In the political fray, don’t guess at motives — debate the facts

Motives, motives, motives.

Why did President Donald Trump dismiss FBI Director James Comey?

Why did Hillary Clinton operate a private email server when she was Secretary of State?

Why did FBI Director James Comey say the FBI wasn’t, and then was, continuing to investigate Clinton’s email practices?

What was Trump’s motive in announcing immigration bans on seven countries?

Those are just a few examples. Since the election, Washington’s superheated political atmosphere is producing new occasions every day that prompt legions of people to theorize about the motives of others.

Leading U.S. officials do their share of it. But reporters and commentators do even more. They’ve made an entire industry out of speculating about the motives of the politicos.

The most frequent target is President Trump. Certainly, he seems to do something every day or two that prompts the media and his opponents to see lurid motives.

And motives matter. But the problem is, we rarely know the motives that prompt people’s actions.

A lesson I learned

This constant motive-bashing sends me back to a lesson I learned when I first began writing editorials for the daily paper our family owned in Monroe, MI. It came back to me a couple of months ago, when I blogged about the importance of local editorials.

As part of my training in editorial-writing, the editor — my father, Grattan Gray — required me to tell him in advance what I planned to write about, and what conclusions I planned to reach.

Back then, the auto industry was Monroe’s biggest employer by far, and it was a time when the UAW was hammering the Big Three auto companies repeatedly with strikes for richer and richer contract terms.

One day I stepped into my dad’s office and told him I planned to write about how stupid United Auto Workers President Douglas Fraser was in making his latest contract demands.

I had minored in economics in college, so — at age 23 — I was pretty darn sure I knew Fraser’s position was bad for the economy and, ultimately, for auto workers and our town.

“Stop right there,” my dad said.

“I’ll tell you one thing for sure — Doug Fraser is not stupid.”

He said the problem was mine, not Fraser’s, if I didn’t know or understand the situation Fraser was in, and the combination of factors, pressures and reasons that would lead him to this proposal.

Debate the outcomes instead

Still, he said, the proposal might not be a good one, and I might be able to write an editorial about the reasons it would be harmful.

“But when you hear yourself say that somebody like Doug Fraser is stupid, you need to think again. You’re the one who’s being stupid.”

I went back to my desk stinging from the rebuke, and pretty sure that I deserved it.

I needed to do some careful thinking about what my dad had said. When I did, it changed forever the way I thought about the positions of people with whom I disagreed.

I came to realize that an important action by any normally intelligent person usually is motivated by a complex combination of factors. Many of those factors, and how they were balanced in the decision, are invisible to outsiders.

I came to understand and agree with my dad’s point. Any action, decision or policy can be debated in terms of its effects: its likely consequences, its fairness or unfairness, its cost, and so on.

That’s fair game, and this kind of debate is an important part of the public policy process.

But when you start guessing at the motives behind the decision — “If he did this, his motive must be that” — you are on shaky ground. It may be tempting to say the person is stupid, venal, dishonest or just plain evil. But it’s almost never that simple.

I won’t say it’s never right to speculate about why someone has done something. But it should always be done with care, and with the full awareness that you’re probably missing important elements.

At the Monroe Evening News, we had a hard rule that editorials should never speculate on someone’s motives. You could debate the wisdom and outcomes, and you could ask, in print or in person, for the individual to make his/her motives clear.

But you couldn’t simply offer your own theory about why Doug Fraser — or President Trump, for that matter, if he’d been in office back then — did what he did.

The Washington game — imputing motives

In today’s highly charged U.S. political atmosphere, imputing motives to others — and then attacking those imputed motives — is standard practice. Only once in a great while does a reporter or commentator acknowledge that we don’t really know why Trump or Comey or anyone else did what they did or said what they said.

There’s a side effect from attacking people’s supposed motives — it tends to cause the people on the other side of the issue, who see the motives differently, to dismiss your views out of hand.

Here’s the simple truth: The political climate we’re living and breathing today would be vastly improved if we could stick to debating the facts — actions, outcomes, fairness and so on — and leave the motives out of it.

The same principle applies in local editorials and news coverage. It even applies in inter-personal relationships.

I’ll put it in my dad’s blunt terms: When you attack someone’s unknown motives, you’re the one who’s being stupid.


Posted on May 22, 2017, in Audience, Content, Disruption, Journalism. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Jeffery Beamsley

    I agree that your suggestion is the best way to get to a point of mutual understanding. The challenge we face these days, however, is that facts themselves appear to vary based on personal beliefs. The role of a free press hasn’t changed. But the willingness of the public to accept the press as a source of facts has changed. Instead many people filter their information based on their beliefs rather than the other way round.


  2. Thomas Chulski

    Steve, I remember a similar discussion with your dad when I was writing edits for The Evening News. What he said made a lot of sense, and I’ve never forgotten it. Of course, this still leaves plenty of room to criticize public figures for saying or doing stupid things, regardless of motive.


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