I am intrigued by the fight between the Fox News channel and the Obama administration. But this article is not going to be about politics, about who is right or wrong, or even about how each side is interpreting the actions of the other. I’ll leave the political analysis to political experts. I’m an expert in communication, so this article is about communication strategies.
Presidential advisor David Axelrod caught my attention Sunday when he said that Fox News shouldn’t be treated as a news organization. With this statement he attacked the credibility of Fox to criticize the Obama administration, and that got me thinking. His words reminded me of a familiar rhetorical strategy: Counter criticism with condescension. Where had I seen that before?
As a communication specialist, particularly in the field of written communications, I have a library of books on writing. The answer, I knew, would be in there—and it was. The writing guide Bang! Writing with Impact states this: “Attack the credibility of your critics to emphasize the superiority of your ideas.”
The three key words here are “attack,” “credibility,” and “critic.” Using this strategy, you claim that your critics are not a valid source of information; therefore, their ideas are not worth considering. This is, indeed, what David Axelrod was saying about Fox. According to Axelrod, Fox News is not a news organization; therefore, any criticisms it makes are not worth considering.
This strategy has two effects. The most obvious effect is that it can negate the impact of the criticism. If I can damage the credibility of my critics, then others will be less likely to believe what they say about me. I reduce my critics’ influence by making people believe that my critics don’t know what they are talking about. Bang! Writing with Impact has a good example of this.
The press corps is fond of saying we do not know how to handle corporate finances. They went to journalism school. We have advanced degrees in finance administration. They are not in a position to tell us how to handle corporate finances.
The second effect is more subtle, but, perhaps, more powerful. This strategy allows the person being criticized to avoid the question of whether or not the critic is right. If I use this strategy, I change the topic from the original issue (my actions) to a new one (your credibility).
Let’s say you are the critic and I’m the person you are criticizing. If I use this strategy, the argument is no longer about the correctness of your criticism. It is no longer about the issue for which you are criticizing me. The argument now is about whether or not you can be believed.
If I am successful with this strategy and the topic does change, I no longer have to defend my actions. Instead, you now have to defend your credibility. By using this strategy, I have slipped past your criticisms and put you on the defense.
Attacking the credibility of your critics is a powerful communication strategy for counterattacking. However, like so many rhetorical strategies, its strength is also its weakness. When seen for what it is—a rhetorical strategy for avoiding or negating further criticisms—it is easily turned against the person using it. Here’s a simplistic example showing how:
Critic: You did something wrong.
Person criticized: You don’t have the credibility to criticize me.
Critic: You’re trying to avoid the issue by attacking my credibility. We can discuss that at another time. In the meantime, please discuss this topic and respond to the accusation that you did something wrong.
See what the critic did at the end? The critic pointed out that the person was deliberately trying to avoid the issue. He revealed the strategy. The listener, or reader, will wonder why the person wanted to avoid the criticism. Perhaps the critic was right, they will think. The person criticized also appears devious, which improves the moral authority of the critic and gives extra value to his criticism.
If the critic does want to respond to the credibility issue, he can also do this easily while keeping the person criticized on the topic. For example, the critic might respond as follows: “This isn’t an issue of my credibility but an issue of what you did. If you think my accusation is wrong, tell me why.” This approach is weaker than the previous one because it permits the listeners/readers the opportunity to doubt the critic.
The final point that Bang! Writing with Impact makes about this rhetorical strategy is a good one. “It might help you win an argument, but it won’t win you any friends. This strategy raises ethical considerations, so use it carefully, if at all.”
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