My colleague James Fallows regularly criticizes the political press for what he calls "false equivalence," or "the reflexive assumption that 'reality' is halfway between whatever two contending sides assert." The term also refers to situations where the press treats two sides as if they're equally wrong when they're not. As James Carville once put it, 'We say 50 + 50 is 104, they say 50 + 50 is 104,000, and the press will say, 'Well, both of 'em are stretching the numbers a little bit.'"
Fallows jokingly cited that 1992 quote as "the paleolithic origins of false equivalence." I was 12 years old when it was spoken, so it's certainly from the pre-history of my political consciousness. But I've just happened upon an example of false equivalence from Harper's New Monthly Magazine that is much, much older -- this excerpt is taken from the June 1866 issue:
A native of the valley of the Shenandoah, I have passed the greater part of my life on the Northern border of Virginia -- a region which, from its geographical position and mixed population, has always been debatable ground between the contending opinions of the age, and which eventually became a most important theater of the war, resulting from these opinions. It is thus that I became, almost from necessity, an interested observer of many of the operating scenes of the contest, and subsequently an active participator in its armed solution.
During the winter of 1860-61 I was residing at my father's house in Martinsburg, occupied with my private affairs and arranging plans for a future of peace and seclusion. These dreams were disturbed from time to time by the indications of the approaching storm, but I resolutely closed my eyes and stopped my ears, determined not to be disturbed. I had never taken any active interest in the party politics of the day, and was the less disposed to mingle in the present strife, as I sympathized with neither of the extreme factions which, from opposite quarters, seemed to be mutually intent on breaking down the Government and destroying the peace and prosperity of the country. I saw nothing in the contest but the rage of adverse dogmatisms, sharpened by the baser lust for official plunder -- that party spirit, which, Addison says, "robs men, not only of all honor and decency, but of every article of common sense."
What struck me about that passage is how effectively its author makes his ambivalence on the eve of the Civil War seem perfectly natural. Yes, the United States was polarized as never before or since, huge moral questions loomed over the country, and the union itself would nearly be torn asunder. But this guy was living his life, looking after his private affairs, and planning for a future of peace and seclusion. How natural that, having perceived two antagonistic sides whose bitter disagreements threatened his plans, he'd reflexively regard both with equal distaste. Who doubts that there were distasteful men on both sides to encourage his opinion?