With the federal government grinding to a halt this week, the specter of false equivalency rose up around the media landscape. The Atlantic’sJames Fallows talked to Brooke about his quest to have the media stop over-prizing ‘objectivity’ and start communicating reality.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, as of Friday, no end in sight, an impasse, gridlock. So, with no movement in negotiations to end the government shutdown, much of the press was focused on the unfortunate reality of extremely limited government.
CORRESPONDENT: For folks coming to New York to see the iconic Statue of Liberty, this may be their last chance in who knows how long.
CORRESPONDENT: Hundreds of patients, some including children with cancer who want to sign up for clinical trials here can’t –
CORRESPONDENT: - why some 18,000 NASA employees will be on furlough, many of them right here in Houston.
BOB GARFIELD: The whole affair triggered an awful sense of déjà vu, recalling bad news memories of 1995, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich thought it might be a good idea to flex his Republican revolutionary muscle against President Bill Clinton.
[1995 NBC CLIP]:
TOM BROKAW: Neither the President nor the Speaker nor Senator Dole will give, so tonight much of the government remains shut down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Speaking of déjà vu, in the coverage of the shutdown much of the media have once again defaulted to a kind of false equivalency, couching the story as if the overarching fact were two polarized parties unable to compromise. But, as The Atlantic's James Fallows fulminated this week, all but sending spittle flying from his text, the current fiasco has little to do with bipartisan bullheadedness.
JAMES FALLOWS: Whenever there is a dispute, the journalist casts himself or herself in the role of referee at some kind of sports contest and says, well, of course, both sides are to blame. The problem with this case, as it fit into the Procrustean bed of normal journalism is, number one, it was within one party. And, number two, it's not really subject to compromise. And here's what, what I mean: As I think anybody around DC knows, but most readers or viewers would not be aware, at any moment in the last month or two, this whole problem could have been averted if Speaker John Boehner had simply let the House of Representatives vote on a clean resolution where you simply say, we’re gonna wow the money, the government can stay open and we’ll save for some other time disputes about Obamacare. If this had come to a vote, it would pass. The only reason that's not happening is that the more conservative part of Boehner's Republican majority in the House don't want that to happen.
You would not have gathered that from some of the early stories about Republicans and Democrats, extremists on both sides, etc. This is a war within the Republican Party.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there has been coverage - I've seen it - of the fight within the Republican Party. I mean, that’s been in our great newspapers.
JAMES FALLOWS: It's been journalism in all of its chaotic glory. One of the reasons I put so much pressure on the editorialists or the TV commentators who have been saying, oh, let’s just pick up the phone and, and have Speaker Boehner and President Obama work this out, is that if they were reading their own newspapers, if they were listening to some of their own reporters, they would have understood this is something different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Your big concern is that by falling into the old patterns, there is a profound failure to convey the gravity of the situation, that there is no post-Civil War precedent for what the House GOP is doing right now.
JAMES FALLOWS: Suppose back in 2005, after George W. Bush had been reelected, and when he still held the Senate, it was still in, in Republican hands, let’s suppose that in that year Nancy Pelosi and her Democrats had taken over the House. And suppose that Nancy Pelosi did what the House Republicans are doing now, which is saying the government will not continue its operations and the debt ceiling might not be raised, leading to all such as financial repercussions, unless all of the tax cuts that were part of George W. Bush's first big achievement, achievement in his first term, were just immediately undone. The extent of the demands in saying that unless we get our way in this point, nothing else can happen, that is new in modern politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about the Washington Post, because that seems to be your perfect case in point. Earlier in the week, in particular an op-ed that you called “a thing of wonder” [LAUGHS] and which included the line, “Ultimately, the grownups in the room will have to do their job, which in a democracy with divided government means compromising for the common good.” This, you said, was “a tour de force of false equivalency.”
JAMES FALLOWS: And it was the more impressive because it wasn't even some op-ed column by some random person. It was the official editorial statement of, of the newspaper, and it was resolute in its insistence that neither party was being less reasonable, less compromising than the other. It was a matter of just picking up the phone. Remarkably, just three days later, the Post had an entirely different official editorial, calling by name on Speaker Boehner, on Eric Cantor and on Paul Ryan of the Budget Committee, quote, “to do their job.” That, I thought, was quite an impressive and welcome change from the Post part and always looking on the positive. I'm thinking that the mighty dreadnought of American journalism is rotating its turrets in the correct direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Do you think it's partly because of the, the notion that the press is fundamentally liberal that causes a bending over backwards to deny what is a reality?
JAMES FALLOWS: I am sure that is the case, partly because, as we have discussed and everybody knows, every survey shows that more national reporters vote Democratic than, than Republican, though if Nancy Pelosi had been pulling a similar stunt a decade ago against George W. Bush, I know that many of the editorial boards and, and reporters would feel entirely free in saying, look, the Democrats are going crazy here, they’re being extreme, they’re doing things that are unreasonable. I think so great is sort of the instinctive cringe about being accused of left-wing bias that it is harder for analysts and editorialists to say the same thing about Republicans. It's much more comforting for reporters to quote other Republicans saying that. For example, the Republican congressman who said the Tea Party reminds him of lemmings wearing suicide vests –
- than it is to make that observation yourself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim, it was a pleasure, as always. Thank you so much.
JAMES FALLOWS: Brooke, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.