“We’ve looked at life from both sides now
From right and left, and still somehow
It’s all illusions we recall
We really don’t know life at all.”
“While it’s our duty as citizens to hold the government accountable, it’s also necessary to operate within the bounds of reality when levying blame for a lack of sanity, or a lack of civility, or a lack of decent legislation.” Bob Cesca
Many news reports and commentaries draw false equivalence between things that have significant differences in degree or in kind. When things are distinctly different, it is a fallacy to contend or to report as though they are equivalent if not identical. Such contentions and reports do not help citizens effectively discharge their duty as the ultimate sovereigns under our Constitutional Republic. In fact by obscuring real differences in the nature and effect of various actions, false equivalence subverts our governance process.
There’s a habit among some media personnel of saying “both sides do it” in order to avoid taking sides in a dispute. However, drawing a false equivalence is “taking sides.” Furthermore, it is taking the wrong side. By “both sides do it” the reporter or commentator takes the side of the people responsible for the greater evil. The job of journalists is to tell the truth, not create false impressions or spread mistaken conceptions in the name of neutrality. The equation of unequal things misinforms the citizenry and allows those who are wreaking havoc in our political system to get away with their sabotage.
In February 2012, NPR took aim at false equivalence in its new Ethics Handbook that said in part: “In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.” This is precisely what the so-called Fourth Estate must do if they are to fulfill their role in effective, responsible governance and assist citizens generally in doing likewise.
False equivalence is fallacious when someone claims an action by one political party or one politician is equally egregious to that of another without taking into account underlying, factual differences which makes the comparison absurd and patently invalid. A currently cogent example is the tempest that has arisen regarding Rush Limbaugh’s jihad against Sandra Fluke. Republicans are so deathly afraid of offending Rush Limbaugh that they go so far as to apologize to him for real or imagined offenses and bow in obsequious deference to him. The most absurd incident of those who engage in the false equivalence fallacy is Limbaugh devotees claiming that Bill Maher is the de-facto leader of the Democratic Party and his remarks about prominent Republican women politicians are just as abhorrent as Limbaugh’s attacks on a private citizen.
Bill Maher is a comedian, who delivers liberal one-liners at the expense of the conservative establishment, but he is neither a spokesman for the Democratic Party or even a registered Democrat. Just saying he some major Democratic figure is does not make him one. While Democratic politicians do not engage in quarrels with Bill Maher, they also do not fawn upon him and pay obeisance to him.
A more consequential example of false equivalency in news reporting happened during the debt ceiling crisis. In a question to Senator Jim DeMint, David Gregory concluded “But the reality is nobody is really willing to compromise and to make a deal.” This comment flew in the face of reality at the time of this debacle. Republicans insisted on a deal 100% in their favor. If they could not get this, they were willing to consider deliberately crashing the economy. They took harder and more extreme positions as the fiasco dragged on and concluded with the self-serving “Cut, Cap, and Balance” charade that was widely acknowledged to be an utter waste of time. In contrast, President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders were willing to accept various concessions and compromises that leaned heavily in the Republican’s favor. The facts if properly reported would have made it clear to every fair minded citizen that the behavior of the parties was in no way equivalent. Regrettably, however, viewers of Mr. Gregory’s program were not properly informed by the presentation made.
Other more general examples of false equivalence concern Republican objections to revenue increases and Democratic resistance to spending cuts. Though these are often presented as two equally obstructive stances they are not. Democrats regularly finesse the spending cut issue by restraining growth in costs rather than reducing expenditures. Republicans, in contrast, routinely take the position that not a cent of new revenue can be raised, no matter how this is accomplished or described. There is no equivalence between a flexible, let’s see what we can do approach and an absolutist, my way or no way stance.
Despite the tendency among some, especially Republican partisans, to suggest that all media coverage must even-handedly span the entire spectrum of opinion in order to be valid, there is a difference between factually accurate propositions and logical valid positions and those that are simply matters of sound and fury. No matter how vast the discrepancies in evidential content or how ridiculous comparison of the arguments some persist in trying to make the case that whatever fault is assessed it should be done in a manner that distributes blame equally. If the general media’s intent is aligned with that of NPR, “Our goal is to seek the truth,” then strained equivalence must be abandoned. There are at least two sides to every story. One of these is the truth and all others are irrelevant. Effective and constructive political leaders take a stand on vital public issues; effective and conscientious reports and commentators do neither practice nor perpetuate the absurdity that there is always a cogent rebuttal to every responsible argument or assertion.
Last, but by no means least, one must consider an especially crucial case of false equivalency. Since they lost control of the Senate, Mitch McConnell and the Republicans have made 60 votes the de facto requirement for almost any action by that chamber of congress. The chart below reflects this:
Contrary to the commonplace report that it takes 60 votes to approve a bill or a nomination in the Senate, it really takes 60 votes to overcome the obstruction so that a bill or nomination can be approved by a simple majority. The Senate like the House is constitutionally designated to function on the basis of majority rule except for a few specific kinds of issues. This is most clearly signaled by the fact that the vice president is constitutionally empowered to cast the decisive vote if the Senate is equally divided. Truthful reporting and commentary on the hamstringing of the Senate would not obscure what is really happening by citing a 60 vote requirement. It would point out that the Republican Party has made a conscious choice to violate the letter and the obvious spirit of the Constitution by routinizing the super-majority threshold.
By falling into the false equivalency trap, many people in and out of the media are sowing the seeds of cynicism and despair among the citizenry. There are differences between the major political parties and among prominent politicians. Obscuring these and promoting a “pox on both houses” mentality does not serve the true interests of the nation or its citizens.