The Press Is Embracing False Equivalence—Again

Coverage of the president’s pressure on Ukraine suggests the media learned nothing from 2016.

Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

If you’ve paid any attention to press retrospectives on the 2016 election, you’ve seen the term false equivalence. It refers to the mismatch between a long-standing procedural instinct of the press and the current realities of the Era of Trump.

Under normal circumstances, the press’s strong preference is for procedural balance. The program’s supporters say this, its critics say that, so we’ll quote both sides and leave it to you, the public, to decide who is right.

This approach has the obvious virtue of seeming fair, as a judge is fair in letting the prosecution and defense each make its case. It has a less obvious but very important advantage for news organizations, that of sparing reporters the burden of having to say, “Actually, we think this particular side is right.” By definition, most reporters most of the time are covering subjects in which we’re not expert. Is the latest prime-rate move by the Fed a good idea? Or a bad one? I personally couldn’t tell you. So if I am covering the story, especially on a deadline, I’ll want to give you quotes from people “on both sides,” and leave it there.

For as long as the press has existed, people have pointed out the limits and loopholes of “let’s hear from both sides” thinking. Back in the 1970s, I read a parody somewhere of how stately D.C.-based discussion shows might have covered the 1930s: “And now, for a contrasting view, we turn to Heinrich Himmler.” (In The Washington Monthly of that era, Art Levine did a famous parody of a Woodward-and-Bernstein approach to that same story: “ ‘The Jews, Mein Fuhrer, what’s happened to all the Jews?’ Goering asked. ‘There used to be so many of them.’… Himmler and Goering were beset with fresh doubts. But they were committed to serve, and they would do their best.”)

Would it have been right to cover the “merits” of slavery in the 1800s with neutrally presented commentary from both sides? Is that the right way to present an imagined “controversy” over the fundamental science of climate change now? Obviously I’d say no on both counts. But my point for the moment is that the overlapping and always changing concepts of “balance,” “fairness,” and “objectivity” are eternally debated issues within the news business. It’s like a debate among doctors on whether surgical or nonsurgical treatment is overall a “better” approach. The answer is: It depends. I did a whole book on the “it depends” complexities of “balance” back in the 1990s, Breaking the News, with a long excerpt published as a cover story in The Atlantic. The debate has gone on forever, and it will continue.

But there is a very specific application of these principles to the era of Donald Trump. The problem with Trump is that he is not like anyone else who has ever held the presidency. He lies with abandon; he uses public office for private gain on a scale never before witnessed; and he seems to have no respect for, or even interest in, the institutions of self-government to which all of his predecessors have at least paid lip service.

Thus any of the “normal” procedural rules, applied to such an abnormal figure, can lead to destructive results. To be “fair” in covering him is to be unfair—to the truth, to history, to the readers, to the national interest, to any concept of journalistic purpose. The stuffy way to put this problem is “false equivalence.” The casual way to put it is “But what about her emails?”

“What about her emails” is the watchword, because so much of the press wanted to apply “normal” and “balanced” rules to the contest in 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In reality, these two figures were starkly dissimilar:

  • Donald Trump had defects that were unlike those of any previous major-party nominee. As an Atlantic editorial put it, in recommending a vote against Trump (only the third endorsement from the magazine since its founding in 1857): “He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent.”
  • Hillary Clinton had defects that were like those of other candidates and nominees. Naturally, they were different in detail, since every candidate is unique (all the more so for her, as the first female major-party nominee), but they were similar in scale. Some people liked her; some people didn’t. Some trusted and were inspired by her; others thought she was completely untrustworthy and insincere. She had two political problems entirely different in nature, connected only by the word email. One was the WikiLeaks-and-Russian-engineered hacking of Democratic Party emails, via her campaign chair John Podesta’s email account. The other was her own use of a private email server.

These two specific failings of Clinton’s—with no connection in substance, but subsumed as “the email question”—will, in any historical reckoning, seem of the mundane, “every campaign has its problems” scale. I am aware of zero evidence, from anyone, that any of the private-server emails ever had a damaging impact on U.S. security or national interest. Every candidate has his or her flaws and mistakes; these were among hers. They could be handled by “normal” press scrutiny.

But because the instinct toward structural balance is so powerful in the press—and because several institutions, notably NPR and The New York Times, seem so hyperaware of the criticism they receive for having a “liberal bias”—much of the press presented things that were not similar as if they were. For instance, on the one hand, there were deals and donations that could “raise questions” about the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s own business life. On the other hand, Donald Trump flat-out refused to release his tax returns or any honest information about his business deals, so the press and public could not get even to the “raise questions” stage.

On the merits, Donald Trump’s finances were a hundred times as suspicious as those of other candidates, and his statements about anything were a hundred times as likely to be false. But it went against the nature of most news organizations to run a hundred times as many articles about his lies and shadiness as about his opponents’. Or even twice as many. By the time of the general election, it seemed “fairest” and most comfortable to aim for something more like 50-50.

When it came to Hillary Clinton, the clearest manifestation of that was vast over-coverage of “her emails,” most famously exemplified in this front page of The New York Times, 10 days before the election:

The front page of The New York Times the day after James Comey said he was looking into new evidence from Anthony Weiner’s cellphone. This appeared 10 days before the 2016 presidential election. (Photo that day by James Fallows; archive from The New York Times here: )

James Comey, when big-footing his way into the final stage of the election, expected that Hillary Clinton was on her way to victory. No doubt the Times’s editors must have thought the same, and that they were showing their tough-mindedness about her. But the result is what people mean by “false equivalence.” Two things that were different—the weaknesses of each candidate—were presented as if they were similar.

As an Atlantic colleague puts it: Journalism is hard; criticizing journalism is easy. In this business we’re all doing our best, and we all make mistakes in real time. But the very difficulty of these calls is why it’s worth noting a similar, as-if-we’d-learned-nothing-from-2016 case of false equivalence, which is unfolding before our eyes. This is “the Ukraine problem.”

Specifically, this is the idea that whatever Donald Trump may be guilty of, involving that country, is journalistically and historically comparable to whatever Joe Biden’s son Hunter may have done there. Already leading media outlets have begun lumping these stories together. “Scrutiny over Trump’s Ukraine scandal may also complicate Biden’s campaign” was the headline on a big story in The Washington Post on Saturday. The day before that, a New York Times investigative reporter, Ken Vogel, went on MSNBC to argue that Ukraine complications were “a significant liability for Joe Biden.” Guests on talk shows have, reflexively, wanted to “balance” what they are saying about Trump-and-Ukraine, with observations about what Ukraine might mean for the Biden campaign.

Why does this matter? Let’s be clear about what’s not equivalent between the Trump and Biden situations here:

  • On Donald Trump’s side, what has been alleged about him—and what he’s barely bothered to deny—is something different from what any previous president has been accused or even suspected of. As Tom Nichols laid out in his Atlantic post on Saturday, “If This Isn’t Impeachable, Nothing Is,” the evidence suggests that a sitting American president has used the power and resources of the U.S. government to apply extortion demands to foreign leaders, in hopes of pressuring them to interfere directly in a U.S. election.

    Whether this is true, I don’t yet know. But if true, it would be different from anything that has come before—from any administration, over 200-plus years. The even roughly similar cases show how gravely different it would be:

    - In 1968, then-candidate Richard Nixon may well have encouraged South Vietnamese negotiators to go slow in their peace talks with the United States, to make things harder for Hubert Humphrey, the sitting vice president and Democratic nominee.

    - In 1980, agents of then-candidate Ronald Reagan might have (though evidence is mixed) encouraged the Iranian government to go slow in negotiations to release American hostages, to make things harder for Jimmy Carter, then running for a second term.

    - In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then running for a third term, was privately giving Winston Churchill more encouraging messages about eventual U.S. support for Britain against the Nazis than he was sharing with the electorate.

    All of these cases included foreign “involvement” in the outcome of a presidential election. But none of them was remotely like the extortion-style pressure Donald Trump is accused of having applied to Ukraine, nor the solicitation of direct involvement in a U.S. election.
  • And on Joe Biden’s side? To begin with, what has been alleged about his son Hunter in Ukraine may not be true at all. The details are extremely complicated, and (in an illustration of what reporters do when they’re not expert in a case themselves), I direct you to people who have gone into them. For instance, this analysis by Adam Silverman, in Balloon Juice, and these three from Bloomberg: “Ukraine Prosecutor Says No Evidence of Wrongdoing by Bidens,” “Timeline in Ukraine Probe Casts Doubt on Giuliani’s Biden Claim,” and “Trump, Giuliani Press for Dirt on Biden Despite Ukraine Rebuff.” (And for the record: what follows is explicitly not for, or against, Biden’s desirability as the Democratic nominee. That’s what the primaries and caucuses are for: to see whose message, record, and overall bearing hold up best, with the voters.)

    From these stories, it looks to me as if the Hunter Biden/Ukraine “scandal” is perhaps invented, and almost certainly exaggerated. But let’s not even go that far. Let’s assume, for argument, that the very worst version of the story is true: that Joe Biden, as sitting vice president, did what he could to pressure a prosecutor in Ukraine who he thought might be interfering with Hunter Biden’s business deals.

    Even if that proved true—and the evidence comes nowhere close to that—it would still be in an entirely different category from what Donald Trump appears to have done. Through modern history, relatives of presidents, vice presidents, senators, and so on have tried to turn their connections to profitable use. Search the family tree of virtually any president, and you will find black-sheep relatives—and cases roughly similar to this, even in its worst rendering. This is not even to mention the current president’s former campaign chair, now in federal prison for corruption charges involving (among others) the government of Ukraine. And let’s see if we can think of any cases of a current president’s immediate family, or his in-laws, or the relatives of powerful senators, possibly abusing connections for profit these days.

    I don’t know whether there is any real “abuse of power” story about Hunter Biden, Joe Biden, and Ukraine. But even if there were (again, I’m imagining this just for argument), it would be fundamentally like other abuse-of-power questions the press has tried to uncover over the years. You could fairly liken it to questions about whether Ivanka Trump’s clothing brands are receiving favorable trademark treatment from Chinese officials, or whether the Air Force has gone out of its way to have planes land and refuel at a Scottish airport near Donald Trump’s golf resort there.

What you can’t liken it to, or shouldn’t, is what Donald Trump appears to have done in asking the government of Ukraine to interfere in the next election. But there is a slot in the reporter’s and editor’s brain that is more comfortable if criticism and exposés are “balanced.” And thus we have presentations such as the one below, in The (usually false-equivalence-resisting) Washington Post, which present the Ukraine mess as some new “both sides do it” imbroglio—and one that is significant mainly for its purely political ramifications:

Yes, journalism is hard. Yes, criticizing journalism is easy. But journalism becomes even harder if we don’t learn from errors, and history.

As we look back on the 2016 campaign, it’s clear that many parts of the press presented things that were fundamentally different—Donald Trump’s liabilities, versus those of any competitor—as if they were the same. On the one hand, a man who knew nothing about governing. On the other, “her emails.” No historian looking back on our era will think these were in any way equivalent. Future accounts of 2016 will need to explain what a “private email server” was, and why it had such power to change history.

Part of journalism’s job is to present things with some sense of proportion and scale. A gang war in one city is bad; a land war in an entire country is worse. The press’s impulse toward structural balance led many institutions to fail that test.

Patient Zero of the next false-equivalence epidemic has appeared this weekend. No one can be sure of the cure, but the time to recognize the symptoms, and their source, is now.

Update: On Sunday evening, Michel Martin of NPR’s All Things Considered did a very useful interview with Adam Entous, of The New Yorker. Martin asked Entous what was real, and what was purely partisan messaging, in the Hunter Biden “story.”

As Entous put it, Donald Trump’s messenger, Rudy Giuliani, was making the accusations

“as a way of bringing Biden down a notch and maybe creating the impression that the questions that have been raised about Trump and his family and their business activities are not all that different from Joe Biden and the way his family has operative. I think that is the objective here. To create a more level playing field between these two candidates.”

Well put. The interview is only four minutes long and worth listening to.