False Equivalence Watch, Richard Cohen Version

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

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.