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Not “Both Sides,” Now: Why False Equivalence Matters in the Shutdown Showdown

People can argue the rights and wrongs of the showdown, but pinning the crisis on a bipartisan failure of "Congress" is a media copout

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U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) (L) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) (R) speak to members of the media after a vote on the Senate floor Sept. 27, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

“Reality,” Stephen Colbert once said, “has a well-known liberal bias.” He was joking–or “joking”–but he identified a serious problem for political reporters in a polarized era. What do you do when the actual reality of a news story is not evenly balanced between two sides? What do you do when the facts of a situation are such that to describe them accurately will make you sound biased?

This month’s fiscal crisis is one such situation. One party (in fact, essentially one wing of the Republican party), seeking the elimination or delay of Obamacare, precipitated a government shutdown and threatened to force a default on U.S. debt. Period. There was no corresponding threat or demand on the Democratic or White House side; having gotten the Affordable Care Act into law three years ago, they are not in the situation of saying, “Pass Obamacare or we shut ‘er down.”

That’s the situation. To accurately describe it, as news coverage should, is not to endorse an ideology. It’s not to say that Obamacare is good or bad. It’s not to say that Republicans do or don’t have good reasons to oppose it. It’s not to say that Democrats have or haven’t sought political benefit in the aftermath. But it correctly places the impetus where it belongs.

Much of the big-picture news coverage has been clear on this. But as the crisis dragged on, more news stories framed the story as old-fashioned bipartisan gridlock between two equally culpable, stubborn, useless sides. It becomes “Boehner, White House Harden Stances” (Washington Post); “Congress Plays Chicken” (a CNN chyron this morning); “each side trying to blame the other” (Politico).

“Both sides are to blame; the truth is somewhere in between”–that has always been the political media’s happy, safe place. Some of the reasons are noble; journalists genuinely want to give both sides a hard, fair look. (Understandable, given the amount of simple, partisan sloganeering out there, like Fox News spinning the shutdown as a “slimdown” or MSNBC, as I write this, captioning its coverage with a GOP elephant next to the phrase “RANSOM NOTES.”) Some reasons are less proud: wanting to keep access to pols in each party, not wanting to alienate any readers or viewers, because subscription and advertising dollars know no party. Seeming fair becomes more important than being fair.

At worst, a legitimate impulse (“Let’s make sure we’ve checked out the other side”) becomes skewing reality for the sake of appearances (“We have to put in an example of the other side doing this”). It’s a way of ingratiating yourself, having a populist point-of-view divorced from a political one: those bums in Congress won’t do their jobs, but we’re on your side, America! (See Don Lemon on CNN this weekend, haranguing a Democratic and Republican representative, “Why the hell can’t you work it out?” Update: To be fair, Lemon also asked his GOP guest to “stop holding the American people hostage.”) If all else fails, you can always quote ideologues in each party and make your lead paragraph, “Congress points fingers.”

Ah, saved by the magic fingers again. Media critics, especially on the left, call this kind of thumb-on-the-blame-scales balance “false equivalence.” That charge itself can be used as a crowbar to try to leverage coverage in one direction, or to obscure issues in a dust cloud of “But they started it!” Not every criticism of two parties needs to come with a numerical assessment of who did it first and worse; that can make every politics story as recrimination- and second-guess-filled an exercise as trying to slice the last brownie in half for a pair of five-year-olds. (See, for instance, the liberal whinging over Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity in 2010.)

But in a case like the fiscal crisis, false equivalence matters. It’s the difference between reporting an extraordinary event and an ordinary one, which in this case is crucial to how the story plays out politically. It’s a matter of whether “not changing current law” becomes redefined as “getting 100% of what you want.” If this is just one more case of those knuckleheads in Washington “digging in their heels,” “playing the blame game,” and so on, it normalizes the situation for the news audience: it sends the tacit message that it is entirely ordinary, every so often, to have a forced debt crisis that reasonable people resolve through “compromise” by renegotiating major pieces of U.S. law.

Is the situation ordinary? It’s true that legislators of both parties–like Sen. Obama in 2006–have made grandstanding votes against the debt limit many times in the past. But those were stage-managed protests in which votes were carefully counted and there was no serious fear the U.S. would actually default, unlike in 2011, when the crisis resulted in a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating. That’s another case where “the other side did it too” does not an equivalence make.

So here, “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.

14 comments
AlanYungclas
AlanYungclas

Turn off the TV and listen to NPR.  Turn on the TV and watch Bill Moyers late at night.

DanaMarshallPostil
DanaMarshallPostil

the problem with this story is they quote Stephen Colbert and John Stewart aren't they entertainers? So it looks like bull to me.


DarkBolt500
DarkBolt500

Really J?  Ok, yeah, you are right to a large degree, but who cares whether or not Republicans or Democrats are doing things properly, when both groups to a large degree are doing things wrong, same goes for journalists as you said, "oh my precious democrat followers, have to be loyal to them, but oh my precious republican followers, can't diss them either, how do I say things ever so nicely..." 

     Right, things are a bit ridiculous in lots of ways.  But there are more important things going on than whether or not various groups are doing things the way they should be, because whether you are Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, while we all bicker about the small potatoes, the Gov has already taken the big potato and borrowed a thousand other potatoes, and given half those away to a bunch of fat people with massive food stains on their thousand dollar shirts.  

     I know very well that FOX is not "fair and balanced" as they like to believe, but neither is CNN or any other.  It seems that groups from either side have their secret little agendas, but even though that is horrible, I am more worried about the bigger picture, because that picture is the one that threatens to wipe out what freedoms or semblance thereof, we have left.  And the Affordable Health Care Act, regardless of who wrote it, regardless of whether or not there are Republican ideas in there somewhere or Democrat ideas in there somewhere, that entire plan, is exactly what it claims to be.  An "ACT"!  It "ACTS" like Health Care to fool people into not looking into the HEART of the document to see it for what it is.  

     Now I am not trying to imply that there are not some great ideas in it, I am trying to imply that those ideas are a front for the death that lies beyond the laymen's terms and understandable "basics" of the Act, and that in that nearly 3000 page document lies several "provisions" that will destroy the current privatized system, and how much would you be willing to bet there are "provisions" (that are now actual law...) that have nothing to do with health care whatsoever, but serve to strengthen the government's already powerful grip on us?  Slavery is around the corner bro.  

     And the issue with Health Care is not the only serious issue at work that we need to focus on.  Are whites (like me) a minority?  Probably happening, but race is not the issue we all need to be concerned with right now.  Because the real problems will effect every one of us EQUALLY.  Want to know what I do?  As a WHITE guy, I am a WEEDEATER.  We use Echo brand weedeaters and trim around buildings and obstacles that the push-mowers cannot reach.  My pay is actually not too bad, for a single.  I know there are Hispanic Americans and Black Americans who make a good deal more than I do, but that will change soon if all of us do not put out racial differences aside, and focus on the horrors the government is getting away with, and RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR FACES!!!

     $700 Billion dollar stimulous?  Where did that money go?  ALL of it????  Plus all the other "bailouts" as well, even under the last pres, money well spent?  Or money in some rich cat's pockets in order to get future favors perhaps?  And that is just supposition, the point is that the management of these huge corporations got literally millions if not hundreds of.  In their pockets.  From those "bailouts".   People, we are in big trouble, and that, is a fact.  Your party affiliation, age or race will not save you when the walls crumble.

Mayagrafix
Mayagrafix

The real story behind this story is "the passing of the guard". The White Middle class slowly and inexorably recedes from power and the up and coming new majorities (latino, black, oriental) move in to take their middle class place. Just as American, just as patriotic, just as hungry for the good life. The Tea Party's swan song now filling the airwaves is an old one, D-E-N-I-A-L, and its chorus is waiting for a fascist megalomaniac clothed as a saviour of middle class virtues to take charge and lead them; wailing to lead them back to a promised land that in reality they never had, but for which they keep clamouring as the good old days.

youcantfoolme
youcantfoolme

We are all aware of the media bias. Congress and the POTUS needs a good dose of common sense. Why do we the people put up with all this crap? This is just another angle of attaching pork to every bill. A tactic that should of been outlawed years ago. All bills should be passed on their individual merit only and we wouldn't be having this mess in the first place.

j45ashton
j45ashton

Absolutely agree.  Biggest offenders here are the major networks and CNN.  David Gregory among the worst.  He knows better but the whole approach is just to stir things up for the sake of generating story.  CNN the same.  How many times do you hear John King for example slam the Republicans...and then as an afterthought make sure to say that Democrats are equally to blame.  What baloney!  My son puzzles at these guys because outside of Fox News which is so obvious, he thinks he should be able to rely on news people for accurate reporting.  And when their reporting doesn't comport with what he sees in the public arena, he puzzles.  What he's coming around to is an understanding of how the media are really functioning today.  How their concern is with their jobs, political correctness, feeding the 24 hr news cycle & making sure they have continuing access to politicians.  But Bob Schieffer is older, closer to retirement & probably getting impatient with fools.  On Sunday, he said to John Cornym: “Senator, isn’t there something wrong when you say “I won’t fund the government unless I can attach my personal wish list to the legislation every time we vote? I’d love to see the government find a cure for cancer, but I don’t think you can say I’m not going to pass any funds for the rest of the government until the NIH finds a cure for cancer. I mean, isn’t that just kind of the same thing here?”  He didn't let Cornyn off the hot seat.  It was refreshing to watch Schieffer & great to see Cornyn squirm.

peterpun
peterpun

@DanaMarshallPostil So, you'd rather listen to Rush/Hannity/O'Reilly instead? They're equally "entertaining", Certainly not legitimate news sources.

HerbSmith
HerbSmith

@DarkBolt500   There are numerous high quality reports from the Government Accountability Office, and many other reports and analyses of the $800B stimulus (aka, Recovery Act.)   The important aspects of reports are also summarized in a much more readable and concise account of the Recovery Act by Michael Grunwald (senior Time correspondent) entitled "The new new Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era."  It answers ALL the troubling questions posed in that last paragraph of your comment, and I feel sure you will find it VERY enlightening.

MiltonSpears
MiltonSpears

@youcantfoolme Apparently you either didn't read or understand the article, it's about false balance in the media, not bias. And the rest of your comment only proves the author's point.

MiltonSpears
MiltonSpears

@j45ashton We also have to remember that the media makes money by sowing controversy and discontent.

jenny5555
jenny5555

@j45ashton Well said. Thanks for the bit about Bob Schieffer; I'll seek him out now. 

And thanks so much for addressing this, James. Really thoughtful piece. This whole issue has been driving me crazy. Thank God for Jon Stewart.  

j45ashton
j45ashton

@MiltonSpears @j45ashton There is so much wrong with network & cable news these days.  Unbelievably annoying when they make statement deliberately meant to anger in order to generate more talk about points already covered.