The False Equivalence Chronicles: 'NYT' Follow-Up

A valuable column on a prevalent reportorial tic.

Thumbnail image for drawing-hands.jpgLast week I mentioned an NYT story about Congressional dysfunction that likened the minority-party's plight in the House to the (actually very different) situation of a filibuster-empowered minority in the Senate:

In both the Senate, controlled by Democrats, and the House, under the rule of Republicans, the minority is largely powerless to do anything but protest.

I called this "false equivalence," since it was flatly false: a Senate minority can be very powerful, because of Senate rules in general and the filibuster in specific. Happily, as I noted in an update, this passage had been changed, to mention the importance of the filibuster, by the time the "official" version of the article appeared in the printed paper the next day.

Margaret Sullivan, who has been making good use of her stint as the Times's Public Editor, put up a column last night about the larger phenomenon of "false balance" reportage. It covers Jenny McCarthy, Michele Bachmann, and the Congressional gridlock story. I recommend it overall, but I also should acknowledge a passage that involves me. Sullivan asks the author of the "minority is largely powerless" story, Jennifer Steinhauer (whom I don't know, and did not name), to explain why she wrote what she did. As you'll see, she says she had in mind a narrower meaning -- ie, that a minority was powerless to stop a change in Senate rules if the majority decided to push it through. 

Fine. We all write things that come across differently from what we had in mind -- and fortunately it was changed before official publication. Then she said, according to Sullivan,
Ms. Steinhauer added that she would have appreciated the opportunity to explain what happened to Mr. Fallows. "Unlike Mr. Fallows, I have to actually call the people I am reporting on," she said.
Fine, too. I certainly could have saved some time over the years if I'd realized before now that I didn't have to call, travel with, listen to, live among, or otherwise learn about the people and places I was reporting on! I mention this to draw a distinction. Most of the time it is fair to judge writers on what they write. Anyone reading my magazine articles or web posts judges me that way; we all judge book writers or columnists that way; we judge TV and radio programs by what they broadcast; and we judge newspapers by what they present, online and in print. That's one of the bargains of the writing life: people judge us on our writing. I didn't call the Times reporter before noting what she had written in a story -- just as I wouldn't imagine she would have called me before noting or complaining about something I had written, as she has done now. 

In any case, it's a good Public Editor column and worth reading. (Illustration is the famous Escher 'Drawing Hands.') 
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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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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