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March 13, 2012 10:31 AM False Equivalence Watch, Richard Cohen Version

By Paul Glastris

James Fallows, Jonathan Chait and others have done much to open our eyes to the wondrous breadth and diversity of false equivalence in American journalism—that is, the media’s insistent efforts to match any mention of egregious lying by a member of one political party with an example from the other party, no matter how mild or incomparable, in order to avoid charges of “bias.” As someone who has dabbled in this field of press criticism, I fancy myself having a pretty good eye for new varieties of the phenomenon, and, in all modesty, think I’ve discovered one.

It can be found in Richard Cohen’s Washington Post column today, entitled “Sarah Palin’s Foolishness Ruined U.S. Politics,” about the HBO movie “Game Change.” Cohen documents how the aggressive ignorance and petulant truth denial exhibited by John McCain’s 2008 running mate seems to have paved the way for similar candidates in the 2012 race, among them Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, with Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich being better informed but similarly prone to truth-defying characterizations aimed at stoking resentments. By the end of the column Cohen raises the (for him, I guess) uncomfortable fact that all of his examples come from the Republican side of the aisle. And it is here, in a feat of remarkable imagination, that Cohen deploys what I believe to be (and professionals in the field, please correct me if I’m wrong) a never-before-seen version of the genre, one that might be called the If-Not-Now-Then-Later False Equivalence:


So far, the Palin effect has been limited to the GOP. Surely, though, there lurks in the Democratic Party potential candidates who have seen Palin and taken note. Experience, knowledge, accomplishment—these no longer may matter. They will come roaring out of the left proclaiming a hatred of all things Washington, including compromise. The movie had it right. Sarah Palin changed the game.

Well played, sir.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. This article was supported by the American Independent Institute.

Comments

  • Al on March 13, 2012 10:54 AM:

    "Limited to the GOP"? How quickly democrats forget Al Gore's breath-taking hubris when he claimed he invented the internet.

  • Danp on March 13, 2012 10:55 AM:

    Cohen should understand journalism enough to know that the media fact checks Republicans and Democrats differently. He need only consider how much attention was paid to Biden gaffes, most of which were pretty silly and disingenuous, compared to Gingrich's moon base or Cain's understanding of Libya.

  • Grumpy on March 13, 2012 11:03 AM:

    ...the aggressive ignorance and petulant truth denial exhibited by John McCain’s 2008 running mate seems to have paved the way for similar candidates in the 2012 race...

    It was McCain's embrace of ignorance and truth denial long before August 2008 that drew him to Palin in the first place. She didn't create it single-handedly.

  • aznew on March 13, 2012 11:06 AM:

    The problem here is that Cohen is a hack, not that he lamely drew a false equivalence.

    Rather than actually do any work to research a decent column or report anything interesting, or apparently even spend any quality time thinking at all deeply about his subject, Cohen apparently watched a movie Saturday night and spent an hour or two Sunday dashing off this thoughtless dreck. Commenting on it is, honestly, beneath the dignity and quality of this blog, and I'm not sure whether I'm impressed or horrified that Mr. Glastris read the entire thing.

    I tried reading it this morning, but gave up after four or five paragraphs. Upon realizing that, as the aphorism goes, that I would never get the time I was wasting back, I opted instead to do something more intellectually stimulating, and clipped my pinky toenails instead.

    Why the WaPo continutes to give this writer such valuable oped real estate is truly mind-boggling.

  • Anonymous on March 13, 2012 11:07 AM:

    the aggressive ignorance and petulant truth denial exhibited by John McCain’s 2008 running mate seems to have paved the way for similar candidates in the 2012 race...

    Not to be confused with the aggressive ignorance and petulant truth denial exhibited by GWB in two successful campaigns for the Presidency.

    Never, EVER, get your history from movies. Or Richard Cohen.

  • martin on March 13, 2012 11:09 AM:

    I don't know why I got listed as Anonymous above, but I'm not;>

    Captcha says it is Toadstools ofeltv, which I guess is what the blog elves were watching at the time.

  • SecularAnimist on March 13, 2012 11:12 AM:

    During the 2000 presidential campaign, Richard Cohen wrote a column in the post in which he severely criticized a speech by Democratic VP candidate Joe Lieberman on the role of religious faith in public life.

    However, it turned out that in fact, the speech that Cohen was so upset about was not given by Lieberman, but by GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush.

    A one-sentence "correction" noting this fact was appended to Cohen's next column in the Post.

    To call Richard Cohen a "hack" is an injustice to hacks.

  • cmdicely on March 13, 2012 11:15 AM:

    Forget the false equivalence, lets look at the key thesis -- that Palin has singled any kind of a change:

    So far, the Palin effect has been limited to the GOP. Surely, though, there lurks in the Democratic Party potential candidates who have seen Palin and taken note. Experience, knowledge, accomplishment—these no longer may matter.

    Really? Must I point out that the only national position Palin won was that she managed to be chosen by a clique of GOP insiders for the #2 spot on the national ticket -- a ticket which went on to to lose a national election.

    For candidates concerned with winning elections, the "Palin-effect" did nothing to suggest that experience, knowledge, and accomplishment don't matter. Heck, the series of losses by briefly-popular GOP Palin-alike candidates for the top spot in the 2012 ticket cited in Cohen's article suggests that, even for the GOP primary electorate, the absence of experience, knowledge, and accomplishment -- once that becomes evident -- is a pretty severe weakness. Again, like Palin, each of these candidates was pushed forward by conservative activists but, unlike Palin, they needed to actually sell themselves to voters (if only GOP primary voters) and they failed, even against the weak opposition they faced. The only semi-serious contenders left in the race against Romney are Santorum and Gingrinch, who while Cohen doesn't like he distinguishes from the Palinesque know-nothings (though he then lumps them into a broader group of "fools and knaves" -- clearly they are the latter in his portrayal -- along with the more Palin-like candidates, but even drawing from that broader group, Santorum and Gingrinch are still losing to Romney.)

    The "Palin-effect" would only show that experience, knowledge, and accomplishment might not matter in Presidential elections if Palin herself, or one of the Palin-alikes, actually completed a national campaign (even a primary campaign) and was elected to something at the end of it.

  • SadOldVet on March 13, 2012 11:29 AM:

    Unless Paul can point to specific examples, he post needs correction...

    ...the media’s insistent efforts to match any mention of egregious lying by a member of one political party with an example from the other party...

    to be accurate should read...

    ...the media’s insistent efforts to match any mention of egregious lying by a republican with an example from the democratic party...

    When have the Corporately Owned Media said that a republican did something in relationship to something said/done by a democrat? It is consistently a democrat equivalence to something done by repukes with the whole point of justification/excusing what the repuke did!!!

  • Anonymous on March 13, 2012 11:54 AM:

    Surely, though, there lurks in the Democratic Party potential candidates who have seen Palin and taken note.

    How the hell did Richard Cohen of all people find out about my plans to run for president in 2016?

  • Lifelong Dem on March 13, 2012 11:56 AM:

    My Anonymous comment there might have been funny if I'd remembered to put my name on it. Kind of a Palin thing to do, in a Fruedian way.

  • stevio on March 13, 2012 11:59 AM:

    False equivalence in American journalism: Cohen and a real journalist...

    Nauseating...

  • Ron Byers on March 13, 2012 12:17 PM:

    cmdicely makes a damn good point. Cohen's main thesis doesn't hold water, unless his point was that Palin's "campaign" has emboldened others equally as unqualified to run, but I seem to recall a guy named Perot whose only qualification was he was a billionaire government contractor. His was a far more successful run than Palin's.

  • Snarki, child of Loki on March 13, 2012 1:05 PM:

    "Surely, though, there lurks in Richard Cohen, the potential for fatal 'two-wetsuit and buttplug' homosexual orgies, after having seen the GOP and taken note."

    Thoughtcrime, you're soaking in it.

  • Steve P on March 13, 2012 1:07 PM:

    "Surely, though, there lurks in the Democratic Party potential candidates who have seen Palin and taken note."

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzbrlSHf5-M

  • TCinLA on March 13, 2012 1:10 PM:

    Golly gee, further proof Richard Cohen is an otherwise-unemployable idiot.

    In other breaking news, sun continues to rise in the east.

    I do have to admit, this one is jaw-dropping even for this idiot. Could someone please tell me how it is that when I was doing journalism, there was a requirement by the editor that I know what I was writing about and that I would do so competently, but nowadays, there is no such requirement and the people who get promoted on up to this level are the ones with the least knowledge of their subject and competence in covering it???

  • mudwall jackson on March 13, 2012 1:33 PM:

    "Golly gee, further proof Richard Cohen is an otherwise-unemployable idiot."

    the washington post seems to think he's an employable idiot.

  • Gregory on March 13, 2012 3:37 PM:

    Surely, though, there lurks in the Democratic Party potential candidates

    Yeah? Okay, then. Palin didn't appear out of nowhere, but rather was a governor, if an obscure one, who had attracted the notice of the conservative media.

    Since Cohen works for what's supposed to be one of the best political newspapers in the country, and since he claims that a Palin-esque figure "lurks" in the Democratic Party right now, surely he can name a rising Democratic political figure who's equivalent. A governor? A Representative? Even a big-city mayor? How about it?

    The problem Cohen's column really reveals is that he still lurks on the WaPo's op-ed page, stinking up the place with his hackery.

  • SteveAR on March 13, 2012 4:14 PM:

    Surely, though, there lurks in the Democratic Party potential candidates who have seen Palin and taken note. Experience, knowledge, accomplishment—these no longer may matter.

    We saw this in the 2008 election before Palin was announced as McCain's running mate. The Democratic Party lurker was Barack Obama, who had no experience, knowledge, or accomplishment in running anything. Anything. And yet, he's President.

  • rrk1 on March 13, 2012 4:21 PM:

    Cohen is off the wall. Exactly where are the empty-headed Democrats in the wings just dying to burst on the scene? Evidently Cohen knows, but he's not telling, and with Perry, Bachmann and Cain already run out of town his thesis is kaput.

    Being photogenic has long been a Rethugs plus if not a requirement. Bush II, Palin, Bachmann, Romney, Santorum, Perry, and Scott Brown being prime examples. Jowly Gingrich, Cain, and Cheney of course are exceptions. Despite his age, Ron Paul is still an attractive man. One should always bear in mind the old adage: Beauty and brains are inversely proportional. On that basis maybe Christie has a chance, but he's obese and that's a different category.

    Even Rethug primary voters seem to have figured out who the dingbats are despite their looks, with the exception of Santorum, and have chased them off the stage.

    The New York Times has David Brooks: the WaPo has Cohen. They should form a club.

  • Bonnie on March 13, 2012 7:16 PM:

    Richard Cohen is still alive????

  • Marie Burns on March 13, 2012 9:59 PM:

    I do have a correction for you, Paul. Frank Bruni of the New York Times did exactly the same thing. He complained -- mildly -- about Romney's and Perry's running dishonest ads, then says Obama would do the same thing.

    http://www.nytexaminer.com/2011/11/frank-brunis-%E2%80%9Cdesperate-profoundly-dishonest%E2%80%9D-op-ed-column/

  • Cohen's Not Original on March 13, 2012 11:09 PM:

    Ronald Reagan is at least as ignorant as Sarah Palin, if not more so, but he was a better actor and knew how to change the subject when he was unprepared by a simple question he didn't know the answer to.

    But Richard Cohen's purpose at the Washington Post is to act as a right-wing enabling pseudo-liberal, so pointing to Reagan as the Republican prototype of electing ignorant, vapid con-artists isn't something Cohen is capable of.

    A more recent example: George Bush II is simply Sarah Palin in pants fortunate enough to be born into the welfare-aristocracy that allowed his family wealthfare to buy him better sheep-skins.

    And no, the 'future-false-equivalency' isn't new, but good catch and call-out of Richard Cohen's use of it at WaPo. Considering the esteemed position at the Washington Post, it should from now on be called:

    "Richard Cohen's Future False Equivalency Illogic"

  • Al Ughes on March 14, 2012 7:01 AM:

    Funny, and I thought Obama changed the game forever for every party - "Experience, knowledge, accomplishment—these no longer may matter. They will come roaring out of the left proclaiming a hatred of all things Washington, including compromise." Palin or Obama?