Why the left whining about "False Equivalence" is equivalent to the right...

Why the left whining about "False Equivalence" is equivalent to the right whining about "Liberal Media Bias"

It’s all in the framing.
It's all about the framing.

The President’s comments at the Associated Press luncheon on Tuesday received a great deal of media attention. Much of the punditocracy was focused on the President’s preemptive strike at the Supreme Court and apparent attempt to direct judicial decisions from the oval office. The political grandstanding by the President precipitated a grandstand volley between the judiciary and the DOJ, as well as predictable partisan posturing from both the right and left.

Frankly I am at a loss to explain what Obama hopes to gain from this kind of rhetoric.  Sure it will fire up his base, but it also fires up the GOP base to a degree that the presumed Republican nominee could never hope to achieve.  I don’t see how it helps Obama with centrists and independents. When both a former mentor and student think he got it wrong, it is no surprise that his press secretary was on the defensive.

The President also tried to make hay with the oft-repeated point that the individual mandate was supported by Republicans before they were against it. Avik Roy  and Ilya Somin point out the converse is also true, with many Democrats (including candidate Obama) opposing the individual mandate before they supported it.

We once again see partisan hackery, hypocrisy, and cynical opportunism from partisans and politicos on both the right and left. Nothing new there.

But is it true equivalent hypocrisy? Or is it false equivalence?

Which brings us to this response from the President during AP luncheon Q&A that did not merit quite so much media attention, but it got mine:

Question: “Republicans have been sharply critical of your budget ideas as well. What can you say to the Americans who just want both sides to stop fighting and get some work done on their behalf?”

President Obama:I guess another way of thinking about this is — and this bears on your reporting. I think that there is oftentimes the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and an equivalence is presented — which reinforces I think people’s cynicism about Washington generally. This is not one of those situations where there’s an equivalence. I’ve got some of the most liberal Democrats in Congress who were prepared to make significant changes to entitlements that go against their political interests, and who said they were willing to do it. And we couldn’t get a Republican to stand up and say, we’ll raise some revenue, or even to suggest that we won’t give more tax cuts to people who don’t need them.. So as all of you are doing your reporting, I think it’s important to remember that the positions I’m taking now on the budget and a host of other issues, if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, would have been considered squarely centrist positions. What’s changed is the center of the Republican Party. And that’s certainly true with the budget.”

Indeed. So the President thinks the press might be afflicted by an “impulse” to suggest that both Republicans and Democrats are at fault for failing to compromise. He goes on to patiently explain that this is completely untrue – in fact this is “false equivalence” and bad reporting. The correct way for the Associated Press reporters to cover this story is to blame only Republicans. Any questions?

I have a few. We’ve often heard this “false equivalence” complaint from the left about media coverage in recent years, but exactly what does the charge of “false equivalence” mean to a reporter on a practical level? Does it mean that the reporter should simply blame Republicans 100% for legislative failures at the behest of the administration?  Or should the reporting be more nuanced than that? Should the reporter only slant the reporting to assign 75% blame to the Republicans and 25% to the Democrats?  Or is it adequate to blame Republicans 52% and Democrats 48%?  Who makes these fine judgments about whether there is false equivalence or true equivalence or some finer gradation of equivalence in a news story?  

Unsurprisingly, Democrats James Fallows and Greg Sargent are happy to tell you exactly who to blame and exactly what percentage to apply to Republicans.

My take is that the “false equivalence” meme in general and this speech in particular are just another partisan attempt to shape the narrative, which is another way of saying – manage the press. In some ways this is a continuation of Professor George Lakoff’s thesis (widely embraced on the left) that conservative and republican framing of issues in the media was the major electoral problem for progressives and the Democratic Party. Lakoff asserts that progressives need only properly “frame” their policies in the media to garner support of the American electorate.

On the right, republicans have made political hay for decades by accusing mainstream broadcast and print media of having a liberal bias.  It is a de rigueur meme in virtually any GOP campaign that garners national attention. Any perceived criticism in the press is deflected with that charge.

It is a popular and well mined meme. Best-selling books have been written about liberal bias in the media. Blogs are dedicated to monitoring and exposing liberal bias in the media.   Conservative pundits bloviate about liberal bias in the media. The very  raison d’etre for the Fox News Network was to provide a “fair and balanced” counterpoint to the perceived liberal bias in the media.

“Liberal bias in the media” may be a cliche’ but it is a politically effective cliche’. When a conservative politico complains about “liberal media bias” they are simply complaining about how a story is being reported. If they can change the narrative in the press, or get supporters to ignore a negative narrative by charging “liberal media bias” – why not drag out that reliable chestnut? It’s effective.

But, what if you are a progressive politico and you want to similarly influence the press to use a narrative more sympathetic to your cause? What are you going to say? Are you going to accuse the press of “Conservative Media Bias”? Outside of Fox News, who is going to take that seriously? It’s ineffective. No one believes it, not even liberals.  But – a charge that media is reporting a “false equivalence” between Republicans and Democrats – well – that sounds different and kind of intellectual and maybe that is a good reason to dismiss reporting that is insufficiently sympathetic to Democrats.

The charge of “false equivalence” from the left is nothing more or less than political spin hoping to have the identical effect on perception of MSM reporting that the right seeks to achieve with “Liberal media bias.” 

The notion of charging the media with reporting “false equivalence” strikes me as an absurdity. Certainly there is media bias. There always has been and always will be. Sometimes it is left and sometimes it is right. Certainly a reported story will not match everyone’s perception of how equivalent blame should be weighted. This is not going to change because the right accuses the MSM of “liberal media bias” and it is not going to change because the left accuses the media of reporting “false equivalence”. It is just another way of saying “We are right, they are wrong.”

This is politics as usual. I expect it from partisan Republicans. I expect it from partisan Democrats. But I do feel there is something unseemly and demeaning about the President of the United States stooping to this level.

But whether it is a president or a pundit making the charge, I’ll stick with the “Doctrine of False Non-Equivalence”  which is to say….

They are equivalent.  Deal with it.

Cross-posted from “The Dividist Papers

  • Rob

    You really need to learn to write shorter posts.

  • mdgeorge

    Does it mean that the reporter should simply blame Republicans 100% for legislative failures at the behest of the administration? Or should the reporting be more nuanced than that? Should the reporter only slant the reporting to assign 75% blame to the Republicans and 25% to the Democrats? Or is it adequate to blame Republicans 52% and Democrats 48%? Who makes these fine judgements about whether there is false equivalence or true equivalence or some finer gradation of equivalence in a news story?

    If democrats are claiming the sky is red, and republicans claiming the sky is blue, then the media should assign 100% of the blame to the democrats. If democrats are claiming the sky is blue and republicans claiming the sky is red, then the media should assign 100% of the blame to the republicans. In either case, the “false equivalence” that would be likely to come from the press would be either “democrats and republicans disagree about sky color” or “americans think sky is purple”.

    In this particular case, the question that was asked was (paraphrased) “you’re complaining that the republicans aren’t compromising, but they say the same thing about you”. Obama correctly criticized this as a false equivalence, and then cited _evidence_ that he’d been willing to make compromises (including changes to entitlements and budget cuts), and _evidence_ that the Republicans were not (including the en masse refusal of r. candidates to accept 10:1 cuts:taxes).

    There are facts and there is historical context. Trying to find the “center” without considering those things is false equivalence.

  • cranky critter

    I disagree. It’s not about equivalence. It’s only partisans who are obsessed with favorably comparing their side to the other side. When we get caught up in a debater about which side is more awful and which is least objectionable, we lose sight of what should be the most important takeaway: both sides are grossly deficient.

    Democrats want tax hikes now in return for promises of future cuts. Republicans want cuts now, and no new taxes ever. They’re both wrong, sure. But whether they are equally wrong shouldn’t matter, and we shouldn’t care. But we should care that they’re unable or unwilling to do their jobs collectively.

    We should flush the toilet.

  • http://www.nonprofitexpert.com/nonprofit_software.htm al-knows

    “point out the converse is also true, with many Democrats (including candidate Obama) opposing the individual mandate before they supported it. ”

    Isn’t this what helped sink John Kerry back in 2004 – I was for it before I was against it (Iraq War)? Posture, posture.

  • Tully

    Hear hear! What Cranky said. Otherwise, I have been noting CPD™ as a distinct “feature” of modern politics for some time now.

    mdgeorge skips the entire question of whether or not the compromises offered were even remotely acceptable, or simply constituted throwaway crumbs of no importanceutilized for posturing against the opposition. A matter of POV, to be sure, but that subjectivity presented as “facts” is one of the hallmarks of both CPD™ and oilitics as usual today. Reading through the record would suggest that Obama’s “compromises” have a tendency to alter considerably or vanish entirely once he’s managed to get the opposition to budge a bit. Once again, a matter of POVV, but one at least as factual as the other take.

    As the illo title suggests, there’s more than a tiny bit of framing involved.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    @ Rob
    yeah…. but after five years on this blog, if it hasn’t happened by now, it’s just not going to happen.

    @ MDG
    Only if there is some sort of objective assessment of THE TRUTH. In this case you (and the President) are presenting the Democratic partisan spin of an issue as if it is THE TRUTH. In Simpson-Bowles, in the nascent “Gang of..” Budget compromise in the Senate, and in the aborted Obama/Boehner Grand Bargain, Republican leadership agreed to compromises that included revenue increases. Just not as much as some Democrats (notably the President) wanted. The GOP version of THE TRUTH is that it is Obama and Democratic party intransigence in making meaningful spending cuts and demanding overzealous tax increases that are preventing compromise. I know you disagree. That’s the point.

    Just because you personally believe the Democratic Party line version of THE TRUTH doesn’t make it THE TRUTH.

    And that is why – particularly on this issue – claiming “false equivalence” on press coverage is identically the same thing as saying “you should report it the way I see it.”

    BTW – I am perfectly willing to concede that on this issue the Republicans are more intransigent than Democrats in Congress. I’ve done a detailed analysis and calculated the blame to be exactly 50.72% attributable to Republicans and 49.28% attributable to Democrats. I’d personally like to see reporting on the issue reflect these percentages.

    @ Rob again
    You see the problem? I just said the same thing as Cranky, but it took me twice as long to say it.

  • Tully

    For reference, as it is directly applicable:

    CPD™ = Comparitive Political Demonology (trademark): The process of making tit-for-tat comparisons between political figures or factions in the attempt to make one side look either better or worse than the other by comparison, when in truth neither side is blameless and the comparison is generally irrelevant to the issue at hand. Such comparisons are almost always completely dependent on the subjective emotional stance of the utterer(s), and are generally intended to divert discussion by distraction. Example: “Clinton lied to our faces about having sex with Lewinsky! And then he lied under oath!” “Well, at least he didn’t lie us into war, which is worse.” (Related: “Look, Buzz, a spaceship!”) A prime symptom of PDS.

    PDS = Political Derangement Syndrome: A visceral and obsessive hatred and fixation on a person or faction in the field of politics, such that the sufferer is wholly unable to objectively assess anything related to that person or faction. Usually accompanied by a paranoic or near-paranoic tendency to attribute all things one objects to as being the responsibility of the obsession focus, and to dismiss all things originating from the obsessive focus as evil simply due to origin. While currently most visible as BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome) this syndrome has been readily apparent in various forms since written history began. Irrevocably intertwined with the scapegoat function of mob control psychology and as such frequently used by faction leaders as a control device over their people. Them Evil. Us Good. The major distinction between scapegoating and PDS is that the focus is directed upwards, rather than at a weak minority. See also the Mock-King of the Saturnalia tradition, wherein the Mock-King would preside over the festival with full license, then be executed (for real) at the closing ceremonies.

    ©2007 Tully, CPD™ as defined above in use by me since at least 1994.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    @ Tully


    “©2007 Tully, CPD™ as defined above in use by me since at least 1994.

    Until I see it on a t-shirt or backwards baseball cap – it does not count.

  • Tully

    Posted with copyright and trademark notice in 2007, counts for all legal purposes under all relevant trademark/copyright conventions of the US of A. :-)

    Notice I do NOT claim to have invented the Derangement Syndrome term. Just CPD™.

  • mdgeorge

    @mw, I actually agree with you, I was wrong to present the president’s argument as fact.

    However, I think there is an antidote to CPD/”they’re worse”, and I do think it’s the media’s job, and I do think they’re failing, and I think that Obama was directly speaking to this failing.

    There are no facts in this discussion. For example, Tully (correctly) points out: “mdgeorge skips the entire question of whether or not the compromises offered were even remotely acceptable, or simply constituted throwaway crumbs of no importance.”

    There is no number that can be attached to the truth of this statement. There’s no measure of “acceptable”. But there are facts. What were the compromises? I didn’t say, Tully didn’t say, and the media as a whole doesn’t really say.

    But these things are measurable. If I recall correctly, I think the numbers that were being thrown around at the time were on the order of 5:1 cuts:taxes. The media can’t decide for me (and I can’t decide for you) whether that’s more of a compromise than the refusal of 10:1 cuts by the candidates. But putting those numbers next to each other sure makes it easier to

    With regards to competing budget arguments, what I wouldn’t give for a handful of pie charts so that I could easily and objectively compare. Where does our money go? How much do we take in? How progressive is it (factoring in all the tax loopholes and deductions)? These numbers should be present in every one of these discussions. There should be a delegate from the CBO at every debate on economics. Without that, the populace (who has other things they have to do) cannot evaluate the arguments on merits, and so we must resort to he said/she said, CPD, emotional reasoning, and so forth.

  • mdgeorge

    The other thing that’s missing, besides objective and accurate descriptions of the current arguments, is historical context. Statements like “the lowest since the 1920’s”, “higher than during the Reagan administration” are both useful and verifiable. To be sure, they can be manipulated and cherry picked while still retaining technical accuracy, but those manipulations are easy to spot, especially when they are pointed out by a media that is doing its job.

    Similarly, “this is an argument that my opponents used to make” or “this was a Republican idea” could be verified and details and nuance could be added by a responsible media, and these are useful facts to consider when trying to understand whether the left has moved left or the right has moved right.

    Compare these to “wants to turn us into Europe”, “fundamental transformation of America”. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, because I haven’t done a systematic evaluation of Obama vs. Romney speeches.

    I’m not trying to say “the media should report my conclusions.” But I am saying that the media should do factual analysis, and use that analysis to interpret the reporting they do; questions like ‘you said the other side is evil, but the other side says you’re evil, what’s your response?’ deserve to be criticised.

  • mdgeorge

    @mw said:

    In Simpson-Bowles, in the nascent “Gang of..” Budget compromise in the Senate, and in the aborted Obama/Boehner Grand Bargain, Republican leadership agreed to compromises that included revenue increases.

    As I remember it, you are correct that Boehner accepted large compromises in the “Grand Bargain”, and I am happy to give him Kudos for that. However, the agreement failed because the Republican House members were not willing to compromise.

  • cranky critter

    @MDG The Simpson-Bowles commission recommended something like a 3 or 4 to 1 balance of cuts to taxes.

    The ratio in question was mentioned during the failed debt-ceiling negotiations last summer. But to my knowledge, no claims about the ratio as it related to the actual deal on the table were ever verified In other words, both sides made mathy-sounding claims using this ratio, but none of us knows what was or wasn’t offered or how close anything came to happening.

    Overlaid on all this is the issue of what may or may not have been called an actual cut. There are several confusing propensities at work here. (Both usually used by the democrats, to the best of my knowledge, though i don’t want to start a blamestorm)

    One of them is to call a reduction of a planned spending increase a cut. In other words, if you had planned to increase the budget in department x from 100 to 105, and you only increase it to 103 instead, that’s a “cut.” But expenditures go up, not down.

    The other propensity is that of promising cuts in later years while calling them actual cuts, just as if there were some actual mechanism to ensure that the reductions get made as promised. This is at work whenever you see someone say something like ” a 100 billion cut over the next decade”. That always means “no cuts at all for the first 2 or 3 years, etc… .”

    The problem there, of course, is that tomorrow never comes. The cuts never happen, they get kicked down the road, lovely intentions that never come to fruition.

    We’ve got BIG PROBLEM here, in that voters do not seem to have the focus or attention span to distinguish between actual sober consideration and making of hard choices, and the appearance of the same, as signaled by “leaders’ who call increases cuts and count promises as realities.

  • mdgeorge

    @cc: those are helpful things to consider. However, I think that placing the blame on the voters (or the politicians) is the wrong place. It is the media’s job to take these statements and add that kind of perspective, and as a whole, they don’t do it. Instead, they invite one conservative and one liberal to come in and argue past each other. That’s “false equivalence”.

    What would be a way to cut through the rhetoric? How about getting answers to these four questions from each of the candidates: draw your desired curve of individual income to actual taxes paid, give a number for the total taxes collected and total deficit, and a pie chart of where that money goes (deductions go in this category: if two people with the same income pay different taxes, then the “curve” gets the maximum, and the difference goes into the pie chart). As the saying goes, your budget defines your priorities, and these three pictures would let you read off the candidate’s priorities in a mostly spin-free way. The spin would be reduced to the categories attatched to the pie chart, but it would be reduced to claims of “here’s what I want to buy and what I expect to pay for it”, and these are claims that can be easily evaluated. In addition to being compared directly, these measurements would be easily compared with the current budget and with historical budgets. Moreover, I think most Americans have an idea of what the answers “should” be, and I’d be willing to bet that those “should be”‘s are much closer to each other than they are to reality.

    If I had time, I’d make those charts into an interactive website.

    This reminds me of the discussion we had a while back about the debt to revenue ratio. You pointed out that deficit:revenue rose dramatically as Obama was taking office, and expressed alarm at that problem. Putting that clear number in front of me made it much more easy for me to reason about. If you remember, I posted a historical chart of that number, which put it into even better perspective: the deficit:revenue was indeed much higher than normal, but it tended to spike and then drop during recessions, and the current jump was (IIRC) about half the size of that in the great depression. That one little picture put the statements “Obama has drastically and unsustainably increased the debt”, as well as claims about stimulus and future reductions into more perspective.