Objectivity Does Not Mean Neutrality: The Danger of False Equivalency in the Media

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Common Dreams

Objectivity Does Not Mean Neutrality: The Danger of False Equivalency in the Media

What happens when public officials don’t tell the truth? Traditionally it’s been the role of the media to point this out. It is the role of the media not only to uncover hidden deceit, but also to point out deceit in plain sight. The media should not and cannot hide behind the phony gauze of neutrality. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously quipped, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”

It is the job of the media to distinguish between the two, and to clearly and blatantly point out the discrepancies to the public.

And yet, too often, they do not. The media, too often, reports what officials say and how they say it, and doesn’t delve into the substance and accuracy of the statements.

The truth is objective, a presentation of both sides of an argument is not necessarily objective.

When a topic is noisily debated, journalists go to pains to present, with equal space and import, both sides of the topic. Usually this is a good thing. The public should know the arguments from all sides of a contentious issue.

But sometimes, and this may sound overly simplistic, but it remains true, there is only one credible side to a debate.

The earth is getting warmer, and man-made carbon emissions are causing it.
Humans evolved from apes. You cannot cut taxes by 20 percent and close enough loopholes to be revenue neutral without raising taxes on the middle class.

Study after reputable study has shown these statements to be true. (Admittedly there have been fewer studies of the last claim because it is so much newer, but every reputable study has found the above statement accurate). Yet we still see news stories in which “experts” from both sides of the argument are called upon and given equal standing to make their case.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist and unabashedly liberal New York Times op-ed columnist, wrote about this phenomenon in 2000.

“If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ‘Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.’ After all, the earth isn't perfectly spherical.

That analysis is equally applicable today. The mainstream media (with the exception of nakedly partisan outfits like Fox News and MSNBC) are so desperate to appear unbiased that they go out of their way to point out inconsistencies on both sides of the political spectrum even when it may not be appropriate.

This false equivalency, the effort of the news media to remain at the political center of an argument, no matter the merits or truthfulness of either side of the argument, is sometimes labeled as a bias towards objectivity. This is a false and misleading turn of phrase.

Journalists should always exhibit a bias towards objectivity. Being objective -- dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings -- is always the goal. The trouble comes when objectivity is confused with neutrality.

It is fine to be partial, indeed it is imperative if, after a careful examination of the facts, one concludes that the truth lies on one side of the argument. This is being objective. Examining the facts on their merits and presenting the truth is a journalist’s job.

Granted, on many issues there is legitimate debate and disagreement, but this is not always the case, and the media should not treat every issue as if both sides have equally valid points.

The truth does not always lie in the center. In fact, it rarely does.

A journalist’s job is to report the truth, not to neutrally report what both sides say and stake out a safe position in the middle.

This insidious practice of false equivalence takes two general forms.

First, and most obviously, journalists act as spokesmen for both sides of an argument without delving into the substance of what either side is saying. Or, in an effort to appear unbiased they’ll point out the obvious flaws in one side’s argument while nit-picking questionable claims or secondary inconsistencies in the other side’s argument.

The second form is tougher to spot. It involves giving equal time and equal billing to both sides of a technical argument when, among those in a position to know, there really is no disagreement. There are issues--abortion, gay marriage, the role of government, etc.--on which reasonable people can disagree. These are issues in which one does not need technical knowledge or expertise to have an informed opinion. Of course, more knowledge always helps. But you don’t need to be an obstetrician to have a valid opinion on abortion. You don’t need to be a pastor to have a valid opinion on gay marriage. You don’t need to be a senator or a political science professor to have a valid opinion on the role of government.

But some arguments--arguments that have great political import--cannot be productively waged by average citizens, political pundits, or even elected officials.

Some arguments are highly technical, and when they’re waged in a political forum, the only opinions that should be cited are those of actual experts.

The topic where uninformed opinions are most egregiously cited in an attempt to give equal footing to a specious argument is global warming.

If you are arguing about global warming and climate science, you need to talk to climate scientists.

And, among climate scientists, there is no argument, there is no debate.

The earth is getting warmer. Humans are causing it with their carbon emissions. And there will be negative, and likely grave, consequences for humanity.

The facts: A 2010 paper, “Expert Credibility in Climate Change,” conducted a broad study of the climate science community to see if there was any sort of consensus on climate change. It was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors, William R.L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider, analyzed the data and publications of 1,372 climate scientists. They had two primary findings: First, 97-98 percent of climatologists support the “tenets of anthropogenic climate change” (human caused global warming). Second, “The relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC [anthropogenic climate change] are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”

In essence: nearly the entire relevant scientific community believes in global warming, and those that don’t are significantly less accomplished than the rest.

There is almost no issue which gets 98 percent agreement on one side.

The research and consensus on human-caused global warming is as conclusive and convincing as any scientific subject of our time.

And still neither the public nor, more importantly for our purposes, the media is convinced.

One of the most egregious examples of false equivalence with regards to climate change came just a month ago from one of the media organizations most often accused of having a liberal bias, PBS.

On Sept. 17, the PBS NewsHour ran a story on Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is a self-described “converted skeptic” on climate change. Muller publicly renounced his skepticism in a July op-ed in The New York Times after analyzing the results of a multi-year study that he ran, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. Incidentally, the Berkeley project was funded in large part by the Charles G. Koch foundation, normally no friend to climate science. Muller’s conclusions are striking in their lack of ambiguity:

Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.

By itself, this seems like a modestly interesting story. One of the few (2-3 percent) remaining, reputable climate skeptics has come full circle. But instead of running a story on Muller’s conversion to the mainstream, PBS felt the need to “balance” Muller’s story with an “expert” from the other side. And thus, about four minutes of the 10-minute story are given to an interview with Anthony Watts, a television meteorologist with no scientific background.

So basically, PBS has a story about one of a tiny, tiny minority of climatologists who are skeptical about climate change who has changed his mind and embraced the majority view. For some reason PBS felt the need to balance this story with nonsense from an irrelevant and non-accredited source.

It gets worse. At the end of the broadcast segment, anchor Judy Woodruff directs viewers to the PBS website for more video on the subject. On the website is a 10-minute interview with Watts. If we’re just going by time, that’s 14 minutes of video for Watts (who represents the views of 2-3 percent of the scientific community, despite not being a scientist) and about six minutes for Muller, the convert.

The online interview, conducted by Spencer Michels, is outrageous.

Michels begins: “Let’s start out with the basic idea that there’s debate in this country over global warming. There’s some people who call it a complete hoax. There are some people who completely embrace it. So where do you stand in that spectrum?”

The basic premise for the interview, which Michels lays out himself, is entirely false. There is no debate over global warming! Anyone who calls it a “complete hoax” is either a crackpot or woefully uninformed. The percentage of climate scientists who deny global warming is so small that it is literally statistically insignificant.

And who cares where Anthony Watt stands? He’s a TV weatherman! Why does he have any authority to speak on this subject?

We’re not done yet.

PBS, predictably, took heavy criticism for the piece. The day after it aired, PBS responded on its website with this quote: “Spencer will have another blog post today offering the views of other scientists in the broadcast concerned about the threats of climate change.”

In case you missed the misleading innuendo in that statement, here it is: Other scientists? Watts is not a scientist. For that sentence to read truthfully, PBS would need to replace the word “other” with “actual” or “real.”

A subsequent correction on the PBS website included this statement: “Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post implied that Anthony Watts is a scientist. As we reported on the broadcast last night, he is not.”

Great, thanks for clearing that up. So why was he given 14 minutes of airtime in a piece about complex scientific issues?

Other examples of climate change false equivalence are less blatant, but perhaps more insidious for their subtlety.

Every time the tiny minority of deniers is giving equal standing, they’re given undeserved credibility, even if it’s just subconscious, in the eyes of the public. The more the media says or even implies that there is an argument, the more the public believes that there actually is one.

Every time the Washington Post publishes a sentence about global warming like this one: “For years there were only a handful of researchers on both sides of the debate,” the idea of a debate is legitimized in the public consciousness.

Not only is that sentence completely inaccurate--the overwhelming consensus of scientists on the side of man-made climate change is not at all a recent development--but it presupposes that there is a debate to be had.

That sentence was published on March 5, 2012, so false equivalence is still very much an issue in the media.

On March 13, 2012, The New York Times published an article that reported rising sea levels caused by global warming pose a risk to coastal communities. The headline, the lead and the bulk of the article are informative and do a good job of presenting the issue without feebly resorting to presenting the opinion of the “other side.”

But the 11th paragraph of the 21 paragraph article contains this nefarious statement:

The handful of climate researchers who question the scientific consensus about global warming do not deny that the ocean is rising. But they often assert that the rise is a result of natural climate variability, they dispute that the pace is likely to accelerate, and they say that society will be able to adjust to a continuing slow rise.

Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington research group, said that “as a society, we could waste a fair amount of money on preparing for sea level rise if we put our faith in models that have no forecasting ability.”

The author has succumbed to his worst journalistic instinct, the need to air both sides of an argument, even when no argument exists. Not to belabor the point, but a view held by 2 percent of experts does not deserve equal time.

What’s worse, the phrasing and sequencing of these two paragraphs makes one believe that the quoted skeptic, Myron Ebell, is a climate researcher. He is not. He is a spokesman at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank advocating free markets and limited government. Why he’s qualified to rebut the research and analysis of climate scientists is a mystery.

A look at Ebell’s biography on his employer’s website, confirms that false equivalence is alive and well. Ebell has given his inexpert opinion on ABC, NBC, PBS, the BBC, CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC, Sky TV, Al Jazeera, Fox News, NPR, and Air America, among others.

It’s worth noting that the three examples I’ve cited (with thanks to Joe Romm on thinkprogress.org who brought them to public attention) come not from Fox News or the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but from PBS, The Washington Post, and the New York Times, three of the organizations most often mentioned when people complain of a liberal bias in the media.

Journalists are not stenographers. Journalists should not just report what officials say, they should critically analyze and evaluate statements and put them in the context of a broader story. When statements are false, journalists should say so.

More and more these days the task of evaluating the veracity of what officials say is being delegated to specialized “fact-checkers.”

It’s a bit disconcerting that regular journalists are no longer able to do this in the course of their work. The rise of fact-checkers seems like it could lead to a slippery slope of journalists no longer being expected to fact-check the information they report.

As evidence, witness the conservative uproar when Candy Crowley fact-checked Mitt Romney’s false claim about President Barack Obama’s statement on Libya in the last presidential debate. That’s not her role, we were told. Well, of course it is. She’s a journalist, so when she hears a lie she should inform the public.

Romney said Obama did not refer to the attack on our consulate in Benghazi as an act of terror. Actually, he did, and Crowley told the audience as much.

Just because she didn’t call out every misstatement doesn’t mean she shouldn’t call out any. She should point out as many as she can.

Even if it’s not a great idea to give them a separate title and distinguish them from journalists at large, fact-checkers still perform a crucial role. But too often they abandon objectivity in a misguided pursuit of false balance. They assume that the center is always the right place to be, and therefore there must be an equal number of misstatements and lies on both sides of the political spectrum.

In 2009 and 2010, PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-check organization from the Tampa Bay Times, chose Republican claims (2009: Obamacare includes death panels; 2010: Obamacare is a government takeover of health care) for its “Lie of the Year.” So, apparently, they felt the need to appear neutral (not objective) and in 2011 PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” was the Democratic claim that “Republicans voted to end Medicare.”

Neutrality is nice, but not at the expense of objectivity. The Democratic claim wasn’t even a lie, much less the lie of the year.

The claim refers to Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2011 budget which House Republicans voted for by a spread of 235-4. The budget would change Medicare--for everyone 55 and younger--from a program covering a prescribed number of medical benefits into a program that essentially gives seniors a check and tells them to buy health insurance on the private market. Every independent analysis said that the check would not grow fast enough to keep up with medical costs.

Republicans did vote to end Medicare. Medicare is a program that guarantees public health insurance for seniors. The program that Republicans voted for would give seniors a (likely insufficient) check to try to buy insurance on the open market. It’s an entirely different program.

Granted the program would still be called Medicare, but that’s just nomenclature, not substance.

Writing on NPR’s website, Frank James explained: “PolitiFact’s logic, distilled to its essence, is that if a program continues to exist with the same name, albeit in radically changed form, it is inaccurate to describe the original program as having been ended.”

By this logic we could turn Yosemite and Yellowstone into parking lots and it would be a lie if anyone said that the National Parks program had ended.

We could disband the CIA and give everyone a check to pay for their own private intelligence and it would be a lie to say the CIA had ended.

PolitiFact defended their “Lie of the Year” by saying that Democrats, “ignored the fact that the Ryan plan would not affect people currently in Medicare.” So what? That doesn’t change the fact that Republicans actually did vote to end Medicare as it has existed for its entire 46-year existence.

If there’s one thing that almost everyone can agree on (other than humanly caused global warming) it’s that political statements are far too often false, misleading, or outright lies. For PolitiFact to choose a true statement, which at best is modestly misleading, as its “Lie of the Year” smacks of the worst form of false equivalence.

PolitiFact is not alone among fact-checkers fitfully searching for falsehoods from both sides so as to appear neutral.

After a Romney campaign ad about welfare work requirements was roundly debunked as false, Romney spokesman Neil Newhouse infamously said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

During his speech at the Democratic National Convention, former President Bill Clinton referenced Newhouse’s statement: "I couldn't have said it better myself,” Clinton said. “I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad."

The AP’s fact-checkers, apparently desperate to find something to refute in Clinton’s speech, responded with this:

THE FACTS: Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and was subsequently impeached in the House on a perjury charge, has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," Clinton told television viewers. Later, after he was forced to testify to a grand jury, Clinton said his statements were "legally accurate" but also allowed that he "misled people, including even my wife."

In an hour-long speech notable for its heavy emphasis on policy and detail, the AP responded to an uncontroversial statement by bringing up a nearly 15 year old scandal that is completely irrelevant to any current topic. Exactly which fact was checked here?

The AP fact-checking example is truly idiotic and is the dregs of the dregs of false equivalency. But, again, sometimes less blatant examples of false equivalency can be just as insidious as the laughable ones.

After the most recent presidential debate, The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler fact-checked three claims by Mitt Romney: Romney claimed his jobs plan would create 12 million jobs in four years--as Kessler reported, that number is cobbled together from three different studies that both do not assess Romney’s plan specifically and look at a longer time period than four years.

Romney claimed President Obama would raise taxes on the middle-class by $4,000 per year--simply false.

Romney says middle-income taxpayers will no longer pay any tax on interest of capital gains—but the middle-class already pays virtually no taxes on interest or capital gains.

So we have three blatantly false or misleading claims which Kessler does well to refute. But, in the name of balance and neutrality, Kessler also attempts to debunk three claims that Obama made in the debate: Obama said that he bet on American workers while Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt--Romney wrote an op-ed with that very phrase in the headline and repeated it on television interviews. Romney argues that G.M. did go through bankruptcy, but it did so with $80 billion in federal backing, a crucial difference especially at the time, when credit markets were frozen.

Obama said they’ve built enough pipeline to wrap around the earth--Kessler admits this is true but quibbles about the kind of pipeline and says that, percentage wise, that’s not that much pipeline.

Obama said: “I said I would cut taxes for middle-class families, and that’s what I’ve done, by $3,600.” Kessler complains that Obama cut taxes by $3,600, but not in one big tax cut, in a few smaller ones. He also says that some of the tax cuts may expire, none of which refutes Obama’s claim.

If there isn’t an equal amount of mendacity on both sides of a political campaign, then efforts to make it look otherwise obfuscate the truth and do the reader no service.

Journalists should not be bound by tenets of neutrality, but by tenets of objectivity. If those overlap, that’s great, it makes a reporter’s job that much easier and less controversial. But if the interests of objectivity and neutrality diverge, a journalist’s loyalty lies with the truth, not with the political or rhetorical center.

David Gutman

David Gutman writes for the Capital News Service in Maryland

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