Now that the Grey Lady (The New York Times) has taken up the discussion and developed new guidelines for its reporters regarding balance and false equivalence, it’s likely to become a very hot topic in mainstream journalism.
The analogy I like best, to explain false equivalence, is the one where someone (like, for instance, Michelle Bachman, although she did NOT say this) says “the earth is flat”, and the person running against her says “the earth is round”, and the news story is headlined “Opinions Vary on the Shape of the Earth” – as if both the flat earth statement and the round earth statement were of equal truth and value.
I’ve ranted several times in the past about the cult of journalists who believe every story must be balanced, particularly when politics is the topic, and they accept the nonsense being spewed by one person/candidate is being as valid as whatever’s being said by the opposition.
Complicating the issue in this Presidential election cycle is the fairly recent phenomenon that as Americans, we now have our own sets of “facts”. We don’t agree and what is and what isn’t a fact, and we have the ability to expose ourselves to only one set of “facts”: Fox News and its ilk have one take on what’s fact and what isn’t; MSNBC and its ilk have a different, and often opposite take on what’s fact. We can select the information we consume to fit our bias. Case on point: the birther issue.
It seems as a result of this recent “my facts aren’t your facts” phenomenon, fewer Americans, particularly those with deficient education, are not able to make an independent determination of what’s fact and what’s not.
Suppose you’re a reporter doing an interview with Tommy Thompson (or Paul Ryan), and he trots out the line about repealing Obamacare, which he characterizes as a government takeover of health care. Do you let it slide? Politfact and many other reputable watchdog groups have clearly exposed the “takeover” line as bunk – Politfact called it “the biggest political lie of 2010”. The Affordable Care Act is nothing near a “government takeover” – the government will not take over hospitals and clinics, the government will not put doctors and caregivers on the federal payroll, and on and on. Do you stop Thompson (Ryan) and challenge him on the line right then and there? Do you point out when reporting the story that the ACA is not a government takeover of health care? Or, do you do what 99.445% of reporters do, and simply let the tape roll, because, after all, as your journalism professors taught you, it’s not YOU that’s making the false assertion, it’s the candidate?
When Paul Ryan spun his lie about the Janesville GM plant in his speech at the Republican Convention, he was caught immediately. But today’s political tactic is to continue to tell the lie, again and again, regardless of how many times reporters call you on it. Piers Morgan’s interview with Scott Walker the night after Ryan’s convention speech is quite instructive: Morgan essentially said to Walker “why the lie?” – and Walker simply repeated it – twice. Is “Obama promised to keep the GM Janesville plant open” a true or false statement? Now, the Ryanites have doubled-down on the falsehood, and are running a TV ad which infers Obama broke promise to keep the plant open - even though the context of CANDIDATE Obama's quote clearly indicates the plant could stay open another hundred years IF General Motors would re-tool to make more fuel-efficient vehicles - an option GM decided not to take.
That’s why we don’t – and can’t – have political discourse any more. We can’t agree on what’s a fact and what isn’t.
As a varsity debater in college, I learned the importance of defining terms. Seems now we have to define facts. And, since we can’t seem to agree on facts, we’ll remain divided and gridlocked.
The image at the top of this post is Copyright PolitiFact.