The False Equivalence Watch: Good News and Bad (and Good)

A reader sends in a positive example of a paper moving past the "false equivalence" trap. It's a New York Times story this past week on the "Heartland" controversy. The story says, with emphasis added:

Heartland's latest idea, the documents say, is a plan to create a curriculum for public schools intended to cast doubt on mainstream climate science and budgeted at $200,000 this year. The curriculum would claim, for instance, that "whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy."

It is in fact not a scientific controversy. The vast majority of climate scientists say that emissions generated by humans are changing the climate and putting the planet at long-term risk, although they are uncertain about the exact magnitude of that risk. Whether and how to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases has become a major political controversy in the United States, however.

Let's stipulate that a controversy has subsequently arisen about the authenticity of these Heartland "documents" -- and that papers should be careful to spell that out too. But this is an example of two reporters, Justin Gillis and Leslie Kaufman, plus their editors being willing to plainly state the facts about a case, without being buffaloed into giving "equal" credence to all claims.

On the less cheering side, a reader writes to note a veteran Congressional correspondent saying two days ago on public radio that 60 votes is what it takes to "pass" a bill in the Senate. The discussion is about the extension of the payroll tax-cut this week, by a 60-to-36 vote in the Senate. The correspondent, Gail Russell Chaddock of the Christian Science Monitor, says on Here and Now, "Sixty is the outer limit for passing a bill in the Senate. Had one Senator changed their mind, we wouldn't be having this discussion." From the reader:

The host replies, "What does this say about Republican leaderships, because..."

The conversation goes on, and the reporter returns to the 60 number as being the minimum, but no reference is made to this being a procedural/filibuster issue. If the listener doesn't already know this, the impression is that the 60 vote margin is a constitutional
requirement in the Senate.

To be clear, I know you have affection for NPR [JF: and for this show in particular, which I like and have recently been on]. I do too. It's what I listen to and where I get most of my news (after TheAtlantic.com) This is not a pick on NPR, but a note of how things that are untrue become "facts".

Of course that correspondent realizes that 60 votes is the threshold for breaking a filibuster in the Senate, not for passing a bill. (With a few narrowly stated exceptions, like treaties and impeachment, the Constitution says that the Senate will work on a simple-majority basis, with the Vice President breaking a tie if need be.) But a major goal of the legislative-obstruction campaign of the past six years has been to make people forget that there is a difference between breaking a filibuster -- which historically had been a rare situation -- and getting any routine business done. So every time a major news source says that it takes 60 votes to "pass" a bill or confirm a nominee, an incorrect and damaging impression sinks in more deeply. We move that much further away from reality and toward dysfunctionally obstructed government. More on what that's a problem in the posts collected here. For now, thanks to readers for these leads.

UPDATE: Back on the bright side, check out the bravely unconventional long piece by Dylan Matthews, in today's Washington Post, about the "Modern Monetarist" school among economists. This is a perspective you didn't often get during the "deficit crisis" panic of last year, and congrats to the Post for giving it this much attention.

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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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