D.C. Interlude: False Equivalence, This Town

Media notes on a return visit

A D.C. drop-in, after nearly three weeks on the road, with three quick media notes. [Please see update below.]

1) It is wonderful when life works just as you expect. Driving back from the airport to our house, I predicted to my wife that we would hear a certain three-word combination within the first 30 seconds of turning on the radio. 

Yes! After I pressed the power button, the first three words we heard were these: "R. G. Three." OK, I had slightly rigged the competition, by tuning to a sports-talk station. Still, it was a wonderful small moment. (Previous-season photo from here.)

2) And sometimes it is not so wonderful. These days there is no joy in noting problems in the Washington Post, but on getting home I finally looked at the article dozens of readers had mentioned as a candidate for a new False Equivalence champion. It is by Dana Milbank, it is called "The weakest generation?", and it laments the shortcomings of Milbank's own Obama-vintage contemporaries when compared with the Greatest Generation of yesteryear. Milbank says that the failure is generational rather than partisan. Thus, with emphasis added:

Without any concept of actual combat or crisis, a new crop of leaders -- Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin -- treats governing as a fight to the death, with no possibility of a negotiated peace. Without a transcendent social struggle calling us to seek justice as Americans, they substitute factional causes -- Repeal Obamacare! Taxed Enough Already! -- or manufactured crises over debt limits and government shutdowns. Though the problem is more pronounced on the right today, the generational drift is nonpartisan. President Obama has extraordinary talents but shows no ability to unify the nation in common purpose or to devote sustained energy to a cause greater than his own.

So: We have four named Republican leaders, two of them already candidates on a national ticket and the two others obviously hoping to be, whom Milbank cites for a demonstrated nihilist approach to government. As evidence that the problem is "nonpartisan," he names one Democratic leader whose failure is not being able to offset the nihilism of the other side (which does, in fairness, display a "more pronounced" version of the generation's overall failure). 

It was fascinating to read that item in company with the other stories in the same issue looking back on the Bayard Rustin/Martin Luther King March on Washington 50 years later. The assessments of the March, when looking back from 2013, didn't have to show "false equivalence." They could talk about the power of King's speech, the beginning of the Civil Rights struggle, the struggle that lay ahead in both the South and the North, the flat-out segregation-era resistance of George C. Wallace, and so on.

But the stories from 1963 couldn't do that. As current-day Post reporters noted, they were full of warnings about "extremists on both sides," the threat of demonstrator-induced violence, and so on. They barely mentioned the one line that lasted from that event that lives 50 years later, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream..." (The Post's Robert Kaiser, who was there 50 years ago, has a very nice item explaining why.) That is, the newspaper's awkwardness in covering the eventsof 1963 is almost as revealing as the March itself in evoking public and media attitudes of that day.

I suspect that when people look back on our era of politics, they'll make a similar point about essays like "The weakest generation?" One of our national parties is, objectively, going through a historic swing to an extreme. It's happened before to other parties. But right now it is happening now to the Republicans. Academics can say that. Out-of-office Republicans can say it, even members of the Bush family. Future political writers, when they are looking back on the Tea Party era, will surely say it. (Mitch McConnell is under primary threat from the right; Nancy Pelosi is not under primary threat from the left.) But it goes against nature for political reporters to say so, plainly, now.

Of course it's easier to look back than to look forward. Of course every reporter should always seek out and convey a range of views. I'm talking instead about the instinct to muffle what your evidence and analysis tells you to be true -- and what you know you'll be writing a few years from now. It's another manifestation of the instinct to cover politics as sports. Expert analysts of sports can say safely say that one team is "playing the game better" than the other or "is well coached" or has "a deep bench." They can go out on a limb arguing controversial or hard-edged perspectives on these questions of process and technique. But (unless they're home-town broadcasters) they are never supposed to reveal a preference or judgment about who is "right" or "should" win.  

3) This town. I had resisted reading Mark Leibovich's This Town because I had a lot else on my mind; and because I figured I had already written this book myself (Breaking the News); and -- crucially -- because I had inferred from local D.C.-reaction that it largely involved gossip about le tout D.C., a subject on which I felt sufficiently informed. 

Last night I saw Leibovich on Moyers and Company, and -- the sincerest form of flattery! -- as soon as the program was over I ordered the book. It's an extraordinary session between him and Moyers, which among many other things addressed one of my mistaken concerns. Leibovich said that outside Washington, the book has mainly aroused discussion/concern/anger about the permanent-establishment, money-for-everyone nature of the modern capital. Whereas inside D.C., he said, it had been treated mainly as a chronicle of boldface names -- which is of course exactly what I had seen and heard of it.** This session below is worth watching. From Moyers and Leibovich you'll hear criticisms of both parties, but without a drop of "false equivalence" from either man.  

* With only a few years' retrospect, everyone could say that the choice of Sarah Palin was a tremendous embarrassment for John McCain and the party in 2008. But if you were a political reporter at that time, your powerful instinct was to say, "the vice presidential picks are a risk on both sides. Joe Biden has proven gaffe-prone, and there was that embarrassing Neil Kinnock episode 20 years ago. Yet the problem may be more pronounced with Palin .... "

A year after the 2012 Republican primaries, analysts throw around terms like "freak show" and "non-starters" to describe a field whose prominent figures included Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. But they couldn't do so then.

** Small-world department: This was exactly my experience with Breaking the News. People outside D.C.-media-land didn't like what it said about the culture of pundits and celebrity journalists. People inside D.C. were in a lather: He said what?? about TV pundit X?? He said that about the White House Correspondents Dinner?

UPDATE: As Jonathan Cohn, Dean Baker, and Jonathan Chait have pointed out, the truly egregious story in yesterday's WaPo was the lead story on the front page, which went way past false equivalence to just being false. Wow. I hope that Martin Baron, the Post's recently arrived editor whose work and judgment I've always admired, was off on vacation this week.  

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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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