False Equivalence Watch: Et Tu, PBS?


From the wrapup last night on the PBS NewsHour, with emphasis added:

Democrats in the U.S. Senate moved on to the next piece of President Obama's jobs bill today. It's a $60 billion investment in infrastructure projects, like roads and bridges. The initial piece of the broken-up jobs bill, a measure to boost the hiring of teachers and first-responders, failed last night. All Republicans and a few moderate Democrats opposed it.

Please see previous items here and here for elaboration on why the story would have been truer to reality if it had indicated:
  -- that the bill was blocked from coming to an up-down vote, rather than that it "failed";
  -- that it received 50 votes, but that was not enough (even including a potential tie-breaking vote by Vice President Biden) because it was being subjected yet again to a Republican filibuster threat;
  -- that the "opposition" from moderate Democrats made no difference, as all Senators understood, since unified GOP opposition ensured that the filibuster could not be broken; and
  -- that, as much as a sign of Democratic "failure," this was another sign of success of an explicit Republican strategy to oppose whatever the Administration puts forward.

Obviously this was a telegraphic two-sentence summary that couldn't cover everything. But could it have signaled awareness of those underlying realities within the same space? Sure. Here's something of the same length that, like the original, leaves out nuance but is in my view truer to what is going on.

Old: The initial piece of the broken-up jobs bill, a measure to boost the hiring of teachers and first-responders, failed last night. All Republicans and a few moderate Democrats opposed it.

New: The initial piece of the broken-up jobs bill, to boost hiring of teachers and first-responders, was blocked by filibuster. All Republicans and a few Democrats opposed its coming to a vote.


New: The initial piece of the broken-up jobs bill, for hiring of teachers and first-responders, was blocked by filibuster. 50 Democrats supported it, but that was not enough to bring it to a vote.

Again the point is that the in countless ways the mainstream press has internalized and "normalized" the historically unprecedented idea that the Senate minority will block everything by filibuster. You can celebrate this new strategy if you think the Administration's policy should indeed be blocked and the president thwarted. You can lament it if you feel the reverse or are merely concerned about "dysfunction." But the media should not lose sight of the fact that this is a deliberate strategy, that it is historically unusual, and that it is a change in Senate practice so marked as to represent a de facto amendment to the Constitution.

Let me stipulate, sincerely, that the NewsHour is the best, sanest, and most thorough part of mainstream TV news. So I'm saying that "even" the PBS NewsHour can without realizing it convey the wrong idea. Just as "even" the NY Times had a "jobs bill fails" headline. We look to them both to set the right example.

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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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