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On False Equivalencies

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Joseph Palermo's excellent recent article provides compelling details about the degree to which our corporate-driven media environment is slanted in favor of right-wing interests.

Among other things, he notes the absurdity of comparing MSNBC to FOX. Yes, MSNBC has genuinely liberal voices in its evening line-up -- Schultz, Olbermann and Maddow. But to compare it to FOX is a joke. FOX has a single editorial mission, pumped through the airwaves 24 hours a day, seven days a week and that is to propagate a hard-right agenda.

FOX repeatedly provides a platform for Republican candidates to receive free air time to push their preferred campaign themes. What is the equivalent practice at MSNBC?

How does Joe Scarborough's three-hour show every morning on MSNBC fit a similar mission statement at MSNBC to the one evident at FOX? What is the FOX equivalent of CNBC, the pro-business sister cable channel to MSNBC that features prominent right-wingers like Larry Kudlow?

The problem of false equivalencies and the related premise of a liberal media is pervasive, of course, and not new. The right wing's success in promulgating a disturbing factual relativism that relies on the most shrill, fact-free assertions possible in service of their political objectives is only possible because of the way in the supposedly liberal mainstream media, in its mindless practice of he-said, she-said journalism facilitates that strategy (here's a typical recent example).

And it's not just the right, or the mainstream media that helps perpetuate these kinds of false equivalencies. There is a certain relish that some on the left side of the political divide take in attacking progressives in a way that ensures that the boundaries of political discourse will be policed consistent with an information environment slanted in favor of the right-wing.

One recent example: last summer, Glenn Greenwald wrote about the likelihood that the Obama administration had struck a secret deal to kill the public option even while it was publicly indicating support for it.

Jonathan Chait of the New Republic responded to Greenwald's suppositions by calling him a "fanatic." Now, as it turns out, Greenwald was almost certainly right. But even if he weren't, how was it fanatical for him to have suggested this possibility? That Jonathan Chait personally couldn't imagine, based presumably on his intimate knowledge of the President, that such a thing could happen in our political system? Isn't that kind of failure of imagination -- that sort of blindspot -- closer to fanaticism than any suggestion Greenwald made on the subject?

It's an audacious use of language really, to use "fanatic" in this context. Fanatic might be appropriate for people who heckle outside soldiers' funerals because the United States military tolerates "fags" and therefore the soldiers "deserve to die." Or perhaps it is an appropriate word for anyone calling health care reform Stalinist when the reform, among other things, clearly benefits major private economic interests. Or cheering over the burning down of a house while the fire department stood by and watched because the homeowner hadn't paid a small fee. Or for insisting that the current President has a "deep-seated hatred for white people," notwithstanding that the President's own mother, who by all accounts he loved dearly and with whom he was very close, was herself white. Or screaming about death panels. Or for insisting that a hug between the President and his chief of staff is a sign of weakness indicative of deeper, dire problems facing the country (this one's from CNBC's Kudlow, mentioned above). Or comparing school children in New Jersey singing about the President to the Khmer Rouge.

Many on the right complained bitterly during the Bush presidency that liberals engaged repeatedly in unhinged condemnations of President Bush. And of course there was vituperation directed toward W including some over-the-top comparisons to certain 20th century tyrants. But here's what there wasn't -- a constant drumbeat of inflammatory characterizations from people in high profile positions, an endless stream of the most inflammatory and fact-free assessments of Obama, issuing forth by the hour and the minute from the likes of Beck, Limbaugh, Gingrich, Hannity, Savage, Palin, members of Congress and others on the right with broad platforms, not from the deep nether reaches of a comment section on a blog.

These exercises in false equivalency serve to legitimize the extremism that is now so mainstream on the right -- reducing fear and resentment-fueled fanaticism to a tactic or a 'side' in our over-heated politics debates. And the problem is only made worse when smart liberals imply that this sort of fanaticism is really no different from raising serious and evidence-based questions about the degree to which powerful private interests might influence major public policy debates in this country.