James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States, and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book, China Airborne, was published in early May. More
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His two most recent books, Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009), are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book, China Airborne, was published in early May. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
I've had a similar reaction to politicians and pundits (virtually always on the right, it seems these days) who assume that just because they are for something, the people on the other side must be against it, or vice versa.A reader in Connecticut says we are seeing a grown-up, political-world version of schoolyard bullying:
So, if they think there should be "less government," then the rest of us all think the answer to every problem is "more government." Or because they purport to be single-mindedly focused on less spending, the rest of us are for out-of-control spending. It puts a straw man front and center and then bashes it, which the press doesn't call out enough either.
I am particularly amused by the current meme that somehow the blame lays at Obama's, and by extension, the Democrats' feet. So they have to give in because everyone understands that the Republicans are so set in their views that they won't change, so it's up to Obama to compromise?Another reader, Shreeharsh Kelkar of MIT, offers a social-science explanation:
I think that this ties in with the new attention that Emily Bazelon has given to the problem of bullying with her book [and related Atlantic article] Sticks and Stones. One thing that hasn't been pointed out is that bullying exists, even in adults. Furthermore, bullying by supposed adults often works at the highest levels of politics and business. In sum, if a group of kids acted like the Republicans in Congress, refusing ever to even even acknowledge that there are legitimate points of view that contradicted their own, and refusing to do anything unless they got their way completely, wouldn't the teacher think that they were attempting to bully the rest of the class?
I share your frustration with the false equivalence that's practiced by the big newspapers.Indeed this is an analysis I've thought about before -- thanks to Starr's book, and Jay Rosen's, and many others', and Breaking the News back in the 1990s. But I had not known about the "boundary work" label, which is usefully clarifying. It's a long road ahead.
But I wonder if I might offer a perspective on bipartisan think based on my discipline: the history and sociology of science.
You say in one of your posts that the thinking behind it seems to be that reality is somewhere between the positions of the two parties. And there's something to that. But I think one of the ways of explaining it is using a concept called "boundary work."Boundary work is a kind of rhetorical work that is performed in public argument: something is asserted to be science by stressing what it is not (pseudo-science, or faith, or religion, or what have you). Even Tim Geithner did it in his exit interview when he painted his own work as just a kind of technocratic problem-solving rather than politics, see this analysis.
It seems to me that our political discourse also contains a similar kind of boundary work -- between "politics" and "policy." Our politicians will always say: what I'm doing is just plain old common sense or the right thing or just good policy, or just the solution to a problem; whereas what my opponent is doing is playing politics. And if one sees politics as actually a way of managing relations between conflicting groups of people, one can see why they do that.For instance, reforming the American health care system is almost certainly a matter of redistribution: taking money from older people and giving it to others (the uninsured, younger people, etc.). But one can't say that if one is a politician, and so there is a delicate balancing act: one's own work is constructed as problem-solving and policy-making, the opponent is portrayed as playing politics (where politics is understood to be trading off between different social groups).
I think this kind of boundary work exists in journalism too (and more on why it exists later); it's what you call false equivalence (and Yglesias calls bipartisan think). Here the newspaper is seen as above politics, which is what grubby politicians do. And therefore the contrast between the policy that the newspaper is advocating (which is not politics but merely good moral sensible stuff), and that what the politicians are doing. It is imperative, I think, in this model that both parties be painted in the same brush. Because if you don't, then you agree with one of the parties, which therefore makes you political.
Why should the newspapers practice this kind of boundary work? My sense (which comes straight from Paul Starr's history of the media) is that it's a holdover from the times when the newspaper industry changed. As we all know now (from arguing about partisanship), newspapers in the 19th century were unabashedly partisan. They also catered to niches, and made money from subscriptions. And that changed sometime in the 20th century when newspapers started to make money from advertisements -- and therefore they had to be less partisan and attract more people. Hence the objective tone of the reported stories (he says, she says) -- and also I think the false equivalence of the editorials.
Interestingly enough, we're now back in more partisan times, thanks to the Web. And it's interesting to me that you, Matt and others who call the editorials on their false equivalence operate in a completely different new media ecosystem; you have readers of a certain kind and stripe (but lots of them thanks to the reach of the Web), you don't really need to be bipartisan. But I think the example of Ezra Klein proves my point: ever since he's moved to the Washington Post, he's a lot less rough(er) on Republicans than he used to be. He won't fall into the false equivalence trap for sure but he's certainly adapted to a different audience. (I think it's great that he's reaching more people).
So - I don't think the WaPo is ever going to abandon its false equivalence model; not unless it becomes a completely new kind of WaPo (which it might very well become!).
I don't mean to suggest of course that all editors are dumb actors acting out a premediated sociological script; just that the roots of false equivalence go pretty deep into our current system.
I suspect this analysis is not particularly new to you (with some jargon added!).
OK. Let's suppose you believed this. What, exactly, does it mean? What does Obama do tomorrow? Or, better, "today"?And beyond politics, on many of the biggest challenges you're going to need ideas from Column A and Column B... [Y]ou can't solve the debt challenge without raising more revenue and controlling entitlement costs... Eventually, in other words, you're going to have to wheel and deal and compromise -- you're going to have to govern. It might as well be now.
Imagine that Mitt Romney had decisively defeated Obama in the 2012 election on a platform of tax cuts for the rich and deep cuts to government as the only way to reduce the deficit, dramatically repudiating the President's call for higher taxes on the wealthy, continued implementation of the biggest expansion of the safety net in 60 years, and more government spending to boost the economy.The reassuring aspect of this signed piece is insight as to whence the unsigned editorials arise.
Then imagine that Democrats in the Senate (the only part of government they controlled) responded to this by proposing to dramatically expand health care and stimulus spending and pay down the deficit only with 100 percent tax hikes -- and not a single penny more in spending cuts -- and on top of that, then suggested President Romney has failed to sincerely try to find common ground with them.
In most budget fights, the Republicans -- holding more than one-third of the seats in one or both legislative chambers, so enough to block a budget or revenue increase -- would make their support contingent on a list of demands. Many involved either cutting taxes or boosting spending for their own constituents -- even in times when the budget was out of balance ....Gee, it would be a shame if we were to have this problem on the national level** .
This form of hostage-taking became the norm. As long as the minority party could remain cohesive, the strategy would work. The legislative majority felt the burden of governing the state. But the minority could delay the most basic task of the legislature -- passing a budget - without being held responsible....
This two-thirds system, as it hardened, obscured responsibility and prevented political accountability. In a majority-vote system, the Democrats would have been accountable for the state's budget problems.... But in a two-thirds system, no one could fairly say that a budget belonged to one party or the other... [It] was a license for irresponsibility and inaction.
As a government employee who will almost certainly be furloughed in the coming months, I have followed the sequester with a sort of horrid fascination. Not that it is any more or less horridly fascinating than any of our other "crises" in recent times, but the sequester hammers a few points home very well.I don't agree that a different media tone would "instantly bring about bipartisanship," and probably the writer doesn't even think that himself. But it's certainly true that the current media approach effectively rewards stone-walling, filibustering, brinkmanship, and so on, by not calling them out as pernicious and destructive techniques.
First, our public policy discussion has become too wonkish, by being entirely focused on measurable outcomes at the expense of all others. (Another example: the health care debate, the vast majority of which was about costs instead of the moral imperative of universal health care). Yes, the sequester will have an economic cost and is a dumb way to reduce the deficit, but the government is not just a contributor to our GDP or a balance sheet. On the contrary, many of the government's functions -- like keeping us safe, providing justice (hopefully), and researching disease -- cannot be encapsulated by economic impact. I'm sure the Democrats are emphasizing the economic impact of the sequester in order to make all Americans feel like they have a stake in its outcome. But that is not what the government, perhaps the sole major institution in this country whose only mission is to serve the public, is about.
Second, the media could cure us of political polarization and instantly bring about bipartisanship if they stopped playing the false equivalence game. If the GOP's refusal to compromise was labeled as it actually is, they might pay a political price and be willing to cut a deal. But by blaming both sides equally even though President Obama is offering a balanced solution, the media have severely curtailed whatever political incentive there is for cutting a deal. After all, if the Democrats are blamed for not compromising even when they have made all the concessions, why on earth should the Republicans ever concede anything?
Blaming both sides for lack of compromise when one side has refused to make any concessions is like punishing all athletes when only some take steroids. If everyone is getting punished no matter what, why not break the rules and hit some home runs?
A previous reader said:"I often feel that the true expression is:"Democrats: 1+1 = 4"Republicans: 1+1 = 12"Press: 1+1= 10, probably, though some experts disagree."In this case, the press is correct. They are just using "sophisticated' language to prove their superiority."There are only 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don't."
I enjoyed your piece on the Times' new public editor, and agreed with most of it, but I think there's an underlying fallacy to it, slight but significant, which your readers should understand:Of course I agree on the main point. Even an organization like The Atlantic, so much smaller and less sprawling than the NYT, usually sets its tone through an accumulation of individual responses rather than through any tightly coordinated plan. (And I think we all view this as a good thing.) I also realize that the Times's "public editors," another term for ombudsmen, have no line authority at the paper beyond the guaranteed ability to express their views within the Times's space. My point in noting Margaret Sullivan's column was as another illustration of evolving discussion within the paper about moving beyond the "false equivalence" trap.
There's no such thing as 'the Times', really. It is, of course, an enormous organization operating on very tight deadlines; there are hundreds of reporters and editors, each of whom acts at least somewhat autonomously, and often in a mad scramble to get the news out on time. The paper -- like any news organization -- has its standards, of course, but they're flexible and not always easy to enforce, and in many cases it's up to individual actors, faced with specific circumstances, to decide how to phrase things. A certain amount of oversight takes place, but a certain amount of freedom is granted, as well.
I mention this because I think readers, and people in general, often think of the Times --or the Washington Post, or CBS, or CNN -- as a monolithic entity, a single organism with a consistent approach to news-gathering. I suspect the Times likes to think of itself that way, too. But in my experience, this simply isn't true: reporters are given leeway; editors change things, or they don't; something gets rewritten by the desk at the last minute, because space is short or a new piece of information came in; phrases are added or dropped. I wouldn't describe it as arbitrary, but I think it's more contingent, messy, and catch-as-catch-can than most readers realize.
I like reading the Public Editor columns, but I think they're a bit misleading. They imply that there's a 'Times policy', and often there is, -- but often there isn't, or it's imperfectly enforced. We would all be better off, I think, if readers understood that the paper, like all papers, is a large and contentious organization, made up of strong-willed and opinionated people in a half-mad dash to produce a fair account of what's going on. It's message, methods, style and results are nowhere near as controlled as, say, a corporation, or a political campaign. The paper's editors try, and I'm glad they try; but they seldom succeed, and I'm glad they seldom succeed.
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|Blind into Baghdad||Boiled-frog|
|Brave little USB||Budget|
|China Airborne||China Daily|
|China Menace||China Today|
|Copenhagen||Crisis of the press|
|Doing Business in China||Dreaming in Chinese|
|Going to hell|
|Ideas 2009||Ideas 2011|
|Obama||Obama in Asia|
|Occupy Wall Street||Olympics|
|Public health||Reader comment|
|Security Sanity||Security Theater|
|Self-pity and its discontents||Small Business|
|Volcano||Walk like an American|
|Wine||Year end pensee|
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