment here makes my head spin, because Carlson’s just made an unsupported assertion about Duca’s argument, and then instead of providing support when she tries to challenge him, he shifts the focus of the conversation again.  Duca goes along with the shift in focus this time, which leaves the audience with the lasting impression that Carlson’s unfounded accusations have some sort of weight.  He uses a dishonest tactic and she doesn’t call him on it this time.  Instead, Duca responds with another clear statement of her position on the question that she’s been asked (at 5:55): “I disagree with her providing a surrogacy for her father based on an empowerment of women when that is an inherent disconnect between his campaign and her beliefs.”  That’s a straightforward statement that answers Carlson’s question.  The misrepresentation of Duca continues in Carlson’s follow up where he claims that she agrees with Trump’s positions but because Trump campaigned for her father, that makes her open to criticism.  Again, Duca clarifies that she doesn’t necessarily agree with all of Trump’s positions.

At 6:14, Carlson says, “I’m trying to understand,” and Duca rolls her eyes.  At every step in this discussion Duca has tried to present her opinion as clearly as possible, and at every opportunity Carlson has deliberately misrepresented what she’s said.  Duca loses her patience accuses Carlson of acting in bad faith: “Tucker, you’re not trying to agree with what I’m saying.  You’re shouting over me every time I speak.  It’s incredibly unprofessional.”  Carlson gets indignant, but Duca’s just exposed another assumption that he’s been relying on throughout the interview: that if he’s belligerent enough he can bully Duca into conceding his inaccurate representations of her position.  This is rooted in the dynamic between a male interviewer and a female subject.  He tries to tone it down, saying, “I’m asking you a simple question,” and at 6:25 Duca says, “You’re not.  You’re actually being a partisan hack who’s just attacking me ad nauseum and not even allowing me to speak.”

Now, this is the moment where things really break down in the conversation.  Carlson’s been acting in bad faith from the start, but he’s been relying on Duca not pointing out that he’s acting in bad faith.  Now that she’s named his poor behavior the rules of the conversation are gone.  In the last four minutes of the interview, Carlson’s going to escalate to frequent ad hominem attacks.

Duca makes one last attempt at reconciliation at 6:31 when she says, “Tucker, I think we agree here.  I think we agree here, right?  We both agree that she didn’t deserve to be attacked–”  At this point Carlson interrupts Duca to say, “I think it’s appalling that some guy yelled at her on an airplane.”  Duca’s making overtures to note that they agree about the inappropriate nature of the harassment that happened to Trump on the airplane, but Carlson continues to misrepresent this point to try to delegitimize Duca’s larger argument.  He goes back, once again, to Duca’s Twitter feed, where he pulls quotes from angry tweets she’s made directed at the president-elect to make another false equivocation between what is acceptable behavior in person, on an airplane and what is acceptable in a publicly visible online space (also note, again, that he’s trying to equate dislike of Trump’s father with dislike of Trump herself).  There’s also some facile appeals to decency as Carlson refuses to quote Duca’s tweets verbatim because they contain strong curses.  This is set up for the last barrage that Carlson is going to attempt against Duca.

Because Duca is not giving ground or (for the most part) allowing Carlson to misrepresent her arguments, the last few minutes shift to an attack on Duca’s qualifications as a journalist.  He begins at 7:18 to bring up Duca’s article in Teen Vogue (Duca ignores his question to make a strong extended statement about the need for public transparency in Trump’s role in her father’s administration; Carlson loses his composure and shouts to interrupt Duca in the middle of her statement).  In introducing a quote from the article he flippantly remarks, “Teen Vogue, which I guess you write for.”  Duca erupts at the dismissal, and Carlson plays her anger off as funny and cute.  He’s trying to act like he’s not aware of Duca’s previous work because Teen Vogue is a publication that’s beneath his interest (Duca rightly points out that he’s being disingenuous, since Carlson’s producers invited her to be on the show and clearly knew about her work in the magazine).  The implication is that serious (male) journalists don’t bother with that kind of publication.

We get some more poorly reasoned nonsense from Carlson claiming that an assertion from Duca’s article about the new administration threatening “the sovereignty of an entire religion” is specious which he concludes by saying at 8:54, “How does that threaten the sovereignty of a religion?  That’s moronic.”  We’re in full on ad hominem territory now.  Instead of contending with Duca’s claims about policy that can be found on the president-elect’s website, he chooses to insult her intelligence.  The tactic is meant to play on the audience’s assumptions about female writers, bringing them to a point where they can dismiss Duca as a non-credible expert independent of her reasoning and presentation of evidence.

Another quote that Carlson pulls (9:22) comes from something Duca said on Chelsea Handler’s talk show about the president-elect “committing a form of psychological abuse that makes the victim feel like they’re crazy.”  Carlson dismisses this claim (again, remember the genders of the people involved; a white man is arguing a white woman’s claim about certain behavior feeling abusive is invalid) and tries to suggest that Duca herself feels abused.  At 9:55, in the middle of Duca giving a response to Carlson, he makes a facetious grunt, again pushing the narrative that women can not be credible authorities on political discourse.

The final component of Carlson’s three minute smear campaign against Duca is a listing of her other work for Teen Vogue, which includes a range of articles on subjects related to fashion and celebrity news.  None of these things are relevant to the discussion at hand, but Carlson pulls them in because he wants to pile on less and less credibility based on the assumption his audience will not take someone who writes about fashion and celebrities seriously on the subject of national politics.  Carlson’s parting shot is another dig at Duca’s fashion writing, when he says, “You should stick to the thigh high boots.  You’re better at that.”  Duca’s response, which the feed cuts away from as she’s speaking, is “You’re a sexist pig.”

Amen to that.


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