Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The "centrist" fallacy

Atrios had a great post today (well worth reading on its own) that springboarded from this interview of ex-Washington Post political editor John Harris by journalist Jay Rosen. It included this snippet from Harris:
I am happy to report that we have some common ground. The "instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics" can indeed be a form of bias. A "fixed idea" as Joan Didion says. Extreme centrism (as I would call it) is about hogging rationality to itself. (See Atrios on it.) This is the default form politics takes in the way the mainstream press conducts its reporting and explains the world to us. It's software the system runs on. Maybe you plan to un-install it, or put it out of commission. That would be a development I would watch with great interest.

Atrios is right to observe that this is a more insightful glimmer than we might expect from Harris, given the shape of the Post's coverage during his tenure. It's the kind of insight into Beltway-style Conventional Wisdom that more members of the press need to possess.

But it needs to be pointed out that this kind of approach to journalism is not merely about "hogging rationality to itself." It is, at its core, bad logic and thus nearly certain to lead to misjudgments, miscalculations, and misconceptions.

This kind of thinking is predicated on the fallacy of the middle ground, as I've explained previously:
For the bulk of my journalistic career, I probably saw the world in terms similar to [Cathy] Young's: the left and right, both for their virtues and their flaws, tended to balance each other out. For every bit of ugliness on the right, you could often find a counterpart on the left. This leaves those of us in the middle to balance things out. I think this view dominated in most of the newsrooms where I worked as well.

But I also studied logic and ethics back in the day (philosophy was a second major) and after awhile came to see that what many of us were doing in "balancing" our stories was in fact the antithesis of seeking out the truth, which is what journalism is supposed to be about. Specifically, many of us -- not just journalists -- were indulging in a classic logical fallacy, namely, the "false middle," or the argumentum ad temperantiam: "If two groups are locked in argument, one maintaining that 2+2=4, and the other claiming that 2+2=6, sure enough, an Englishman will walk in and settle on 2+2=5, denouncing both groups as extremists."

I don't know if the balance that I used to see ever existed. But in the 1990s, when it became clear that a lot of people on the right were declaring that 2+2=6, and a lot of people in the media were reporting their claims without batting an eye, any balance I had seen before began to vanish -- and it has not returned.

As the Iraq war devolves into the mess that many of us predicted when it began, you'll continue to hear a lot of people insisting that this kind of "centrism" is the only viable course out of the mess. Rest assured, instead, that it will be a certain prescription for even further disaster.

It can't help itself; it's in its deeply illogical, shallow nature.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen writes in to note that this observation came from him, not from Harris. My many apologies for misreading the outtake. And kudos to Rosen for the keen insight -- though we've known that about him for some time anyway.

Arrrgh. Edited for earlier fuckup. Can you tell I had two teeth extracted and am on painkillers today? Sorry, Jay.

No comments: