False equivalency in the NYT

How Jeremy Peters’s voter ID reporting is even more wrong than you think


Jay Rosen (full post here) calls out a classic piece of he-said-she-said reporting from Jeremy Peters of the NYT:

Few issues ignite such passion among the base of both parties. Democrats argue that the laws are intended to keep poor voters away from the polls because they often have difficulty obtaining identification. Republicans contend cheating is rife in today’s elections.

It’s very easy to see what’s wrong with this paragraph; if anything, it’s too easy. So let’s break it up a little, into its constituent parts.

1) Few issues ignite such passion among the base of both parties.

This is a simple true statement. As such, it’s unobjectionable — except, as we’ll see, it sets up Peters’s ability to frame the rest of his statements in party-political terms. In other words, it’s a signal that we’re about to move away from policy (if we were ever there in the first place) and move deep into the realm of politics and rhetoric.

2) The laws are intended to keep poor voters away from the polls because they often have difficulty obtaining identification.

This is also a true statement, but it’s a contentious one. So rather than come out and say it directly, Peters puts it in the mouth of “Democrats”:

3) Democrats argue that the laws are intended to keep poor voters away from the polls because they often have difficulty obtaining identification.

This is true, but it’s much weaker than (2). Rather than being a statement about the true intent of voter ID laws, it has become a statement about political beliefs.

4) Cheating is rife in today’s elections.

This is a false statement, which should never (and would never) make its way into the NYT. So how did I just manage to copy-and-paste it from the NYT to here? Because Peters put it into the mouth of “Republicans”:

5) Republicans contend cheating is rife in today’s elections.

This is where the problem of false equivalence comes in. The statement attributed to Democrats is true, while the statement attributed to Republicans is false. Yet Peters treats them both equally, without indicating that anybody who believes (2) is correct, while anybody who believes (4) is, simply, wrong.

On the face of things, Peters is doing Republicans a favor here. He could report the truth about voter ID laws — a truth which Republicans don’t like to admit. Instead, he falls back onto a tired and lazy trope — one which doesn’t serve his readers at all.

But actually, it’s worse than that. The big problem is (5) — the last sentence in the paragraph. While the truth of (1), (2), (3), and (4) is easy to ascertain, the truth of (5) is not. It’s certainly not obviously true.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that (5) — the reported sentence which the NYT is standing behind — is actually false. I’m sure that if you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find a member of the Republican party who believes that cheating is rife in today’s elections. Hell, you could probably even find a member of the Democratic party who believes the same thing. But in general, I don’t think that Republicans believe — or even contend — that cheating is rife.

It’s certainly true that a lot of Republicans support voter ID laws. But you don’t need to think that cheating is rife in order to support such measures. In fact, you don’t even need to think that cheating exists in order to support such measures. It’s entirely rational to support a voter ID law even if cheating is rare or nonexistent, on the grounds that cheating is just too easy right now and that you want to make it harder.

In other words, Peters’s formulation actually does Republicans few favors. If you know anything at all about the voter ID debate, you know that (2) is true and (4) is false. Which means that if you know anything at all about the voter ID debate, and you read Peters’s article, you’ll come away thinking two things:

A) In order to support voter ID laws, you first need to believe that cheating is rife.

B) In general, Republicans are liars.

After all, if you contend that cheating is rife, as Peters says Republicans generally do, you are lying.

Peters has undoubtedly done a lot more reporting than I have among Republicans, and maybe he’s correct in asserting (5) and I am wrong to believe that it’s false. But Peters doesn’t show the truth of (5); he merely asserts it. He doesn’t quote a single Republican, let alone a nationally-important Republican, saying that cheating is rife. But he does leave reasonably well-informed NYT readers like myself with the distinct impression that most Republicans are liars.

My theory for what happened here is that he-said-she-said is so easy, for a journalist on deadline, that both journalists and editors tend not to really think about exactly what they’re saying. Certainly they don’t expect someone like me to spend the best part of 1,000 words picking apart a single three-sentence paragraph. As a result, they get lazy: it’s a lot easier to wave vaguely in the direction of what “Republicans contend” than it is to report actual facts.

Which is one reason why he-said-she-said is so invidious. Yes, of course it is an abrogation of the reporter’s duty to tell the reader what is true. But it’s worse than that. It can also amount to dangerous negligence — it can result in the newspaper printing, and readers believing, things which are downright false. He-said-she-said isn’t just easy. It’s too easy.