Several recent posts have touched on false equivalency, perhaps the most persistent, pernicious mistake perpetrated by the press. Although the post Color Commentary was undertook partially in jest, on political issues, the typical media formula is to present a Republican and a Democrat, let them both have their say, and leave it at that. The problem is this is socially or politically equitable, but has absolutely nothing to do with veracity and accuracy. As The Bullshit Matrix explored, anyone who lies with some cleverness has an advantage in most political arenas, because the press typically won't call them on it. It would be impolite, the correction can be attacked as partisan, and it might cost the reporter a source or two. In such an environment, the truth can easily be muddied or obscured. The public may also labor under the assumption that "surely the Vice President wouldn't lie about such an important matter!" Alternatively, a cynical viewer might say, "all politicians are liars!" which is another pernicious form of false equivalency. Not all participants are equally honorable, honest or accurate. If the press does not fact-check, it does a grave service to their viewers/readers, and abets liars and bullshitters.
As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." As I've seen others note, if speaker one comes on and says 2+2=4, and speaker two, a hack, says 2+2=8, the press' default approach is to suggest 2+2=6. Issues exist where there are simply legitimate differences of opinion or where judgment is ultimately subjective. However, on factual matters, that's not the case. On matters of science in particular, there's no reason not to say 2+2=4, or at the very least explain that the overwhelming number of scientist hold that 2+2=4 (and if necessary, why that's the case).
The national discourse on global warming and man-made climate change may have improved in the past couple years, but it remains badly skewed. The debate has not centered on Democrats and Republicans arguing about what to do about global warming, a legitimate policy issue. Instead, the conflict has been between reality and fantasy, with many Republicans simply denying empirical facts, much as tobacco executives used to say that no scientific proof existed to show that cigarettes were harmful to one's health.
In the New York Review of Books piece "The Threat to the Planet," (7/13/06) James Hansen reviewed three books on climate change as well as the film An Inconvenient Truth (one of the books was by Al Gore, written to accompany the film). Hansen is described as "Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute." Highly informative, Hansen's piece also offers this insight into media coverage (emphasis mine):
Why are the same scientists and political forces that succeeded in controlling the threat to the ozone layer now failing miserably to deal with the global warming crisis? Though we depend on fossil fuels far more than we ever did on CFCs, there is plenty of blame to go around. Scientists present the facts about climate change clinically, failing to stress that business-as-usual will transform the planet. The press and television, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus concerning global warming, give equal time to fringe "contrarians" supported by the fossil fuel industry. Special interest groups mount effective disinformation campaigns to sow doubt about the reality of global warming. The government appears to be strongly influenced by special interests, or otherwise confused and distracted, and it has failed to provide leadership. The public is understandably confused or uninterested.
I used to spread the blame uniformly until, when I was about to appear on public television, the producer informed me that the program "must" also include a "contrarian" who would take issue with claims of global warming. Presenting such a view, he told me, was a common practice in commercial television as well as radio and newspapers. Supporters of public TV or advertisers, with their own special interests, require "balance" as a price for their continued financial support. Gore's book reveals that while more than half of the recent newspaper articles on climate change have given equal weight to such contrarian views, virtually none of the scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals have questioned the consensus that emissions from human activities cause global warming. As a result, even when the scientific evidence is clear, technical nit-picking by contrarians leaves the public with the false impression that there is still great scientific uncertainty about the reality and causes of climate change.
The executive and legislative branches of the US government seek excuses to justify their inaction. The President, despite conclusive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences, welcomes contrary advice from Michael Crichton, a science fiction writer. Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, describes global warming as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and has used aggressive tactics, including a lawsuit to suppress a federally funded report on climate change, to threaten and intimidate scientists.
Policies favoring the short-term profits of energy companies and other special interests are cast by many politicians as being in the best economic interests of the country. They take no account of the mounting costs of environmental damage and of the future costs of maintaining the supply of fossil fuels. Leaders with a long-term vision would place greater value on developing more efficient energy technology and sources of clean energy. Rather than subsidizing fossil fuels, the government should provide incentives for fossil-fuel companies to develop other kinds of energy.
Hansen describes a classic case of powerful interests opposing policies that would benefit the country as a whole. Part of the problem relates to Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber's enduring concern about news programs' strong preference for using think tank pundits with a political agenda as opposed to academicians and scientists, who are typically more honest and focused on facts. It's a classic hack-wonk divide. On important, complex issues such as global warming, it's especially crucial that media outlets present the public true experts versus hacks. However, Hansen further describes news programs essentially being bullied into misleading the public in the name of "balance." This is a failure of courage and integrity. News programs don't need to play the game this way. Even if they are forced by those on high to present a contrarian, they can choose the framing, for instance pointing out that James Dobson is not a scientist and has no training in environmental matters, or that Bjorn Lomberg is an outlier, a scientist who disagrees with 10,000 other scientists on this issue or what not. An essential part of reporting is not only reporting facts, or soliciting opinions, but giving viewers the necessary context to properly judge facts and opinions for themselves.
CNN has used an approach that deals with some of these problems. The Situation Room on 8/24/06 presented an extended segment on Emergency Plan B. First to speak was Dr. Sanjay Gupta, their Senior Medical Correspondent, who explained that the drug prevents 90% of pregnancies if taken within 72 hours, and also explained how this actually works:
Now, the drug works one of two ways. First, it can stop ovulation or, second, if the egg has been fertilized, it increases the chance it won't attach to the uterus. Now, if the egg is already attached to the uterus, the pregnancy will not be affected. Now, critics have claimed it's tantamount to abortion. Proponents reject that and blame the three years it took to get it approved on political, not medical concerns.
Wolf Blitzer then kicked things to Congressional Correspondent Andrea Koppel, followed by White House Correspondent Elaine Quijano, who between them broke down the political landscape surrounding the drug. The program then moved to many other issues, but later returned to Emergency Plan B and stem cell research with a discussion segment featuring two men Blitzer had previously referred to as "experts":
BLITZER: Joining us now in our "Strategy Session," radio talk show host Bill Press and CNN political analyst, former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts.
In this Plan B decision, the morning-after contraception pill, in effect, Hillary Clinton came out with a strong statement: "While we urge the FDA to revisit placing age restrictions on the sale of Plan B, it is real progress that millions of American women will now have increased access to emergency contraception."
Women 18 and older can just go in and buy the pill. Seventeen- year-olds and under have to get a doctor's note.
J.C. WATTS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well...
WATTS: ... Wolf, I don't know what is the difference in, you know, harming the child the night or the day after. I still don't think that changes the debate. Those...
BLITZER: You think this is abortion?
WATTS: I do. I think -- I still don't think it changes the debate one bit.
I think those who are opposed to abortion are going to be opposed to this. Those who support abortion, they will like this decision, as -- as Senator Clinton said. It's abortion the day after.
So, it doesn't change the debate any. And I do. I agree that the FDA has made a huge mistake in this ruling.
BLITZER: The other side, Wendy Wright of Concerned Women of -- For America, says, "The FDA's irresponsible action today takes those rights out of a parent's hands and gives them to ill-intentioned perpetrators."
Clearly, they're very unhappy with this FDA decision.
BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, you know, that's too bad, Wolf. I think this is a major breakthrough for American women.
And, J.C., it's hypocritical to be against abortion and to be against Plan B. We heard Sanjay Gupta, who knows more about this than you and I do, at the top of the show, say, if a woman is already pregnant, this does nothing. This is not an abortion pill. It's a contraceptive pill. It has been used safely by European women for years. It has been held up in this year only for -- in this country only for political reasons.
And what this pill is going to result in is fewer unwanted pregnancies and fewer abortions, which I thought -- is certainly my goal -- I thought was your goal, too.
WATTS: Well, it's ironic, Wolf, that we say it's a contraceptive, but you take it the morning after.
PRESS: So what?
PRESS: You take one pill the day before. You can take one the morning after.
PRESS: It's a medical breakthrough.
WATTS: The morning after.
PRESS: It's a contraceptive.
PRESS: And it's not funny.
PRESS: Three-and-a-half -- no.
WATTS: Bill, the bottom line is...
WATTS: ... your mind is not going to be changed by this decision. Nor -- and nor is mine.
WATTS: I believe it's abortion. I believe it takes the life of a -- you don't. So...
PRESS: No, but I...
WATTS: ... that's the issue.
PRESS: ... would hope...
WATTS: That's the issue.
PRESS: But I would hope people who have strong beliefs would listen to the experts and listen to the facts.
As Sanjay said, three -- and he's the medical expert here, not you, not me -- three-and-a-half million unwanted pregnancies in this country. One-half of them could be eliminated because of this pill. I would think you would say...
BLITZER: All right.
PRESS: ... it's about time.
WATTS: But you want to listen...
BLITZER: All right.
WATTS: ... to the experts on abortion, but you don't want to listen to the experts on the war that says that evil people are trying to kill us.
BLITZER: All right.
WATTS: But you don't want to do anything about that.
Can "I'm rubber, you're glue" be far behind? Digby made a post of this painful exchange. (Digby also highlighted a great comment in the post thread: "Yesterday, they said life begins with conception. Today, they say life begins with intercourse. Tomorrow, they will tell us life begins with dinner and a movie.")
CNN did a good job by letting their doctor speak first, and also by laying out the political context of the drug before going to the political debate. This allowed for a hack-free zone for a good stretch, and is a wise approach — establish the facts first, then let the political folks argue about their significance.
However, CNN could have done several things better. Perhaps they could have asked Dr. Gupta to speak at greater length about the difference between an abortifacient such as RU-486 and forms of contraception such as Emergency Plan B. The "debate" segment probably shouldn't have come so far after the science segment. Blitzer definitely should not have introduced Watts and Press as "experts." While Press seems to have some common sense, Watts comes off as an idiot, and is certainly no "expert" on this subject. Most importantly, CNN could have hired a smarter conservative pundit. Is Watts really the best they could do? Did conservative cheer him on when they saw him, or did only a small minority of them do so? Having a conservative on cushions CNN from complaints of bias, but is the general public well served by a discussion of this caliber?
Molly Ivins summed up this dynamic perfectly back in 1987 (emphasis mine):
The American press has always had a tendency to assume the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press present the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its duty.
This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject. Thus we see, night after night, on MacNeil/Lehrer or Nightline, people who don't know jack-shit about Iran or Nicarauga or arms control, but who are ready to tear up the peapatrch in defense of the proposition that Ronald Reagan is a Great Leader beset by com-symps. They have nothing to off in the way of facts or insight; they are presented as a way of keeping the networks from being charged with bias by people who are themselves replete with bias and resistant to fact. The justification for putting them on the air is that "they represent a point of view."
The odd thing about these television discussions designed to "get all sides of the issue" is that they do not feature a spectrum of people with different views on reality:
Rather, they frequently give us a face-off between those who see reality and those who have missed it entirely. In the name of objectivity, we are getting fantasyland.
Ivins was always great at calling bullshit. Perhaps in The Situation Room incident, it was obvious to viewers from the framing provided on the issue that Watts was an idiot. A pundit inadvertently invalidating his own bogus position certainly has some value — but most hacks seek to muddy the waters, and they often succeed. Not all ideas are created equal, and while different points of view should be presented — on issues where that's applicable — there is really no value in presenting a false equivalency between an informed opinion and a completely uninformed one. J.C. Watts was not on The Situation Room because he was an "expert" on Emergency Plan B, he was on because he was a Republican. Ideally, the viewer should be allowed to decide issues for him or herself, but the news program does need to provide the context to aid the viewer in forming an informed opinion. When it comes to empirical fact, there shouldn't be equal time for stupid people.
The sad reality is that, for many people, "the truth" is socially rather than empirically determined. For instance, an ugly peer pressure on global warming pervades the Republican side of the congressional aisle, so deeply entrenched it resembles Omertà. A recent Yale poll finds that 83% of Americans say global warming is a serious problem. In contrast (via Digby's good post Faith Based Straight Jacket), Jonathan Chait reports:
Only 13% of [congressional] Republicans agreed that global warming has been proved. As the evidence for global warming gets stronger, Republicans are actually getting more skeptical. Al Gore's recent congressional testimony on the subject, and the chilly reception he received from GOP members, suggest the discouraging conclusion that skepticism on global warming is hardening into party dogma. Like the notion that tax cuts are always good or that President Bush is a brave war leader, it's something you almost have to believe if you're an elected Republican.
(Think Progress has a nice chart on the breakdown.)
Denying global warming has become a kind of shibboleth for Republicans. Perhaps most frightening is this article (via Howard Kurtz) from Gannett News Service that reports (emphasis mine):
WASHINGTON -- House Republican Leader John Boehner would have appointed Rep. Wayne Gilchrest to the bipartisan Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming -- but only if the Maryland Republican would say humans are not causing climate change, Gilchrest said.
"I said, 'John, I can't do that,' " Gilchrest, R-1st-Md., said in an interview. "He said, 'Come on. Do me a favor. I want to help you here.' "
Gilchrest didn't make the committee. Neither did other Republican moderates or science-minded members, whose guidance centrist GOP members usually seek on the issue. Republican moderates, called the Tuesday Group, invited Boehner to this week's meeting to push for different representation.
"Roy Blunt said he didn't think there was enough evidence to suggest that humans are causing global warming," Gilchrest said. "Right there, holy cow, there's like 9,000 scientists to three on that one."
What a bizarre, frightening situation, where membership in the club, or at least leadership, is contingent on the denial of objective reality. For some Republicans, it's doubtless an act. Take Philip Cooney, the energy industry lobbyist turned chief of staff for Bush's Council on Environmental Quality turned Exxon-Mobil employee. Speaking before Congress, Cooney admitted to changing climate reports to better fit Bush's corporate-pleasing policies. Furthermore, he did so with direction from Cheney's office. In sharp contrast to this calculated manipulation, consider the scene created by some other Republicans on Capitol Hill when Al Gore visited, as captured by Dana Milbank:
Al Gore, star of an Academy Award-winning film, was in town for a double feature on Capitol Hill yesterday. But instead of giving another screening of "An Inconvenient Truth," the former vice president found himself playing the Clarence Darrow character in "Inherit the Wind."
"You're not just off a little -- you're totally wrong," Joe Barton (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the former vice president at a hearing on global warming yesterday morning.
"One scientist is quoted as saying, 'This is shrill alarmism,' " said Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.). The reviews only grew more savage when Gore crossed over to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the afternoon for a second hearing. "You've been so extreme in some of your expressions that you're losing some of your own people," announced Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the committee's ranking Republican and the man who has called man-made global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
Inhofe informed Gore that scientists are "radically at odds with your claims." Displaying a photograph of icicles in Buffalo, Inhofe demanded: "How come you guys never seem to notice it when it gets cold? . . . Where is global warming when you really need it?"
Invoking the Scopes Monkey Trial (fictionalized as Inherit the Wind) actually fails to capture the full extremity of Inhofe's views, since at least Williams Jennings Bryan was relying on the Bible, whereas Inhofe merely plums the depths of his own lunacy. But how should the press handle such a situation? How should they handle idiots such as Inhofe, or people who believe that a jar of peanut butter disproves those uppity "evolutionists"? Milbank succeeds in crafting a good, informative piece by accurately describing Inhofe's own statements with a wry tone. However, outside The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, this sort of on-target critique tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Yet don't the people of Oklahoma deserve to know that their senator is a raving loon? Shouldn't every statement by Inhofe on global warming in the press be accompanied by something akin to a Surgeon's General's warning? "Warning: Ingesting Senator Inhofe's Beliefs is Hazardous to Your Intelligence"...? Inhofe's beliefs go beyond the eccentricities of Strom Thurmond referring to a microphone as "the machine," or the embarrassing cluelessness of Ted Stevens regulating the internet when he thinks it's a series of pneumatic tubes. Obviously, Inhofe's opinions matter not due to their merit or his knowledge, but because of his power. He's dangerous because of his position, and because in the political arena he's aggressively promoting his batshit crazy Weltanschauung.
It's a problem for the country that one of its senators is crazy (well, more than one), but it's a far bigger problem that many people don't know he's crazy, and the media bears a large part of the blame for this. As Bob Somerby reports at the Daily Howler, the public will be subjected to outlier scientists who claim that Mars is warming and that this disproves man-made climate change on Earth. The public will also have to deal with obfuscation from the likes of Fox News' conservative Brit Hume (emphasis in original):
KONDRACKE (3/21/07): Now, I have read the New York Times piece and I reread the New York Times piece, and basically what is says was that there disputes about certain facts in the Gore case. And one or them—one significant one—is this question of how high the sea level rise and it's not, it isn't insignificant. However, as to the question of a consensus, I mean the—Gore appeared before the American Geophysical Union and got a standing ovation.
HUME (exasperated, as always): Mort—
KONDRACKE: Just a second! The head of the National Academy of Science—today, I talked to him—pointed me in the direction of testimony that he's delivered before Congress, which says that there is an overwhelming consensus among his colleagues, and he is an earth scientist, that global warming is a fact, that man is responsible for it and that the sun is not responsible. There's been a lot of study—
HUME: But Mort, is—doesn't—isn't what, isn't scientific consensus what you turn to when you don't have scientific fact?
HUME: In other words, you haven't established it?
KONDRACKE: No. No, the—
HUME: Well, is this scientific fact?
KONDRACKE: Look, how are we supposed to determine what scientific fact is—
HUME: Mort, that's what the scientific method is for. Let me move on to Nina, just to get her—
KONDRACKE: You get thousands of scientists and if they all agree—if 90 percent—
HUME: That's not science, Mort, that's a vote. That's an election.
After invoking the scientific method, Hume tries to dismiss the overwhelming findings of scientists as a matter of a "vote" based solely on opinion. As Somerby observes, this sort of blather is "less important when [it] happens on Fox. It’s more important when the New York Times does it" (and as Somerby shows in this series of posts, The New York Times sadly does similar things as well, most of all in the error-laden article Kondracke cites).
Global warming is a complex issue, and even an intelligent journalist may have difficulty explaining it (or an intelligent viewer may struggle to understand it all). The same will be true for many medical and scientific issues. That's one thing. However, the key problem on journalists' part is not a failure of knowledge, but a failure of nerve. Why else would the National Journal's James Barnes duck several questions from C-Span callers, and respond to one who doubted global warming even existed by saying: "As we see, global warming—there’s two views of this subject. It’s a hotly debated issue." As Somerby remarks:
Yes, we found it depressing to watch such perfect nonsense ignored by a major mainstream “journalist”—by a “journalist” who kept insisting that these callers’ howling ignorance shows that there are two sides to this story. It was depressing to see these citizens make the good-faith effort of calling C-SPAN, only to be blown off in this manner. (How are they supposed to know that what they’re being told elsewhere is wrong?) It was depressing to think of all the other C-SPAN viewers, who weren’t being told that these callers’ statements were delusions, built on well-crafted lies.
But later, we found our spirits restored as we realized what a gem this session had been. This session showed us the shape of the age. We saw the soul of a millionaire “mainstream press corps”—a millionaire group in in-action.
What is the ongoing shape of the age? Here’s what happened in Monday’s session—in that small, perfect gem:
Three voters’ heads had been filled with nonsense by the work of the talk-show right. And when they called a major mainstream “journalist,” he refused to challenge or correct their misstatements. He refused to tell these voters that their heads had been filled full of mush. He refused to perform the basic function viewers thought he was there to perform.
But then, this has been the shape of the age at least since the early 90s. The right-wing bullsh*t machine churns out silly, wild tales—and mainstream scribes pretend not to notice. Or they recite the nonsense themselves, in the manner described by Paul Waldman in that brilliant statement last Wednesday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/07). Yes, this has been the shape of our age—and now, the press corps’ refusal to function even extends to basic matters of science. This practice has rarely been put on more brilliant display than Barnes did on C-SPAN this week.
Somerby's frustration is all too understandable. Why the hell was Barnes responding the way he did? His was an overly polite social response, not an honest journalistic one. There may be two political reactions to the factual story, but the factual story itself does not have two sides, even if scientists are debating details or the best responses to the situation. This isn't polite cocktail hour, where it's only good manners not to offend someone needlessly. But the public has an important need here, and it is going unfulfilled. Why couldn't Barnes have demonstrated the matter-of-fact attitude of an archeologist quoted by The New York Times about the lack of scientific proof that Moses parted the Red Sea, who said:
"If they get upset, I don’t care," Dr. Hawass said. "This is my career as an archaeologist. I should tell them the truth. If the people are upset, that is not my problem."
Dr. Hawass would never make it on Fox News. But then, the honest, scholar-wonk approach doesn't seem that popular elsewhere, either.
False equivalencies spring up in a great deal of political coverage, and they're generally much more subtle than whether or not global warming exists. Ideally, scientific and medical issues would only be covered as scientific and medical issues, but for global warming, Emergency Plan B and many other subjects, there's a political component to the story that can demand attention. However, "he said-she said" should not be allowed to infect the reporting on the science itself. If most media outlets still aren't willing to stand up for objective reality on clear-cut issues such as whether humankind is causing significant climate change, what's the chance they'll fight for nuanced but important distinctions elsewhere?
The scientists are doing their part. Hansen suggests that they become more media-savvy, which is a point well-taken, but on their primary task, investigating and reporting on science, they seem to be performing admirably. Some politicians are global warming deniers, but other public figures such as Al Gore are certainly doing more than their fair share of work on this issue. The hacks will not be struck down by conscience as if by lightning on this or any other issue. This means the real issue is the media. Will they have the courage to be accurate? Will they report the facts? If they feature a global warming denier, will they at least put him or her in some context for the viewer, or will they yet again present a false equivalency? It's sad we even need to ask this of them, but as George Orwell said, "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."
Update: Welcome, C&L readers, and thanks again to Mike's Blog Roundup! I've also corrected "Somersby" to "Somerby." Thanks to jcasey!