Of course, the right and left are qualitatively quite different in many respects, and each is problematic in its own way, but for entirely different and unrelated reasons. The thinking that adopts this sort of equivalency is not just lazy, it badly distorts the truth -- which is what journalists are supposed to be aiming for in the first place.
One of the ways this shows up is in news reports that present an equivalency between reasonable and fact-based remarks (e.g., Richard Clarke's critique of the Bush administration's war on terror) and outrageous smears (Republican operatives' counter that Clarke was only interested in promoting his book) and falsehoods.
Another recent case revolves around the emergence of "Astroturf" -- the phony letters to the editor actually created by campaign operatives and spammed out to newspapers across the country by locals who copy the letters whole and send them in as their own. Paul Farhi in the Washington Post recently offered this report:
- Thanks to some nifty Internet technology, the campaigns of President Bush and John F. Kerry are making it easy for their supporters to pass off the campaigns' talking points as just another concerned citizen's opinion. Pro-Bush or pro-Kerry letters bearing identical language are flooding letters-to-the-editor columns.
The Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., for example, ran a letter last month from a local reader that stated, "New-job figures and other recent economic data show that America's economy is strong and getting stronger, and that the president's jobs and growth plan is working."
The exact same phrasing also appeared in letters printed in about 20 other daily newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Idaho Statesman and the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle.
It wasn't a remarkable coincidence. The letters -- known as "AstroTurf" for their ersatz quality -- were generated by a special cut-and-paste form on Bush's campaign Web site. In addition to providing helpful, ready-to-plagiarize phrases about the president's economic policies, the site also offers faux-letter fodder about such topics as homeland security, the environment, health care and "compassion" ("The President's compassion agenda is touching lives across the globe. . . .").
Kerry's campaign has a similar feature that entreats his supporters to "write" letters as part of his campaign's "MediaCorps." Both campaigns offer tips, such as the Bush campaign's advice to "keep your letters brief and to the point."
The problem, though, is that there is a substantive difference between the Bush and Kerry operations, as different as their campaign appearances.
Over at Salon's Table Talk, my friend Maia Cowan posted the following rejoinder, which she sent to the Post:
- In his August 22 column, Paul Farhi states, "[T]he campaigns of President Bush and John F. Kerry are making it easy for their supporters to pass off the campaigns' talking points as just another concerned citizen's opinion. Pro-Bush or pro-Kerry letters bearing identical language are flooding letters-to-the-editor columns." This statement gives the impression that both campaigns are equally guilty of encouraging supporters to send letters provided by the campaign instead of writing their own letters.
The Bush campaign does provide letters that supporters can cut-and-paste; the "America's economy is strong and getting stronger" letter that Mr. Farhi cited is one example.
Mr. Farhi asserts, "Kerry's campaign has a similar feature that entreats his supporters to 'write' letters as part of his campaign's 'MediaCorps'." The two campaigns, however, have a crucial distinction. Unlike the Bush campaign, the Kerry campaign does not provide entire letters that the supporters can copy instead of writing their own. It provides one-sentence talking points and guidelines for how to write the letters. The site also provides a blank form for composing and sending the letters. Even if letter-writers repeat the talking-point sentence verbatim in their letters, they still have to write the rest of the letter themselves. The MediaCorps discourages sending the same letter to different newspapers by limiting use of the email form to one newspaper per day.
To verify my assumption that Kerry supporters don't churn out Astroturf, I searched the Internet for the MediaCorps talking points. I found exactly one letter that quoted them. Searches for the Bush campaign's form letters, by contrast, turn up dozens of instances.
There's a defining difference between encouraging people to write letters on specific issues and providing entire letters for them to send. It's the difference between respecting the rules and encouraging cheating. It's the difference between encouraging people to do their own thinking, and telling them what to think.
That about sums it up.