A Bountiful Harvest of False-Equivalence Analyses

Three ways of looking at a journalistic problem. Plus, an envoi from our first Republican president.

From James Poniewozik, of Time:

“Both sides got us into this mess” sounds neutral, but it’s actually taking a side–or, at least, adopting the framing that one side is counting on using to a political end. Reality doesn’t always have a bias, liberal or otherwise. But when it does, it’s not journalism’s job to rebalance reality.

From Ron Fournier, of National Journal (part of The Atlantic's media empire):

Somewhere along the line, partisans started conflating false equivalence with any thought that challenges their rigid, absolutist points of view. In politics and in everyday life, rarely are both sides equally wrong. Rarer still is one side 100 percent right. In this era of zero-sum gain politics, the logical fallacy more pronounced than false equivalence is false purity. It is intellectually dishonest.

From Derek Thompson, of The Atlantic, largely in response to Fournier's argument. Thompson points out that the federal deficit has actually been falling; most Americans think it is rising; and that these two facts shouldn't be treated in a "well, there's truth on all sides" fashion:

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.".

My main purpose is to highlight three related items worth reading. At this stage I am tempted to do my own little tapdance and say, "Well, I'm sure there's something to what each of them says ...." (Especially since Thompson and Fournier are both colleagues whom I like.) But for the record:

  • It will surprise no one, including Ron Fournier, that I am on the Poniewozik/Thompson side of this argument.
  • But that is not because I imagine that our public issues are often or ever 100 percent-to-0 percent cases of right-versus-wrong. 
  • Instead the problem (in my view) is the powerful journalistic instinct to treat political disagreements as 50/50 by definition, with "blame enough to go around" in all cases and a solution that lies in splitting the difference. Sometimes that is so. But not this time.
  • Now we come to the point where Ron Fournier and I are making judgment calls, and where my judgment differs from his. He says, "In this era of zero-sum gain politics, the logical fallacy more pronounced than false equivalence is false purity." If he is talking about political-partisan activists, maybe. I can think of a lot of people who are far too certain of the rightness of their views.

    But I have understood this whole discussion to involve the press, and as applies to the mainstream media I completely disagree that what he calls "false purity" is the more obvious or widespread problem. I would use the current shutdown as an example. For the first few days, the overwhelming tone from editorialists and broadcasters was "both sides digging in their heels" and the need for "grownups in the room" to "compromise for the public good." Only as the unprecedented nature of the House GOP demands sank in—and, significantly, as members of their own party amped up the criticism—did you see more reporters saying, as Ron plainly does here, that this is a Republican-engineered crisis.

Meanwhile, from the estimable Garry Wills in the New York Review, here is a trenchant analysis of why this standoff is different from what we are used to:

So we have one condition that resembles the pre-Civil War virtual secessionism—the holding of a whole party hostage to its most extreme members. We also have the other antebellum condition—the disproportionate representation of the extreme faction. In state after state in the 2012 election, there was a large vote for President Obama, but a majority of House seats went to Republicans. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Obama won 52 percent of the votes cast, but Republicans got over twice as many seats (13 to 5), thanks to carefully planned gerrymandering of districts by Republican state legislatures ....

The presiding spirit of this neo-secessionism is a resistance to majority rule. 

As this showdown was beginning, I argued that it involved a kind of disagreement, and demand, we had not seen since the Civil War. With the passing days I believe that more strongly. And I think again of the words of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, at Cooper Union in 1860, in response to the demands like those Garry Wills has described:

"Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events."