The political press corps in Washington cannot abide asymmetry.
If there are two (and only two) roughly commensurate sides to an issue, covering it is easy and risk-free. You present both arguments, and no one can accuse you of taking sides.
That serves the public reasonably well when the two parties represent competing political philosophies — but share basic convictions and the same knowledge base.
But when one party starts to espouse extremist views that are based neither in reality nor in the core values of an increasingly diverse United States, there is no balance.
Staying impartial – typically a journalistic virtue – results in a journalistic failure: False equivalence, which legendary Atlantic writer James Fallows (@JamesFallows) describes as the “strong tendency to give equal time and credence to varying ‘sides’ of a story, even if one of the sides is objectively true and the other is just made up.”
The press is the public’s most crucial instrument for assessing who is deviating from historic norms and practices, whose positions are based on irrational phobias and ignorance rather than data and reason, and whether what they are being told is the truth.
By contrast, reporters and editors who insist on asserting false equivalence are failing to accurately explain what is really going on, are spreading disinformation, and are undermining accountability.
False equivalence can manifest itself in individual stories, where two arguments of wildly different merits are treated equally, or in coverage, if editors try to be even-handed in meting out exposés.
Looking Back on 2016 Coverage
In the most authoritative post-mortem of 2016 campaign coverage, Harvard government professor Thomas E. Patterson, writing for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy identified false equivalence in the coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the press’s most calamitous mistake (among many).
The problem wasn’t so much equating the two candidates as it was equating their failings. “[B]oth Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump received coverage that was overwhelmingly negative in tone and extremely light on policy,” Patterson wrote.
Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign…
False equivalencies abound in today’s reporting. When journalists can’t, or won’t, distinguish between allegations directed at the Trump Foundation and those directed at the Clinton Foundation, there’s something seriously amiss….
The press historically has helped citizens recognize the difference between the earnest politician and the pretender. Today’s news coverage blurs the distinction.
Here’s Fallows in a September 2019 essay:
As we look back on the 2016 campaign, it’s clear that many parts of the press presented things that were fundamentally different—Donald Trump’s liabilities, versus those of any competitor—as if they were the same. On the one hand, a man who knew nothing about governing. On the other, “her emails.” No historian looking back on our era will think these were in any way equivalent…..
Would it have been right to cover the “merits” of slavery in the 1800s with neutrally presented commentary from both sides? Is that the right way to present an imagined “controversy” over the fundamental science of climate change now? Obviously I’d say no on both counts.
Matt Gertz (@MattGertz), a senior fellow at Media Matters, a Democratic watchdog group, writing only a few weeks after the 2016 election, concluded that political reporters consciously — an unconscionably — pursued false equivalence by overplaying Clinton scandals and downplay Trump ones:
[J]ournalists could, through the volume and tone of coverage, turn a story into a major scandal for a politician, treat it as a witch hunt against that politician, or let it languish and be forgotten as new stories replace it in the public consciousness. Over and over during the 2016 campaign, the political press chose wrong.
Gertz argued that reporters went to extraordinary lengths to achieve their goals:
[P]olitical reporters and pundits were frequently giving Trump outs, holding him to the low bar his campaign preferred and repeatedly imagining potential “pivots” and moves to campaign “discipline” in spite of the outrageous, extreme, and false things he was saying on a daily basis. Trump surrogates ran wild, distorting and outright lying about the candidate’s commentary in often-absurd ways that undermined the possibility of a reasoned debate. Reporters returned again and again to Trump advisers with long records of bigotry, giving them space to explain what the candidate really meant without calling them on their histories of misogyny and racism.
By contrast, he wrote:
False Equivalence as a Vector for Culture Hacking
danah boyd (@zephoria), founder of the Data & Society Research Institute, which examines the intersection between technology and society, told journalists in September 2019 that the far right has used political journalists’ fear of being seen as taking sides to hack their journalism.
“The stark reality is that we all got played. And we’re continuing to get played,” she said. Accusing journalists of bias makes them “twist themselves in knots to challenge such a critique.” For instance, she said, “News organizations are profiling extremists as legitimate voices to perform a version of neutrality that is rooted in false equivalency.”
That’s a view shared by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, three scholars at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, who wrote in their book last year that “the search for publicly performing neutrality becomes a vulnerability that right-wing propagandists can and do exploit.”
Washington Post opinion writer Paul Waldman looked at the right-wing media’s somewhat successful attempt to propagate a smear against Elizabeth Warren and predicted more of the same.
And Pam Vogel, deputy editorial director at Media Matters warned:
The echo chamber is large enough in size and scope to create a swirl of stories that can con mainstream outlets into covering the claims under a false veneer of “both sides.”
boyd implored journalists to get wise:
I hope you can hear what I’m saying. Because our democracy depends on you recognizing that you are being manipulated. Understanding the vulnerabilities in news media that manipulators see can help you strengthen your approach.
Coverage of the 2020 election, unfortunately, looks to be more of the same.
Here’s Exhibit A: A New York Times story by Alexander Burns headlined: “Warren and Trump Speeches Lay Out Competing Visions of Populism.”
Warren is quoted as saying “Corruption has put our planet at risk, corruption has broken our economy and corruption is breaking our democracy.” Trump is quoted as saying “the corrupt establishment of the past… wants to erase American history, crush religious liberty, indoctrinate our students with left-wing ideology.”
One is fact-based economic populism. The other is completely untrue nativist fear-mongering. Burns called them “competing versions of populism that could come to define the presidential campaign.”
This is wildly misguided. It’s also a continuation of the media’s Both Sides Olympics, and represents a depressing preview of 2020 coverage, where journalists scramble to make sure Trump and whoever the Democratic nominee is appear to be somewhat similar, or at least of similar stature….
Words matter, which is why journalists should be reaching for “nativist,” “white nationalist,” and “authoritarian”—not “populist”—when identifying Trump…
The Times piece last week essentially conceded that Trump has not governed as a populist, but stressed, “Mr. Trump has still positioned himself for re-election as an anti-establishment brawler.” Oh, so Trump has positioned himself as a populist. How, in part, does he do that? He does that by having news outlets such as The New York Times publish long articles about how he’s supposedly a populist, of course.
Need more examples of false equivalence at work?
- When Trump prepares to stonewall Democrats, and repeats his absurd charge that the investigations against him are all hoaxes and fake news, the Associated Press, which knows better, still headlines a story: “Impeachment standoff: Trump sees hoax, Dems see stonewalling“.
- When the New York Times, which has published so many scoops that make Trump look corrupt, self-dealing, and entirely unfit for office, discovers that the White House Ukranian whistleblower sought and received guidance from the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by Rep. Adam Schiff – all according to established procedure – Julian E. Barnes, Michael S. Schmidt and Matthew Rosenberg write it up like it’s a scandal, calling it an “early warning” to Democrats that is “sure to thrust Mr. Schiff even more forcefully into the center of the controversy as a target of Mr. Trump’s.”
- An Associated Press article — “Trump vs. Dems: ‘Racist,’ ‘socialist’ lines drawn for 2020,” by Lisa Mascaro — equates a supported charge of racism based on “Trump’s aggressive condemnation of women of color in Congress” to Trump’s made-up “narrative that Democrats have a ‘socialist’ agenda.”
For Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rauch (@jon_rauch), bad memories of false balance in 2016 came flooding back one day in August, when he observed the Washington Post’s play up an article about Joe Biden inaccurately relating a war story, and play down an article about Trump apparently doctoring a hurricane map with a Sharpie
1/7 In 2016, gullible media (I don't exempt myself) helped elect Trump by letting him distract us and providing false "balance." Uh-oh. Here we go again…
— Jonathan Rauch (@jon_rauch) September 5, 2019
And going forward, as Gertz wrote for Media Matters, the success of Trump’s strategy of defending against impeachment by lobbing unsubstantiated attacks against Biden “depends on the help of a compliant press.”
Early signs were not good. For instance, Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan (@sulliview) wrote in September about the coverage on the coverage by NBC’s “Nightly News,” which “featured video and audio clips of Trump aggressively spouting off,” and didn’t include proper context. “NBC emphasized Biden’s pushback, too, but it ended up fairly even-steven,” she wrote.
And Trump’s wild, unhinged tweets and rants about being persecuted are frequently given equal billing — at least in headlines — with the solid, dutiful building of an impeachment case.
The problem for 2020, as it was for 2016, isn’t that the media won’t report negative information about Trump. It’s that they will report negative information about his opponents in such a way that it all looks the same…
It’s going to be an ugly, brutal campaign, and Trump’s going to drive the agenda once again. Are the media up to the challenge? The evidence suggests that the answer to that question is no.
False equivalence undermines accountability, because there are no political consequences for bad-faith behavior.
Worse than that, it creates a cascade failure: With no consequences for extremism, politicians who have succeeded using such conduct have an incentive to become even more extreme. The more extreme they get, the further the split-the-difference press has to veer from common sense in order to avoid taking sides. And so on.