I have a doppelgänger, a dangerous, demented doppelgänger: Let’s call him Lou-ney and he’s the editor in chief of Zwoted, that rival platform that pairs journalists with dubious sources from cults, cabals and cliques. It’s also dedicated to conspiracy covens such as XAnon—which, as we all know, has uncovered secret evidence via secret eye wink codes about how secret staff writers at the Financial Times dine on barbecued babies once a week in a Tunisian cave. In secret.
Meanwhile, let’s say it’s been a fabulous day for my ego as I’ve just received a call from the New York Times to comment on truth in reporting. As I’ve spent more than three decades laboring for major news outlets, served as a Loyola University Chicago journalism adjunct and have firsthand experience with the topic, I have lots to share that I hope will provide value. Until …
… the Times reporter tells me that my quotes will go head to head with Lou-ney’s comments. And Lou-ney is a high school dropout who received his journalistic training at Infowars; pays sources to say whatever they want; has no editor fact checking him; and claims to be a member of XAnon.
Welcome, my Fourth Estate friends, to the world of false equivalence.
The above scenario is far-fetched—ya think? But maybe not by much. False equivalence has by now become so entrenched that we’ve lost our way. Journalism has become in a sense like the poor wretch who’s walked around with a ball and chain for so long that his labored limp seems perfectly natural to him.
Here, documentary filmmaker and educator Annelise Wunderlich—who also serves as the Youth Participation Manager at the award-winning NPR/PBS outlet KQED in the San Francisco Bay Area—sums it up so beautifully I’m not going to try topping her:
“Not every topic warrants a ‘both sides’ approach. Some viewpoints are simply not backed by empirical evidence or are based on false information. And journalists have to be careful not to present them as legit debates. If they do, they are creating a ‘false equivalence.’”
Here’s what’s worse: For all the stereotypes about the “liberal media” pedaled by ignoramuses on the right (go ahead, fact check it, even the ignoramus part) false equivalence was invented by liberal newsroom types. Think of the well-meaning but asinine lab scientists who accidentally let killer bees into the wild, and you’ll get an idea.
For once upon a deadline, a few so-smart-they’re-stupid fair-minded editors choked on their Whole Foods quinoa at the thought of—gasp!—not giving the other side their say.
Nice thought. But in their quest to succeed where others before them failed, they failed even more profoundly. Who knows why. Maybe some think tank bozos affixed these editors’ eyes to their navels with Krazy Glue. Because with false equivalence, this is what you get:
- Diversity in discourse surrenders to intelligence-versus-invective.
- Lies and half-truths gain equal time with solid facts.
- Loudmouth-ery—always more appealing to everyone’s reptile brain—steals the spotlight from a sublime, well-reasoned argument.
- And finally: We lift morons to the level of experts … and hence reduce experts to the level of morons.
If I’m the said expert caught in such a tug of war, it’s downright offensive to have all my years of scholarship and toil reduced to being quoted alongside a pig. And as my tough Texan mentor taught me years ago, “Lou, there are only two things about wrestling with a pig in the mud. You get dirty and the pig likes it.”
So, should I get the last word in such a scenario? Probably. Should I get the ONLY word? Preferably. Or rather: Absolutely. Because with false equivalence, it’s all about the inability of editors, writers and readers to make critical distinctions.
False equivalence II: Shoddy context
It only takes a poorly framed story to create false equivalence in other ways. Let’s consider, for example, a hypothetical idea such as “Why Do So Many Trump Loyalists Love QAnon?”
Under my watch, I’d spike that article faster than you can say “deluded dolts.” In a world of limitless pitches, some should never get even a nanosecond of consideration. In this case, we could even get two equally matched experts arguing opposite sides of the question and still do damage.
So, there’s a variant on false equivalence. Think: Does anyone really think a story about a bunch of wackos propping up dangerous lies, told from a quasi-sympathetic angle, is worth the same editorial real estate as … well, anything? Nope. Not even one of those MANSCAPED ads titled, “Have You Nicked Your Ball Sack?”
False equivalence III: Network tit for tat
One false equivalence I hear all the time concerns news networks that lean left and right. One close friend has argued, time and again, that “Fox News and CNN are basically the same, just on opposite sides.”
Fox News was thrust to power and prominence by a Republican Party operative, Roger Ailes. The network had at its birth, its very raison d’etre, a political agenda. Ailes and founder Rupert Murdoch began with the stated premise that news organizations were far too liberal.
Lee Atwater, father of perhaps the nastiest political TV ad in history—the “Willie Horton” bombshell for George H. W. Bush in 1988—described Ailes as having “two speeds: attack and destroy.” Ailes also worked hard to get Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan elected, while serving as an informal advisor to Donald Trump in 2016.
In every honest newsroom in America, liberal or conservative, this is called “appearance of conflict of interest.” It is overwhelmingly considered unethical.
Fox has repeatedly and deceptively over the years recycled video footage from one story to serve a completely different story, as documented here, here and here. It has functioned as a regular and reliable mouthpiece for a president, his conspiracy theories and fabrications. Fox has given credence to outlandish contentions about the coronavirus, including Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s whopper that COVID-19 science had a liberal bias.
For the first time, a public health emergency becomes a political football. Lovely. I know at least 225,000 people who would beg to differ, Laura. If they could.
False equivalence IV: Bias is not agenda
“Wait!” they scream from over yonder. “CNBC is left-leaning! Definitely uber-liberal! What are you, Lou, stupid?”
Why yes I am, if it pertains to advanced astrophysics. But this is not rocket science, people. There exists a huge gulf between a news outlet that has a bias and one that has an agenda. Again, this comes down to our inability to make fine distinctions. Fact-based news and slanted opinion without basis are false equivalencies: just as much as “facts” and “alternate facts.”
CNN is not Fox News. Not even close. This is a false equivalence because CNN trades in actual reporting, making mistakes only as a consequence of its work. Fox News puts its political agenda first to the point of airing false and dangerous information. If any of Ingraham’s fans decided not to wear a mask because of her baseless opinions, is it possible that, say, a few … died?
There, I said it. Sue me.
When false is truly here to stay, unless…
Other than recognizing it as it happens and putting the kibosh on it in our own newsrooms and stories, false equivalence is here to stay. We have crossed the lines that once separated news and op-ed, information and entertainment. Where once church and state were distinct, we now see them melded. And once smashed together in a mess to rival melted chocolate and caramel, they will never become unstuck.
Thus it also comes down to how we educate readers. Make no mistake: Certain “news” outlets have no interest in this whatsoever, in part reflecting the not-so-funhouse reality where ratings drive content. But where we can, we must get the message out to those who want to know, or don’t know what to look for. I’ll let Wunderlich have the last word:
“Be skeptical: Just because someone is on TV, or appears in a social media post doesn’t always mean that they are legitimate experts on a topic. Always check the sources they are citing. Are they citing research from well-regarded academic or journalistic institutions? Do their websites look legit? And check your own biases. Are you being critical of the information you’re consuming, or are you looking for something to prove what you already believe?”
Or if you must, seek out the false equivalence to this story and throw your big ol’ loving arms around it. I heard Lou-ney Car-Bozo has a most excellent piece ready to go on Zwoted.
Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief. All opinions expressed are express opinions. firstname.lastname@example.org
On the eve of a historic election, Lou Carlozo’s “Bankadelic” podcast examines COVID-19 six months in and its repercussions for the financial industry.