False Equivalence Watch: Another Positive Step by NPR

I've griped early and often about mainstream reporters who have enabled the obstructionist abuse of the Senate's right-to-filibuster in recent years. Every story saying that a bill or nomination "failed" because it didn't get the "60 votes needed for passage," rather than saying that a measure was "blocked" or "filibustered" or "prevented from coming to a vote," reinforces the conversion of the Senate into something it was never intended to be: a tyranny-of-the-minority body.

So naturally I was impressed by the way an All Things Considered report began a few hours ago. It concerned the Senate Republicans' refusal to consider the nominations of a number of district-court judges. Here's the transcript from NPR* (audio also at that link), with emphasis added:

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In the Senate, a showdown may be in store tomorrow. Senate Democrats accuse Republicans of using filibusters to stall 17 nominees for federal district court. Now, in a bid to end the delays, senators will begin voting on whether or not to sustain those filibusters.
Republicans say it's an election year ploy by Democrats to manufacture a crisis. Democrats say, enough, there's no reason for the Senate to delay the nominees any longer. NPR's David Welna has the story from the capital.

DAVID WELNA: More than 10 percent of the seats on the nation's federal district courts are currently vacant. It's the Senate's job to review and confirm President Obama's nominees to fill those seats. Seventeen of those nominees have been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, most of them unanimously, and seven of them have been endorsed by their home state Republican senators. Seven are nominated to courts whose vacancies have been designated judicial emergencies, yet most of them have been waiting for months to be confirmed by the full Senate because Republicans won't agree to let them come up for a vote.

The point here is not Republican/Democratic, although as a baseline fact it is the Republican minority that has dramatically ramped up use of the filibuster since they lost control of the Senate in the 2006 midterms. The Democrats used a filibuster of their own last week, and we'll see what they do when they're back in the minority. The real significance of this brief report is that it shows what journalists can do when they are willing to call a thing by its real name.

It would have been easy enough for host and correspondent to say that the nominations had "failed," or that the Administration had come up short of "the 60 votes needed for confirmation," or that some caused-by-no-one "dysfunction" or "gridlock" was keeping those judicial seats vacant. We know it would have been easy, because so many recent reports, including some on NPR, have said just that! Congratulations to host, reporter, editor, and anyone else for instead being "truthful" and accurate in the deepest sense.

Perhaps this is an early, welcome dividend from the anti-false-equivalence** policy that NPR announced a few weeks ago? Whatever its origin, please keep it up.
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* Routine disclosure: I've never been an NPR employee but have been on a number of their shows, including Weekend All Things Considered.

** Bonus explanation: Why do I put filibuster coverage in the "false equivalence" category, when I mainly use that term for the "objective" journalistic habit of presenting a range of views with equal weight even when some of them are plainly false?

The connection is that in both cases we're talking about journalists letting a convention of "balance" get in the way of their longer-term ambition of conveying the reality of events. When politicians like, in recent years, Sen. Mitch McConnell have presented 60 votes as the "normal" requirement for Senate action, and reporters pass that along at face value, they both mislead the public and, over time, acquiesce in the distortion of our political processes. I won't give the full argument here about why the original careful balance in the Constitution avoided the kind of blocking power the Senate has now made routine. But I've made the argument other times and no doubt will have occasion to do again!

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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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