False-Equivalence Watch: More From the AP

By James Fallows

An AP story asks the question:

WhosTheRichGuy.png


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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/04/false-equivalence-watch-more-from-the-ap/255748/