'Over The Cliff,' The WaPo's Centrists, And The Fallacy Of The Middle

John's already pointed out the recent inclusion of our book, Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane in a summer roun


John's already pointed out the recent inclusion of our book, Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane in a summer roundup of political books titled "Flame-throwing political books from the right and the left".

Naturally, we're grateful for the attention from the post. Books editor Stephen Levingston, who wrote the piece, was also kind enough to invite us to contribute an op-ed in support of the book, "10 fictitious Tea Party beliefs", a little while back. (Notably, Levingston also contributed one of the more notable nuggets of information we included in the book last year when examining the correlation of racist attitudes to anti-health-care activism.)

But I was frankly taken aback by the way it was all framed, notably this:

Yes, it could be a long, hot summer. But when does a swat from the left cancel out a snipe from the right? When do we reach a state of political imbecility where only the noise exists -- and all thought and reason have drained away? You judge. Here are the titles.

We're grateful that ours was the first title that followed. And the list included some other interesting contributions to the debate, including Markos Moulitsas' forthcoming American Taliban. But I was even more struck by the right-wing titles to which, apparently, we were being held up as the right-wing equivalent of the "flame-throwing" season:

THE BLUEPRINT: Obama's Plan to Subvert the Constitution and Build an Imperial Presidency

THE NEXT AMERICAN CIVIL WAR: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite

THE POST-AMERICAN PRESIDENCY: The Obama Administration's War on America

TO SAVE AMERICA: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine

THE MANCHURIAN PRESIDENT: Barack Obama's Ties to Communists, Socialists and Other Anti-American Extremists

Excuse me, am I imagining things, or is the serious, factual, fully documented and completely transparent effort that we put into this book being equated, journalistically speaking, with a pile of conspiracist lunacy?

Maybe it's just me, but the entire right-wing list seems actually to prove the point of our title: these people are nuts, plain and simple.

They not only push beliefs that are provably untrue, they are clearly indulging in the kind of insurrectionist extremism that ultimately produces the kind of violent acts Over the Cliff details in abundance.

Instead of hand-wringing about whether both sides are just getting too extreme, it might be worth pointing out that it's actually only one side of the debate that's throwing flames and engaging in real extremism -- and the other side is being painted as extreme for simply pointing out that fact.

I don't know if this kind of false equivalency is actually Levingston's sentiments or just those of his editors, but it has become an all-too-common feature of the WaPo's approach to news: treat people who tell lies and people who tell the truth as merely opposing sides of an opinionated debate.

It's the fake culture of centrism that exists in newsrooms around the country. It's a product of a classic logical fallacy that is commonly adopted by journalists eager to escape accusations of "liberal media bias" -- namely, the argumentum ad temperantiam:

a logical fallacy which asserts that any given compromise between two positions must be correct.

An individual demonstrating the false compromise fallacy implies that the positions being considered represent extremes of a continuum of opinions, and that such extremes are always wrong, and the middle ground is always correct. This is not always the case. Sometimes only X or Y is acceptable, with no middle ground possible. Additionally, the middle ground fallacy allows any position to be invalidated, even those that have been reached by previous applications of the same method; all one must do is present yet another, radically opposed position, and the middle-ground compromise will be forced closer to that position. In politics, this is part of the basis behind Overton Window Theory.

The ultimate expression of the fallacy is the following scenario: Person A claims that 2 plus 2 equals 4. Person B claims that 2 plus 2 equals 6. Person C, being a devoted centrist, concludes that 2 plus 2 must therefore equal 5.

Of course, sometimes debates occur in genuine gray areas where the facts and conclusions are murky and complex. But sometimes -- indeed, more often than not -- the actual facts can be gathered and appropriately assessed. That's what journalists, in fact, are supposed to do.

It would be good if sometimes WaPo editors remembered that sometimes, 2 plus 2 does not really equal 5.

About David Neiwert


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