False Equivalence That Leans on Public Opinion Is Still False Equivalence

Polls are fun and can be important. But when journalists think the public is wrong, they have an obligation to say so.

Here's a fact: The deficit is falling.

Here's another fact: Americans don't know the deficit is falling.

The point isn't that Americans are stupid. They have busy lives and concerns that have nothing to do with the annual gap between taxes and outlays. Instead, the point is that public-opinion polls don't belong on the same plane as facts and informed analysis, because they qualify as neither.

Smash-cut to the government showdown: The last few weeks have seen a sort of media-insider debate (which I hope is interesting to people who aren't just media insiders) about whether journalists are wrong to blame both parties for a shutdown that seems rather obviously to be a Republican creation. Jim Fallows has obsessively tracked these instances of "false equivalence" or "pox on both houses" journalism that makes Democrats seem similarly blameworthy for a shutdown they're playing very little part in.

In a piece today for National Journal, Ron Fournier leans on public opinion to show that, no, in fact, both Republicans and Democrats deserve a big serving of blame for the shut-down government, because Americans think they're both to blame. He writes:

It would be false equivalence to say Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the government shutdown and the possibility of a debt default. Republicans engineered the shutdown to protest a three-year-old health care law, knowing their defund-or-delay demands were unattainable ...

... At the same time, voters don't absolve the Democratic majority in the Senate or President Obama himself. Only 37 percent approve of the way the president is handling his job, an anemic number. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid has a favorability rating of just 18 percent...

... The story and poll assess blame unequally, which is the exact opposite of false equivalence.

In other words, we can all agree that Republicans are responsible for the shutdown, but public opinion also blames the Democrats, and so [in Fournier's own words] "it is a pox on both houses."

Go back to the graph that leads this article. Imagine, briefly, if we published a story on the deficit that said, essentially: "The CBO says the deficit is rapidly shrinking, but at the same time, Americans don't seem to know that, so perhaps we need to cut the deficit even more." That's not just a meaningless juxtaposition. It's misleading, too.

Rather than free readers from the shackles of false equivalence, this sort of argument actually solidifies the worst kind of false equivalence. It holds up the misinformation of survey respondents—whose opinions have been shaped by both-parties-are-to-blame coverage—as equivalent to an informed analysis of Washington. As Fournier observes the shutdown is entirely a GOP production. The fact that voters disagree is not, by itself, a useful counter-argument. It's like we're feeding readers the false-equivalence narrative, watching them eat it, and then saying: "Well, Americans do seem to blame both sides equally, maybe there's something to that."

Public polls are a fine gauge of public opinion, but they're not to be treated as a barometer of reality. Pretending otherwise mixes up the regurgitated misinformation of readers with the careful analysis of people who are in the business of busting misinformation.

If that's not serving up false equivalence, what is?

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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