In Time magazine’s recent profile of Herman Cain, author Michael Crowley writes of Cain’s now famous “9-9-9” plan, “Conservative economists applaud the idea, but many others say it dramatically favors the rich and would actually raise taxes on the poor and require huge spending cuts.”
Sentences like these in magazines like this one tell us a great deal about what’s wrong with political coverage in the United States. In the first place, the sentence treats America as if it is made up of only two groups of people: “the rich” and “the poor.” It does not even allow for the existence of the vast majority of Americans who exist somewhere in-between (generally referred to—and exalted as—“the middle class”). Most egregious of all, however, is the implied equivalence between the alleged approval by “conservative economists” on the one hand and what “others” say on the other.
Now, a few questions. Who are these “others?” Are they also economists or are they, say, garbage men? And do these unnamed conservative economists applaud the idea because it “would actually raise taxes on the poor and require huge spending cuts” or in spite of it? And finally, what, Mr. Time Magazine, would the plan actually do? What is the point, Time, if not to offer readers some guidance on competing claims by “conservative economists” and “others” when it comes to the proposals of leading presidential candidates?
It’s not like it would have been so hard. The Tax Policy Center broke down the numbers behind Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, and Neil Klopfenstein even offered a visualization of the plan based on the Tax Policy Center’s analysis.
What we have here is a prime example of what I have called “on the one-handism,” what Paul Krugman calls “the cult of balance” and what James Fallows calls the problem of “false equivalence.” The phenomenon derives from a multiplicity of causes but rests on two essential insights.
First, conservatives have figured out that even the most high-minded members of the media will publish their claims without prejudice, even if they lack any credible supporting evidence. They will do this because they consider it both “unfair” and nonobjective to take a position between the two parties even when it involves passing along a falsehood.
Second, because of the relentless effectiveness of the right’s effort to “work the refs,” reporters and editors are particularly reluctant to invite the hassles and angry accusations certain to arrive whenever anyone prints an unfavorable truth about anyone associated with the right. Conservatives have gotten so good at this, as a matter of fact, that they even get reporters to thank them for it—as well as to misidentify their complaints with those of average everyday American citizens.
Just one case in point: In his profile of Jill Abramson, the recently named New York Times executive editor, Ken Auletta quotes her discussing her time as the paper’s Washington bureau chief, confusing the two: “All my years in Washington, and in some ways being attacked by conservatives, made me more conscious of how a story might be seen in the rest of America,” Abramson explained.
Fallows has done the world a favor in this respect by risking his reputation for moderation and overall reasonableness by getting a metaphorical bit in his mouth on the topic of false equivalence. In doing so, he demonstrates one of the blogosphere’s key blessings: the ability to return to a topic over and over for the purposes of clarification and intensification. In his discussion of a story by The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake entitled “Democrats thwart Obama’s bipartisan goals again,” Fallows notes that the story in question “manages not to use the word "filibuster" while describing why the administration’s programs have not gotten through a Senate that the Democrats ‘control.’”
This is a shame. For as I noted in Kabuki Democracy, “Accurate numbers can be difficult to discern because in most cases the mere threat is enough to win the battle at hand.” But if we examine a close corollary—cloture votes—these rose from fewer than 10 per two-year congressional session during the 1970s to more than 100 in both the 2006–2008 and 2009–2010 sessions. Political scientist Barbara Sinclair estimates that these threats have affected 70 percent of all Senate bills since 2000, nearly 10 times the average in the previous century.
The same numbers suggest that Democrats, who were no paragons of virtue on cloture votes when they were in the minority under President George W. Bush, are still no match for their opponents when it comes to using and deploying the body’s tactical weaponry of obstruction. Since the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress in 2006, Republicans have more than doubled the 130 cloture motions Democrats had managed to force during the four previous years under George W. Bush.
Fallows reprints one of journalist Ezra Klein’s charts demonstrating the degree to which Senate Republicans have abused the filibuster relative to its use in the past. As Fallows notes, the “blue line shows just some of the filibuster threats that McConnell’s minority has used to block consideration of even routine legislation and appointments.”
Fallows also notes, “[The Post story] reflects so thorough an absorption of the idea that the filibuster-threat is normal business that it describes the latest cloture vote as a vote on the bill itself … [and] Republicans end up voting against the bill, because that is the Republican strategy.” Fallows devotes most of his attention to The Post’s coverage but he actually began with a dissection of a Times version of the same story, demonstrating how widespread the problem is at the highest reaches of mainstream media.
Of course the issue goes well beyond mere politics. Because so much mainstream media misinformation is perpetuated based on the manipulation of data by conservatives unconcerned with evidence—and often even with reality—in the service of both ideology as well as their funders’ fortunes, Americans are actually worse informed about the reality of global warming than they were years ago, and hence the threat is going unmet.
Global warming misinformation is perhaps the most dramatic case, but almost everywhere, the refusal of so many in the media to even bother with the question of truth and falsehood is at the root of the problem. Boring as it may be to hear and see and read over and over, it bears repeating until it stops.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.