If Only Our Spacetime Was Five Dimensional, We Could Do Our IS-LM Diagrams Right...
Make That Six-Dimensional...

James Fallows: "False Equivalence" Reaches Onionesque Heights in the Washington Post

in the work of David A. Fahrenthold, Paul Kane, and Aaron Blake. And, Fallows says, in the writings of Robert Pear of the New York Times, Patricia Murphy of the Daily Beast, Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg, Diane Rehm of NPR, and many others.

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

James Fallows has:

A Modest Proposal: Call Obstruction What It Is: Here is the headline in the online home page of the NYT, about Obama's "pass this jobs bill, pass it now" proposal. Note the word "fails":

Obama's Jobs Bill Fails in First Legislative Test

The subhead and the rest of [Robert Pear's] article make clear that more Senators voted for the bill than against it -- 50 to 49. It would have been 51-48 except for a parliamentary ruse by Majority Leader Harry Reid, who switched to a "No" vote so that he would later be able to call it up for reconsideration. We have gone so far in recent years toward routinizing the once-rare requirement for a 60-vote Senate "supermajority" into an obstacle for every nomination and every bill that our leading newspaper can say that a measure "fails" when it gets more Yes than No votes. (For background on mounting abuse of the filibuster, see accounts from late 2009, early 2010, and late 2010.)

Again, the subhead and story make the real situation clear. So how about a headline that says plainly what happened?

Obama's Jobs Bill Blocked by GOP in Procedural Move

Fallows finds a:

much worse headline and presentation [by Patricia Murphy of] the Daily Beast:

Obama Loses Big on Jobs Bill

And Fallows piles on:

Chronicles of False Equivalence, Chapter 2,817: Yesterday I mentioned that a NYT headline proclaimed that the Obama Administration's jobs bill had "failed" in the Senate, even though more senators voted for the bill than against. What really happened, of course, was that Mitch McConnell's GOP minority threatened (of course) to filibuster to block consideration of the bill, and the Democrats (of course, with 53 Dem + Independent votes) could not amass a 60-vote supermajority to break the filibuster.

Today there was a more startling illustration of faux "even-handed" reporting. It was in the Washington Post, it was by two veteran reporters [David A. Fahrenthold and Paul Kane], and this was its headline both in print and online:

Senate Has Become a Chamber of Failure

Here's the reality behind the (undoubted) Senate failure-to-function that the story concerns:

In the past four-plus years, since the Democrats took control of the Senate, Mitch McConnell's Republican minority has used -- and abused -- the filibuster to a degree unprecedented in modern history…. [R]equiring 60 votes for everything is new, and it is overwhelmingly a Republican tactic.

Unfortunately you would get no hint of that from today's WaPo story. Every line in it was in keeping with the implication of the photo: partisanship and extremism "on both sides" was bogging the Senate down…

And trebles down:

One More Note on 'False Equivalence' and the Filibuster: I don't mean to run this into the ground, but -- well, actually I do mean to run it into the ground. This week's news really is a perfect distillation of a long-standing problem we generally just assume to be part of the landscape and yet matters more and more.

Main problem: the decision by Mitch McConnell's GOP Senate minority, once they lost their majority status in the 2006 elections, to filibuster nearly every item of public business. Nominations, routine appropriations, standard business, not to mention any genuinely controversial proposal. What had been for 200 years an exceptional tactic has become an everyday impediment. De facto, the Constitution has been amended to change the Senate from a majority-rule body to one requiring a 60-vote "supermajority." And since the Senate already heavily over-represents small-population states, in effect Senators representing a quarter to a third of the nation's people hold a veto over all items of public business, and have repeatedly exercised it.

'Enabler' problem: The reluctance of the mainstream media to call this what it is, and instead to talk about "partisanship" and "logjam" and "dysfunction." Yes, those are the results. But the cause is intentional, and it comes overwhelmingly from one side.

We had illustrations in the past few days from the NYT and, in jaw-dropping fashion, yesterday from the WaPo. And earlier this morning I was listening to [Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg on Diane Rehm's] political "analysis" show on the radio that was all about this sad modern predicament of Congressional gridlock. The word "filibuster" was not used in that hour….

The problems created by a sophomoric conception of "objectivity" are hardly unknown. Jay Rosen, for instance, has written about this pathology for eons. As has Dan Gillmor. But jeesh! It doesn't go away.

And goes to the limit:

'False Equivalence' Reaches Onionesque Heights, but in a Real Paper: I've heard angrily from a number of reporters in the last few days. They are objecting to my claims that mainstream journalism is "enabling" Senate dysfunction by describing it as dysfunction plain and simple, rather than as the result of deliberate and extremely effective Republican strategy. That strategy, over the past four-plus years, has been to apply the once-rare threat of a filibuster to virtually everything the Administration proposes. This means that when the Democrats can't get 60 votes for something, which they almost never can, they can't get nominations confirmed, bills enacted, or most of what they want done.

You can consider this strategy brilliant and nation-saving, if you are a Republican. You can consider it destructive and nation-wrecking, if you are a Democrat. You can view it as just what the Founders had in mind, as Justice Scalia asserted recently at an Atlantic forum. You can view it as another step down the road to collapse, since the Democrats would have no reason not to turn the same nihilist approach against the next Republican administration. Obviously I think it does more harm than good. You can even argue that it's stimulated or justified by various tactics that Democrats have used.

But you shouldn't pretend that it doesn't exist. That was my objection to a recent big Washington Post story [by David A. Fahrenthold and Paul Kane] on what is wrong with the Senate, which did not contain the word "filibuster." And there is an example again this very day [by Aaron Blake]. I wish to Heaven that the item had appeared somewhere else, but it happens that it's also in the Post. A  story on what happened to Obama's jobs-bill proposal in the Senate concentrates on the two Plains States Democrats, Ben Nelson and Jon Tester, who defected during the cloture vote -- and not on the 100% Republican opposition to even bringing this bill up for consideration. You should read the whole story to savor it, but I will point out these features:

  • Like the previous one, it manages not to use the word "filibuster" while describing why the Administration's programs have not gotten through a Senate that the Democrats "control." The Democrats would actually "control" the Senate if a 51-vote majority were enough to pass most measures. But they don't control it, with 53 Dem+Indep seats, when the 60-vote standard becomes routine. This is too important a fact to be left out of accounts of what is happening in the Senate.

  • It reflects so thorough an absorption of the idea that the filibuster-threat is normal business that it describes the latest cloture vote as a vote on the bill itself: "Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), who are both up for reelection next year, took to the Senate floor and delivered a sizeable blow to the bill's prospects by voting against it."  No, they voted against the cloture measure, which they knew had zero chance of getting the necessary 60 votes. Several other Democrats with doubts about the bill itself nonetheless were persuaded to vote for cloture, so that it would end up with a symbolic but ineffective 51-vote majority.

  • And the story has this virtuoso suggestion that Democratic wavering really explains why the Republicans don't vote for Administration proposals. Emphasis added:

But if incumbent Democrats in Montana and Nebraska don't see the bill as a viable vote for their political futures, then it should come as no surprise that neither do many - or possibly any, considering Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown's 'no' vote on the jobs bill - Republicans. With Nelson's and Tester's votes opposition to the bill, Republicans who may have been concerned about its popularity suddenly have an escape hatch. Because if these Democrats think a 'yes' vote is a bad move, how could it be smart for a Republican with an even more conservative constituency to support the same legislation?... GOP members of Congress will now feel a little safer about voting 'no" on a bill that is polling quite well.

"Escape hatch"? "Feel a little safer"? How "could it be smart" to support an Obama plan? It should "come as no surprise" that all the Republicans end up voting against the bill, because that is the Republican strategy. You don't have to present this as some inside-dope subtle game-theory problem, with wavering Republicans watching Nelson and Tester for cues. The explanation is simpler: Mitch McConnell's Senate Republicans have been rock-ribbed in enforcing their strategic choice that opposing the Administration makes policy and political sense.

To anticipate the next round of notes from mainstream reporters: No, I am not suggesting that the polarization and obstruction would go away if reporters began describing it more clearly. At root this is a political problem. But it's a media failure too, and the political problem is all the harder to solve if the media act as if it doesn't exist.