How bad is the mainstream media’s false-equivalence problem? Consider the case of Margaret Sullivan.
I don’t think I’ve praised any media critic more in this column than the former public editor of The New York Times. When Sullivan left there to start a press column for The Washington Post, I described her tenure as “a model not only of smart, relentless web-based media reporting and criticism but also how to think about journalism’s role and responsibilities in an era of post-truth politics.” But in a recent column on Donald Trump and the media, Sullivan provided a textbook example of how the mainstream media’s desire to appear evenhanded is so powerful that even its best practitioners can be led to abandon their own standards.
Sullivan’s March 13 column focused on the manner in which the right-wing media sets the agenda by amplifying and supporting Trump’s lies. Yet halfway through the column, she made this curious pivot: “There’s another way that the traditional press has allowed right-wing media to flourish—by moving too far to the left itself.”
To support this line of attack, Sullivan quoted the media critic Tom Rosenstiel, who noted that “the best data out there shows that there are fewer Republicans working in traditional newsrooms and news generally than there used to be.” Citing a 2014 study, Rosenstiel further asserted that there are now relatively more Democrats and independents and fewer Republicans in the mainstream press. This “affects the discussion in newsrooms even when people are trying mightily to be fair,” he concluded.
After Sullivan again invoked the study in an e-mail responding to my request for evidence to confirm her contention, I looked into the report to see what I could learn about the mainstream media’s move “far to the left.” Alas, the study doesn’t even address the issue. It does note that there are fewer Republicans in traditional newsrooms than there were in 1971, as well as more independents. But there are also fewer Democrats. Sullivan told me that this demonstrated that her “overall point was correct,” even if the way she stated it had been “imprecise.”
Nonsense. Today, “Republican” equals “conservative,” but back in 1971, liberal Republicans were still going strong. (Their leader, Nelson Rockefeller, would soon become vice president.) What’s more, a journalist’s party identification tells us precisely nothing about the actual content of the news. For over a decade, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp enjoyed the services of Gary Ginsberg as executive vice president and Peter Chernin as chief operations officer. Both are liberal Democrats, but it was Murdoch’s money that did the talking.