How to spot a hit piece: The case of Jordan Peterson
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How to spot a hit piece: The case of Jordan Peterson

February 10, 2018

We’ve shown in previous analyses that the media’s coverage of Jordan Peterson has been biased. But articles about him this week in Mic and The Guardian illustrate a distinct case of dishonorable journalism. What do we mean by dishonorable? Broadly, this is when a news outlet reports disparaging and unsubstantiated opinions about a person, but presents them as facts. It often includes attacking a person’s character rather than his or her arguments or actions.

Specifically, in the case of Mic and The Guardian, dishonorable coverage meant:

  • Accusations against Peterson were made without sufficient evidence or well-reasoned arguments to back them up.
  • Facts and quotes were cherry-picked and taken out of context.
  • His arguments were oversimplified or misrepresented.
  • The distortion in the articles mostly supported the point of view that Peterson is a dangerous right-winger who is fighting to preserve old-fashioned social structures.

These distortions are illustrated by our overall integrity ratings of 14 and 17 percent for The Guardian and Mic, respectively (Click here for an in-depth look at our spin, slant and logic ratings). In other words, the articles were not objective, balanced or well-reasoned. Furthermore, they contained factual inaccuracies and misleading data.

For a closer look at how the outlets disparaged and misrepresented Peterson, let’s examine three claims from the articles.

Claim #1

Peterson’s arguments are based on “crude distortions” and “conspiracy theories” (The Guardian)

Looking at this claim in the context of the article gives a good example of dishonorable coverage. The Guardian wrote:

“[Peterson] wants to be the man who knows everything and can explain everything, without qualification or error … But his arguments are riddled with conspiracy theories and crude distortions of subjects, including postmodernism, gender identity and Canadian law, that lie outside his field of expertise.”

Let’s unpack this, sentence-by-sentence.

“He wants to be the man who knows everything and can explain everything, without qualification or error …”

Can The Guardian know what Peterson wants? No. A journalist might be able to make an educated guess, but it’s not possible to logically deduce Peterson’s inner thoughts or desires from his behavior. Not without the power of clairvoyance. Yet The Guardian creates this disparaging image of Peterson as though it were fact. (In psychology, this is called projection: the attribution of one’s own thoughts, feelings or attitudes on others, often without acknowledging it.)

“But his arguments are riddled with conspiracy theories and crude distortions of subjects, including postmodernism, gender identity and Canadian law, that lie outside his field of expertise.”

The Guardian provides several quotes from Peterson or his critics, along with the outlet’s own summaries of Peterson’s “beliefs,” presumably as evidence for the above accusation. However, in each case, the interpretations of his arguments are taken out of context, misrepresented, or the evidence is cherry-picked. Let’s look at postmodernism and political correctness as an example.

First, The Guardian doesn’t actually give an explanation of Peterson’s views on postmodernism to back its accusation. Instead, the outlet gives a brief definition of “postmodern neo-Marxism” and an oversimplified version of Peterson’s criticism: that it “will pave the road to totalitarianism.”

Peterson has spent several minutes in multiple interviews, if not entire talks, detailing his arguments. His explanations of postmodernism are also consistent with that of Encyclopaedia Britannica (don’t take our word for it, watch these videos and evaluate for yourself). His views are more intricate and nuanced than postmodernism “will pave the road to totalitarianism.”

Next, The Guardian claims that Peterson’s theories “hark back” to when “conservatives such as Allan Bloom and Roger Kimball warned” against the consequences of political correctness threatening freedom of speech. The Guardian concludes that Bloom and Kimball’s “alarmist rhetoric now seems ridiculous. Those campus battles did not lead to the Gulag.”

However, the fact that campus political correctness in the 90s didn’t lead to the “Gulag” doesn’t mean Peterson’s concerns now are unwarranted, or his argument invalid. Furthermore, the postmodern movement today may be different than it was then, and The Guardian doesn’t provide proof to the contrary, nor does it qualify how Peterson’s theories are similar to those of Bloom and Kimball.

The Guardian followed this pattern of oversimplification and unsubstantiated claims when providing other supposed evidence of Peterson’s faulty reasoning. This is ironic, considering The Guardian said Peterson was guilty of making “crude distortions.”

Claim #2

Peterson considers collective action to challenge social structures an “arrogant project.” (Mic)

Mic summarizes Peterson’s views on this matter as follows: “Don’t worry about changing the world, focus on changing yourself. It doesn’t matter, for example, that one of the top indicators of income is where you were born, and not the structure of your family. The only thing that matters is what you’re going to do to prevail.”

However, this is not an accurate representation of what Peterson has said. For example, in an interview with Joe Rogan, Peterson said, “If you want to change the world, you start from yourself and work outward … I don’t know how you can go out and protest the structure of the entire economic system if you can’t keep your room organized … don’t be fixing up the economy 18 year old, you don’t know anything about the economy.” He articulates the same view in his “message to millennials.”

In this case, Peterson’s message seems to be directed at a younger crowd with less life experience. And regardless of the intended audience, he’s not telling people not to “worry about changing the world.” Instead, he’s advocating for a particular way to do so.

Claim #3

Peterson is an “an old-fashioned conservative who mourns the decline” of traditional social structures. (The Guardian)

Mic also makes this argument, though in different words. Again, this claim is based on cherry-picked information, inaccuracies and faulty logic. For example, there’s a guilt-by-association fallacy at play in emphasizing Peterson’s “alt-right” followers. While it’s true Peterson criticizes certain “left” policy initiatives, it’s possible to do so without being an “old-fashioned conservative.” Perhaps the most obvious flaw, however, is the omission of Peterson’s views on liberalism vs. conservatism and his own characterization of his political leanings.

In multiple interviews, Peterson explains the value of challenging existing structures and improving them (which he said is a liberal tendency) while he recognizes that there are consequences to changing them (a conservative quality, he says). Peterson also says how he would classify himself: “Politically I’m a Classic British Liberal. Temperamentally, I’m high on openness, which tilts me to the left, although I am also conscientious, which tilts me to the right. Philosophically, I’m an individualist, not a collectivist of the right or the left.”

Moving past right vs. left

 

Top Spin Words

  • Dangerous

    How dangerous is Jordan B Peterson, the rightwing professor who ‘hit a hornets’ nest’? (The Guardian)

  • Culture war’s Weapon X

    They think he could be the culture war’s Weapon X. (The Guardian)

  • Tirades

    But it never takes long before Peterson simmers over from lucid, effective advice and into tirades against feminists and social justice warriors. (Mic)

  • Intellectual machismo

    While Peterson does not endorse such attacks, his intellectual machismo does not exactly deter them. (The Guardian)

  • Megachurch preacher

    Peterson’s rapidly gone from a little-known clinical psychologist to a veritable megachurch preacher of anti-communism and personal responsibility (Mic)

  • Appetite for self-promotion

    Despite his appetite for self-promotion, Peterson claims to be a reluctant star. (The Guardian)

  • Obsessed

    Peterson was also shaped by the cold war; he was obsessed as a young man with the power of rigid ideology to make ordinary people do terrible things. (The Guardian)

  • Paranoid

    However, Peterson goes further, into its most paranoid territory. (The Guardian)

  • Crude distortions

    But his arguments are riddled with conspiracy theories and crude distortions of subjects, including postmodernism, gender identity and Canadian law, that lie outside his field of expertise. (The Guardian)

  • Mess of ideologies

    It’s no surprise that the mess of ideologies associated with the alt-right revere Peterson, a great defender of the “West.” (MIC)

The dishonorable misrepresentation we explored above isn’t unique to those on the right or those who, like Peterson, are portrayed as being on the right because they are critical of specifics views traditionally on the left. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – who has advocated for raising boys as “feminists” and named an equal number of men and and women to his cabinet – isn’t safe from dishonorable coverage either, as we showed in an analysis this week. So, dishonor in the media isn’t uniquely a left or right issue. It’s a systemic one.

Why should we care about dishonor in the media? Because when it’s used to disparage people based on their ideas or political leanings, it makes civil discourse more difficult. And without civil discourse, our ability to navigate complex and sensitive social and economic issues is greatly reduced.

Fiction
or
Fact

The Guardian

“Despite his appetite for self-promotion, Peterson claims to be a reluctant star.”

His new book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” has become a bestseller. At the time of writing, he has over 780,000 YouTube subscribers and over 7,500 Patreon supporters.

Mic

When speaking, “it never takes long before Peterson simmers over from lucid, effective advice and into tirades against feminists and social justice warriors.”

Peterson has argued against specific feminist and social justice views.

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.