Why the press embraces false equivalence — and why it needs to stop

The press on a bad day. Photo (cc) 2003 by James Good.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Democrats are moving left. This is objectively true, but it also represents a challenge for those mainstream journalists whose equilibrium has been disrupted by the Republican lurch to the extreme right over the past several decades and, more recently, by the rise of Donald Trump.

The challenge can be described this way: Can the media report plainly on what the Democrats are up to without falling back onto false notions of balance? In other words, can they tell us how and why the Democrats are embracing increasingly progressive positions without resorting to the old nostrum that it’s just like the Republicans’ rightward march?

Goaded by the likes of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Democrats are pushing for (among other things) a greater government role in health care; an end to free-trade agreements that cost American jobs; the humane treatment of immigrants, both documented and undocumented; and continued progress on LGBTQ issues. In too many instances, though, the media are describing these slight tweaks to the moderate liberalism of the Obama years as if Democrats were marching in the streets singing “The Internationale.” And the press just can’t stay away from so-called balance. For instance, a Sunday New York Times story on the rise of the “Resistance” put it this way:

The upending of the left comes amid a broader realignment in American politics, with the Republican Party establishment also contending with a rising rebellion, driven by pro-Trump populists. Just as the new forces on the right are threatening primary challenges to establishment Republicans, some groups on the left have begun talking about targeting Democratic incumbents in the 2018 midterm elections.

Washington Post columnist Dan Balz, who epitomizes establishment thinking as David Broder once did, went out of his way to balance the Democrats’ “leftward movement” with the Republicans’ “rightward shift” and warned that Democrats “must find a way to harness the movement into a political vision that is attractive to voters beyond the Democratic base.”

The problem is that no reasonable comparison can be made between the two parties’ ideological shifts. Long before the age of Trump, the Republicans established themselves as the party of no. A Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was impeached because of a personal scandal that would have — should have — remained a secret but that was revealed through a partisan Republican investigation. The filibuster became routine under Republican rule, making it impossible to conduct the business of the Senate. The Republicans refuse to talk about gun control or climate change. The party hit bottom by refusing even to consider Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee — a deeply transgressive breach of longstanding norms on the part of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. And all of this was before the race-baiting, white-supremacist-coddling Donald Trump became president.

A few years ago Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann — cautious think-tank types — wrote a book called “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” that frankly blamed the breakdown of government on Republican extremism. They challenged journalists to describe this reality, writing in an op-ed piece:

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias … We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

The institutional desire for evenhandedness, though, is so deeply ingrained that journalists struggle to move beyond it. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has called this the “production of innocence,” meaning that the press reflexively adopts equivalence between the two major parties as its default position even when the facts scream out against balance. “The conceit is that you can report and comment on politics truthfully while always and forever splitting the difference between the two sides so as to advertise your own status as perpetually non-aligned,” Rosen wrote. “What if that is not even possible? What if you have to risk the appearance of being partisan in order to describe accurately what is going on in a hyper-partisan situation?”

What’s going on in the Democratic Party right now may or may not be smart in terms of its future electoral prospects. It could be that the incremental liberalism of the Clinton and Obama eras has run its course and that it’s time for something bolder. Or not. In any case, the Democrats’ search for a new identity cannot remotely be compared to the Republicans’ embrace of extremism and nihilism. Resisting the urge to balance the inherently unbalanced will be difficult for journalists grounded in the ethos of equivalence at all costs. But they need to try.

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