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.
Origin of “red herring”
The term likely originates from an article published in 1807 by journalist William Cobbett in the Weekly Political Register.
In a critique of the English newspapers, which had mistakenly reported Napoleon’s defeat, Cobbett recounted that he had once used a red herring to deflect hounds in pursuit of a hare.
But he noted “It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.”
He then described, at length, they way that the public had been thrown off the scent of the real news about the Napoleonic wars.
Use of “red herring” today
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.
Use of “red herring” in a sentence
- Critics argue that the administration’s focus on a minor budgetary item is a red herring, diverting attention away from more contentious issues like healthcare reform and climate policy.
- During the debate, the candidate employed a red herring by suddenly discussing tax cuts when questioned about their stance on social issues, effectively sidestepping a potentially damaging line of inquiry.
- Political analysts pointed out that the sudden push for voter ID laws seemed to be a red herring, designed to shift public discourse away from larger issues of electoral reform and gerrymandering.