False-Equivalence Watch: More From the AP

An AP story asks the question:


Perhaps I can help with this one. Romney is the rich guy. Obama is the incumbent president, with all of the advantages that go along with that role. The Obamas are much richer than most American families, but wealth is definitely not one of the areas where they are "dueling over status" with the Romneys.

Ten paragraphs down, the story notes this non-equivalence:
While both Romney and Obama are millionaires, there is a huge difference in their wealth. Presidential candidates have to disclose broad outlines of their holdings, but it's possible to discern only a wide range. Romney is worth $190 million to $250 million, according to the filings. Obama is worth between $1.8 million and nearly $12 million.

To put it another way, the maximum estimate of the Obamas' wealth is only one-fifth as large as the uncertainty zone in estimates of the Romneys'.

So why the headline (which the writer might not have come up with) and the lead paragraph (which presumably he did)? I think they are reminders of the amazingly powerful journalistic instinct to match any observation of a problem, excess, or trait in one party or candidate by finding a symmetrical trait on the other side, so as to seem "objective" and "fair."

If you want to say: Obama and Romney are both dueling for middle-class support, although each of them represents a particular kind of rarefied elite, fine. If you want to set this up as a comparison of two kinds of privilege and ability to wield power, that's important and interesting. Assessing how their tax plans will sound to people in different income ranges, all fine too.

But "who's the rich guy"? That's like asking "who's the current Commander in Chief?" The need to suggest that it's a real question says more about the conventions of our business (journalism) than about the realities we're trying to describe. For more on the AP's recent struggles with "false equivalence," see this item. Thanks to my colleague DG.

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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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