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.
Finally, how are we to verify Sullivan’s conclusion that the mainstream media’s alleged (and I would argue imaginary) move to the left explains why right-wing media have flourished? This is a particularly egregious case of blaming the victim. A better account might begin with the fact that for the past half-century or so, right-wing gazillionaires like Rupert Murdoch, Richard Mellon Scaife, Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, and Robert and Rebekah Mercer—together with their foundations and those of the Olin, Bradley, Coors, and DeVos families, among others—have been spending billions of dollars to transform the media into an echo chamber for conservative misinformation. This turned out to be so profitable—especially in Murdoch’s case—that it created a rush to the right among many previously apolitical media organizations. To this writer, it’s hardly a mystery why the media have lost credibility among so many Americans: Conservatives can’t handle the truth, and the mainstream media can’t handle conservatives.
Like so many media writers, Sullivan and Rosenstiel simply assume a liberal slant in the news. But again, where’s the evidence? Is it in the phony- baloney reporting that cheerfully seconded the Bush administration’s lies leading up to the catastrophic invasion of Iraq? What about the intense focus on deficit reduction during Obama’s presidency rather than on the damage done to ordinary Americans’ retirement savings and job prospects in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis? Perhaps it can be found in the ludicrous focus on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails during the 2016 campaign—the coverage of which dwarfed that of all other issues combined on the nightly network news.
No wonder the right won’t give up its “working the refs” strategy: It gets results. Sullivan and Rosenstiel are both respected press “refs,” but they have nonetheless made specious arguments based on weak (or nonexistent) evidence. This is almost always the fate of journalists who insist that “both sides do it” in a media environment dominated by the likes of Fox News and Breitbart.
Sadly, Sullivan’s replacement as the Times public editor, Liz Spayd, hasn’t come close to holding up the standards that her predecessor set for the job. Spayd was an odd choice to begin with: As The Washington Post’s assistant managing editor during the Iraq War, she gave the paper a clean bill of health despite all the misleading information it passed along from the Bush administration, insisting that the paper owed its readers no apology.
In her inaugural column, moreover, Spayd all but issued an engraved invitation to right-wingers seeking to work yet another ref. “A perception that the Times is biased prompts some of the most frequent complaints from readers,” she wrote. While admitting the substance of this complaint might not exactly be accurate, Spayd suggested that wasn’t what was important. Rather, the “perception” itself was worthy of concern, and perhaps even a fundamental change in the paper’s coverage. Spayd seemed somehow unaware that such complaints have been part of a decades-long campaign to undermine the media’s ability to hold the powerful to account. Their mere existence was enough to send her running to Times executive editor Dean Baquet, pointing to “the perception of liberal bias that hangs over his newsroom.”
Game, set, match—conservatives.