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

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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