Diversity and False Equivalence

Diversity is a squishy concept. It’s susceptible to many meanings and values, what philosophers call polysemy and polyvalence, respectively. When we switch back and forth among a concept’s many meanings and values, we create confusion. I think there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the concept of diversity as it’s used in public discussions.

Take, for example, two recent stories about media organizations. One about Kevin Williamson’s hiring and firing at The Atlantic, the other about CNN’s debate format. Both stories can be read as basically about ideological diversity at mainstream or liberal media organizations. In our polarized environment, The Atlantic and CNN want to be seen as presenting both sides of an argument. This is in accordance with the value of diversity. But is it really? And should news and media organizations value ideological diversity over, say, accuracy and insightfulness?

In some cases, it seems that ideological diversity is invoked to justify false equivalence. False equivalence, of course, is a logical fallacy that presents arguments as if they were equally valid and supported when they’re not. Just because someone is willing to argue that the earth is flat doesn’t mean that there are two sides to the “argument.” Because there is no argument, and presenting both views as if they were equal lends credibility to the unsubstantiated side. To the unwary, it can seem like a toss-up. This is dangerous at a moment in which the nation is caught in populist fervor.

What has been derided as CNN’s “food fight formula” is an obvious example of this phenomenon. As one producer observed of the network, “A lot of what CNN is doing is having someone tell you the sky is blue and then having someone else tell you it’s actually purple.” That sounds less like a clash between considered views and more like provocation for the sake of ratings. The results of the 2016 election caught most pundits off guard. Mainstream news and media organizations were criticized for being elitist and detached from the concerns of average Americans who were suffering and aggrieved. These organizations were unable to explain Trump’s rise as a result. In order to overcome these weaknesses, CNN has enlisted a cadre of rightwing provocateurs to voice these grievances in exchange with those on the opposite side. CNN hopes this will coat it with a patina of ideological neutrality or at minimum ideological diversity. But it doesn’t seem to be working, as their ratings continue to suffer in relation to the more ideologically one-sided networks such as MSNBC and Fox News, and it’s dangerously misleading in our hyper-polarized times.

The example of Williamson at The Atlantic is a bit different since he was hired to offer opinion rather than report the news. The need for ideological diversity has been raised in this case too. The magazine has predictably been criticized for its ideological narrowness. Williamson was meant to alleviate that. But after it was discovered that he had expressed some pretty extreme views regarding abortion, the editor caved to the pressure and fired him. Again, the Williamson case is different, but his initial hiring was intended to bolster the publication’s diversity. I’m not going to pass judgment on his views. Many have already done that. It’s troubling, however, when someone willing to express provocative and extreme views gets to count toward diversity. This is reminiscent of CNN’s problem.

I’m for ideological diversity in our news and media organizations, but let’s not confuse it for something else, like an extremist food fight. Giving airtime to loud, partisan, provocative views shouldn’t be confused with diversity.

Let’s also question whether diversity of opinion ought to trump accuracy and insightfulness in our media’s hierarchy of values. Getting facts right and making good arguments ought to matter at places like The Atlantic and CNN. As should providing insight on the issues we value most. When accuracy and insightfulness are devalued in the mainstream media, something has gone dangerously wrong, a point that’s all the more important given the state of our political culture. Those who can provide intelligent, knowledgeable commentary ought to be rewarded with a seat at the table. It may be boring and doesn’t provide clickbait, but it’s what we need if our democracy is to survive and we’re to bridge the differences that divide us.

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