False Equivalence Journalism & The Death Of American Democracy

On June 2, 2016, Eric Alterman wrote a piece for The Nation – “How False Equivalence Is Distorting The 2016 Election Coverage” – that he could just as well have written this morning about how America’s news media are covering Election 2022. Not only has nothing changed in the way our news media covers elections, it’s gotten worse because the gap between the two parties has widened. The gap, mind you, isn’t about policy differences – the GOP are happy to tell you they don’t talk policy anymore, they only talk “grievance du jour”. The ever-widening gap gapes between facts and feelings. Truth and bullshit. Things that have nothing to do with each other except that our news media insist that they do.

While Alterman provides examples of other news outlets (The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post) doing the same dirty, he reserves the overwhelming bulk of his well-receipted disgust for the New York Times. The Grey Lady, he writes, “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.” So – if the NYT thinks and says “both sides do it” then pretty much the rest of American journalism will probably think and say the same even “when only one side is responsible” for whatever the story is – good, bad or indifferent.

Where did this come from? Alterman racks it up to a few things. First, there is some good, old fashioned journalistic objectivity at play. Every journalist feels “compelled, for the record, to offer an opposing view in what journalists call a ‘to be sure’ paragraph”. A flash of “benefit of the doubt” – for the record. But to whom are those journalists giving that benefit? What if it’s to people those journalists have ongoing relationships with? What if those journalists, wanting to maintain access to those sources, become a little less objective – let’s call it “journalistic” – toward those sources? Is that “benefit of the doubt” or is it “giving one side more influence than the other”?

Alterman uses a great example of how wanting to always present two sides to every story – even if two sides don’t actually exist (which isn’t all that rare a thing – ask Ukraine!) – puts the news media into a terrible position where they’re broadcasting literal bullshit as if it might be Truth (when even they know that it’s not). The news media’s early handling of the climate “debate” gave credence to pseudo-science and deliberate corporate deception. Frequently “funded by the Koch brothers’ fossil-fuel fortune”, climate deniers received ‘over five times the amount of representation [they enjoyed] in the scientific community’.” Writing in 2016, Alterman noted that “the number of stories friendly to climate-change denial actually rose last year on the Sunday talk shows… 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”.

On the cable news networks, this false equivalence was further amplified by the visual presentation: scientist on one side of a fifty-fifty screen with either a non-scientist or a bought-and-paid-for scientist on the other side. A fifty-fifty visual representation says: “these arguments are equally valid”. They weren’t, of course. Want to know why climate skepticism persists to this day? Because our news media felt compelled to “be fair” and give “both sides” equal credence.

Alterman quotes then Times national editor Sam Sifton: “It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper… We need to state what each side says”.

Okay, fair enough. But what if what one side says is entirely fact-based while the other side’s statements are entirely feelings-based? What if you KNOW that one side’s arguing can be completely backed up with receipts and deep analysis while the other side (you know!) is arguing pure, unadulterated horse shit with neither receipts nor logic undergirding it? Surely, as the “both sides do it” journalist sits there, moderating, they know what the truth is. If they can’t judge for themselves what’s Truth and what’s bullshit? Then they need to get out of journalism completely.

American journalism gave in to cynicism during the Clinton years – when what Alterman calls “Broderism” and then “Fournierism” made “perfect sense to equate obvious Republican falsehoods with the Obama administration’s desire to secure accurate data”. Fournier would have us all believe that, given the chance, Democrats would have refused to give a Republican SCOTUS nominee so much as a hearing just like Mitch McConnell did to Merrick Garland.

Man, does history make Fournierism and Broderism and “Both sides do it” look stupid, stupider and stupidest. And wrong.

“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”. That was Alterman writing then – in 2016. How sad that despite four years of actual Trump presidency where America teetered on the brink of disaster every single day, our news media – despite the mountains of legal jeopardy facing Trump – and the continents of evidence of Trumpian criminality – much of it reported on by the news media – the press still insists that Donald Trump running for POTUS in 2024 is just another ordinary quadrennial horse race where all the same old rules apply just like they always have.

I agree with every word Alterman wrote. Every word remains painfully true: “Journalistic abdications of responsibility are always harmful to democracy… 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.”

Six years ago, Trumpism set out to make America an authoritarian shithole. The Trumpists were never secretive about it. Had our news media not cynically told its news audience that Democrats were no different – but in their own way (whatever that means), we might have spared ourselves our current predicament. Putin would not have been equally unconstrained by a Clinton presidency.

Oh, but think of what both sides would have done had we gone down that road…

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