How False Equivalence Is Distorting the 2016 Election Coverage

How False Equivalence Is Distorting the 2016 Election Coverage

How False Equivalence Is Distorting the 2016 Election Coverage

The media’s need to cover “both sides” of every story makes no sense when one side has little regard for the truth.


On March 15, Donald Trump won Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, and Illinois, dispatching Marco Rubio’s campaign to the ash heap of history and giving every impression that he had become the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee. Hillary Clinton also did extremely well that day, taking Illinois, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. The New York Times gave its prime spot—the top-right corner of the paper’s front page—to a story headlined “2 Front-Runners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Find Their Words Can Be Weapons.” Readers quickly learned, if they had missed it previously, that Trump frequently used words like “bimbo,” “dog,” and “fat pig” to refer to some of the women he didn’t like, and this had led to disapproval ratings among women that reached historic proportions. And what “weapons” did Clinton give her adversaries? During a recent speech in coal country, she had suggested that her support for sustainable, clean-energy jobs would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

Surely, you get the symmetry: Trump employs sexist school-yard taunts to denigrate roughly half the people on the planet. Clinton bravely tells her audience something they might not want to hear in support of a policy with short-term costs for some but long-term benefits for all. Same thing, right? Just ask, as the Times reporters did, a spokesman for the “anti-Clinton super PAC” America Rising, who opined that Clinton demonstrated a “brazen disregard for the men and women who help power America.” So you see, “dogs,” “pigs,” and “bimbos” versus clean energy. Both sides do it.

From the earliest days of this campaign, Times reporters have been transparently eager to blame “both sides,” often regardless of circumstance. Last November, Times reporter Michael Barbaro devoted a lengthy article to the GOP candidates’ most brazen lies, albeit one filled with euphemisms for the word “lie.” Carly Fiorina “refused” to back down from a story about Planned Parenthood that was “roundly disputed,” he wrote. Ben Carson “harshly turned the questions” about inconsistencies in his life story “back on the reporters who asked them.” Donald Trump “utters plenty of refutable claims” and “set the tone for the embroidery” by creating “an entirely new category of overstatement in American politics.” But guess what? “The tendency to bend facts is bipartisan.” How do we know? Well, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton chose not to confess their infidelities to the nation during election cycles that took place a generation ago. And apparently Hillary Clinton once mistakenly described herself as being the granddaughter of four immigrants when, in fact, her paternal grandmother was born shortly after her family arrived in the United States—an error she quickly corrected. Barbaro also found Clinton’s explanations about her personal and State Department e-mail accounts to be unsatisfactory. He wrote that she had “used multiple devices, like an iPad, to read and send e-mail,” even though she’d said she “preferred” to read them all on a single device. He failed to note that the iPad didn’t even exist when Clinton set up her e-mail account, nor did he explain why expressing a preference counts as bending the truth.

In the paper of record’s political coverage, false equivalence often appears to be the rule rather than the exception. For instance, on March 13, while most political observers were approaching panic over the chaos that Trump’s followers were causing—even Fox’s Chris Wallace felt compelled to tell the candidate, “You have condoned violence in rally after rally”—a front-page story in the Times investigated the question of responsibility for Trump-rally violence. The article, by Barbaro, Ashley Parker, and Trip Gabriel, quoted the corporate-friendly Democrat William M. Daley observing, “Both sides are fueling this.” Neither Daley nor the authors offered any evidence to support this accusation. It wasn’t even clear who represented “the other side.” Was it President Obama? (That’s whom The Wall Street Journal’s editors blamed.) The “communist” Bernie Sanders (Trump’s preferred culprit)? Democrats in general? Or the folks who were recklessly getting themselves beaten up by Trump’s thugs? The article didn’t attempt to explain.

I draw these examples from The New York Times not because the newspaper is the worst offender in this regard, but because it is by far America’s most comprehensive and influential news-gathering institution. More than any other source, the Gray Lady shapes the contours of the news narrative to which almost all mainstream reporters adhere. Others play an important role as well: The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, and, of course, the broadcast and cable networks and their news and Sunday shows contribute to the overall shape of the conversation. But none come close to challenging the Times’s 1,300-person newsroom in scope or ambition. The upshot is that if the Times is OK with a given journalistic practice, then so is just about everyone else. In an election campaign in particular, the dominant narrative acts as a kind of intellectual straitjacket on reporters’ coverage. In Frank Bruni’s unintentionally revealing memoir of the 2000 presidential campaign, Ambling Into History, the Times pundit and former campaign reporter admits that he occasionally found himself writing stories whose premises he didn’t accept. He couldn’t help but “follow suit,” he explained, if a particularly silly story line “was so rampant in the newspapers and newscasts that it had transmogrified into…fact.”

* * *

Why do so many reporters and pundits blame “both sides” when only one is responsible? The reasons are myriad and multifaceted. First, there is the old-fashioned loyalty to “objectivity.” No matter what the context, reporters feel compelled, for the record, to offer an opposing view in what journalists call a “to be sure” paragraph. Often, they just drop the phrase in the piece. When Republicans announced their unprecedented refusal even to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia in February, Washington Post reporter James Hohmann explained, “To be sure, not every Democrat has a clean nose on this: Harry Reid shortsightedly invoked the nuclear option in 2013, which allows non-Supreme Court judges to be approved by a simple majority.” In support of his faulty logic, Hohmann offered the opinions of Republican Senator (and failed presidential candidate) Lindsey Graham and the paper’s right-wing columnist, George F. Will—and simply accepted them as fact. No one in the piece thought it worth mentioning that when Reid “shortsightedly” did this, Senate Republicans were in the process of filibustering fully 76 of the president’s nominees. The figure—which included 17 federal judges and 18 ambassadors—also had no precedent.

Another important factor is the clubbiness of Beltway culture, which is exacerbated during presidential elections, when the demand for even the most trivial details on the inner workings of each campaign is at a premium. Journalists rely on politicians and consultants for the scooplets that drive their horse-race reporting. They drink together after campaign events and engage in mutual back-scratching, all with the implicit assumption that only a fool or a naïf takes this politics stuff too seriously. True, as Garry Wills has observed, Republicans may have renounced virtually the entire Enlightenment—and with it, “reason, facts, science, open-mindedness, tolerance, secularity, modernity.” They long ago gave up even pretending to offer policy alternatives to those proffered by President Obama. Obstruction has characterized their positions on healthcare, gun control, violence against women, the minimum wage, paid sick and parental leave, climate change, the sequester, the government shutdown, relief for both 9/11 first responders and victims of Hurricane Sandy, and presidential nominations of all kinds, up to and including the Supreme Court. Yet for a member of the mainstream media to contrast this behavior with that of the Democrats would be to risk losing access to Republican sources, while creating a sense of social discomfort in the hotel bars and briefing rooms on the campaign trail. It would also likely lead to pressure, from Republicans as well as higher-ups in the corporations that run media institutions, not to be perceived as favoring one side. Here again, the need for a reporter to project fairness easily outweighs whatever substance might have inspired such a report in the first place.

These pathologies have long been with us. But they have reached a crisis point in recent years, as conservatives have grown ever more brazen in exploiting them, successfully shifting the boundaries of political discourse well beyond what the rest of us recognize as readily observable reality. This is but one of the dividends the right enjoys from its long-term investment in “working the refs”—that is, creating and supporting countless institutions whose purpose is to harass members of the media to produce more sympathetic coverage of their pet issues. The smart ones don’t believe their own accusations, but they can’t help seeing how effectively they do their job. As Weekly Standard senior writer Matt Labash told the website back in 2003, “The conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective…. It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too.”

Among the most eloquent chroniclers of this transformation of our political discourse have been the establishment political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. Each has been studying politics and offering pungent quotes to journalists for over 40 years, most often apportioning praise and blame to each party in relatively equal measure. But by April 2012, they had grown so frustrated with Republican recalcitrance that they jointly wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” In it, they described a party that had become “an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

The argument proved to be among the most widely read, commented-on, and retweeted of anything published in the paper since the dawn of the Internet. Many journalists congratulated its authors in private for saying what they could not say. Yet nothing changed. Editors and producers, Mann explained to The Huffington Post, were “concerned about their professional standing and vulnerability to charges of partisan bias.” So, like the man in the joke who gives up doctors after one tells him to give up drinking and whoring, reporters simply stopped speaking to Mann and Ornstein—at least without hearing from “both sides.”

The Republicans’ war on reality has two main facets. On the one hand, they consistently seek to undermine empirical scientific data. When Newt Gingrich took over as House speaker, for instance, one of his first acts was to eliminate funding for the Office of Technology Assessment, Congress’s highly respected, nonpartisan scientific-research arm. Of even greater significance has been the massive investment of conservative billionaires and corporate moguls in right-wing pseudoscience for the purpose of exploiting the media’s need to quote “both sides” of any given controversy. The Koch brothers have led the way, funding more institutions designed to undermine honest science and democratic elections than anyone can count. According to author Jane Mayer, the Kochs directed about $250 million from 2009 to 2013 alone to groups with innocent-sounding names like the Center to Protect Patient Rights and the American Future Fund. These groups have produced a stream of literature and advertisements that compete in the media marketplace with peer-reviewed, scholarly scientific studies. All of it supports the Koch brothers’ estimated $86 billion fortune and those of the super-wealthy right-wingers who join in the effort. And because these disinformation campaigns mimic scientific research so effectively, mainstream journalists are happy to accept their claims at face value. On Fox News and talk radio, moreover, these lies are usually treated as the entire story. The net result has been the elevation of right-wing disinformation to the same status as scientific research. This not only paralyzes honest debate, but also helps justify the Republican Party’s unyielding obstruction when it comes to addressing the many economic, environmental, and political crises that America faces.

To take just one of the most obvious examples of this disturbing dynamic, in 2013, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report noted that the warming of the planet’s atmosphere and ocean system was “unequivocal,” and that it was “extremely likely” that human activity was the cause. Yet according to the nonprofit news watchdog Media Matters, climate deniers—often called “skeptics” in the mainstream media and frequently funded by the Koch brothers’ fossil-fuel fortune—offered up “over five times the amount of representation [they enjoyed] in the scientific community.” The number of stories friendly to climate-change denial actually rose last year on the Sunday talk shows, according to Media Matters, while the number of scientists appearing dropped to just two. The network rule seems to be that if you can’t find scientists representing “both sides,” then the hell with science.

The problem becomes even more complicated when combined with a reporter’s desire to appear clever by embracing a “contrarian” point of view, regardless of how thinly sourced or weakly argued. (See under #Slate-Pitches.) On April 19, for instance, The New York Times’s Eduardo Porter argued that liberals with legitimate concerns about the widespread use of nuclear energy are likely to be the cause of more global warming than conservatives who deny the science, and blamed “liberal biases” for this outrage. But Porter didn’t quote a single scientist in the entire article; instead, he quoted a venture capitalist complaining that “the left has become reactionary,” and criticized Bernie Sanders’s belief that nuclear waste is “not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit.” Note that he didn’t argue that Sanders was factually incorrect. Porter merely disagreed, as did a majority of scientists associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to a Pew poll. Nor did these scientists deny the reality of the risk, as many conservatives do when it comes to global warming; they merely favored accepting that risk in order to increase our energy supply. Over a third of the scientists in the poll agreed with Sanders. And yet Porter ignored all this, concluding: “Eliminating the roadblocks against taking substantive action [on] climate change may require somehow dissociating the scientific facts from deeply rooted preferences about the world we want to live in, on both sides of the ideological divide.”

The refusal of so many in the media to adjudicate between truth and falsehood is not a by-product of journalistic posturing. Rather, it is at the very foundation of how those at the top define the job. A Media Matters study noted that baseless complaints about voter fraud were given the “he said/she said” treatment in the Times in 60 percent of the relevant stories published in 2013 and 2015—a 10 percent increase over the previous two years. Responding to a question from the Times’s then–public editor, Margaret Sullivan, about the paper’s repeated failure to report the truth about this issue, Times national editor Sam Sifton insisted: “It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper…. We need to state what each side says.” He made this point regarding a story by Ethan Bronner, who admitted to Sullivan that he was aware of “no known evidence of in-person voter fraud.” Once again, this position, while ostensibly neutral, in practice invites disinformation into our debate and undermines our democracy. It’s no secret that the purpose of voter-ID laws is to prevent students and minorities from voting for Democrats. Several prominent Republicans—including former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, now president of the far-right Heritage Foundation—have admitted as much. “Where they do have voter-ID laws, you’ve seen, actually, elections begin to change towards more conservative candidates,” DeMint bragged on St. Louis radio in late April. Wisconsin Representative Glenn Grothman said much the same thing to a local TV reporter earlier that month.

Sullivan, who recently left the Times, regularly criticized the paper for its false-equivalence habit, and she was right to do so. As Bronner’s comments demonstrate, Times reporters are well aware of the problem. But the preferred method of dealing with this, at the Times and elsewhere, is to feign ignorance and thereby act as a conduit for brazen conservative lies. The notion that a journalist might deploy knowledge or expertise to provide context or to act as an honest watchdog, according to this view, belongs in a museum exhibition.

* * *

Yet another significant roadblock preventing reporters and pundits from telling the truth about the 2016 campaign is elite journalists’ intense but unspoken commitment to an ideology that used to be called “High Broderism” (a term coined during the Clinton wars of the 1990s and derived from the name of the late Washington Post reporter and pundit David Broder). This journalistic ideology has since been renamed “Fournierism” in some quarters, after Ron Fournier, former Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, who is now a pundit with National Journal and a frequent guest on the Sunday shows.

According to media scholar Jay Rosen, adherents to this philosophy exhibit a universal “contempt for purists, the praise for moderates, and the fuzzy pragmatism that is also called ‘bipartisanship.’” Fournierism underlies not only both-sides-do-it journalism but also the political posturing of most of the prestigious pundits and so-called experts who populate the nation’s op-ed pages and Sunday roundtables. You can see it in the recent campaign commentary of Tom Friedman, Bob Woodward, Maureen Dowd, Dana Milbank, and Ruth Marcus, along with all those who aspire to their much-admired, well-remunerated ranks. It is in the service of Fournierism that so many in the punditocracy have seen fit to equate the alleged extremism of Bernie Sanders with that of Donald Trump. (“5 Ways Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Are More Alike Than You Think,” explains a typical NPR headline. Sanders and Trump “are peas in a pod,” the “yin and yang of outlandish policy proposals,” wrote Milbank on April 8.) In fact, the only quality the democratic socialist Sanders shares with the plutocratic Trump is a disdain for contemporary elites, most particularly the media elite. But while Sanders urges reporters and editors to better serve our democracy with tougher and more detailed investigations of corporate and political power, Trump says he will “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” This is to say nothing of the fact that, even if this comparison made any sense, Trump is his party’s expected nominee; Sanders is not.

Thanks, in part, to the willingness of most mainstream journalists to treat Fox News as just another news source, right-wing ideologues have shifted the political “center” closer to the conservative fringe with every election. And so the Fournierists have moved rightward as well. The absurdity of this drift is becoming increasingly hard to ignore: Even John Boehner admitted in late April that the GOP conservatives who dominate the House caucus are a bunch of “knuckleheads” and “goofballs.” The Republican ex-speaker has finally admitted this, but awfully few journalists have.

Fournier’s own work is particularly instructive in illustrating the intellectual gymnastics required to maintain the “both sides” charade. In May 2014, for instance, Republicans released data attempting to demonstrate that the Obama administration had failed to get the number of sign-ups the president’s healthcare reform needed to be successful. Thing is, they drew this conclusion before reliable data were available. Fournier recognized their dishonesty but felt compelled to add: “The GOP would have no excuse to release a biased survey had the White House bothered to conduct one of its own.” According to the precepts of Fournierism, it makes perfect sense to equate obvious Republican falsehoods with the Obama administration’s desire to secure accurate data. (As it happens, when the number of sign-ups finally came through, they were well within the administration’s estimates, leaving the rate of uninsured Americans at its lowest level ever.)

Most recently, in the matter of their unprecedented refusal to consider Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, Fournier was briefly tempted to blame Republicans for what they were doing, in thrall as they were to an “angry” base that was “opposed to any accommodation with Democrats.” But don’t be fooled: “The GOP isn’t the only party captive to its special interests,” Fournier insists. If “the roles were reversed and a Republican sat in the Oval Office,” the pundit felt certain that “Democrats would block the lame duck’s nominee.” Here you have the essence of Fournierism: If reality doesn’t cooperate, you can always blame “both sides” in some alternate universe.

* * *

Like the rest of us, Fournier is apparently depressed about this year’s election. But here again, the problem is “both sides.” “Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump,” he complains. “What could be worse for a creaky, cancerous political system than what the Democratic and Republican parties are brewing up? Nothing really. This is as bad as it gets.” He quotes unnamed “aides to both” who, he says, “predict that a Clinton-Trump contest would be an ugly and unrelenting slugfest.” But don’t get Fournier wrong. “This is not to suggest equivalence: The candidates are not equally revolting.” He doesn’t say, however, what distinguishes the former first lady and secretary of state from the demagogue who disputes the president’s citizenship; wishes to bar Muslims from entering the United States; and regularly denigrates women, immigrants, and people of color. As recent polls demonstrate, Clinton holds a significant advantage with the public on virtually every issue—from immigration to healthcare, the country’s image abroad, filling Supreme Court vacancies, international trade, working with Congress, and especially gender equality, where she wins by a margin of 55 to 12 percent. But actual issues rarely intrude upon Fournier’s analysis—though if you don’t like Trump, don’t expect Fournier to blame only Republicans. “Trumpmania,” he helpfully explains, “is what you get after the conservative wasn’t compassionate and the liberal abandoned hope for change. He’s a symptom, not a cure.” In other words: Thanks, Obama.

In recent weeks, many reporters have awoken to the unique dangers that a Trump presidency would pose to America’s democratic institutions and well-being. And yet despite all the evidence of how badly served America has been by the phony “both sides” meme, it continues unabated—to the point where reporters engage in the practice even while bemoaning its effects. On May 10, for example, the Times’s Trip Gabriel wrote an article in which he accused “each side” of  “exploiting voters’ strong dislike of the other candidate,” and explicitly equated Trump’s personal attacks on Clinton (as well as those on her husband, whom he has accused of rape) with Clinton’s stated concerns about Trump’s policy proposals. Apparently unaware of the irony, Gabriel worried that “the skirmishing threatens to mask the profound differences the candidates have on issues,” as if he had not done exactly this just one paragraph earlier.

Journalistic abdications of responsibility are always harmful to democracy, but reporters and pundits covering the 2016 campaign will be doing the public a particularly grave disservice if they continue to draw from the “both sides” playbook in the months leading up to the November election. Now that Donald Trump has emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, some simple facts about him and his campaign should be stated clearly and repeatedly, not obfuscated or explained away or leavened into click bait. Trump is a pathological liar and conspiracy theorist, a racist, misogynist, and demagogic bully with a phantasmagoric policy platform and dangerously authoritarian instincts. Hillary Clinton’s flaws and failures are many, and they should not be discounted, either. But they are of an entirely different order. Love her or hate her, at least we don’t have to wonder whether she believes in democracy. When it comes to sane and even semi-sensible policy proposals for America’s future in the 2016 presidential election, there is only one side.

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