False Equivalence from Down Under

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan, from Melbourne, Australia

I have spent the last week in Australia, officially to present a paper at the Australian Treasury on Wednesday, and to deliver a speech at the Australasian Tax Teachers' Association annual conference today. (Unofficially, who wouldn't love a job that entails the occasional free trip to enjoy a week of summer in January?) It has been a fascinating and delightful experience.

While I have been here, I have taken some effort to read the Australian newspapers, to get a sense of how they view the U.S., and how they cover the rest of the world. (Interestingly, the Australian newspapers are still broadsheets, 16 inches across. The American papers have truly experienced what George Costanza would ruefully call shrinkage.)

Two amusing comments appeared in the same column in The Sydney Morning Herald's Business Section (not a likely source of comedy) on Monday, January 17. In "US surfs on choppy recovery and we catch the wave," in which Ian McIlwraith (love the name!) wrote about the surprisingly robust Australian economy (5% unemployment), the "big sentence" (the publishing term for the sentence within the text that is reproduced in large print to tease the reader) read as follows: "We cannot often claim the US is at least 18 months, and perhaps two years, behind Australia." The self-effacing humor was especially notable because I had been watching local TV at night, where they seem to show exclusively US programming ("Two and a Half Men," "The Simpsons," "Bones," "Family Guy," etc.), along with soccer, cricket, and tennis. (The Australian Open began in Melbourne this week.) The movie theaters also run the whole range of Hollywood releases, some current, but many ("Unstoppable," for example) months behind.

The topper, however, was McIlwraith's description of the US stock market: "Both the S&P 500 index and Rupert Murdoch's much narrower Dow Jones index hit two-year highs last week." The Dow Jones is Rupert Murdoch's? Technically, this is true, in that News Corp. now owns the Dow Jones Company (and the Wall Street Journal). But how bizarre is that choice of descriptions, given that the Dow (and its narrowness) had been around for decades before Murdoch came along? It struck me as one of those things that regional newspapers and TV news shows use to make their readers feel important. ("Two Toledoans were among those who watched the ball fall in Times Square on New Year's Eve." Woo hoo!) Such self-aggrandizement is, of course, the defensive flipside of the self-effacement noted above.

More substantively, The Herald included some coverage and commentary on the Tucson shootings. What most stood out to me was the paper's attempt to play the same game of false equivalence that U.S. news sources have fallen into. For example, The New York Times's Matt Bai wrote an article last week in which he suggested that Democrats were also guilty "of the rhetorical recklessness that permeates our political moment." His example? Someone (not an officeholder or party official) evidently referred to Gabrielle Giffords as being "dead to me" after Giffords did not support Nancy Pelosi as House Minority Leader. As a subsequent letter to the editor pointed out, however, the word "dead" in that phrase in no way connotes violence or even death, as it simply describes a person's deep disappointment with another person's decision -- a disappointment so profound that the wronged party simply will no longer acknowledge the other person's continued existence. (According to the letter writer, the phrase is sometimes used by parents of Jews who marry outside the faith.)

Bai's literalism mirrors Jon Stewart's insistent attempts at false equivalence, as he continues to describe Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" segment as an example of over-the-top rhetoric -- even though Olbermann explicitly and repeatedly points out that his title for that segment is a reference to an old comedy routine and is clearly not literal. (Apparently, however, Olbermann has decided that people's continued belief that he is being literal is reason enough to rename the segment, while continuing the satire.)

I should add that there are examples of rhetoric on the Right that could wrongly be swept up in Bai's false equivalence, such as the chants of "Kill the bill!" during the health care debate last year. As much as I worry about this rhetoric, it is abundantly clear that simply using the word "kill" does not put a person in the same category as those who refer to, for example, "Second Amendment remedies."

The Sydney paper, despite running the blurb headline "America's Hate Society" next to a photo of Sarah Palin, went for the same false equivalence. In an editorial on Monday, The Herald assured its readers (and chose for its big sentence): "The truth is, no side of politics has clean hands when it comes to invective." They offered no evidence to support this claim; but their columnist Simon Mann, in an article in the January 15-16 Weekend Edition, offered this: "The Democrats were not immune from offering similar [gun-toting] imagery, the most noteworthy bit of lunacy a TV campaign ad released by ex-governor Joe Manchin in the coal-mining state of West Virginia that showed the Senate candidate firing his rifle at a copy of his own party's cap-and-trade energy policy 'because it's bad for Virginia' [sic]." When a Democrat deliberately defies his own party and acts like far too many Republican candidates, that shows that Democrats are not immune from the lunacy? Again, this is literally true. Manchin is a Democrat, and his ad was insane. But this is the case for the "no clean hands" claim?

In the rush to assure us that they are not claiming a link from the violent rhetoric and imagery on the Right to the tragedy in Tucson, the press -- including, much to my surprise, at least one prominent non-US newspaper -- conflates being unbiased with being incapable of describing the weight of the evidence. Should we feel better, or worse, knowing that journalistic standards are degraded outside of the United States, too?