Former New York Times Washington bureau chief decries false equivalence

David Leonhardt, the former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, writes in his New York Times opinion column today about the blatant mischaracterization of the political parties by reporters who think false equivalence makes them look smart.

Leonhardt’s thesis is this:

The Democrats have not actually become radical leftists, or anything close to it.

And he explains:

You keep hearing this story partly because Republicans have an obvious interest in promoting it and partly because large parts of the news media find it irresistible. It’s a “both side do it” angle that allows us journalists to appear tough, knowing and above the partisan scrum. We love that image. But the facts don’t support the story in this case.

Normally I would celebrate such an acknowledgment. One of my journalistic deities is James Fallows of the Atlantic, who is also one of the most consistent chroniclers and decriers of false equivalence, which he describes  as the “strong tendency to give equal time and credence to varying ‘sides’ of a story, even if one of the sides is objectively true and the other is just made up.”

And in the Trump era, any attempt to find balance between the two sides inevitably normalizes what is a profoundly abnormal presidency.

But this is the New York Times we’re talking about here. It lifts you up, sure, but it also breaks your heart.

And the thing is: Leonhardt’s example kind of sucks.

While he decries false balance, which is indeed one of the D.C. elite media’s greatest sins, he simultaneously indulges in another one: Pooh-poohing progressives as marginal, unelectable, and radical.

He argues that Republicans have gone off the rails over the last several years, adopting an objectively radical agenda. True. True well before Trump, in fact. Now they’re also completely unhinged.

But Leonhardt then credits the Democratic Party for its centrism, for not endorsing such things as single-payer health insurance, or a dramatic increase in taxes on the rich.

He writes off recent progressive victories by chortling that “the list of progressive insurgents who got thumped is much longer. In New York, Cynthia Nixon didn’t crack 35 percent.”

But there is movement in the Democratic Party, and I suspect that movement is more Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton. More Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Joe Crowley.

And the more progressive agenda isn’t nearly as radically left as the modern Republican Party is radically right. It actually reflects majority positions in many cases. See, for instance, this Reuters chart:

Chart from Reuters.
Chart from Reuters.

So Leonhardt urges his former staffers to stop saying both parties are radical when only one is. But then he keeps false equivalence in his back pocket just in case the Democrats stray from what the Washington media defines as the center.

Leave a Comment