Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Folly of False Equivalency

So what is false equivalency which is so prevalent today?

Let’s start with a pretend example.  You wish to produce a program commemorating the life of the late Neil Armstrong and his career which included being the first man to walk on the moon.  We can have a number of guests; perhaps an astronomer, some NASA workers from that mission, and maybe even fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.  Seems like it would be a great show, wouldn’t it?

Ah, but someone who passionately believes that the moon landing was a hoax hears about your program and then demands to have equal time on your show to give his side of the story.  So what do you do?  Do you say yes because after all, fair is fair?  Or instead, do you suggest that he checks into a nearby mental hospital?

At first blush, it seems only fair that we always give both sides equal time to give their opinions on any topic.  But then there is this famous and wise quote from the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan (D-NY).
"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."
Indeed it is this blurring between opinion and facts where we go off the rails.  For example, giving equal coverage to whether President Obama should or shouldn't be reelected is a matter of differing opinions and a worthwhile discussion.  But unfortunately, the so-called birther movement which has its own facts on where the president was born has gotten an incredible amount of media coverage from Donald Trump’s rants on the subject (which temporarily raised him to the top of the Republican poll numbers) to Mitt Romney’s recent birther cheap shot that received a large ovation from the crowd in attendance.  Although Romney later said in interviews that it was a joke, he made no attempt to tell that to his cheering audience.

Of course this whole line of factual emptiness can be turned against Trump himself if we wanted to by questioning whether he was really born in this country.  After he produces his birth certificate and perhaps his hospital records, we can always pronounce them to be forgeries and then again question whether he was really born in this country.  While this is all idiotic, it’s no different than the tactics Trump and his fellow birthers have been using against the president.

In another example, despite the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists that the earth is warming and is almost certainly caused by man, there are still many climate change deniers, mainly conservative commentators and politicians (many financially supported by the fossil fuel industry) who are given free reign by the media to give their own versions of the facts.  And it’s working.  Doubts about global warming/climate change among Americans have been increasing over recent years.  But interestingly, a recent poll showed that only 2% of Canadians do not believe that climate change is real which is likely a reflection that Canadians are not subjected to the same amount of anti-scientific propaganda in the media as Americans.

A similar argument can be made about the false equivalency in the minds of some over a creation-evolution"controversy" despite there being just about no dispute whatsoever within the scientific and academic community about the validity of evolution over creationism.  Again, while differing opinions are OK, this false equivalency by the zealous supporters of creationism has led to numerous efforts by them to try and give creationism equal billing with evolution in science classes and textbooks – not a good thing when the US is trying to catch up to the rest of the world in science education.

But there is one false equivalency that really drives me up the wall. And that is the assertion that MSNBC is the same as Fox News except that one is liberal and the other is conservative.  Two things need to be mentioned here.  One is that as a liberal, I am an avid MSNBC viewer. The other is that admittedly, the above assertion does have some truth to it.  Fox has conservative opinion, and MSNBC has mostly liberal opinion except perhaps on their early morning flagship show, Morning Joe hosted by former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough.  Although Scarborough generally portrays himself as a moderate Republican, he does seem to have a serious man crush on not at all moderate Republican Paul Ryan.

Where the two are radically different are in their presentations of facts – or more accurately what it is they present to be facts.  The MSNBC example here is pretty typical.  Evening host Ed Schultz does a piece on how Rush Limbaugh made some racist remarks earlier that day.  Then he immediately supports that as shown in this video so the viewer can make up his or her mind whether Schultz is engaging in fact or just opinion.

In contrast, there is Glenn Beck who while at Fox, famously declared President Obama to be a racist who hates white people as can be seen in this video.  While again he is entitled to his opinion, the problem is that he presents this to his viewers as fact, not by any examples of racist behavior like Schultz did, but by reciting a list of people he was said to associate with.  So while both MSNBC and Fox both engage in opinion,  Fox more often and more blatantly serves up opinion (along with lies) disguised as facts.  This leads to the false equivalency by many of their viewers between Fox’s opinions and somebody else’s facts.

And while cable networks like MSNBC and Fox are not particularly worried about being seen as partisan in their views, the broadcast networks watched by many more people go out of their way to appear impartial and politically down the middle. Again, this is OK when presenting different opinions.  But for example, when presenting two people, each with their own incompatible set of “facts”, doesn’t journalistic integrity demand enough follow up questions to try and see who is really presenting the facts and not just opinion? Unfortunately, since doing so may make them look too partisan to some, they all too often just wimp out and present both views as equally valid opinions which does a great disservice to their viewers specifically and the democratic process in general.

To conclude, here are liberal commentator Stephanie Miller’s brilliant reflections on the false equivalency so prevalent on the Sunday morning political talk shows like Meet the Press.
…as soon as the “Meet the Press” theme music comes on…and no matter what I hit him with — Sunday paper, remote control, last night’s turkey meatballs — [David] Gregory just keeps right on babbling about the harsh partisan rhetoric on both sides of every political debate. With his trademark “I’m inside-the-Beltway-and-you’re-not” approach, he never asks the follow-up question that would separate a talking point from a fact. He thinks he’s just treating both sides the same way. 

What Karl Rove’s dancing partner doesn’t get (or won’t admit) is that both sides don’t treat him the same way. His Republican guests play him like a rube at a carny. They lie, they mislead and they scapegoat — and Gregory lets them get away with all of it in the name of “journalistic fairness.” Just once it would be nice to have a Democrat look him in the eye and say, “Name one instance where we do what Michele Bachmann does. Or Sarah Palin. Or Rush Limbaugh. Name one. 
Cue the crickets.
And in the words of another great journalist, Wolf Blitzer, “We’ll have to leave it there.” Before the liberal gets a chance to accidentally slip in a fact …

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