The Media Today

Both sides

December 16, 2019

On Saturday night, Donald Trump complained about the next morning’s TV schedule. “Hard to believe that @FoxNews will be interviewing sleazebag & totally discredited former FBI Director James Comey, & also corrupt politician Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff,” Trump tweeted; the network, he added, is trying “sooo hard to be politically correct” that it risks going the same way as “Commiecast MSNBC & Fake News CNN.” Yesterday, Chris Wallace—host of the offending show, Fox News Sunday—raised the viewer feedback with Pam Bondi, a Trump adviser. “Does the president understand that it’s the duty of a free and fair press to cover both sides of the story?” Wallace asked. Bondi said she, personally, was glad Wallace was grilling Comey and Schiff, and pivoted to attacking them. “Thank you very much for the promo,” Wallace joked. “Please come back and we’ll have some more tough questions for you.”

The exchange spoke to Wallace’s reputation as a redoubt of integrity (and sanity) at Fox. But not everyone watching will have agreed with his assessment that it’s the media’s duty to “cover both sides of the story.” In the Trump era, “both sides” (or “bothsidesism”) has become shorthand for a journalistic philosophy that many media critics consider to be broken, especially in its Democrat v. Republican iteration; its rules, critics say, make things that aren’t the same seem the same, and allow bad actors to launder disinformation. Yesterday, Dan Froomkin, editor of Press Watch, put it well, with specific reference to the New York Times: “If you’d asked NYT editors five years ago whether people who deny basic facts, traffic in conspiracy theories, demonize immigrants, and otherwise fight against a pluralistic society should be given equal (or more than equal) time in their news columns, they would have said no.”

ICYMI: Why a lot of critics are wrong about Rachel Maddow

As impeachment has progressed, attacks on the “both sides” approach—and the Times, in particular—have intensified. Over the weekend, critics trained their ire on an article in the paper, headlined “The Breach Widens as Congress Nears a Partisan Impeachment,” about a debate in the Judiciary Committee. Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, noted that the actual words “both sides” appeared four times in the piece. (One of these was in a quotation.) Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, listed 12 more snippets from the article as evidence of the Times’s inability to handle what he calls “asymmetrical polarization.” They included “the different impeachment realities that the two parties are living in,” “both sides engaged in a kind of mutually assured destruction,” and “the two parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts in front of them.”

Rosen is right that this sort of language is inadequate: Democrats, for the most part, are engaging with the factual record; Republicans, for the most part, are not. These positions are manifestly not equivalent. Treating them as such does not serve any useful concept of fairness; instead, it rebounds clearly to the advantage of the one side (Republicans) for whom nonsense being taken seriously is a victory in itself. The Times is far from the only culprit. The structure of some TV news shows, in particular, has bothsidesism hardwired into it: a Democrat and a Republican are given equal time to make their unequal impeachment cases, and both face hard questions, to contrive a sense of balance. The questions lobbed at Democrats are often fair, but often pale into triviality when a Republican follows them on and starts sowing conspiracy theories.

Some coverage, it seems, can’t even do bothsidesism properly. Yesterday, Meet the Press courted online criticism of its own, after it aired clips from a roundtable discussion on impeachment with six voters in Kent County, Michigan, a competitive area of a competitive state. Every one of the voters was a Republican; they all appeared to be white. Host Chuck Todd disclosed their partisan affiliation, but not before he’d introduced them as “voters beyond the Beltway.” The soundbites they gave were entirely predictable: “Have you recorded a football game but found out the final score before you watched it, and you just don’t even care?”; “I think a lot of people see it more as an infomercial, politically”; “Both sides…” Nor were they fully representative of public opinion. Jamil Smith, of Rolling Stone, noted on Twitter that “Nonwhite, liberal voters who also live outside of DC are hardly ever on these panels.” Marcy Wheeler, a national-security blogger who lives in the area Meet the Press visited, said the roundtable didn’t even reflect white opinion in Kent County. (Wheeler says she visited the brewery where the segment was filmed and also interviewed six people there, at random. All six supported impeachment.)

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When it comes to much impeachment coverage, bothsidesism isn’t the beginning and end of the problem, but part of our broader reflex to frame contentious political stories around the concept of partisanship. In parts of the press, a set of party-oriented impeachment narratives has taken hold that contains some truth, but also rests on a selective interpretation of available evidence. Entrenched partisanship—in Congress and the country—is real, and newsworthy, as is the role that our fragmented information ecosystem has played in stoking and reinforcing division. And yet it does not follow, as some journalists and pundits seem to have surmised, that impeachment has been a waste of time. At the beginning of his show yesterday, Todd said the “national response” to impeachment has been “whatever.” And yet, as I wrote earlier this month, support for impeaching Trump, while recently static, is historically high. (A Fox News poll out yesterday reinforced that finding.) Six Republicans in Michigan are not the country.

The media’s job, done properly, is multidirectional: it holds power to account, and communicates matters of public interest to news consumers. On impeachment, too much coverage seems to have got stuck in a feedback loop: we’re telling the public that politicians aren’t budging from their partisan siloes, and vice versa, with the facts of what Trump actually did getting lost somewhere in the cycle. The cult of “both sides” is integral to this dynamic, and it’s serving the impeachment story poorly. Now, more than ever, our top duty should be to fight for the truth.

Below, more on impeachment:

Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, the seven candidates who qualified for this week’s Democratic presidential primary debate threatened to skip it—workers at Loyola Marymount University in LA, which is hosting the debate, are locked in a labor dispute, and the candidates vowed not to cross any picket line. The seven candidates all also signed a letter—circulated by the campaign of Cory Booker, who did not qualify for the debate—asking the Democratic National Committee to loosen its rules for qualification; Booker says the existing thresholds favor billionaires, and make the debate stage less diverse. (Julián Castro also signed the letter.) But Tom Perez, the DNC chair, says the rules won’t change just yet.
  • In other news about presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders endorsed Cenk Uygur, of left-wing news platform The Young Turks, for a US House seat in California, then retracted his endorsement following blowback about Uygur’s past comments on women and minorities. (Uygur said he will no longer be accepting any endorsements.) And sources at CityLab told Mother Jones that Bloomberg Media, which is owned by Michael Bloomberg, will only take seven of CityLab’s 16 employees when it buys the site from The Atlantic later this month; the rest will be laid off. Last month, Bloomberg News barred its reporters from investigating Bloomberg or any of his Democratic presidential rivals for the duration of his campaign. It’s unclear if the same rules will apply to CityLab.
  • Powerful people often face uncomfortable questions at the Doha Forum in Qatar—but when Ivanka Trump appeared, she was interviewed by Morgan Ortagus, a former Fox News contributor who currently works as a spokesperson for Trump’s father’s government. According to Otillia Steadman, of BuzzFeed, Ortagus “pitched Trump a series of softball questions” about her women’s economic empowerment initiative.
  • The Wall Street Journal’s Rachael Levy reports on Status Labs, a “reputation management” firm that helps high-profile people bury negative news stories, including by planting positive stories on websites masquerading as independent news outlets. Clients have included the financier Jacob Gottlieb and Betsy DeVos, the education secretary.
  • CJR’s Amanda Darrach spoke with Dan Moldea, an investigative journalist who says The Irishman—Martin Scorsese’s new movie theorizing on the death of union boss Jimmy Hoffa—is “terrific cinema, but terrible history.” Moldea has conducted decades of research on Hoffa’s death. “I am Ahab and the Hoffa case is my white whale,” he says.
  • Controversy continues to swirl around Richard Jewell—Clint Eastwood’s new movie about a man wrongly accused of bombing the 1996 Olympics—in which Kathy Scruggs, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, is shown trading sex for information. The attorney who helped Jewell sue the AJC slammed the plot point, and Olivia Wilde, who plays Scruggs, weighed in, too. (In any case, the film has flopped at the box office.)
  • Police in Savannah, Georgia, arrested Thomas Callaway, who slapped the bottom of Alex Bozarjian, a reporter with WSAV-TV, while she was covering a run live on air last week. Callaway gave a televised apology—but said he was only trying to pat Bozarjian on the back. Bozarjian said Callaway “violated, objectified, and embarrassed” her.
  • For CJR, Nicholas Diakopoulos writes that as newsrooms increasingly use their own algorithms to curate stories, they have a chance to wrest control of news distribution from big tech companies. Outlets’ own curation algorithms, Diakopoulos writes, can build on editorial values such as diversity, transparency, accuracy, and independence.
  • And Emily Atkin, author of the climate newsletter HEATED, is launching an Instagram page, @FossilFuelAds, to chart the proliferation of fossil fuel advertisements in the news media, and is asking readers to help her keep track.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.