False Equivalence Watch: NYT Ed Page Dept.

This is a truly fascinating one. The New York Times runs a strong editorial today calling out Republican opposition tactics for thwarting economic-stimulus efforts. Then it bills that argument, via its headline, as a familiar, symmetric "partisan failure on both sides" diagnosis.

Now, the details. A reader sent in a note about this lead editorial in today's New York Times, which in the printed paper is presented as shown below:


The editorial is about the alarming slowdown in job-creation figures and the government's apparent inability to address it. The subhead says: "Democrats are paralyzed and Republicans have wrong economic answers."

Here's the fascinating part. While the headline suggests that this is one more "extremists on the right and left" / "partisan gridlock" situation, that is very much not what the editorial itself says. Its point is that the Administration's efforts to stimulate the economy have been deliberately stymied by the filibuster and similar Republican opposition tactics. The second paragraph says:
Republicans in Congress seem more determined not only to block any boost that President Obama wants to give the economy, but they are preparing to take the nation's credit rating hostage again over the debt ceiling. Mitt Romney, the Republican presumptive presidential nominee, has no new ideas.

There is a lot more in the same vein. Now, you can agree with this, or disagree. To me, it's an accurate reflection of the current reality. But whether you agree or not, it is the case the editorial itself is making -- and is not what the headline indicates. The editorial argues that one party is doing most of the obstructing, and deserves blame for that. Yet apparently the instinct toward "false equivalence" symmetrical framing is so powerful that even the person writing the headlines consciously or unconsciously read its argument as fitting the familiar approach. As the reader who noted this item said when passing it along:

If you search the editorial, you will find the word 'Democrats' nowhere. Indeed, the string 'dem' occurs nowhere. Who can read the editorial as referent to Democrats' being 'paralyzed' in any way?
These things don't happen by accident, do they?

To answer the reader's first question, you can read its reference to being "paralyzed" correctly only in the passive voice. Ie, the "Democrats are paralyzed" by an opposition determined to paralyze them. To answer the second question: I'd say that these things happen by instinct rather than accident.

For reference, here is how it looked on line, with highlighting from the reader who sent it in:


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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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