Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Corrosive Power of False Equivalence

President Slams Journalists Over Campaign Substance And Coverage:

President Obama delivered a forceful critique on Monday of politicians and the journalists who cover them, lamenting the circuslike atmosphere of the presidential campaign and declaring, “A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone.”

“I was going to call it a carnival atmosphere,” the president said, “but that implies fun.”

“The No. 1 question I’m getting as I travel around the world or talk to world leaders right now is, ‘What is happening in America about our politics?’ ” Mr. Obama continued. “They care about America, the most powerful nation on earth, functioning effectively and its government being able to make sound decisions.”

Mr. Obama’s references to Donald J. Trump, the New York real estate developer turned Republican front-runner, were unmistakable in his criticism of “divisive and often vulgar rhetoric,” frequently aimed at women and at ethnic and racial minorities. But he also turned his fire on the news media, saying it had given an uncritical platform to those pronouncements, in part because of relentless economic pressures that have changed the way news organizations operate.

The president suggested that the news media had not done enough to question the promises made by politicians — an apparent reference not only to Mr. Trump, but also to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent who is challenging Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama’s former secretary of state, for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Sanders has promised free public college education and national health care coverage, ambitious social programs that critics say could never be enacted.

“When people put their faith into someone who can’t possibly deliver his or her own promises,” Mr. Obama said, “that only breeds more cynicism.”

The president denounced what he called the practice of drawing “false equivalences” between competing claims made by politicians. “If I say the world is round and someone else says it’s flat, that’s worth reporting,” Mr. Obama said. “But you might also want to report on a bunch of scientific evidence that seems to support the notion that the world is round.”
This is a trend that has gotten worse in the past 15 years or so, following the attacks of 9/11 when critical coverage of the government and its role in the event was dismissed as unpatriotic or worse. Later, in the gin up to the Iraq War, critical coverage of WMD's (as in "there aren't any") was also slammed shut by big corporations afraid of taking on the Bush administration and the "conservative media" outlets and talk radio.

Worse, the practice of false equivalence was put into place whenever someone dared to question the government/party line.
A common way for this fallacy to be perpetuated is one shared trait between two subjects is assumed to show equivalence, especially in order of magnitude, when equivalence is not necessarily the logical result. False equivalence is a common result when an anecdotal similarity is pointed out as equal, but the claim of equivalence doesn't bear because the similarity is based on oversimplification or ignorance of additional factors. False equivalence is occasionally claimed in politics, where one political party will accuse their opponents of having performed equally wrong actions. Commentators may also accuse journalists of false equivalence in their reporting of political controversies if the stories are perceived to assign equal blame to multiple parties.
Example:  Fox News presents a debate between one scientist who thinks human caused climate change is supported by vast amount of evidence, and another non-scientist who thinks that the data is all manufactured and there is no evidence. Then Fox News states that the debate is unsettled, relying on false equivalence, when the evidence supporting climate change is both high quality and high quantity.
It reminds me of the old adage, there aren't two sides to the truth. There's the truth, and there's "I don't agree with the truth." Just because you don't "agree" with the truth, doesn't mean your opinion is equivalent in fact or stature with said truth, but the way the media has been cowed into presenting "both sides" over the past 15 years or so, one is left with the impression that science is a "belief" and facts are whatever you want them to be.

Another example would be Donald Trump's meteoric rise in the Republican party and polls, which is directly assignable to the false equivalence journalists and the media gave him, starting on day one of his campaign. When his statements and observations were given equal footing or time with serious candidates for the presidency, the media engaged in a false equivalence. And the lack of critical coverage of his views as expressed created (in the minds of some) an air of legitimacy to his candidacy.

Let's put this another way: currently there are 1,659 candidates who have qualified with the FEC to run for president of the United States. The media doesn't give these people, almost none of whom you've ever heard of, the same time and weight as it does Trump or other mainstream party candidates running because of (gasp) false equivalence. This isn't to say some of these 1,600 candidates shouldn't be listened to. But there are probably several kooks running on nutty agendas with insane ideas that shouldn't be given the platform JUST because they are running for president.

And someone like Trump should never have either, except for the fact that reality t.v. stars make for good ratings and good copy, and they sell a lot of soap. And the more uncritical coverage he got, the more he rose in the polls, and suddenly, voila, "Bozo is about to become the Republican party candidate" for president. Ooops.

Was it all the media's fault? Of course not. But had his candidacy not been covered in the same way as the other candidates, and bestowed a legitimacy the other 1,600+ candidates haven't been afforded, he would never have gotten the traction he has up to this point.

Be careful what you wish for, I suppose is the motto here. All of this obstructionism and "balanced" coverage and false equivalency is already creating a lot of unintended consequences for the future of the republic, whether politically, socially, economically or environmentally. 

And the more atomized we become in society, viz. all hunkered down in our little holes filled with media and social media and other outlets that ONLY confirm our existing points of view, the more likely we are to fray apart at the seams.

UPDATE: This article in today's Times seems to point the finger at social media, and give Big Media a pass since Big Media ain't so big anymore:
It’s popular to argue today that Mr. Trump’s success is, in part, a creation of the traditional news media — cable networks that couldn’t get enough of his celebrity and the ratings it brought, and newspapers that didn’t scrutinize him with enough care. There is some truth in that, but the contention misses a larger reality.

Mr. Trump’s rise is actually a symptom of the mass media’s growing weakness, especially in controlling the limits of what it is acceptable to say.

The Trump phenomenon is not simply a creation of newspaper columnists or cable news bookers who initially thought his candidacy was a joke to be exploited for ratings. His emergence shows the strength of his supporters, united on social media, who believe that the media is a joke. Mr. Trump and his fans have broken the Overton window, and there is no going back.
Well, again, yes and no. Yes, the atomization he mentions (and which I mentioned above, and in several posts the last few years), is contributing to the social media echo chamber of "see, I must be right because all these other people agree with me" stupidity. And yes, the more we reaffirm our views with like-minded others, and the more we unfollow/block/delete those who disagree with us, the more convinced we are we are right, no matter the actual truth of the facts or issues at hand.

But I still maintain it's up to the "gatekeepers" to report the truth, and that they have seriously abdicated that responsibility when they report "both sides" of issues for which there isn't another side. Just because #dumbassfullofopinions@twitter.com posts a crank Tweet or Facebook update saying "global warming ain't real, it's a hoax...it's snowing again outside!" that shouldn't be given equal weight to the science or facts or truth it seeks to contradict.

That's the media's fault, not just social media.

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