A “red herring” is an argument or piece of information that distracts from a different and more important issue.
In some cases, political operatives may deliberately plant red herrings to turn the public away from an embarrassing issue.
At other times, the red herrings simply appear on their own.
The term comes from the old custom of dragging a red herring across a trail so that its strong smell would confuse hunting dogs. (The herring here is red because it has been smoked, which gives it an overwhelming and distinctive odor.)
An English journalist named William Corbett, writing in 1807, may have been the first person to explicitly connect the old hunting practice to the figurative use of the red herring. Corbett described the way boys used a red herring to draw hunters away from a hare they wanted to keep for himself. He then described, at length, they way that the public had been thrown off the scent of the real news about the Napoleonic wars.
In our own times, red herring is typically an accusation that politicians and journalists like to throw at whichever party they are against. Calling out a “red herring” allows pundits to dismiss an issue as unimportant, and also gives them the chance to recast the current political situation according to their own views.
In 1995, the Heritage Foundation published an article lambasting Bill Clinton for his “red herring” rhetoric about Congressional isolationism:
The Clinton Administration’s rhetoric about the “isolationist proposals” from Congress is a red herring. The real danger of America’s withdrawal from the world comes not from congressional cutbacks in foreign aid or restrictions on U.S. participation in the United Nations, but from the drift and weakness of Clinton’s foreign and defense policies. America’s credibility has plummeted over the past two years because this Administration lacks a coherent national strategy to deal with the many problems facing the U.S. abroad.
A few decades later, an article in US News and World Report complained that Barack Obama was talking about the Crusades as a way to distract public attention from ongoing acts of Islamic terrorism.
The article argued that Obama was trying to stop Americans from thinking about actual dangers and, instead, focus on the distant past:
Given the recent burning alive of a Jordanian pilot and the successive beheadings the world has been forced to witness and endure at the hands of Islamic terrorists, and the unending stream of threats and atrocities committed by the same, the presidential words ring as “red herrings,” which are intentional or unintentional logical fallacies that seek to draw attention away from the true matter at hand to something that is basically irrelevant.
Obama’s words refer to actions taken more than 900 years ago, and therefore might have been part of a strategy to somehow take our minds off the very real danger of Islamic terrorism and downplay a very real threat to Western civilization, or so many Americans believe.