The media is “biased,” the president often complains. It’s also “fake,” “lame,” “dishonest,” “the enemy.” These accusations aren’t exactly surprising, coming from a man with a long track record of lies, racism, sexual assaults, and tax evasion who clearly fears more press scrutiny of his past. What is surprising is how far many in the media are willing to go in order to prove that they’re not biased against him.
So they give space to both sides of any story, no matter what the facts show, leaving them open to manipulation by surrogates acting in bad faith and, more worrying, making it harder for ordinary citizens to remain informed and engaged.
The impeachment proceedings unfolding in the House of Representatives provide a good illustration of the danger of reporters practicing “both sides” journalism. In September, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would open a formal investigation of Donald Trump, The New York Times covered the breaking news under the headline “Impeachment Inquiry Is High-Stakes Showdown for Both Sides.”
In fact, the inquiry was opened only after weeks of hearings uncovered evidence that Trump had attempted to pressure Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, one of Trump’s political rivals. Yet the headline made impeachment seem like an abstract game indulged in by Democrats and Republicans alike rather than a concrete remedy provided by the Constitution to address criminal behavior. (The Times has since removed the headline.)
More recently, testimony from four legal scholars on the value of impeachment was somewhat eclipsed by a pun one of them made. Speaking about the historical differences between kings and presidents, Stanford University law professor Pamela Karlan pointed out that a king could do no wrong but a president was bound by law and could not, for example, grant titles of nobility. She said, “While the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.” First lady Melania Trump took to Twitter to complain that “a minor child” had inappropriately been invoked in the hearings, a charge echoed by other Republicans. Fox News host Tucker Carlson chimed in with insults aimed at Karlan. But this was a clear case of bad faith. The first lady, you’ll recall, wore a jacket that read “I really don’t care. Do u?” to visit a child migrant detention center on the border with Mexico at the height of the family separation crisis. Yet several media outlets dutifully covered Karlan’s pun as though it were as serious and consequential as the matters being considered by the Judiciary Committee.
Bothsidesism is hardly confined to the impeachment coverage. It happened last year during the government shutdown over funding for the border wall, a decision that Trump declared he was “proud” to make. Before long, however, pundits began placing responsibility on both parties for the standoff and urged them to come together to end it. Nor is bothsidesism restricted to this administration. The slogan “fair and balanced,” coined by former Fox News head Roger Ailes in the late 1990s, was an early indicator that false equivalence would become part of the daily news. But Trump, who has proved to be extremely savvy with social media, has benefited tremendously from it.
The truth is that most people have neither the time nor the luxury to read the newspaper from front to back or to watch television coverage all day. They have jobs to do, classes to attend, families to take care of, which means they have only a few minutes each day to catch up on what’s happening in the country. And if what the media tells them is happening seems entirely disconnected from their lives or muddied by bothsidesism, they have no reason to care. There is more to political life than the competition between the two major parties. Zealous coverage of the political points being scored by either side isn’t going to help anyone outside Washington, but it will certainly ensure that the media becomes ever more remote from the electorate it is meant to serve.
Another consequence of bothsidesism is that there are no repercussions for spreading lies and arguing in bad faith. Sean Spicer, who when he was the White House press secretary defended the conspiracy theory that 3 million fraudulent votes were cast in the 2016 election, has since appeared at the Emmy Awards and on Dancing With the Stars. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Spicer’s successor, admitted to investigators that she had lied—she called it “a slip of the tongue”—when she said that “countless” FBI agents had told her they agreed with Trump’s decision to fire James Comey as the bureau’s director. Sanders is now a paid Fox News contributor, is working on a memoir slated to be published next year, and is reportedly considering a run for governor of Arkansas.
In the best of times, I get frustrated with bothsidesism because it fails to properly hold policy-makers to account. But with the next presidential election less than a year away, I’m increasingly concerned about the effect it will have on all our futures. From the West Coast to the East, climate change is affecting people’s lives and livelihoods. Health care continues to be a leading cause of bankruptcy, and the number of uninsured Americans is on the rise. A white nationalist is helping to write our immigration policy. Migrant children are dying in Customs and Border Protection custody. Convicted war criminals are getting pardoned. Food stamps are being cut back. Students’ college debt has passed $1.5 trillion. By any measure, the United States today is a country in crisis, which is why engaging in bothsidesism is so dangerous.
This is not to say there isn’t value in providing different perspectives on an issue. News stories are vastly enriched by the relevant context supplied by sources, experts, and observers. But to give print space or airtime to surrogates who repeat dishonest talking points or engage in bad-faith arguments only distorts that context. Handing a bullhorn to “both sides” isn’t objective; it’s merely relinquishing the responsibility to inform the public.