Is This the End of “False Balance”?

November 8, 2016

One of the ways climate deniers have gamed the media is by taking advantage of journalistic notions of a “balanced” debate. No matter how ridiculous an assertion might be, for instance, “Barack Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya” – it would be allowed as part of serious reporting so as not to appear “biased”.

Similarly,  statements like “the planet has not warmed in 16 years”, or “many scientists dispute the consensus on climate change” would be passed over as if they were somehow valid points worthy of consideration.

But Donald Trump has pushed the envelope of credibility so far off the page, that to even appear rational, reporters have had to push back forcefully when Trump or his spokespeople make statements that are simply incorrect, if not downright delusional.
Is this a positive trend that will continue? or a one-off in a weird year?

CNN Money:

Spurred by Donald Trump’s unconventional style, controversial statements and tenuous relationship with the truth, many journalists and news organizations became more emboldened in contextualizing, fact-checking and, in some cases, editorializing on developments in the campaign.

The traditional model of “he said, she said” journalism, in which news reports simply put both sides of a story against one another, was thrown out the window in favor of a more aggressive journalism that sought to prioritize accuracy over balance.

To many journalists, political scientists and media experts, this was a welcome change: It unburdened the American press from false equivalency and made them more responsible stewards of information. To critics, especially on the right side of the political spectrum, the whole endeavor laid bare the innate biases of a coastal, liberal news media.

Whatever the interpretation, the change is real, and can be seen in front-page headlines that identify lies, cable news chyrons that fact-check in real time, and the commentary of reporters on television and social media who are more unbridled than ever before in offering their assessments on the state of the race.

“This election has made people appreciate the core value of journalism, which is getting to the truth,” Steven Ginsberg, the Washington Post’s senior politics editor, told CNNMoney. “Sometimes that means calling something a lie. Sometimes that means saying ‘that’s not true.'”

In other words, fact-checking and analysis — once sidebars to the “news story” — have taken on larger roles in the news stories themselves.
“In 2008, there was the news story, then there was the fact-check. Now fact-checking has become the news story,” David Fahrenthold, the Washington Post reporter, said. “This is a good thing for journalism. Fact-checking is not a separate endeavor.”

“We’ve learned anew and more than ever before that fact-checking shouldn’t be a boring segment nestled in the middle of a show that viewers can skip over. It’s an essential part of the campaign,” Larry Sabato, the political scientist and professor at the University of Virginia, said.

That is a good thing for journalism, and for Americans, Ginsberg said.

“This election should be a wakeup call,” he told CNNMoney. “This is what people want the media to do.

Politico: 

To denounce balance is a heretical act for a journalist. The idea that reporters should aspire to a Zen-like equilibrium that gives all “stakeholders” a say in its shaping has become a tenet of the profession’s religion. The concept has become so engrained in our culture that those scamps at Fox News Channel have co-opted it with their ridiculous “fair and balanced” motto. Fox is many things, but fair and balanced is not one of them. But the sheer power of the words seems to paralyze people from laughing out loud when they hear it intoned on Fox.

Trump clearly believes anything negative or disapproving written about him is by definition unfair, an expression of reportorial bias. Unless the media flatters him—as Sean Hannity routinely does—he insists he’s being treated unjustly. Trump isn’t just “playing the ref,” attempting to influence a future call by making a contrived stink about the current one. By protesting almost everything written about him, Trump hopes to discredit anybody—press or political foe—who defies him.

What this comes down to is that no story about Trump’s unethical business practices, his lies about giving to charities, or his bizarre expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin—all legitimate news targets—can be, in his view, fair. Should such a story offer countervailing evidence that he loves his children or once paid a bill on time? Should it give equal time to Clinton’s offenses? That’s not how journalism works. Trump has proven himself to be a grifter, a liar, and Russian strongman’s sycophant, and there’s no way for a reporter delving into it to “balance” that equation.

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7 Responses to “Is This the End of “False Balance”?”


  1. There was a day when respectable journalists fact-checked (i.e. researched) before reporting the story. It surely is a sorry state, when fact-checking after the fact (of publishing) is considered news worthy. But regardless the state of the of the media, don’t people have common sense, street-smarts, or b*ll sh*t meters anymore?

    • skeptictmac57 Says:

      To answer your question, I think people do have those things, but what they lack is the tougher discipline of critical thinking, which is much harder to employ, especially on your own ideas and where you get them from.
      Understanding motivated reasoning and how it filters your intake of information is the key, but learning how to use that key isn’t as easy as just knowing about it, and there are so many who do not even know about it. They are the credulous folks who are the constant victims of con men of all stripes, of which Trump is just the most egregious example of recent memory.


  2. “”Is This the End of “False Balance”?””

    Please, let it be so.

    If the media indulges in some sorely needed introspection and finally understands what they’ve done to our country with their false false equivalencies, perhaps it will be the end, at least to a large degree.

    If they go back to business as usual, we must fight it because if we do not, we will see another Donald Trump type reach for power, and this time, he/she might pull it off.

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    The creature we call false balance may be getting sick, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to die. It will be a slow and lingering demise. As long as we have the dark money feeding the big lies, and “conservative” media outlets like Faux News and the WSJ that spread those lies (to say nothing of the alt-right garbage heaps like Infowars and Breitbart), the problem will continue.

    Even so-called liberal outlets like the WashPost that have been very hard on Trump still cannot stop doing it, as evidenced by their constant harping on the theme that “Hillary is disliked-not trusted-unpopular-the two most disliked candidates ever”, which serves to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy when the ignorant swallow it all.

    • skeptictmac57 Says:

      I think you make a good point about what I see as a kind of piling on about how disliked Clinton is. No doubt that there are legitimate criticisms of her and are fair game, but so much of it seems like it is being fed from the cartoonish hyperbole from her enemies, much of which is built upon a fictional backstory that amounts to unfounded conspiracy theories.
      Also, people seem so surprised that she is actually a bare knuckled political animal that uses the same kind of hardball tactics that men have been using in politics since the beginning in America.
      That’s pretty naive, since look what happened to boy scout Jimmy Carter after his first term. He wasn’t really a Washington insider, and could not function in that arena and got creamed in the next election despite being an apparently nice guy trying to work as an outsider.
      Not saying that’s the way it should be, but that is the way the system works, and Clinton is a smart and savvy political animal, and Trump is a blowhard know-nothing narcissist who only got this far by pressing all the right populist buttons that make his supporters dance. I don’t think that he would even know what to do if he won, much like the dog chasing a garbage truck actually catching it.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Yup—well said, especially this about Trump—–“I don’t think that he would even know what to do if he won, much like the dog chasing a garbage truck actually catching it”, except that in this case it was the garbage truck chasing the White House, and I am 100% sure he doesn’t know what to do with it now that he’s caught it.


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