One More Note on 'False Equivalence' and the Filibuster

I don't mean to run this into the ground, but -- well, actually I do mean to run it into the ground. This week's news really is a perfect distillation of a long-standing problem we generally just assume to be part of the landscape and yet matters more and more.

Main problem: the decision by Mitch McConnell's GOP Senate minority, once they lost their majority status in the 2006 elections, to filibuster nearly every item of public business. Nominations, routine appropriations, standard business, not to mention any genuinely controversial proposal. What had been for 200 years an exceptional tactic has become an everyday impediment. De facto, the Constitution has been amended to change the Senate from a majority-rule body to one requiring a 60-vote "supermajority." And since the Senate already heavily over-represents small-population states, in effect Senators representing a quarter to a third of the nation's people hold a veto over all items of public business, and have repeatedly exercised it.

'Enabler' problem: The reluctance of the mainstream media to call this what it is, and instead to talk about "partisanship" and "logjam" and "dysfunction." Yes, those are the results. But the cause is intentional, and it comes overwhelmingly from one side.

We had illustrations in the past few days from the NYT and, in jaw-dropping fashion, yesterday from the WaPo. And earlier this morning I was listening to a political "analysis" show on the radio that was all about this sad modern predicament of Congressional gridlock. The word "filibuster" was not used in that hour, unless it was during the minute I was plunging my head into the toilet tank in despair.

I mention this again mainly to mention it again. But, just to offer value-added:

1) A nice droll item by Jonathan Cohn at the New Republic, partly making fun of me but in the larger cause of explaining this problem.

2) A reader's note that underscores the media's failure.

Part of the reason is the flawed understanding many journalists have of objectivity. The thinking is that pointing out that one political party is responsible for the Senate's dysfunction would be taking sides, which would call their objectivity into question. The irony is, by pretending both sides are equally at fault for the dysfunction and refusing to report on the objective facts of the situation, they're misleading readers and handing a huge advantage to one side.

Obviously, good journalists understand that objectivity isn't about refusing to take sides, it is about reporting the facts as they are, even when that means making one side look bad. Sadly, this is not the norm in modern political journalism.

The problems created by a sophomoric conception of "objectivity" are hardly unknown. Jay Rosen, for instance, has written about this pathology for eons. As has Dan Gillmor. But jeesh! It doesn't go away.

Shortly I will return to such "calm" topics as Mormonism-and-bigotry, Ralph Nader and third parties, why Nigeria has so many hackers, and so on.

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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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