Sunday, February 5, 2017

False Equivalence in His Hands

We have criticized the New York Times and other mainstream outlets of perpetrating false balance through the error of false equivalence (here and more generally here) , especially throughout election campaigns - bending over backwards trying to be fair, but ultimately being unfair in the process. Sure, they "speak truth to power" when the more aggressive candidate is elected, but at that point, it's too late.
The deny, distract, deflect, accuse tactic can be used to impose false equivalence to remove logic and therefore meaning from any discussion.
The O'Reilly (if a Republican president can't trust Fox news, who can he trust?) interview with DJT - O'Reilly told Trump that Putin is a killer. Trump's reply: 'You think our country is so innocent?' employs three tactics:
1. Rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is not a statement. A rhetorical question can be misleading, calculated to distract and confuse the issue, but is never, ever false. This highlights one more problem with fact checking as a solution to the failure of news media to professionally and faithfully report political news. DJT could choose to only speak in questions. Unfactcheckable. What do you do? Shrug your shoulders? No. You do this. The Twittersphere erupted with varying interpretations of the Trumpian intent, but that's the point. A feature, not a bug.
2. False Equivalence. DJT thus vaguely equates Putin and Putin's Russia with the U.S. The details are left to the listener, but the implication is clear. The specifics - Putin's brutal murder of journalists and political opponents, including cruel and cynical poison murders -  is turned into a more general, open-ended and vague comparison. He is like us in some way. But the important differences between Putin and U.S. presidents, at least prior to 2017, is removed by this rhetorical trick from further discussion.
3. Pivot from the specific to the general. Watch carefully how often a specific topic (Putin kills people) is turned into a generality by the Trump White House in support of the deny/deflect stage of the rhetorical strategy. Wait a second...I thought we were talking about Putin? Watch how vigorously Trump deflects discussion when the subject turns to Putin. I am guessing he has his reasons.

What is the problem with following the rule of journalism that stipulates the practice of false balance?
False balance/false equivalence knocks the wind out of the sails of valid criticism of a politician during a campaign or of a political leader once elected. Suppose we live in a world where Republican presidential candidates have followed a pattern of increasing tendency to
(1) avoid direct discussion of issues, instead
(2) speak in code, and, when elected
(3) hollow out cabinet departments by turning the original mission of the department on its head.

By comparing DJT actions at every turn with Obama actions, such an increasing pattern would be impossible to deduce and criticism is neutered. Once you have framed DJT actions as "just like Obama", which you can achieve on every action if you try hard enough, you have pre-defined your narrative to be "all politicians are alike", which is one more yellow brick on the road to post-truth, post-reality America.

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