The most important substantive problem facing political journalists of this era is asymmetrical polarization. Political journalism evolved during an era of loose parties, both of which hugged the center, and now faces an era in which one of those parties has veered sharply away from the center. Today’s Republican Party now resides within its own empirical alternative universe, almost entirely sealed off from any source of data, expertise, or information that might throw its ideological prior values into question. Donald Trump’s candidacy is the ne plus ultra of this trend, an outlier horrifying even to a great many conservatives who have been largely comfortable with their party’s direction until now. How can the news media appropriately cover Trump and his clearly flawed opponent without creating an indecipherable din of equivalent-sounding criticism, where one candidate’s evasive use of a private email server looms larger than the other’s promise to commit war crimes?
Liz Spayd, the New York Times’ new public editor, dismisses the problem out of hand in a column that is a logical train wreck. Spayd specifically addresses a column by Paul Krugman that lambastes two news investigations into the Clinton Foundation, one of which appeared in the Times. Both reports dug deep and found nothing improper, but instead of either walking away from the dry holes or writing an exculpatory story, dressed them up with innuendo. These stories supply a prime example of the larger critique often grouped under the heading of “false equivalence” — journalists treating dissimilar situations as similar, in an attempt to balance out their conclusions. Spayd dismisses false equivalence as liberal whining, without in any way engaging with its analysis.
Spayd begins her argument with the Herman Cain–esque tautology, “The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking.” She continues:
What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers — remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope.
Critics argue that the Clinton email scandal should be covered in proportion to the scale of the offense, so that a gigantic violation of political norms receives wider and more hyperbolic coverage than a smaller violation of political norms. Spayd replies that this would lead to a “slippery slope” in which the smaller scandal receives no coverage at all. She does not explain why covering scandals proportionally to their importance would lead inevitably to this result. She simply conjures the metaphorical slope, and leaves her readers with the assurance that it is impossible to move a step in one direction without continuing to the extreme.
Shortly after, she concedes the entire substantive thrust of Krugman’s column:
On the other hand, some foundation stories revealed relatively little bad behavior, yet were written as if they did. That’s not good journalism.
Right. Exactly. This is Krugman’s entire point. But then in the next sentence she collapses into incoherence:
But I suspect the explanation lies less with making matchy-matchy comparisons of the two candidates’ records than with journalists losing perspective on a line of reporting they’re heavily invested in.
What? The false-equivalence charge is not that reporters are explicitly “making matchy-matchy comparisons of the two candidates’ records.” It’s that they are doing this implicitly through what Spayd concedes to be “bad journalism.” The Times is creating the impression of two candidates with proportionally sized flaws even though it is not setting out to do so. Spayd is presenting the accusation as if it were a defense.
She commits the exact same fallacy later on:
[T]hese are two presidential candidates with the lowest approval ratings in history. Neither is very trusted or liked. Which means if ever there was a time to shine light in all directions, this is it.
The critics are suggesting that the fact that Clinton and Trump are both trusted in roughly equal measure is a problem for which the news media bears at least some responsibility. Perhaps they are about equally distrusted because the liberal media has portrayed Clinton as a criminal? No, Spayd replies, the media is doing it right because people dislike Hillary Clinton almost as much as Trump.
Throughout the column, Spayd expresses repeated skepticism of the motives of critics who complain about false equivalency. It is certainly true that most false-equivalency criticism comes from critics harboring a partisan motive. It is also true that sometimes “false equivalency” can become a cudgel to beat back any scrutiny of Democrats at all. Sometimes people have motives to say things that happen to be correct. For Spayd, the motive question is the beginning and end of her inquiry:
I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates. CNN’s Brian Stelter focused his show, “Reliable Sources,” on this subject last weekend. He asked a guest, Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine, to frame the idea of false balance. Weisberg used an analogy, saying journalists are accustomed to covering candidates who may be apples and oranges, but at least are still both fruits. In Trump, he said, we have not fruit but rancid meat. That sounds like a partisan’s explanation passed off as a factual judgment.
Weisberg is partisan, ergo his concept that two candidates can be radically different is also partisan and therefore wrong. (Weisberg, a writer who has written critically about the Democrats innumerable times over his career, is an especially bad case for Spayd.) This exact form of reasoning is what caused so much of the news media to miss the asymmetric transformation of the Republican Party over the last quarter-century. To recognize this development is to record an analysis that “sounds like a partisan’s explanation,” and any partisan analysis by definition cannot be a “factual judgment.” No possible evidence of a difference between the parties can persuade her, because she automatically dismisses such evidence as partisan. Spayd’s column “refuting” the false-equivalency problem happens to be a perfect demonstration of it.