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Thursday, October 16, 2008

The media and the myth of equivalence

Barack Obama pals around with terrorists.

John McCain was one of the Keating Five.

“Candidates Go Negative but Risk Alienating Voters,” screams the headline on CNN.com.

That response to the two statements above is a clear example of something the mainstream media has been guilty of throughout the presidential campaign: setting up false equivalence and making it seem that both sides are just as bad.

For a long time now, the media has been running scared from the charge that they demonstrate a liberal bias. The effect has been that, whenever they have something negative to say about one side, they do their best to level the same charge against the other side – even when there’s no real equivalence. In doing so, they create the impression that both sides are engaged in exactly the same behavior. And they’re not.

No one – not even the McCain campaign – claims that Barack Obama contributed to or supported acts of terrorism. The charge against him is that he has had a working relationship with a man who was a member of a violent radical group decades earlier, and who is now Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. According to media reports, Obama did receive a $200 donation from Ayres for his 2001 campaign.

Was McCain one of the Keating Five? Did he have close personal ties to savings and loan mogul Charles Keating? Did McCain receive $112,000 in political contributions from Keating and his associates? Did McCain make trips at Keating’s expense, only paying for them once the scandal broke? Did McCain continually oppose regulating Keating’s industry? Was McCain criticized by the Senate Ethics Committee for his role in the affair? Yes.

And yet the media sets up the “pals around with terrorists” charge as being equivalent to the Keating Five charge by labeling them both as “going negative.”

Barack Obama is “dangerous” and “too risky for America.”

John McCain wants to “tax health care, not fix it.”

“Campaign Ads Going Negative,” a Chicago Tribune headline tells us.

“McCain, Obama Camps Trade Barbs on Negative Ads,” says the Associated Press.

There it is again – that equivalence thing. Where one candidate is criticizing his opponent’s health care policy, the other candidate is implying his opponent is a security risk to the nation. Yet the Chicago Tribune (and most of the rest of the major media outlets in the nation) label both as “negative” and treat them as if they were equally damaging to a healthy political process. That’s kind of like saying the basketball player who double dribbled and the one who kneed the opposing forward in the groin are both playing dirty.

And as if that weren’t enough, CNN.com tells us this:

Candidates Hit Back Hard, Fast Against Online Attacks

Barack Obama is not a Muslim, and John McCain did not tell the television show 60 Minutes he was a war criminal who intentionally bombed women and children in Vietnam...Joe Biden is not planning to step aside in favor of Hillary Clinton as vice president, and Sarah Palin did not order books banned from the library when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.

But if you have spent any time browsing the Internet this year, you may have read rumors to the contrary.

All these stories -- and more -- are being e-mailed to friends and family and posted on blogs.

Granted, it’s nearly impossible to gauge the prevalence of viral e-mails, but does CNN honestly believe that the “McCain is a war criminal” myth is just as prevalent as the “Obama is a Muslim” myth? Everyone in America knows someone who’s received an e-mail warning that Obama can't be trusted because he's a Muslim. It's so prevalent, one of McCain's supporters actually said it to the Republican candidate himself at a rally. But I’m still looking for someone who’s gotten that war criminal one. In fact, more than three-quarters of the people I've asked have never even heard the rumor.

It’s time to fight this false equivalence that’s being set up in the media. When one side is behaving far worse than the other, it’s the media’s job to say so, not to elevate some minor or invented infraction on the other side into an equivalent charge. It’s time for the readers and viewers to call them on it – so when you see those examples of false equivalence in the media, take a minute to fire off an e-mail or pick up the phone and let the news outlets know you’re not buying it.

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