The problem with Captain America’s new ‘both sides’ website

April 10, 2019
Chris Evans in 2017. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Political polarization is a serious problem. Chris Evans, the actor who plays Captain America, hopes to unify the nation with a new outlet “aimed at reducing partisanship and promoting respectful discourse.” On Saturday, CNN revealed that he is developing a website that will present Democratic and Republican takes on the country’s most pressing matters. But fixing partisanship with partisan chit-chat is a bit like trying to cure diabetes with Skittles.

“If you’re watching this, I hope you’ll consider contributing to my new civics engagement project called ‘A Starting Point,’” Evans says in a teaser. “It’s a website designed to provide succinct answers to common questions by presenting both the Democratic and Republican point of view on dozens of issues across the political landscape.” The idea for the site stemmed from his own quest to find an unbiased source of information, he explains. “I just thought, ‘Why isn’t there a place I can go to hear both sides of an issue in a succinct way that I can trust?’’”

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To help, Evans enlisted senators Cory Booker, Lisa Murkowski, Tim Scott, and Amy Klobuchar, as well as Dan Crenshaw, a congressman. On video, he’s seen sitting down with them, saying that he has a list of questions; they can decide which ones they want to respond to and provide links to two or three articles for further reading. Not a lot more details are available (Evans’s publicist did not respond to an inquiry from CJR).

From the outset—the launch date is unknown—“A Starting Point” appears a ham-fisted effort that might boost misinformation and partisanship. “On the surface, there’s something appealing about this—it’s good to be exposed to ideas beyond our filter bubbles—but there’s also a real risk of giving equal weight to concepts and arguments that shouldn’t be equated,” Margaret Sullivan, media critic for The Washington Post, tells CJR via email. “Are we going to hear both sides of voter suppression, for example? Both sides of the need for drastic action on climate change?”

The term “both sides”—which harkens back to Donald Trump’s infamous response to the tragedy in Charlottesville (“I think there is blame on both sides,” he’d said, after white supremacists killed an activist fighting for racial equality)—isn’t the best phrase to use when promoting a source of information. Evans mentions in the teaser that his site will give a politician the “chance not only to galvanize your base, but you might change some minds.” Andrew Beaujon, a Washingtonian senior editor, tells CJR, “It’s this centrist fantasy that if we only listened to each other we’d be able to make up our own minds about an issue and suddenly John F. Kennedy Jr. is going to come back to life and become president and everything is going to be like The West Wing.”

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Beaujon has other doubts: “When politicians come on and lie to him—and they’re gonna to lie to him—how is he going to handle it? Is he going to factcheck?” Beaujon also takes issue with the promised additional reading. “How do we know that that material is going to be honest? It won’t be honest. It’s not going to be white papers. It’s gonna be news articles they believe agree with them.”

Airing politicians, rather than experts, means broadcasting party talking points. “You’re getting spin,” Igor Bobic, a politics reporter at HuffPost, tells CJR. “It happens on a daily basis in Congress.” Sullivan agrees. “What we need most in the news media is more deep reporting, more knowledgeable analysis and more thoughtful commentary, not more of the false equivalency that’s created so much trouble already,” she says.

There is a need for thoughtful public debate about politics, but Evans doesn’t seem to be creating the platform for it. “I think it’s always a good idea to have more information about issues available to voters especially around election time,” Bobic says. It’s nice that Evans is willing to try, he adds, but “if your goal is to create an informed electorate and getting people to discern what is true and what is not—especially in this time and age and this administration—I’m not sure how that would accomplish that goal. In my opinion, journalists can do a better job of helping you serve as the bullshit detector on what’s going on in Washington.”

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Justin Ray is an audience editor at the Los Angeles Times. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.