Fox & the War on Cops

After bringing the world live coverage of the War on Christmas from their own minds, the fine folks at Fox have added coverage of the War on Cops. The basic idea is that violence against cops has increased dramatically and that cops are being targeted. Blame is laid primarily on the Black Lives Matter movement and, this being Fox, President Obama.

Unlike the War on Christmas, Fox does have some real-world basis for the claims about violence against police officers. Police officers are, in fact, attacked and even killed in the line of duty. In some cases, officers are specifically targeted and murdered simply for being police. The harming of citizens, be they police or not, is clearly a matter of concern. The problem is that while police do face the threat of violence, Fox’s rhetoric and claims simply do not match reality. Unfortunately, Fox’s campaign has had an impact: there are polls that show a majority believe there is a war on police.

One challenge in sorting out this matter is the fact that “war” is not well-defined. If all it takes for there to be a war on a group is for there to be any violence against that group, then there is a war on cops. A problem with accepting this account of war would be that there would be a war against all or nearly all groups, thus making the notion all but useless.

Intuitively, if there is a war on a group, then what would be expected is high levels of violence against that group. If the war is something that started at a certain point, then there should be a clear and significant upswing in incidents in violence from that point. While working things out properly would require setting and arguing for clear standards (such as what counts as high levels of violence) the statistical data shows that violence against police has been steadily trending downward rather than upward.

Those claiming there is a war on cops tend to note that there was an increase in violence against police relative to 2013—but they seem to ignore the fact that 2013 is currently the lowest point of such violence and 2015 is, if the trend stays consistent, on track to be the second lowest year.  Ever. As such, the claim that violence against police has increased since 2013 is true, but this does not serve as evidence for a war on cops. To use an analogy, if a person was at his lowest adult weight in 2013 and his weight increased since then, this does not entail that he is obese or that he is trending towards obesity.

Given the fact that violence against police has been steadily trending downward and 2015 is on track to be the second lowest year, it seems evident that there is no war on cops—at least under any sensible and non-hyperbolic definition of “war.”

It could be countered that there is a special sort of war on cops, as evidenced by a few incidents involving intentional targeting of cops (as opposed to criminals engaging police trying to stop them). While such incidents are certainly of concern both to police and responsible citizens, they do not serve as adequate evidence for the claim that there is a war on cops. This is because a war is a matter of statistics, not terrifying individual incidents. To reject a claim supported by body of reasonable statistical evidence on the basis of a small number of examples that go against the claim is, in fact, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence. And, as noted above, the statistical evidence is that violence against police has been on a steady downward trend, with 2013 being the lowest level of violence against United States police in recorded history.

It could also be asserted that the war on cops is not a war of actual violence, but a war of unfair criticism: the cops are under attack by the liberal media and groups that are often critical of police actions, such as Black Lives Matter.

This is certainly a fair concern: pointing to dramatic incidents involving bad or brutal policing runs the risk of committing the fallacy of anecdotal evidence or the fallacy of misleading vividness (a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence). As with the war on police, the alleged war by the police must be subject to objective statistical analysis. That said, the sort of criticism of police misconduct and brutality that appears in the media does not seem to constitute a war—at least under a rational definition of “war.”

Since there is no war on cops, Fox and other folks should not be making this claim. One reason is that telling untruths is, at the very least, morally problematic—especially for people who claim to be journalists. Another, and more important reason, is that such a campaign can have serious negative consequences.

The first is that such a campaign can convince police that they are targets in a war. In addition to causing additional stress in what is already a stressful (and often thankless) job, the belief that they are in a war can impact how police officers perceive situations and how they react. If, for example, an officer believes that she is likely to be targeted for violence, she will operate on the defensive and consider fellow citizens as threats. This would, presumably, increase the chances that she will react with force during interactions with citizens.

A second consequence is that if citizens believe that there is a war on cops, they will be more likely to accept violence on the part of officers (who will be more likely to perceived as acting defensively) and more likely to regard those harmed by the police as deserving their fate. Citizens might be more inclined to support the continued militarization of police, which will lead to harms of its own. This view can also lead citizens to be unfairly critical of groups that are critical of brutal and poor policing, such as Black Lives Matter. People might also become more afraid of police because they think that they police are acting within a war and thus more likely to respond with force.

A third consequence is that if politicians accept there is a war on cops, they will support laws and policies that are based on a false premise. These are likely to have undesirable and unintended consequences.

While some might be tempted to say that Fox and others should be prevented from engaging in such campaigns that seem to be based on intentional deceptions aimed at ideological ends, I do not agree with this. Since I accept freedom of expression, I do accept that Fox and folks should have the freedom to engage in such activities—even when such expression is harmful.

My main justification for my view is based on concerns about the consequences. If a law or general policy were adopted to forbid such expression (as opposed to actual slander or defamation), then this would open the door to ideological censorship. That is, Fox might be silenced today, but I might be silenced tomorrow. As such, while Fox and folks should not push such untrue claims onto the public, they should not be prevented from doing so.


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  1. Mike, I think the argument fails due to its assumption that “telling untruths is, at the very least, morally problematic”.

    It is morally problematic only given a huge number of specific, ancillary assumptions which in my experience, are often not shared between Fox viewers and people like you, me, and most readers likely to be found here.

    I have a relative of some note within the NRA, but adamantly refuses to do anything on what to me is a clear moral case: preventing U.S. children from having their brains accidentally blown out and splattered around their homes.

    Our family is heavily involved in pediatric medicine, and the NRA seeks to gag pediatricians from alerting gun-owning parents to the dangers:

    This relative explains they would never oppose the NRA on something like this because of the “constant battle with the left to protect our freedoms.”

    They see support of such policies as protecting against much greater harm.

    Note: Godwin’s Law Violation Ahead

    Absent an objective, golden-rule perspective, AFAICT, every aggressive group from my family members to Nazi’s justify their aggression in defensive terms and to my knowledge, these appear universally sincere and for them anyway: unproblematic morally, even if proven to be factually wrong.

    Noble goals (here: to protect freedom) more than compensates for some few factual inaccuracies that are pointed out by political opponents – which is a view I must honestly say I adopt when it comes to supporting “First: do no harm” as a noble goal.

  2. Mike,
    Excellent piece! I didn’t know the stats you cite, very informative. The consequences you enumerate are troublesome for our society. I just wish that Fox viewers had the patience and open-mindedness to read this article. I also wish you had some recommendations as your conclusions seem to counter the consequences. I also accept freedom of expression, so what can be done?
    Paul G Trojan

  3. Informative piece. Observationally, there is no ‘war’ in my community. The story driven by Fox appears to be manufactured to inspire interest in yet another subject rife with contention.

  4. Buck Field,

    True-the use of untruths can be warranted on consequentialist grounds: making untrue claims defends a legitimate right, thus outweighing any harms done by making untrue claims.

    My main non-moral concern with this approach is that the truth should suffice in such cases. If there is, in fact, a legitimate moral right that needs to be defended, true claims should suffice to defend it. If untruths are needed, then that creates clear grounds for doubt about the legitimacy of the claimed right.

  5. Paul G Trojan,

    The usual approach, which tends to be ineffective, is to present the facts of the matter along with rational arguments supporting the claims. Interestingly, when many folks realize that their facts are in error, they are more likely to believe–that is, they double down. A morally dubious approach is to resort to the tactics of deceit, rhetoric and empty persuasion–that is, use the same tactics as the folks at Fox are accused of employing…only for a “good cause.” The problem there is, of course, that using such methods even for a “good cause” seems morally problematic. But, a utilitarian argument could be given in favor of this.

  6. There are many situations where lying might be better than telling the truth, but here we are talking about Fox News, not someone hiding a Jew from a Nazi.

    Some of us have the old-fashioned idea that the media are supposed to inform us of the facts and informing us of the facts involves being truthful. I realize that all of us have points of view, but a deliberately untruthful propaganda campaign, as is the case with Fox News here, is a long way from a legitimate point of view.

  7. Mike, I’m troubled by your reply. You’ve shifted the topic from “telling untruths” (which may be unintentional, as in the case of my relatives) to “using them” which suggests a conscious a priori choice, which I think sufficiently rare as to perhaps prove the rule.

    I think we can call Strawman when one picks apart a more radical, and therefore different and weaker position than what I believe my relatives maintain. They do not assert “making untrue claims defends a legitimate right” rather: they correctly point out that *everyone* makes mistakes, and we should be generally tolerant of such errors, but especially when an important noble virtue is being defended.

    They would (if they could be coaxed into rational discussion) judge focusing on inaccurate details counter-productive, motivated reasoning with a political agenda.

    It would be nice if “true claims” could suffice to justify or convince people that “a legitimate moral right that needs to be defended”, but again: that’s not the situation I’m dealing with since I and they agree that our freedom needs defending. They think it needs defending from liberals, I think it needs defending from state-corporatism.

    To s. wallerstein, I believe the Jew-hider and Nazi are both affected by cognitive structures that, given the same available facts in reality, yield very different moral assessments. I’m not convinced Megan Kelly is ever deliberately untruthful, I think she’s incompetent in objective moral reasoning due to overwhelming emotional attachments, and highly motivated to reason toward particular judgments, and hold them without prudent doubt. If there is reason to think she’s insincere rather than incompetent, I’d like to know what it was.

  8. Buck Field,

    I don’t live in the U.S. and I’ve never watched Fox News, but if Mike, who is a full-time philosopher and thus, has his time occupied, can get the information on attacks on the police from googling (I imagine) the data, I assume that the people at Fox News, who are trained journalists and work full-time at journalism, can do so. It’s basic journalistic ethics (I’ve worked as a journalist, although I do not have a degree in the subject) to check your facts, which is easy enough today with Google.

    So if the people at Fox News do not have their facts straight about attacks on the police, I assume that they are either deliberately lying or are not living up to the basic ethical standards of a journalist (check your facts).

    As I said, I recognize that the media have a point of view. I look at the NY Times, the Guardian and the Economist. All are liberal (in the John Stuart Mill sense) on issues like gay rights/gay marriage, while the NY Times is center-left on most other issues (U.S. foreign policy, economic inequality, etc.), the Guardian is leftwing, while the Economist is center-right (free-market). However, I would be surprised if they all don’t check their facts, although obviously given their differing view points, they may interpret the facts differently.

  9. S.,

    Are we obligated to live up to the standard we insist of others? Shall we condemn Mike for insinuating there is no real-world evidence for what might be (IMO, overly dramatically) headlined as a “War on Christmas”? They probably have some, just as Mike can have evidence it’s all “from their own minds”.

    I believe using the sloppy logic and biased reasoning of Fox and others of a similar poor analytical grade to attack them for being mistaken is largely unproductive. It won’t help them, and I think it actually hurts those of us who really know better.

  10. s. wallerstein,

    “I don’t live in the U.S. and I’ve never watched Fox News, but if Mike, who is a full-time philosopher and thus, has his time occupied, can get the information on attacks on the police from googling (I imagine) the data, I assume that the people at Fox News, who are trained journalists and work full-time at journalism, can do so. It’s basic journalistic ethics (I’ve worked as a journalist, although I do not have a degree in the subject) to check your facts, which is easy enough today with Google.”

    You’ve never seen Fox News. Imagine an organisation that turns every idea of ethics in journalism absolutely on its’ head. It’s owned by Rupert Murdoch. And run by GW Bush’s cousin Roger Ailes. Michael Wolff, a journalist who’s written a flattering biography of Murdoch, in an interview, where the accusation was leveled that Murdoch’s Fox News was the media wing of the Republican party, he responded by saying the Republican party was the political wing of Fox News. And he was not being humorous in the slightest.

  11. JMRC,

    Could you (or anyone else) recommend a Fox News journalist or program which I could find in YouTube (I don’t have cable TV) so that I could get a taste of it?

    By the way, in terms of online TV journalism I recommend Tariq Ali’s program on Telesur.
    Not quite as brilliant as Chomsky (who is?), but very incisive.

  12. s. wallerstein,

    Thanks so much for the Tariq Ali link! Great Stuff!!

  13. Buck Field,

    I’m so glad that you found it interesting.

    You may or may not know that Tariq Ali is the inspiration of the Rolling Stones’ 1968 hit, Street Fighting Man.

    Here’s the song:

  14. s. wallerstein,

    “Could you (or anyone else) recommend a Fox News journalist or program which I could find in YouTube (I don’t have cable TV) so that I could get a taste of it?”

    That is a monumental question to answer. Fox News is a decades long travesty. Al Franken’s Lies and the lying liars who tell them, is largely about Fox New’s and its’ characters. But the book is more than a decade old. And Fox News is profoundly worse since that book was published. There is just too much to explain. They’ve been one of the most significant and malignant forces in American politics.

    The right watch Fox News for lies that confirm their beliefs. The Left watch Fox News, for its’ outrageousness. There’s lots of on Youtube mostly featuring Bill O’Reilly saying incredibly stupid things. One of their terrorism “experts”, has just been arrested for impersonating a CIA officer. (He was a fraudster).

  15. s. wallerstein,

    “By the way, in terms of online TV journalism I recommend Tariq Ali’s program on Telesur.
    Not quite as brilliant as Chomsky (who is?), but very incisive.”

    The internet is radically changing the media. In the mainstream media, Tariq Ali is either treated as if he doesn’t exist or that he is a no longer relevant relic from the 60s. This is just one of the ways censorship works in the media.

    The internet is shattering the power of Orwellian organisations (the BBC is Orwell’s template for the Ministry of Truth). CNN hosted the first Democratic nominees’ debate. On their website, they had a poll for who the viewers believed won the debate. When the poll for Bernie was hurtling for 80%, leaving Hilary for dust, CNN simply made it vanish. And declared Hilary the winner. Yes, you could do that in 1984, and get away with it….but this is 2015.

  16. JMRC,

    Since you seem to be interested in how the media distort our perceptions, I thought you (and others) might be interested in the fact that Tariq Ali has a special section called “media review” in which they (generally, not Ali himself) talk about the role of the media. Here’s the one on Fox News. There are others on the NY Times, the Guardian, the Economist etc.

  17. Buck Field,

    “Are we obligated to live up to the standard we insist of others?”

    That obligation might be like demanding alcoholics never speak of the dangers of drink.

    Or that women who work in houses in New Orleans, hold their song tongues until they at least retire, if not repent.

  18. JMRC,

    My question addresses the rules we might feel obligated to enforce on ourselves.

    As I read those examples, holding “alcoholics” and “women who work in houses in New Orleans” (which I presume to be not ourselves) to rules seems to direct the obligation in a direction opposite what the question might imply.

    Am I misreading; Can you clarify?

  19. Buck Field,

    “My question addresses the rules we might feel obligated to enforce on ourselves.”

    I have thought long and hard about this, which is why I’d like to give a short answer. Raised in the oyster of Catholicism as I was, I have a jaundiced view of moral prescriptions and their prescribers.

    I strongly believe even talking about ethics and morality in the abstract is a very bad thing. It’s an enabling element.

  20. OK, a concrete, non-abstract question then: How do the examples you typed relate to the question I posted?

  21. Buck Field,

    “OK, a concrete, non-abstract question then: How do the examples you typed relate to the question I posted?”

    I do not want to be drawn into a long discussion on morality itself. But I’ll just out line the problem.

    Generally, the abstract world, where abstract questions of morality are discussed in the abstract is terminally flawed. Not only is the removal of conditions artificial, but the hidden conditions are subject to radical variability. If the abstract world is assumed to be egalitarian and anarchical (the polar opposite of hierarchical), then egalitarian obligations are assumed. But conditions of the abstract world can be imagined to be different; hierarchical.

    Hierarchical morality is far different from the simpler anarchical, or if you fancy; egalitarian.

    The key problem which has the America police as the bloodiest gang of killers since the Glantons, is ideology. It is formally codified in their indoctrination in statements such as “officer safety is paramount”. That’s a hierarchical morality; egalitarian would be “public safety is paramount”. They’re not killing rich people. They’re killing people who they believe to have lesser moral privileges. In the Mosaic Decalogue, thou shall not kill, would seem final and unequivocal, but read on, and there are conditions; who you can kill or not kill is dependent on the ethnic, “moral” and social status of both the killer and the killee.

    A joke that was used on BBC radio that upset some people recently. The conditions for a war crime to be a war crime. First it must violate the international conventions on war, secondly that it should satisfy the articles of the International Criminal Court….And thirdly; that it hasn’t been committed by Americans.

    An egalitarian view of professors teaching and creating ethics manuals for the US military would be that they are perverting, corrupting the subject and their students, and facilitating unethical and immoral conduct. But a hierarchists view would be different. They’re even bemused that Afghan civilians would be so upset about being killed in drone strikes, as they don’t seem to comprehend the obvious; which is it’s only really bad when American civilians or soldiers die.

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