Lately I have noticed a lot of false equivalence in the media. What's crazier still is the way they are often touted as something to be proud of. As though the cliché phrase “there are two sides to every story” were a golden rule for newscasters to live by. I think that we need to push back on this idea.
In the 1800s newspapers were extremely partisan and not particularly credible. According to E.J. Dionne Jr.'s marvelous book They Only Look Dead, “Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries American journalism went from one coherent purpose, partisanship, to another, 'objectivity'” (Dionne, 237). Newspapers before the 1900s were simply extensions of the local party apparatus that spoke to the party's base, and the profession of journalism wasn't taken too seriously.
Then, during the Progressive Era, newspapers decided that objectivity might be a better business model. By pursuing “objectivity,” the new newspaper conglomerates could sell one paper to all political persuasions, thereby boosting profits, and journalists could garner respect for their profession. Of course, this completely changed the way we think about newspapers and media, it changed our expectations for their products, and it changed journalists.
Mainstream news outlets like CNN, The New York Times, and others want to become your news source by telling you the facts, exposing wrongdoing, and letting you decide. Since they are “objective,” the press “insists on defining its role in a consciously non-political way” (Dionne, 238). Therefore, if a liberal is featured on a TV segment or in an article, the journalist will inevitably find a conservative to balance out – or, more accurately, battle out – the discussion. In a lame and rather bizarre effort to appear non-partisan, these main-stream news outlets have effectively decided to become bi-partisan.
Now, you might be wondering, “What's wrong with that?” Here is what's wrong with that:
False equivalence is born. Let me say I love Chris Mathews and his be-spittled show. I also have a soft spot for Pat Buchanan for reasons I won't get into here. However, their debate was much more entertaining than informative. Chris Mathews, ultimately, is simply asking them, “What do you believe?” The guests get all wound up because, hey, it's a free country. We're all entitled to our beliefs. Buchanan's beliefs are certainly as valid as Shrum's, right? Clearly, there is no partisan winner if we just have an open bi-partisan debate, right? Wrong! Just by having Shrum and Buchanan on the show to debate the issue, Chris Mathews has reframed global warming from a fact, to an issue, to a question!
Whether they like it or not, the press has a strong impact on politics, “even if it insists on defining its role in a consciously non-political way” (Dionne, 238). Dionne unpacks this idea further: in choosing news stories, he says, “Journalists seek 'impact' while often denying they have goals larger than simply 'doing their jobs.' Journalists think we can balance all of these ideas at the same time. We can say that our goal in investigating Clarence Thomas or Clinton is to expose 'wrongdoing' and to present 'the facts' without any intention of moving the political debate in a particular direction. But our ability and standing to make that claim is under question” (Dionne, 338). Journalists may think they can report on global warming denial in a non-political way, but just giving them the Hardball platform from which to speak lends undue validation to their argument and pushes the political debate further away from the actual truth.
In other words, by saying we wont judge sides in order to maintain some impossible standard of objectivity, Hardball and shows like it suggest that both sides are equally valid. In the global warming example we have been using, one side clearly wants global warming to be a question or an issue of “beliefs.” By presenting it to the American public as an unanswered question, Chris Mathews is agreeing with them. At the end of the segment, the viewer is left with a he-said she-said feeling and no objective answers.*
Hey, Pat, it's great that you feel that way, but what are the facts? I wish Chris Mathews would ask his guests to bring a bibliography with them, so they could cite their claims. But, alas, that wouldn't fit into 30 second sound bites.
Let's try that again without the ideologues. Here is Bill Nye the Science Guy on The Rachel Maddow Showspeaking about Global Warming skeptics/deniers**.
Do you notice how much more productive that is, not to mention calm and clear? Here is a journalist who has decided to step outside the box and present global warming as a news story and not a debate. She is not being biased either. She is still acknowledging skeptics and deniers, but also laying out the facts without getting bogged down in the back-and-forth. I think it is time that we environmentalists started doing the same thing.
Let's end the climate change debate. The debate is, in fact, over. The facts are in, and the outcome is starkly clear. If we don't do something about this problem we will certainly destroy our planet! It's time to stand up and show our leaders and the world that we are serious about climate change, energy issues, and green jobs! It's time to go to Power Shift.
Because if we don't, who will?
If you're interested in helping coordinate Power Shift sign up here: http://energyactioncoalition.org/powershift2011/organize
Please note that the Power Shift dates have changed to: April 15 - 18th in Washington, DC
* (If you want to learn more about how that feeling affects people's beliefs in global warming check out Act II: Climate Changes. People Don't. of last weeks This American Life (TAL) radio program. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/424/kid-politics).
**If you want to see Rachel Maddow and Glenn Beck's beef after the airing of the initial clip posted above, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLEMU3XVhO4