By Jason Gillikin | April 22, 2012
Few ironies taste as deliciously sweet as the use of one logical fallacy to combat another. Like the “epistemic closure” meme a while back, the “false equivalence” charge seeks to change media behavior by alleging some sort of inherent, pervasive bias. In this instance, the prosecutors seem to be disproportionately from the left side of the ideological spectrum; their case may be summed up thus: “It’s not fair to strike a middle ground and try to report neutrally because doing so implies that ‘both sides are equally at fault.’”
OK. Well, where to begin?
First, the false-equivalence argument rests on the epistemological assumption that one’s own biases and arguments calibrate to “normal” and everyone elses’s falls to either side of the scale. This is a minor point, actually, but it ought to be kept in mind. One man’s centrism is another’s extremism, and the challenge of identifying “neutral” remains a non-trivial problem that hasn’t yet achieved satisfactory resolution.
Second, and most importantly, the false-equivalence argument is a red herring. It’s often advanced by opinion leaders on the left who — having grown accustomed to merging opinion and news into blog posts that often substitute for news coverage — disdain the journalistic imperative to engage in dispassionate, balanced reportage. Because newsrooms are so overwhelmed by left-of-center reporters, freeing those reporters of the ethical imperative to appear neutral effectively unleashes them to present opinion as fact with far fewer institutional constraints. If you believe that the folks currently clamoring against “false equivalence” would be advancing these arguments were the mainstream media infiltrated by conservatives, then I have a Nigerian banker to introduce to you.
(Yes, conservatives also engage hybrid reporting/blogging, but they’re not the focus here because the false-equivalence argument seems to come most strongly from the Left.)
The rhetorical broadside against journalism that is the “false equivalence” meme rests in the cognate argument that journalists ought to tell the “truth.” What’s true? Well, for example, “truth” apparently means that Hilary Rosen should get a free pass so that the media can continue to focus on an alleged Republican “war on women.” Or that we should stop painting Obamacare as an extreme idea because, hey, the Republicans thought it up.
See how this works? “Truth” is more important than “objectivity.” Of course, it remains unsaid that “truth” is inherently subjective when you’re dealing with ideological arguments. If you’re freed from the need to survey both sides of an issue, then you gain the intellectual cover to say whatever the hell you want.
An excellent case study of this tendency appeared recently in The Atlantic, in which James Fallows publicly congratulates the New York Times and the Washington Post while condemning Forbes for how these three publications presented the news earlier this month that the Senate did not take up President Obama’s proposed Buffet Rule. Fallows — formerly President Carter’s chief speechwriter and a national correspondent for The Atlantic — praises the NYT for a piece titled “Republicans Block Debate on ‘Buffet Rule’ in Senate” that had the following lede: “Senate Republicans on Monday blocked a move to open debate on the so-called Buffett Rule, ensuring that a measure pressed for months by President Obama and Senate Democrats to ensure that the superrich pay a tax rate of at least 30 percent will not come to a decisive vote” (emphasis in original).
Fallows objected to the Forbes lede: “Just moments ago, the so-called Buffet Rule … came up for a vote in the Senate and was defeated. There were 51 votes in favor and 45 opposed, but 60 votes were required for cloture and so the proposal could not proceed.”
Here’s the rhetorical sleight of hand: Fallows praises the NYT and the WP for not engaging in “false equivalence” because their stories blamed the Republicans for being obstructionists — in the bag for the “superrich,” perhaps? — while Forbes merely relayed the procedural facts without ascribing blame. Forbes seemed more objective, but since it didn’t contain an ideological statement about Republican extremism, it didn’t contain “truth.” Assuming, of course, you believe that it’s necessary to take sides in a political dispute when you write up a story that relays the outcome of a routine procedural maneuver that both parties have employed countless times over the years.
Hence, “false equivalence” really does seem to be a red herring.
Without a doubt, the current intellectual framework for high journalism contains some weak points. Humans are humans; freeing a news story from every vestige of bias is impossible. So journalists have tried to keep at least news reporting as free of overt bias as they can. Myriad are the examples of how the mainstream press has failed at the task, but we sometimes forget that the press gets it right far more often then not. We discuss the problem because it’s a problem, not because it’s the norm. Many, many news stories get filed every day that cover local news and events and present a fair, objective and well-balanced snapshot.
Where objective journalism opens most obviously to criticism is when the subject of the news stories are, themselves, ideological. Coverage of divisive social events, political news or cultural trends admits to charges of bias at many levels: story execution, editing, even the decision to assign one story or slant instead of another. We have always fought about the fairness of the press, and we always will. This is a good thing: The ongoing debate makes journalism as a profession stronger for it — a point Arthur Brisbane learned in spectacular fashion.
What doesn’t work, though, is undermining the entire premise of objectivity — frail as it may be at times — with a siren song of “truth” that’s really a cover for inserting an ideological slant into what ought to be neutral reportage.
Journalists always have room to be fairer, more objective, more penetrating, but becoming a “truth vigilante” to fight “false equivalence” isn’t the right strategy for an ethical journalist.