Tomi Lahren and the Vapidness of Media Commentary in the 21st Century

Let’s get this out of the way up front– Tomi Lahren equating Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan was stupid and irresponsible. The analogy does not work at all. BLM is a loosely organized movement that wants to spur change in our historically and demonstrably discriminatory policing of black citizens. This is how people in the movement describe it  themselves. It is what their organized actions indicate they are motived by. The KKK is a highly organized, structured institution devoted to promoting and enforcing white supremacy through political power, economic dislocation, terror, and physical force. This is who they say they are and their historical record backs that up. They are not remotely comparable. Apples to oranges.

Her defense of this tweet has been extremely weak. She does not even attempt to defend the analogy. Instead, she has fallen back on the claim that all perspectives deserve to be heard. This is how she defended it on CNN:

“I’m not a journalist, I’m a commentator,” Lahren shot back. “I’m allowed to have my feelings and my opinions and I stand behind the things that I say because the thing that hurts people the most is when you’re honest, when you look at something from an honest lens from your perspective and you bring that forth, you are immediately labeled for it and you are immediately criticized.”

You are allowed to have your feelings, Ms. Lehren. But you are not a “feelings” commentator. Both you and your employer market Tomi Lehren as an edgy, young political commentator. You use social media frequently to promote your paid commentary. To complain that people are asking you to defend your comments is absurd. That is your job.

This political commentary of yours– like everything else you have written or broadcasted on the topic of race– is lazy and uninformed. You deserve to be shamed for it. You don’t argue against the facts or logic of Beyonce or BLM– you construct a strawman caricature of them and then knock it down with indefensible rants. You are upset that people call you racist for referring to black social justice movements as the real racists– can’t you see how silly this argument makes you look? You complain that people have been unfair in jumping to criticize you for your feelings. Defending your political commentary is your job.

She might be mounting a public campaign to stand by her tweet, but that she deleted it certainly indicates that she knew it was a bad idea to start with. Leaders of public discourse– be they intellectuals, media figures, or politicians– have a responsibility to speak thoughtfully about the world around us. And Lehren’s remarks on race in America are rarely that.

This should surprise no one. She is a 23-year-old political commentator. Her qualifications: a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an internship with the congresswoman from Rapid City, South Dakota. By all accounts, she is a hard-working, serious-minded young woman with a life-long interest in politics. This resume should not have landed her a job hosting a political talk show at two conservative media outlets– indeed, she was interviewing for an internship when ONA offered her that first gig. That she was advanced beyond what she was prepared for isn’t her fault. But failing to understand this and adjust to it is.

Lehren has capitalized on her celebrity, using a rant against Beyonce’s Super Bowl halftime performance to launch herself to greater heights earlier this year. Normally I would applaud her for seizing the moment– success in life requires such luck and boldness– but the profession she works in requires more from her than that. And she knows that. While Lahren’s commentary resonates with conservative viewers who feel angry and alienated by BLM and nearly anything that mentions racial or ethnic diversity/oppression/inequality, it is painfully ill-informed.

There are two paths in 21st-century political commentary. First, there is the way academics debate. Make reasoned, informed arguments about causal factors (defended with research and facts, not feelings or emotions), propose possible solutions, and the range of viable political/social choices. Engage people who disagree with you in honest debate using logical arguments. We call this arguing in good faith.

The other approach is the Rush Limbaugh/Bill O’Rielly way. Use logical fallacies to shift debates to subjects you prefer, avoid topics at hand, and argue in bad faith for a fixed point of view. In other words, engage in polemics.

Tomi Lehren was introduced to these ideas as a journalism and political science student. She has chosen the latter approach. She chose, “poorly.” Lehren can still change– again, she is 23 years old. But it will require her to swim against the tide of conservative political commentary. If she wants the wider world to take her commentary seriously she has to think more deeply, read more widely, and engage in discourse more earnestly and honestly than she currently does. Intelligent, educated people are not going to take her seriously otherwise. Or she can continue down this path. Sure, you’ll make a lot of money, garner fame and adoration from your echo chamber. But at what cost to your reputation and soul? More importantly, at what cost to political discourse in our democratic society.

Be better, Tomi Lehren. You are capable of it. And your country and political movement need you to be.


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