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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How Newsweek Missed the Circular Reasoning in ‘Kamala Harris Eligibility’ Op-ed

Senator Kamala Harris giving a speech

Senator Kamala Harris giving a speech

Subramaniam Vincent

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Subramaniam Vincent is the director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

There has been a lot of criticism of the content of John Eastman’s op-ed that Newsweek recently published. But if there’s a lesson to be learned in this debacle for editors, it’s about how to edit opinion journalism.

Eastman begged the question, and Newsweek missed it completely.

Wikipedia offers this description of “begging the question.”

In classical rhetoric and logic, begging the question is an informal fallacy that occurs when an argument's premises assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. It is a type of circular reasoning—an argument that requires that the desired conclusion be true. This often occurs in an indirect way such that the fallacy's presence is hidden, or at least not easily apparent.

Eastman’s conclusion requires that the assumption that Kamala Harris’ “eligibility is questionable” be true. For that, he requires that her birth status must violate the legal standard for natural-born citizenship. The premises he has for this argument were a mere set of factual-sounding questions about the status of her parents in the 1960s, who he claims were very likely not naturalized by then.

This is a classic case of begging the question, or an argument requiring the conclusion to be true. But the legal standard is already decided, both in the courts and in decades of legally grounded practice in the U.S. government, as many have pointed in their rebuttals. Hence the candidate’s eligibility was already settled. Therefore, the questions Eastman asked were invalid, as premises, in the first place.

By failing to detect the circular reasoning, Newsweek dropped the ball.

For the moment, let’s take Newsweek’s defense that they were merely “exploring (a) legal argument” at face value. There were several systemic ethical issues with Newsweek’s decision.

One, anticipating harms: What the opinion article did was use Kamala Harris’s candidacy for vice president as the sacrificial lamb to resuscitate an old minority legal view (not the standard), courtesy of Newsweek's opinion editors. Newsweek allowed the opinion to sow confusion, courtesy of social media. All major publishers have teams that cleverly launch stories into an ever-polarizing social media every day. They cannot reasonably say they did not anticipate what would happen downstream when a muddy flash flood from uphill races down the slopes. 

Two, newsworthiness and gatekeeping: A well-known ethical issue with the news media, especially the breaking news media, is a blunt application of newsworthiness as a value and a judgment. This applies to opinion journalism too. “All controversy is newsworthy,” appears to be a principle for political op-eds if you look at Newsweek’s decision in this case.

Instead, political op-ed editors have to ask these questions: 

  1. What, exactly, is the “controversy” here? Is it actually a controversy? Why is it one? 
  2. And is it a legal controversy or is it settled? If it is settled, why is the author making an issue of this candidate? 
  3. Let’s say there is a settled legal standard. Could there be ethical grounds to foster public debate by questioning it? After all, this is a moral responsibility journalists innately take on. If yes, how so? (Jim Crow was settled law too, and surely there would have been plenty of opinions challenging that whole regime).  

Newsweek’s line of justification did not tackle these real questions. That means their exploration of said opinion’s fit for public discourse never happened. And that’s exactly why they didn’t catch the circular reasoning behind Eastman’s op-ed. 

Aug 26, 2020

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