Climate change is real. But all I’m saying is, what if it isn’t?
To help answer this question let’s give equal time and consideration to the views of a climate change scientist and another person who may or may not be some sort of scientist, but who has definitely chosen to refute and/or ignore all the compelling scientific evidence of human-driven climate change with little or no evidence in exchange. Also, they may possibly be not-so-secretly supported by the fossil fuel industry.
In other words, a climate change denier.
For years, those of us covering climate change have had to, if not abide by, frequently encounter this type of so-called “unbiased reporting” in the name of so-called “objective journalism.” What we’ve known for a long time is that this is really a headache-inducing form of false equivalence—the practice of presenting differing views as being equally valid sides of an argument, even if one side is objectively true and the others are not.
There is no equivalence of opinions between the climate scientist and the climate change denier when it comes to the reality of climate change. There is a difference of opinion, but not, crucially, of facts. There are only one set of facts, and they overwhelming show that climate change is a problem that’s rapidly getting worse. But if you give enough of a pulpit to opinions from both sides of the politically manufactured climate debate, it can start to appear like they carry equal weight.
Even the notion of what to call climate change deniers has fallen prey to the logic of false equivalency. For instance, when the Associated Press decided to start using the sanitized terms “doubter” or “those who reject mainstream climate science” rather than the more straightforward “climate change denier” or “climate change skeptic” last year.
Is the Media Turning 2016 into the False Equivalence Election?
With the presidential race heading into its final stages, the false equivalence debate has gone mainstream. Over the last week or so it’s been fascinating to see pundits and others in the news business start to pipe up about the trouble of covering such a lopsided campaign: If Donald Trump is a bigot and a liar and a conspiracy theorist, then it’s only fair that the media gives the same flavor of critique to Hillary Clinton, no matter how different their actions and intentions are. Right?
As Univision’s Jorge Ramos put it in an a recent editorial in Time in an appeal to readers echoing many pleas by climate activists for decisive action, “Trump has forced journalists to revisit rules of objectivity and fairness. Just providing both points of view is not enough in the current presidential campaign. If a candidate is making racist and sexist remarks, we cannot hide in the principle of neutrality. That’s a false equivalence.”
While Ramos is arguing for more activism, he is also pointing out that the candidates are so vastly different that to try and make them seem similar—even if that’s the natural impulse both professionally and logically—is a false equivalence. But to many, it seems like that is exactly what’s happening to media coverage lately.
On the frontpage of the Post’s free city paper, Express, a headline read “Is Clinton too ill for office? Is Trump a puppet of Putin? Conspiracy theories usually confined to the internet’s dark corners have burst into the presidential race.”
The article states that:
Donald Trump and his surrogates hint at a mysterious “illness” afflicting rival Hillary Clinton. Pushing back, Clinton warns of murky ties between Trump and the Russian government, insinuating that her Republican opponent may be a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin…
Israel takes major issue with this, writing that “the notion that Clinton’s well-documented chronicling of Trump’s record of racist remarks and his ties to white supremacists or ties between Putin and Trump that were documented by the Express’ parent paper and others are somehow comparable to a clear smear campaign may be this election’s clearest example of ‘false equivalence.’”
Israel was far from the only one to be taken aback by the comparison.
“Clearly there’s something that’s making the press feel like they’ve got to insert a little more even-handedness.”
Obama’s former speechwriter Jon Favreau said on his podcast “Keepin’ It 1600″ on Friday that he’s been noticing a lot more false equivalency, especially this week.
Favreau described the AP story as saying that “this is a conspiracy election between Trump and Clinton and she has conspiracies about him with Russia and white nationalism and he has conspiracies about her health.” The only problem is, “his conspiracies aren’t conspiracies. He has actual ties to Russia.”
“Clearly there’s something that’s making the press feel like they’ve got to insert a little more even-handedness,” he said.
Favreau asked Slate’s chief political correspondent, Jamelle Bouie, for his opinion about why this is happening. Bouie responded that he thinks it’s rooted in “a drive to seem even-handed” that can lead the media to “these absurd places” where you’re contrasting typical behavior on one hand with actual insanity on the other.
“In covering this election, we’re focusing more on Trump’s campaign, more on deficiencies, more on what’s disturbing coming out of the campaign,” he said. “That is not unfair…you’re not being unfair to readers for accurately telling readers what’s happening with the campaign.”
“If insults equal fact-based attacks, the sheer volume of insults could win in the end.”
Also on Friday, Ed Kilgore at New York Magazine pointed out how this logical fallacy could be helping Trump in another controversial arena: discussion around race.
Kilgore takes issue with two headlines, one in The Washington Post and one in Politico, that construed the day’s events as candidate exchanges of racially charged accusations in a “she said, he said” fashion, making them seem basically on-par with each other. According to Kilgore, if this type of coverage that repurposes statements until they seem “equivalent in gravity and proximity to the truth” continues, it could take away from the actual substance of what the candidates are saying and degenerate the election further into a “slug fest”.
“After all, Trump throws out insults all the time, at nearly everybody,” he writes. “If insults equal fact-based attacks, the sheer volume of insults could win in the end.”
For a long time, the problem of false equivalency reporting has been more pronounced in the debate around climate change, where it’s caused a lot of harm by confusing the general public and slowing progress. To this day, Republicans continue to make unambiguously misleading statements about climate change in order to sidetrack the conversation and make people less certain of the truth. This in turn makes individuals less likely to feel responsible to take action, thus perpetuating the power of the fossil fuel industry.
While members of the media—especially those on the environmental beat—have gotten somewhat savvier in covering climate, false equivalence reporting has found a temporary new stronghold in the 2016 election.
Now that it’s here, who knows how far it will go. Over the weekend, the AP again employed the practice, this time in comparing Donald Trump’s offensive Tweet to Dwayne Wade’s activism when it comes to gun rights.
I preferred Fusion’s take: