False Equivalence: The Ur-Document

Over the months, and indeed through the decades, I've mentioned how the mainstream press can be buffaloed if one party to a dispute says things that just aren't true. Every reflex teaches journalists that the only "fair" approach is to neutrally report "both sides" -- and to resist ever saying, "for the record, one side is just making things up." Thus we have the false equivalence problem. "Professor Jones says that males differ from females in having both an X and a Y chromosome, as opposed to two Xs, but Mr. Smith says that such findings reflect a political agenda and also the motivation of funders." All views are equal, and a reporter remains "objective" just by serving up what each side says.*

Today the "public editor" of the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane, has asked in apparent earnestness whether the world's leading news organization should be a "truth vigilante." He begins this way:

I'm looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge "facts" that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.

It would be tempting to provide "input" in the form of a D'oh! slap to the forehead, a huffy "well now we see what the problem is!" email or Tweet, a stiff drink, and a suspicion that the NYT and the Onion have finally merged. Some of these things have indeed happened (here's Brisbane's response, and a wrapup from the Atlantic Wire). The most inspired response was an homage from Vanity Fair. Hint: VF is seeking reader input on whether "words" should be spelled "correctly." Also, see the droll fake Twitter feed.

But -- no joke -- I'm going to look on the bright side. Apparently naive questions can often be the start of quite penetrating and profound explorations. Think of Yogi Berra; think of Peter Falk's "just one more thing.." throwaway queries on Colombo; think of children asking "Daddy, am I going to die?" or "Why is those people's skin a different color from mine?" Sometimes it's only the plainness of a non-sophisticated query that allows people to talk about issues that are usually taken for granted.

So I think Brisbane deserves credit rather than ridicule for raising this question. Let's hope that within the Times, and elsewhere, it's one more reason to focus attention on the difficult daily choices facing journalists trained to be "fair" and "objective" in the new political-infosphere terrain. (And, yes, I realize that these choices are difficult -- there's a whole book on the topic!)
* For an "it even happens at NPR" real-world example, consider a report last month on what's gone wrong with Congress. It quoted Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, who with straight face mourned the unpredictability of today's politics: "Washington needs to stop adding confusion and more uncertainty to people's lives."

It didn't note that Rep. Cantor's main political function over the past year, and the main source of his tension with Speaker John Boehner, has been precisely to add "confusion and uncertainty" to politics, toward the end of overthrowing what he considers corrupt old bipartisan business-as-usual. During the debt-ceiling showdown, he was a major proponent of risking a default if he didn't get the spending cuts he wanted. You can admire his brinkmanship or deplore it, but either way it deserves mention when he talks about "uncertainty." A "truth vigilante" would point it out.

[For the record: I've never been an NPR employee but over the years have appeared on various programs, in recent years Weekend All Things Considered.]

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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 is China Airborne. 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 U.S. 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 recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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