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?
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.
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.