Today's Hero of the False-Equivalence Struggles: On the Media

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

False equivalence, for those joining us late, is the almost irresistible instinct in mainstream journalism to present differing views as being equally valid “sides” of an argument, even if one of them is objectively true and the rest are not.

  • False equivalence: “President Obama claims that he was born in the United States and thus is eligible to serve as president; his critics disagree on both counts.”
  • Actual truth: “Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961; a persistent ‘birther’ movement denies this fact.”

As chronicled over the years in posts collected here, the “both sides make their claims, who are we to judge?” reflex is very powerful in our business. That is largely because we’re most comfortable when acting in the role of a referee at a sporting event, a judge at a trial, a moderator at a debate, or some similar figure letting presumptively legitimate contenders fight it out on their own. To intervene directly and say “There are two sides here, but one of them is bunk” is uncomfortable, because it seems “partisan.” It is also risky, because it requires the reporter to learn enough about an issue to judge claims of relative truth.

Our friends at WNYC’s On the Media—Brooke Gladstone, Bob Garfield, and their team, whom I know and like—have done two very strong recent episodes on the false-equivalence snarl. In general you should listen to their show, but here are two especially worth seeking out:

  • On Friday Bob Garfield did a segment about the AP’s decision to stop saying “climate change deniers” or “skeptics” and instead to call people who differ from the mainstream scientific consensus “doubters.” The AP reporter Garfield interviews, Seth Borenstein, has himself done great work on climate issues. But here he is stuck trying to defend an AP policy change that (in my view) Garfield properly demolishes.
  • Last week Brooke Gladstone had another strong segment on the abundance of uncontested falsehoods at the three-hour-long second Republican debate. She also pointed out, accurately in my view, that CNN’s moderators did more to encourage personal sparring among the candidates, but much less to challenge mis-statements, than Fox’s moderators had in the first GOP debate.

Further in the false equivalence chronicles:

  • Stephen Colbert did a very impressive job of calling out Ted Cruz on talking points and boiler plate in his Late Show appearance last week. (The same show also featured a nice musical appearance by friend-of-the-Atlantic Don Henley.) As recorded over the years, I am not the biggest admirer of Senator Cruz’s policies or style. But I almost felt sorry for him in this session, because Colbert was so well prepared and so willing to push, and Cruz seemed so aware of what he was in for.
  • This made the contrast with Colbert’s treatment of Donald Trump, as analyzed here by the Atlantic’s Megan Garber, all the more striking. Trump came across as invulnerable to Colbert’s truth-squadding, and Colbert barely tried. I think this says something about the confidence Trump has developed during his many years as a TV personality. I can’t recall seeing any other guest get the better of Colbert, either in his previous blowhard persona or in his new role.
  • An amusingly ahistorical note in National Review says that today’s Republican Senators feel “frustration with the Democratic filibusters,” without mentioning  that during the Republicans’ time in the minority, Mitch McConnell led them to routinize the filibuster in a way not seen before, or since. More on the filibuster chronicles here.

UPDATE A reader offers this hypothesis on why Colbert handled Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in such strikingly different ways:

The takeaway I got from watching those interviews was that Colbert viewed Cruz as a serious candidate and challenged his policy views accordingly, whereas he did not view Trump as a serious candidate, lead in the polls notwithstanding, and likewise treated him accordingly.

I did not get the sense from the Trump interview that Colbert was intimidated, flustered or steamrolled, but rather that he simply did not have interest in fighting with Trump about the latter's immigration views. Now, that might have been a poor choice—time will tell whether Trump ends up being the historical footnote he's always seemed destined to be—but it seemed like a choice to me.

One other note, no one has mentioned yet that Colbert managed to push Trump away from criticizing Obama and instead nudged him into an extended riff that cut against the GOP talking points about how Obama is to blame for the current crisis in Iraq, laying all of the blame at Bush's feet instead.

I thought that was a notable moment—probably the only real substantive piece of the interview—and seems to me to indicate that Colbert could have similarly jumped in on immigration had he wanted to, but for whatever reason (whether my theory, Megan Garber's, time constraints, or some secret agreement hammered out to get Trump to come on the show) he chose not to.