The Atlantic: False-Equivalence Watch

The Atlantic, James Fallows, “False-Equivalence Watch: Nice Work by the Times and Post!”

I wish I could start a political movement to protest “Representation without substantiation!” This brief article focuses on how subtle changes in copy-writing can alter public perception of a story, with regard to the Senate debate over the “Buffett Rule” proposed by President Obama. The writer compares two different headlines about the state of the debate in the Senate and each addresses (one accurately, one inaccurately) why the proposed legislation will not move beyond the Senate.

In short: despite the fact that the legislation won majority support (51-45), Republicans threatened to filibuster to delay and argue against it. The Republicans have not followed through on their threats in modern times, but because the Democrats were not able to secure a “super majority” to override the threatened filibuster, and a tremendous amount of time would be wasted on a filibuster, the fight was abandoned.

The New York Times accurately represented the situation, their headline read, “Republicans Block Debate on ‘Buffet Rule’ in Senate.” Though NYT is regarded as a more liberal, left-leaning publication, the headline indicates the factual reality that Republicans are responsible for ending debate on the Buffet Rule.

Forbes, however, ran a headline which read, “Buffet Rule Fails in Senate, 51-45.” This is a blatantly inaccurate, intentionally vague representation of what happened. If one were to speculate where Forbes’s political loyalties lie, it’d be easy to infer from this headline, which is sort of, you know, wrong, when it comes to the field of journalism.

I thought this article was effective in demonstrating exactly the kind of thing I personally think is wrong with political debate in this country: disingenuous representation. The Forbes headline gives the inaccurate impression that the Senate outright rejected the Buffet Rule, putting the onus on the entire governing body, when in actuality, it was because the Senate Republicans threatened to filibuster the legislation that the Buffet Rule was stopped in its tracks. And I don’t even want to get into the problem with the filibuster as a governing practice. Suffice it to say that I think the only way it could ever work is if you actually make the person or group threatening to filibuster follow through with their threat. Good work, Senate Democrats…

Anyway, anyone with only a moment to glance over headlines would read the Forbes version, misunderstand the situation without knowing any better, and go on to cultivate ill-informed opinions. This sort of problem is endemic and, to me, indicative of a larger problem with how we currently function as a society. Though we pride ourselves on freedom, that does not mean we should allow “free” incorrect and untrue assertions to have any place in political debate.

This has been a problem for as long as man has tried to govern, but shouldn’t we at least TRY to negotiate obstacle at some point? The issues with which our country is grappling are far too significant to muddle around in petty misrepresentations. Real people live and die by the laws of this land and deserve to be accurately informed as to what goes into creating them.


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