False equivalence

It’s pretty hard to imagine that this asinine government shutdown won’t be finished by the time this newspaper hits the newsstands. Of course, the same thing could have been said last week. So, just be aware that while the asinine government shutdown is the jumping off point for this expression of opinion, it’s only the jumping off point.

Much has been made of the idea of false equivalence with the shutdown. False equivalence, in journalism terms, is when a news source adds an opposing viewpoint on a level equal to another viewpoint expressed by a source in a story. Here’s an example that doesn’t necessarily include a bunch of traitorous assholes on Capitol Hill—although if you scratch it more than paint deep, it does emit a familiar odor.

Say 10,000 climate scientists say the Earth is warming, and it appears it is caused by humans. Then, say 50 scientists in fields other than climate say the world is warming, and it appears to be because of undersea volcanoes.

Then, say a reporter at the New York Times quotes a scientist from each group. This gives the appearance of objectivity and balance to a reader who knows nothing of climate change. It gives the reader the impression that the two sides are roughly equivalent. Even if the reporter gives the 10,000 to 50 statistics, the words are what matters in the readers’ mind.

It’s a Gordian knot. If the reporter cuts the minority voice out of the story, readers and advertisers complain that the report is unbalanced, the reporter biased. Even other journalists would complain—despite the fact that other journalists have read many reports that show that often those minority opinions have corporate backers. In our climate change example, it’s petroleum companies. If the reporter points out the scientists’ conflicts of interest, those same corporate backers squeal that the reporter should have found an unbiased source to represent the minority view.

It’s public relations, folks. It’s spin. It’s a lie that’s been foisted upon the American people that a single piece of journalism can ever represent the whole truth.

It’s up to you, readers. Our democracy is based on the idea that you will read many articles about the things that matter to you. It used to be called “the marketplace of ideas,” and much First Amendment law is based on this concept.

Walter Cronkite didn’t know the truth, he was just one of the voices that offered a point of view. The government of those days offered another. Time magazine offered another. The New York Times offered another. The American people took all those different ideas and came up with our own idea of truth about Vietnam.

The Republican Party on Capitol Hill is being manipulated by a minority of paid-off lackeys. That is the reason for the shutdown. That will be the reason for another debt ceiling crisis. Please forgive our lack of a misleading opposition viewpoint.