The Government Shutdown: a Story of False Equivalence

Would you say that you agree 100% one every issue with the Republican Party? The Democratic Party?

I think it is safe to say the no one agrees 100% with either party and that a lot of people fall somewhere in between. Then why does the media frame their stories as if these two political ideologies have equal weight in every issue and are the only options?

There is a huge problem of false equivalence in the reporting today.  Media frames its political stories by telling “both sides.” However, it is a common myth to view any story with only two sides. Rarely will you find a story that has only those two sides.

Of course, a lot of this has to do with the two-party system in the United States, which is another conversation in itself. But I am arguing that media play a significant role in reinforcing this two-party, two-viewpoints only system. This leads to enabling the extreme polarization of political parties.

Journalists need to hold politicians accountable for extremism, and to do that, they need to move away from covering “both sides” and staying safely neutral. There is serious pressure to be completely balanced and fair in reporting at all times. Too balanced, I would argue.

Here are a few examples of leads in the first articles that covered the government shutdown early October 1st.

  • Washington Post: “The U.S. government began to shut down for the first time in 17 years early Tuesday, after a Congress bitterly divided over President Obama’s signature health-care initiative failed to reach agreement to fund federal agencies.”
  • New York Times: “A flurry of last-minute moves by the House, Senate and White House late Monday failed to break a bitter budget standoff over President Obama’s health care law, setting in motion the first government shutdown in nearly two decades.”

Leads are the most important part in any story, they set up the context and facilitate the flow of information. How do these leads frame the stories? The phrases “bitterly divided,” “failed to reach an agreement,” and “failed to break a bitter budget standoff” imply that the government shut down occurred because of failed negotiations in Congress. The rest of the stories explain the “back and forth” budget proposals. Further down, the articles briefly touch on the House Republicans demanding a delay of the Affordable Care Act in order to keep the government open, but it is presented as a “he said”/“she said” dialogue.

These facts are not lies, but they are also not presented in an honest way. They say what happened to an extent, but fail to present the clear why.

When our elected leaders can’t keep the government open, everyone in the country needs to question what went wrong and what we need to fix. It is the media’s responsibility to make sure that the public understands where the problems lie.

It is undoubtedly an extreme political act to enable the government to shutdown over a piece of legislation that has already been passed and made a law in 2010. And, not to mention, that President Obama was reelected with healthcare as a major part of his campaign. In terms of the budget itself, President Barack Obama and the Democrats were and are willing to pass a budget at much lower levels than they had originally wanted, and that historically, Democrats would normally ever settle for. The Washington post said, “Both parties in Congress are now arguing about funding the government for the current fiscal year at much lower levels than either President Barack Obama or Democrats wanted.” Beyond that, the media has almost completely ignored, until just recently, that John Boehner has not put a “clean” budget bill on the table without hits to the Affordable Care Act attached. If I were writing a story about this issue, these facts would be some of the first things I mention.

By ignoring these facts, the media is allowing political extremism and irresponsible political actions to be put on equal terms with normal legislative process. This is false equivalence.

In the book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein discuss the increasing radicalization of the GOP today. They say, “Because of the partisan nature of much of the media and the reflexive tendency of many in the mainstream press to use false equivalence to explain outcomes, it becomes much easier for a minority, in this case the Republicans, to use filibusters, holds, and other techniques to obstruct.”

This is a result of the media’s fear of being biased in their reporting and the pressure to be completely objective, neutral and balanced.  New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls this the view from nowhere: “In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.”

This leads to obscuring the truth in the coverage. The public is not getting an accurate picture of what is going on. And even worse, they are getting a distorted frame of the real issue. In a study, The Emotion and the Truth: Studies in Mass Communication and Conflict, Jonathan Steele looks at war-time reporting and says: “A danger which journalists have to avoid is “false equivalence”. The murder of a Serb is obviously just as significant and deplorable as the murder of an Albanian. But if the conflict produces ten murders of Serbs and a hundred murders of Albanians, then one has to report that. This may seem obvious, but it is not always the basis for all reporting. There is often a tendency to say that two sides have been “killing each other for centuries”, as though the scale and proportion of the killing was irrelevant” (16).

According to a CBS poll, “72% of Americans disapprove of shutting down the federal government over differences on the Affordable Care Act.” If our elected leaders are supposed to be representing the American people, shouldn’t that be the key piece of information in every story about the government shutdown?

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

This is not about my opinion on the issue or any reporter’s opinion on the issue. This is about the reality of our government and the potential for more serious problems if radical, extreme political groups are not held accountable. When even Republican elected officials and citizens have criticized Republicans in the House for being radical, it’s time to write a real story and not just a down-the-center account.

This Colbert Report humorously emphasizes this distorting view on the government shutdown: Colbert Report: Government Shutdown’s One-Week Anniversary.

On the comedic note, an Onion article plays on this as well with the headline, “Tea Party leaders Announce Support For Deal in Exchange for Malia Obama,” Obama’s oldest daughter. Now, obviously both these sources are meant to be comedy, but, in my opinion, it does make you kind of question media coverage when the Onion does a better job getting down to the gist of a story, even if they are exaggerating for humorous purposes.

An article in The Economist paints the picture in layman’s terms:

“They interview a woman in one room who says it will be sunny. Then they interview a man in another room who says it’s going to rain. Your job, as a journalist, is not to simply write up what you have been told, he says. Your job is to look out the window.

Writing a “balanced” version of this story would produce an article that reads “he says it will rain” but “she says it won’t”. You have all these quotes fluttering around like “butterflies in a jar”, going nowhere. But there is a bigger danger lurking. What if the man who says it is going to rain is lying? What if he is an umbrella salesman? Your options are to either make a judgment about the truth, or print what you have been told. But if you balance an article when you know that all the evidence points to a sunny day tomorrow, then you are participating in a denial of truth.”

“Both sides” do not deserve equal weight when the truth is not simply a balanced account of the story. You can’t just quote both sides without skepticism and say you have covered a story honestly. Journalists do need make a judgment about the truth a lot of the time, but that doesn’t mean sacrificing a truthful story. It does mean looking fairly and ethically at the story you are covering, gathering all the facts you can, and telling a story that informs readers of the reality of the situation without fear of losing objectivity.

Dan Fromkin from Aljazeera America News Channel says in an article: “So, no, the shutdown is not generalized dysfunction or gridlock or stalemate. It is aberrational behavior by a political party that is willing to take extreme and potentially damaging action to get its way. And by not calling it what it is, the political press is enabling it.”

With framing a story as pure, “balanced” reporting and no consequences for political extremism, politicians become more extreme. The media reinforces political extremism through false equivalence, instead of holding the powerful accountable for their actions.

As a new journalism student, I aspire to take risks in reporting and not live in fear of the criticism of being biased. If you do the work, gather the information and write an accurate, fair-to-the-facts (not sides) story, you have responsibly done your job as a journalist.

Fromkin says that we need a more fearless media. And I agree.



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