Even now – as Republicans alone stand in the way of stopping gun violence (yes, a few Democrats stand with them) – our news media insists that in order to solve this crisis, “both sides” have to come down off their high horses! That’s because “both sides do it” brand journalism insists that every argument no matter what it is has two sides of equal merit and it’s not for a “journalist” to favor one argument over the other. All opinions, in other words, are of equal value regardless of whether that opinion is based on facts or feelings. That’s how we got to the place where a shooter has more right to shoot than his target has to not be a target. Both sides do not want this state of affairs. One side does however. And they are the only side “doing it”.
Perversely, “both sides do it” has haunted American journalism for a while now. A decade ago, Norm Ornstein (he of the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute) and Thomas E. Mann “a luminary of the ever so slightly left-of-center Brookings Institution” debated in the New Yorker whether Republicans were the problem; they agreed: only one side was doing it, not both. Eric Alterman wrote in the Nation in June 2016 that “the media’s need to cover “both sides” of every story makes no sense when one side has little regard for the truth.” In 2018, Salon pointed out that both sides don’t shoot up synagogues.
And yet, already, our news media is carrying the gun lobby’s water. Because they refuse to judge anything, cynical people can tell them anything and they do. Our news media regularly gives credence to what they themselves know is utter bullshit. But, “both sides do it” dictates that it doesn’t matter. It’s not their job to judge anyone’s veracity. And it’s not their job to aggregate a story so as to build it toward a logical, fact-supported conclusion.
“Both sides do it” doesn’t need to build a narrative because every day is a narrative unto itself where both sides are seen to be exactly alike via cherry picked details. Consequently, BSDI journalists begin each and every story right back at square one – as if nothing that’s happened has happened. A guy who’s lied every day starts afresh – not a liar (yet). Until someone catches him, calling him a “liar” is just a political opinion and everyone has one of those.
That’s the biggest problem with Both sides do it. The granting of equal weight and substance to all arguments regardless of whether they merit it or not. Once you’ve equated Truth with bullshit in any way, shape or form, really, it’s just a matter of time before everything falls apart. Truth and Extreme Untruth cannot share a stage together. How does one compromise with a liar? How does one make peace with deadly lies?
One can’t. Every argument may have two sides but that doesn’t mean both sides have equal merit. Until very recently, the news networks regularly handed science denial a soap box to stand on when it debated climate science. It wasn’t that long ago that CNN and MSNBC both put climate science deniers on their air – presenting them in a 50-50 framing that – in the visual language – told the news audience that these two arguments had equal merit and could both be true.
That, of course, wasn’t true. A more accurate visual representation would have given 99.999% of the screen to the climate scientist and a few pixels up in a corner to the climate deniers. This is exactly how a false equivalence becomes an equivalence – something we take as “conventional wisdom”. If you don’t label bullshit as bullshit when you report it, you’ve given bullshit credence it didn’t deserve. But then, bullshit never deserves credence.
The best way to deny bullshit credence is to resist giving it air time to begin with. Stick a mic in front of its face if you must, but the instant the bullshit begins to flow, the mic and camera must get turned off and the bullshit denied the air time it craves and needs. Every time our news media sticks a microphone in a Republican’s face without pointing out that what’s spewing forth from that face is pure bullshit, they’re setting our democracy up for failure.
Damned if that’s not exactly what’s happening.
Photo credit: Tom Toles, co-author, “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy”