The Curse of False Equivalency

by Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in neurophysiology 07.09.2016

For reasons that remain obscure, we seem in our culture to experience a gender bias in the willingness to turn off lights when exiting a room.  With limited data, and at the high risk of infuriating many readers, I would suggest that more women than men tend to leave lights burning when nobody is around to enjoy the benefits of illumination.

During a typical day at home I will, in trail of my spouse, stubbornly flip off lights 10 or 20 times, day in and day out, like an annoyingly persistent mosquito determined to pester my wife into submission. Alas, to no avail, a reality that finally dawned on me after 32 years. I’m a slow learner.  However, and now we come to the point of this domestic tale, I will on rare occasion rush from my office and forget to turn off the light upon my hasty retreat.  If my wife chances by, she will do the honor of extinguishing the electronic flame, followed sometimes by a reminder that we are both equally guilty of burning more oil than necessary.

But no, we are not.  This is a claim of false equivalency.  Indeed it is true that we both are in the absolute sense guilty of leaving lights on, so superficially it would appear we have similar histories that could be equated one to the other.  But frequency, patterns, consistency over time and persistence matter; combined they create functional differences that result in qualitative and quantitative dissimilarities profound enough that we can reasonably conclude one set of actions is distinct from another.  On the domestic front this is appeal to false equivalency is trivial, of no consequence.  Not so in presidential politics on the nationals stage.

 The media have made a tragic error in creating a false equivalency between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  Yes superficially we can claim equivalency: both are running for president, each representing a major political party after securing victories in the primary season following multiple debates with opponents.  But the comparison is just that – superficial – and meaningless.  And dangerously naïve. 

Put aside for a moment whatever animosity you may feel for Clinton.  You may wrongly believe her to be more dishonest than any other politician (admittedly a low bar), or believe the focus on Benghazi is something other than a GOP witch hunt, or think her email debacle is somehow worse than Bush and Cheney deleting 21 million emails from an RNC server, or conclude that her use of private emails for government business involving classified information is different than what Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld did routinely, or dismiss General Petraeus sharing classified information with his mistress Paula Broadwell.  Or perhaps you are offended by her liberal views on abortion or climate change, or simply hate her because she is a Clinton. OK, that’s great.  But even with all that, Clinton is by any definition qualified to be president, hate her or not.  Senator, Secretary of State, veteran of a previous presidential campaign, a major player on the global stage, Clinton has the history and experience typical of presidential candidates consistent with all who have come before. 

Opposing a candidate does not mean we believe he or she is unqualified, only that we hope he or she is not elected.  In previous campaigns many of us vigorously opposed McCain and Romney and thought both would make terrible presidents implementing wrong-minded policies; but both men are undeniably qualified for the presidency based on temperament, sense of history and respective experience in the U.S. senate and governor’s mansion.  Clinton, Romney, and McCain are all properly considered equivalently qualified as presidential candidates even if they have radically different views, agendas and policies.

The huge and potentially existential mistake the media have made is to include Donald Trump in that group of qualified candidates.  They have erred in promoting the idea that just because he is the GOP nominee he deserves to be treated like other legitimate candidates.  This may be the worst case of false equivalency ever witnessed in public life.  Sarah Palin, so thoroughly unprepared and unqualified for office, pioneered the low path for Trump’s arrival on the national scene but she was a running mate, not the main event.  In any case, as a consequence of the media’s inappropriately equating Trump to actually qualified candidates, he is taken seriously no matter how outrageous his pronouncements may be.  He is given media coverage unworthy of the buffoon that he is, of the clown he has become.  He is offered by the media the respect of a legitimate candidate without offering in return to the American people the behavior, disposition or character befitting someone vying for the nation’s highest office. 

In stark contrast to Clinton or those who came before her, Trump has no credentials that would make him a viable candidate for president.  Hate him or like him, it doesn’t matter; he has no qualifications for the presidency.  His temperament, lack of experience, misogyny, bigotry and racism have no place in any campaign for the Oval Office. Yet every day we see wall-to-wall coverage of Trump being taken seriously because the press both left and right have made the potentially fatal mistake of false equivalency, wrongly giving Trump the same deference as a candidate as they afford Clinton. 

This false equivalency seems to be broadly applied across the political spectrum.  Proof of this is seen in the few but prominent exceptions to the rule that the media are giving Trump the absurd benefit of the doubt that he has something serious to offer.  In fact, some of the most vocal opposition comes from traditionally conservative press.  The Dallas Morning News, not exactly a bastion of liberalism, concludes that “Donald Trump is not qualified to serve as president and does not deserve your vote.”  The Houston Chronicle, a stronghold of conservativism with the largest circulation in Texas, actually endorsed Hillary Clinton with the following commentary:

 

“Any one of Trump's less-than-sterling qualities - his erratic temperament, his dodgy business practices, his racism, his Putin-like strongman inclinations and faux-populist demagoguery, his contempt for the rule of law, his ignorance - is enough to be disqualifying. His convention-speech comment, "I alone can fix it," should make every American shudder. He is, we believe, a danger to the Republic.”

 

The National Review concludes that, “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.”

But these are indeed the exceptions. Fox News remains strongly behind Trump, giving him daily saturation coverage as a legitimate possible president.  CNN and MSNBC have failed in their primary mission by doing the same as Fox without questioning Trump’s qualifications as they report on his campaign, ignoring or laughing off gaffs that would destroy other candidates.  Media with a liberal bias make the mistake of reporting on Trump as a legitimate candidate in an effort to be “impartial” and “fair” thereby committing the sin of assuming that that every debate has two sides, that all arguments are equally valid. 

People commonly claim that left-wing media bias is no different than what we see on Fox News.  “Both sides are equally guilty” is something often heard.  “The left is just as biased as the right; both sides lie.  It’s all the same.”  This follows the oft-stated claim that media in general are left-leaning.  Sure, those that are left-leaning lean to the left...  But that ignores all the media tilting to the right, including the Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, National Review, Breitbart, Free Republic, and conservative commentators like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. 

So yeah, left wing media is biased; right wing media is biased.  But to say that liberal media is as partisan as conservative media is false equivalency in pure form.  We can demonstrate easily enough that media bias on the left, while certainly real, is not anywhere near equivalent to the partiality on the right.  The argument we hear in daily conversations that “they all do it” when discussing bias ignores the form, weight, intensity and tenuous link to reality in the bias we see on Fox News, or with Ann Coulter or Hannity or Limbaugh.  In total there is on the left no equivalent of the massive, organized, intentional bias seen on the right.  We only have to look at coverage of Benghazi to see this clearly. 

During George Bush’s presidency, the U.S. suffered 13 attacks on embassies and consulates in which 60 people died (some put the total at 87).  What is important here:  Fox News (or any conservative media for that matter) mentioned not at all or only in passing any of these attacks and deaths.  Compared to the  never-ending coverage of the deaths of four Americans in Libya, I can find not one single Fox News or conservative media reports on the 8 Americans killed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; not one story of Jim Mollen’s murder, and none on the murder of Edward Seitz.  Are their lives less worthy than those who died in Libya?

The deaths in Benghazi were covered in saturation nearly non-stop for almost two full years after the attacks.  According to MediaMatters, Fox News ran 1,098 segments on the Libya attacks, at least 20 per month, with a peak of 174 in October 2012.  Of these, 281 segments alleged a “cover up” by the Obama administration, without offering any evidence for the claim, and pushing the story long-past when the claim was proven false.  There is and was no cover up.  The House Armed Services Committee report concluded that the Obama administration was “not guilty of any deliberate, negligent wrongdoing.”  The GOP panel confirmed that “no one was deliberately misled, no military assets were withheld and no stand-down order” was given to the military.  This is a Republican majority report.  The bi-partisan Senate report on Benghazi came to the same conclusion that there was no cover up.

Equally corrupt, Fox aired 100 segments pushing the blatant lie that the Obama administration issued a “stand-down order” before there was any evidence for the claim and even after the accusation was known to be false.  So Fox aired hundreds and hundreds of segments on an alleged cover up and stand-down order that they knew to be wrong.  Compare this blitzkrieg of false accusations concerning four American deaths to the complete lack of coverage or investigation into the 60 deaths suffered during 13 attacks under Bush. 

There is simply nothing remotely equivalent to this onslaught of blatantly biased coverage and accusations fabricated from thin air in liberal media.  Fox manipulated news with the intent of harming Hillary Clinton in collaboration with allies in Congress.  During an interview with Fox News, then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) admitted that the committee investigating Benghazi had set out with the clear purpose of damaging Hillary Clinton. Fox News gleefully covered the Benghazi hearings with no filter.  Bradley F. Podliska, a staffer to the committee, openly stated that the investigation was designed to harm Clinton politically.  (Conservative media predictably subsequently tried to minimize this damaging admission).  Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) reiterated this claim.  You simply cannot point to something this outrageous on the left.  Claiming that liberal bias exists just as it does on the right is false equivalency.

We all suffer from this curse of unequal bias as we witness false equivalency bleeding from national politics back into daily life.  Denying the reality of climate change and its cause, questioning the validity of evolution, promoting an anti-vaccine agenda and fighting blindly against every GMO are all products of the same culture in which objective reality is nothing but a quaint notion from the past when fact was actually given greater weight than unsubstantiated opinion. In our brave new world, the collective opinions of thousands of professional meteorologists studying our climate have been equated to nothing more valid than the uneducated opinion of a radio host.  Such false equivalency in expertise is a sure sign we are in deep trouble: we lose our ability to arbitrate between conflicting claims because everything is equally afforded the patina of validity even in the absence of evidence.  If all is equivalent then we have no means of distinguishing between one assertion and another.  We falsely equate opinion with fact.

Donald Trump is not the problem, we are.  The media that allow him to thrive in the face of false equivalency, and the voting public incapable of seeing past this illusion together conspire to create the primordial goop that nourishes Trump’s lubricous oozing into the national spotlight.  The time has come to stop the madness of giving Trump any offer of legitimacy. We must loosen our embrace of deceitful impartiality and accept that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a candidate is just a dangerous buffoon deserving nothing but our disdain.


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Dr. Jeff Schweitzer is a marine biologist, consultant and internationally recognized authority in ethics, conservation and development. He is the author of five books including Calorie Wars: Fat, Fact and Fiction (July 2011), and A New Moral Code (2010). Dr. Schweitzer has spoken at numerous international conferences in Asia, Russia, Europe and the United States.Dr. Schweitzer's work is based on his desire to introduce a stronger set of ethics into American efforts to improve the human condition worldwide. He has been instrumental in designing programs that demonstrate how third world development and protecting our resources are compatible goals. His vision is to inspire a framework that ensures that humans can grow and prosper indefinitely in a healthy environment.Formerly, Dr. Schweitzer served as an Assistant Director for International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President Clinton. Prior to that, Dr. Schweitzer served as the Chief Environmental Officer at the State Department's Agency for International Development. In that role, he founded the multi-agency International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program, a U.S. Government that promoted conservation through rational economic use of natural resources.Dr. Schweitzer began his scientific career in the field of marine biology. He earned his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. He expanded his research at the Center for Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine. While at U.C. Irvine he was awarded the Science, Engineering and Diplomacy Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.Dr. Schweitzer is a pilot and he founded and edited the Malibu Mirage, an aviation magazine dedicated to pilots flying these single-engine airplanes. He and his wife Sally are avid SCUBA divers and they travel widely to see new wildlife, never far from their roots as marine scientists..To learn more about Dr Schweitzer, visit his website at http://www.JeffSchweitzer.com.


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