False equivalence as fake news

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January 6, 2018 by AK

On a meager data plan in this Alpine cottage, I’ve limited myself to reading news stories – no images, no streaming video, no podcasts. That’s my preferred way of getting news anyway. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been aware of the Iranian protests, or uprising perhaps, since their early days. I read about President Trump’s support for the Iranian protesters, in contrast to President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s avoidance of explicit support for Iran’s opposition in 2009. I read Tim Newman’s posts highlighting the pathetic indifference of the European establishment and mainstream media, both American and European, to the cause of Iranian freedom.

Not that I am surprised. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping the columnists and politicians unironically comparing the rule of the ayatollahs to Donald Trump’s will be eventually reduced to flipping burghers or some other productive activity favoring the dumb and the monosyllabic.

This said, there’s a TV set here in the concrete shack with dozens of channels available, mostly European. Last Tuesday or Wednesday, I caught a glimpse of a massive pro-government rally on Euronews, but failed to detect a qualifying or clarifying comment, which I believe was necessary. To quote Tim Newman commenting on reports by the BBC and CNN:

Funny how the BBC pours scorn on every word Trump utters, but quotes Revolutionary Guards commanders uncritically…

CNN went one further, saying little about the actual protests but giving front-page coverage of pro-government demonstrations…

In places like Iran, the ruling regime typically has enough leverage to gather enormous crowds in the streets and squares. Think of the numerous employees of bloated state-controlled companies, and of all the junior-level bureaucrats. As a result, pro-government rallies are politically meaningless, at most sending the message that the country’s public sector is woefully overstaffed.

The average American and Western European viewer might not be aware of this, to state my case cautiously. Showing pro-government rallies alongside protests in countries like Iran or Russia, without explanatory commentary, suggests to the viewer that the two sides could be similar to the pro-independence and pro-unity parties in Catalonia – yet another worthless parallel.

TV networks can argue their business is to show, not tell. After all, it’s possible that some of their footage does capture the difference – in attitude, in motivation, in devotion to the cause – between genuine and make-believe demonstrators. However there’s no guarantee the contrast would register with most viewers as pieces of uninterrupted footage within news reports last for a few seconds. Besides, people tend to be more reserved in colder climes: if a crowd in Novosibirsk looks stone-faced and rather few are shaking fists or yelling risquée slogans, don’t infer a shortage of determination. What counts there is showing up.

What’s the right path to take, then? Be honest and use your best judgement. “Giving front-page coverage of pro-government demonstrations” is falsifying news.


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