The Reason “Both Sides Do It” Is Bad Journalism

In the “Pantheon Of Wrongheaded Common Wisdom”, “Both Sides Do It” is king, queen and the rest of the demented Spanish Aristocracy. It takes a nubbin of “maybe” and makes it incontrovertible fact. Bad behavior does not belong to any political party. Yes, both sides are physically capable of doing things they shouldn’t and then lying about them to keep from being revealed. Historically, both sides have “done those things”. But (and here’s where “both sides do it” hits a wall and loses), if we put it all on a scale and measured the two piles of awfulness against each other? As with right here, right now, Republican-brand awfulness is exponentially worse for America than Democratic-brand awfulness in large part BECAUSE THERE’S SO MUCH MORE OF IT!

Proportion and perspective are two things “Both Sides Do It” journalism jettisons from the get-go. It says a thief is a thief is a thief — regardless of whether it’s Bernie Madoff stealing billions because he’s a greedy pig or Jean Valjean stealing bread to feed hungry people. “Both sides ‘do it’.” See what I mean? Though theoretically correct, it is absolutely wrong in its framing because it equates two things that shouldn’t be equated.

I’ve worked as a journalist. I’ve been held to journalistic standards. In the absence of hard evidence, one must be skeptical. That’s SKEPTICAL as opposed to CYNICAL. There is a difference.

If your starting point for every story is “both sides do it”, you’re not being skeptical about human beings, you’re being cynical; you’re assuming the very worst for no reason other than you’re assuming it. Authoritarians want the population they control to be deeply cynical — making authoritarianism the only means to control all that irredeemable, inevitable bad behavior. When the press equates an act of extreme corruption with Joe Citizen claiming a few deductions he’s not entitled to — that puts a smile on a cynic’s face.

“See?” he’ll say, smiling, “Both sides do it!”

Take this to the bank, American news media: both sides DON’T do it and never have. You need to expunge “Both Sides Do It” from your way of thinking — from your brains entirely. That’s not a helpful suggestion, that’s a demand. Going forward, America needs “moral journalism”. I don’t mean phony “moralistic” journalism puked out by phony journalists who place themselves above the fray (though both sides “do it”, they apparently don’t), I mean journalists who bring perspective to work every day.

This is not an impossibility. MSNBC has multiple journalists hosting multiple shows that DON’T “Both Sides Do It” — Ali Velshi (an awesome journalist), Nicolle Wallace (fearless as hell!), Rachel Maddow (relentless and so articulate), Joy-Ann Reid (equally relentless). So, it IS possible for news networks to hire and keep journalists on their roster who DO bring perspective to work with them every day. But they also have Chuck Todd — the King of “Both Sides Do It”. They have other reporters like Stephanie Ruhl (who, though excellent when reporting on the financial world, gets lost in “Both Sides Do It” the instant she turns to reporting politics) — let’s call them “Both Sides Adjacent”. And they have Kelly O’Donnell — the QUEEN of “Both Sides Do It”.

“Both Sides Do It” refuses to take sides — even when there are no sides to take other than “pro-democracy” and “pro-athoritarianism” and the pro-authoritarian side accuses the news media of being fake. To accept that statement because you dare not get involved is to validate bullshit — even if that’s not the intent. THAT’S the biggest, baddest ripple effect rolling off of “Both Sides Do It’s” cynicism — the validation of bullshit.

Want to know why America felt so ripped apart at the end of the Trump years? Because we were facing the terrible consequences every day of being told the lie — that both sides would take us to this same, awful place.

Want to know why this morning feels so wonderful — on top of the change in leadership coming less than two weeks from now? Because we now look forward to breathing air that doesn’t stink of bullshit. That doesn’t stink of “both sides doing it”.

Every Story May Have Two Points Of View, But It Doesn’t Necessarily Have Two “Sides”

“Both Sides Do It” journalism (an oxymoron really) wants to insist that truth & lies have the same weight; it’s not for them to tell their readers which to believe — lies or truth.

That’s not journalism, it’s malpractice justifying its intellectual laziness and lack of moral conviction.

A thief and his victim both have “points of view” on their interaction. But — if the thief gets caught and both thief & victim tell their stories, the thief lying about how he ended up with his victim’s possessions should not get the same respect as the victim’s version — especially if the thief’s lies are apparent. The thief stole for whatever his reasons were — greed probably. There aren’t many Jean Valjean’s stealing bread out there because of hunger.

Yes, yes — we can’t rush to judgment. We need to know the whole story first. But when we say “the whole story”, we don’t mean every last detail.

There may be two points of view in everything Donald Trump says — his and everyone else’s — but there aren’t two “sides”. Having a “side” assumes you have a legitimate argument and having a legitimate argument assumes you’re sincere. Texas Lt Governor Dan Patrick, for instance, is not sincere and does not have a legitimate argument when he says wearing face masks during a pandemic that is eating through his state is unnecessary because the virus isn’t really a problem. People eschewing science and insisting herd immunity will eventually, some day shut down the coronavirus aren’t even espousing a legitimate, fact-based point of view. It doesn’t represent a “side” in any argument.

The man who molested me twice when I was fourteen had a point of view. What he wanted to do to me as I walked in the door wan’t his “side” of our relationship. It was a crime he intended to commit upon me.

Our press — in reporting this story — would drop into its “Well, we have to hear both sides first” stance. Fair enough. But then, look at who you’re talking to — a middle aged man and a 14 year old boy. The only defense the man has is “the boy is lying”.

One side aches to tell the truth. The other aches to cover it up. Two points of view.

Not two “sides” however.

Dear MSM – Connecting Dots Isn’t Rocket Science – Except Apparently To YOU…

“Gosh. I wonder what it could be,” said the American Journalist…

Storytelling, at its core is simple dot-connecting. We start at the beginning and connect the dots all the way to the end – with lots of zigging and zagging in between.  The image that all those connected dots ultimately form – that’s our story. 

As the dots connect, they form the larger context for each of the dots.  They aren’t just dots floating in space.  They’re part of a much larger picture.  Dot Number 2 and Dot Number 50 are related if distantly.  They’re both part of the same context.

Journalists are storytellers first and foremost.  The difference (in theory) between them and regular joe’s who write blogs is “rigor”.  Journalists need to back up their stories with multiple sources.  Or one really, really good one.  The point of all that rigor is to make sure the dots connect correctly.

But too many American journalists bore so deeply into the one point they focused on that they forget that a larger context even exists.  Or they started connecting dots already infected by “Both Sides Do It”.  When that happens, perspective is impossible.  Then you get mavens of journalistic malpractice like NBC’s Chuck Todd.  Chuck is good at connecting dots.  Problem is, he connects dots that shouldn’t be connected because, though they’ll make a picture, it’s not a real picture. 

For example – Bernie Madoff is a thief.  He stole billions (from rich people).  Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is also a thief.  He steals bread to feed people who are hungry.  In Chuck Todd’s world, that means “both sides do it” because Bernie Madoff and Jean Valjean are both thieves.  Scale (perspective) never enters into it.  Chuck Todd regularly compares things of wildly different scale and insists they’re the exact same thing.

So – putting the Chuck Todd’s of the journalistic world aside, the rest of American Journalism needs to remind itself that a picture made up of connected dots remains a picture regardless of whether you stop looking at it.  When you turn from one part of the larger story to another – those dots don’t suddenly disconnect.  They STAY connected.  The story THEY tell remains valid and true.

Just because you go from a story about Donald Trump and his curious relationship with Vladimir Putin (and Putin’s “possible” impact on election 2016) to a story about Donald Trump trying to extort the Ukraine as part of his 2020 campaign strategy doesn’t mean the “Putin Cheats For 2016 Donald” dots aren’t related to the “Extort The Ukraine As Part Of The 2020” dots.  You have to bring all the connected dots with you from story to story – especially because you want to see if the dots from one story connect to any others.

The answer here is – YES!  All dots connect.  And all dots lead to Donald Trump being a Russian intelligence asset working against America’s interests and for his own interests and Russia’s. 

Today, the three Republicans trying to primary Trump all accused Trump of committing Treason.  They see clearly now how the dots all connect.

Some Perspective On Perspective

As much as I might want to see the world through another person’s eyes, it’s a physical impossibility. The best I can ever really hope for is to imagine what the world literally looks like as they see it. It’s a fact — we all experience “experience” differently.

Imagine a cube sitting alone on a vast, featureless plain. From the cube’s point of view, all one can see — turning 360 degrees — is plain. From the plain’s perspective however, there’s endless plain — and a cube. Differing perspectives see differing things. But one of the two perspectives saw everything (or more of everything) while the other failed to see a key detail.

As a Nation, we stand at a moment of existential crisis because we have lost perspective — and our perspective was dubious to begin with.

How is it that a criminal and traitor occupies the White House and we are seemingly powerless to remove him from office? How is that all this information about Donald Trump’s criminality — including 488 pages of Mueller Report — and we STILL can’t even officially accuse the man of what he’s demonstrably done?

It’s like the Truth is that cube sitting in the middle of vast, featureless plain — and we, living inside the Truth, can’t see it because we’re so “close to it”. If we could just get some perspective, we’d get it. Our news media has a related problem. They want to get at the truth — but don’t seem to realize that the deep dives they take — while detailed — aren’t adding significantly to our overall knowledge because they’re too focused on detail. Or on the wrong details…

A story (like Trump’s with Russia, for instance) is a mosaic. Each tile is significant. The problem is, our Main Stream News Media — while awfully good at boring into any particular tile — have a tendency (while boring in on the particular tile that’s drawn their interest) to forget all the other tiles in the mosaic.

Some of them even forget that the thing they’re looking at is part of a mosaic. They convince themselves that the piece they’re looking at IS the whole picture while the Whole Picture actually looks a lot like this

On a related note — and a similar metaphor — there are the numbers crunchers like NBC’s Steve Kornacki. Kornacki can tell you a lot of fascinating detail about the numbers themselves — how a district voted historically, how a particular candidate has fared with a particular group of voters. But Kornacki’s assumption that the past is prologue doesn’t apply to now. We’ve never had an actual traitor as POTUS — and we’ve never had one of our two political parties committed to keeping that traitor in power.

The details on the ground matter more than the fact that there’s “ground”. Put another way, Number crunchers like Steve Kornacki can wax rhapsodic about a grain of sand (how small it is — or big compared to other grains of sand, what kind of rock it came from, how old it is, what its future probably is) …

Yeah — Kornacki can show you the beauty in a grain of sand. But beyond that things get sketchy…

Almost as important as knowing about the grain of sand is knowing where the grain of sand lives. And that’s something Kornacki can only guess at — because he’s lost perspective (and maybe never had it to begin with). For all Kornacki knows, the grain of sand he’s fixated on comes from here…

But, for all Steve knows, it could just as easily come from the surface of Mars…

It’s lack of perspective that first fed the ludicrous idea that “both sides do it”. “Both sides do it” always functions without any sense of scale — or perspective. To the “both sides do it” crowd, Bernie Madoff and Jean Valjean (from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables) are both thieves — never mind that one ripped off people to the tune of billions while the other stole bread to feed the hungry. The respective-less Both Sides Do It club says thievery is thievery is thievery (if poor people or people of color do it).

Storytellers need to be able to pull the camera back as far as it will go — and then further still. A storyteller with no perspective is a person to whom that story is being told.

They’re like a cube sitting on a wide open, featureless plain…

The American Museum Of MSM Mediocrity Is Open For Business… Care For A Tour?

The bad news: America’s news media has not lived up to its Constitutional obligation to be the final check on power. But, on the bright side, there’s now a brand-spanking-new museum to highlight every bit of their crushing failure: Welcome to the new AMERICAN MUSEUM OF MSM MEDIOCRITY.

Now, meet your tour guide — the “HEWITT-BOT 2000”

HEWITT-BOT 2000: Hello, human. I am Hewitt-Bot 2000. I am a reasonable facsimile of Hugh Hewitt — a man whose continuing appearances on Main Stream Media outlets defies all rational explanation.

We are pleased to have you here with us today to celebrate all the extraordinary mediocrity in American News Media. First, please follow me into our Entrance Hall — where you’ll find our “SALUTE TO SALIERI, PATRON SAINT OF MEDIOCRITY”…

We hope you appreciate how important mainstream news media mediocrity is to us here. Actually, our other Patron Saint — CHUCK TODD — was supposed to be here to greet you today but he overslept.

First let’s enter the HALL OF FALSE EQUIVALENCE.

Here in the Hall Of False Equivalence, we equate things that have no business being equated. Over on the far wall is the “EVERYTHING WEIGHS THE SAME” exhibit…

Here at the Museum of MSM Mediocrity, we believe that every piece of information, no matter what, weighs exactly the same as every other piece of information. Think of it this way…

A giant barbell and a tiny feather may not look like they weigh the same — but they do if we say they do! They both have weight, don’t they? Boom — THEY’RE THE SAME!

These Things Weigh The Same…

Still not getting it? How about this… We all know Bernie Madoff is a thief.

He stole BILLIONS of dollars and ruined people. He’s a criminal! But, hey — so is JEAN VALJEAN, the hero of Victor Hugo’s “LES MISERABLES” Jean stole bread to feed the hungry…

But, here at the Museum of MSM Mediocrity, we say “A thief is a thief is a thief”. And voila! Another FALSE EQUIVALENCE is born! Steal a billion or feed the hungry — it’s all thievery as far as we’re concerned!

Now, follow me into the next hall where THE HUGH HEWITT SHRINE awaits…

People ask me all the time — “Hewitt-Bot 2000, how can someone as intensely mediocre as Hugh Hewitt keep getting air time on all these major news outlets?” And we always tell them — “Why do you think? Hugh has naked pictures of everyone!”

TO BE CONTINUED…