It’s worse than it looks: False equivalencies in media reporting

In their book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” authors Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein address the mistaken notion that we have about political gridlock. They assert that gridlock implies that both sides of a disagreement have equal validity or an equivalency, and in our current situation, that simply is not the case.

To quote them directly:

The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Coming from a liberal columnist or blogger, those words would have been unremarkable. But as political scientists working in Washington for over four decades, we had earned reputations as straight shooters who don’t traffic in partisan or ideological spin and who have worked comfortably with Democrats and Republicans alike in trying to improve the institutional workings of Congress. Many other nonpartisan analysts shared our views but were reluctant to go public, because it seemed to violate professional norms or make them vulnerable to charges of partisan bias, or they thought it would make bipartisan agreement even more difficult.

Worse than it looksOrnstein in a member of the American Enterprise Institute, so he has sound bone fides for not being a liberal partisan. Having worked for forty years as a non-partisan political scientist inside the beltway, he has reputation to maintain. What has happened to him and Mann is that, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, they have reached a tipping point. They can no longer accept the premise that bi-partisan means bi-equal. The Republicans have undermined American democracy in unprecedented ways. The de facto rules have changed because so many of the previously accepted rules have been broken or twisted out of shape by Republicans.

That is problem number one, but problem number two is what makes it so difficult to loosen the Republicans’ stranglehold on democracy. As they say,

We also stirred a hornet’s nest by taking on the mainstream media for failing to do its job of reporting the news in a straightforward fashion, even if that meant in an “unbalanced” way.

These outlets have surely contributed to partisan polarization. Instead, many in the traditional media— commercial (and even sometimes public) broadcasting and national and regional newspapers—took issue with our criticism of their even-handed treatment of the decidedly uneven behavior of the two major parties. Just as in the case of our treatment of the extreme attitudes and behavior of Republicans, we were far from the first to point out the pattern of false equivalence that characterizes much news reporting. James Fallows of The Atlantic has had a “false equivalency watch” for years, and a number of his colleagues in columns and blogs have contributed a stream of examples of the press giving balanced treatment to clearly true and false assertions by advocates. But as two scholars on whom reporters have relied for years for objective analysis and commentary, we had some advantage in elevating this critique and specifically linking it to the inability of the public to understand a major source of our dysfunctional government.

For media producers and writers to (a) recognize that they are giving Republicans undue legitimacy and (b) change their “news” to reflect this new reality is indeed a tough task. The way in which media presented the differences between to two major political parties in the 1950s and 1960s no longer works. One party often considers the well-being of the American people; the other party seems to be blind to that. One party believes in trickle-down economics; the other party sees it as a sham that has widened the income gap in America. But what’s really wrong with that picture is how it’s reported. Many in the media seem to be immune to the facts that show that the Republican position has been empirically found to be false.

Local news seems to handle the complexities of issues by rarely covering them. The local outlets have more and more become civic boosters rather than outlets for conveying important information. If we are going to help the American people see what’s really going on in their country, we must join Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein by recognizing how the Republican Party has brought the mainstream media in as a co-collaborator with their faulty vision of American. As is so often the case, what we as citizens can do is on the grassroots level by talking with our friends and acquaintances. This time it will be about the false equivalencies which hopefully can help the public gain better insight into the depth of our dysfunction.