Wednesday, September 17, 2008

False Symmetry

Back in the bad old days of Apartheid South Africa, anti-Apartheid activists in this nation sought to promote change in that country through the judicious application of economic pressure. Thus the South African Divestment movement was born, and ordinary Americans were urged to stop using products by companies that did business in South Africa. But movement organizers realized that for the true economic effects of such a boycott to be measured, a general boycott would not be effective. Instead, what was needed was a targeted boycott. The theory ran that, if, for instance, you boycotted Coke and Pepsi, then both soft-drink manufacturers would see their earnings dip by an equal amount, and it would be difficult to measure what impact the Divestment Movement was actually having, vs. normal market fluctuations. However, if you targeted just one of those two companies, then it would be reasonably simple to measure the effect of your boycott by comparing one company's change in earnings against the other.

The lesson of this strategy has, alas, all to often been missed by mainstream media journalists who cover political campaigns. For while there is no end of complaining about the falsehoods and dishonesty that permeate the political sphere come campaign season, Journalists who report on the matter all to often sacrifice "truth" to the false and misleading idol of "balance" and in so doing, undermine any chance of effecting actual reform of the system. For reasons that are not worth going into at this time, these journalists feel compelled, every time they write about the mortal sins of one political candidate, to dredge up and give prominence to a venial sin of his opponent. Even in cases where one candidate is clearly guilty of far more dishonesty than the other, journalists feel compelled to impose this misleading "balance" on their reporting, and in so doing, leave the false impression that both politicians are just as guilty of the crimes described. There simply is no incentive for the devils to reform their act, if the media is going to leave the impression that the angels are just as dirty. The irony, then, is that by succombing to this false temptation of "balance," reporters help propagate the very behavior that they pretend to abhor.

That is the subject of an excellent Washington Post column today by Ruth Marcus, titled "True Whoppers." Marcus examines distortions by both the Obama campaign and the McCain campaign and concludes that, while one can certainly quibble with the manner in which the Obama campaign has characterized certain statements by John McCain and his surrogates, these unfair characterizations pale in comparison to the outright lies that the McCain campaign is repeating to rile up their supporters and fuel their speeches. You can debate whether it is fair for the Obama campaign to insist that McCain wants us to stay in Iraq for 100 years, for instance, given that McCain's comment to that effect was an offhand reamark that was accompanied by the qualifier that this would only be the case if things calmed down in that country. But by contrast, there is almost no shred of truth to the McCain campaign's insistence that Sara Palin opposed the notorious "bridge to nowhere" and there is absolutely no truth to the false contention that she opposed Federal earmark funding for Alaska. The imbalance of truth is quite evident, Marcus insists, and reporters and the media should stop writing as if it is not.

Again, it's a decent article, and worth a read.

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