Stop Whining About 'False Balance'

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Stop Whining About 'False Balance'

Everyone wants to blame reporters for the rise of Donald Trump. How about the media consumer?

Donald Trump speaks to reporters in 2015. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty)

News media outlets are increasingly coming under fire for the sin of "false balance" or "false equivalency." The New York Times, one of the outlets most often accused of this offense, recently defined the term:

"The practice of journalists who, in their zeal to be fair, present each side of a debate as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side."

The crime of The Times, according to some of its readers, has been its coverage of the Clinton email and Clinton Foundation stories. As one Times reader put it, "There's too much at stake in this election for the media to stoke the belief that Hillary's mistakes (which she has definitely made) are even close to par with Trump's."

When Times public editor Liz Spayd essentially told readers that her paper was just doing its job and that readers should just suck it up and deal, she was hit with a torrent of criticism.

A pack of pundits – one might call them the false-equivalency priesthood – lashed out through pieces like "Why the Media Is Botching the Election," "Media Should Stop Treating Trump and Clinton as Equals," "Does the New York Times Have a False Balance Problem?" and countless others. 

It's getting ridiculous. Two quick thoughts:

1) The people complaining about "false balance" usually seem confident in having discovered the truth of things for themselves, despite the media's supposed incompetence. They're quite sure of whom to vote for and why. Their complaints are really about the impact that "false balance" coverage might have on other, lesser humans, with weaker minds than theirs. Which is not just snobbish, but laughably snobbish. So, shut up.

2) One of the main reasons the news media has been dumbed down over the years is because audiences have consistently rejected smart, responsible journalism in favor of clickbait stupidities like "Five Things You Didn't Know About John McCain's Penis" and "Woman Strips Naked in Front of Police Officers. You Won't Believe What Happened Next." The Bachelor and Toddlers and Tiaras crush Frontline. And people wonder why Donald Trump gets a lot of coverage? 

No doubt about it, the country is in a brutal spot right now. We are less than two months from the possibility of one of the dumbest people on the planet winning the White House. And it seems that all anyone's talked about this week, whether around the water cooler or on TV news, Twitter or Facebook, is the lung capacity of Hillary Clinton.

That sucks. But it's not all the media's fault. This is classic horse-race stuff, and if you're getting it, it's at least in part because you spent decades asking for it.

The campaign has devolved over time into an entertainment program, a degrading and vicious show where the contestants win the nuclear launch codes instead of a date with a millionaire.

Under the rules of this reality series which media consumers turn into a gigantic hit every four years, collapsing in front of a cell-phone camera at a 9/11 memorial service is more important than a dozen position papers.

It just is. You proved it when you clicked on that video of the episode last weekend and didn't read a compare-and-contrast piece on, for instance, the candidates' banking policies.

Trump himself is feeling the business end of that dynamic right now, having just reversed himself on the birther question in spectacular fashion. His "Yes, Obama was born in America, but Hillary started the birther controversy and I ended it" routine is dumb enough and full of enough lies to keep reporters busy for a good news cycle or so, until the next fiasco.

An important news story or 10 will likely die on the vine while the country obsesses over Trump's latest foot-in-mouth episode. That's the paradox with this candidate. Even the people who wish he didn't exist can't take their eyes off him. No amount of "contextualizing" or pointing out his flaws and deceptions can walk back his gravitational pull on audiences.

This is true of a lot of dumb things that take up space in the news pages, from Joe Arpaio to the Kardashians. One could argue that the users of the public's airwaves have a higher responsibility to properly inform the public that outweighs the need to chase ratings and give airtime to clown acts, but that ship sailed a long time ago.

Ask any reporter who's tried to make the news less stupid at any time over the past 40 years. Most of those people end up begging ProPublica for lunch money, while the horse-racers and celebrity-humpers get panel shows.

Ask reporters like Juan Carlos Frey, who struggled to get anyone to pay attention when he reported on mass graves of undocumented immigrants discovered along the border of Texas.

Such stories about the mass deaths of foreigners or minorities usually get less ink than a cat stuck in a tree or a model who falls off a runway.

But lack of "balance" doesn't seem to bother too many people in that instance. It only seems to come up when the victim is a major political party with basically unlimited ability to buy its own publicity.

Media consumers voting with their eyeballs for ever-dumber political coverage creates the biggest imbalance in reality, but the "false equivalency" debate is mostly over a separate, more parochial issue of journalistic ethics.

The essence of that debate is whether or not it's appropriate to write negative things about Hillary Clinton when there's a possibility that Donald Trump might become president. Or, rather, we may say negative things about Clinton, but only if we always drape reporting in plenty of context about the worse-ness of Trump, or something.

There's not much to say about this debate apart from the fact that it's phony and absurd and that the people shrieking for "balance" are almost always at heart censors who are really concerned with keeping a view of the world with which they disagree out of the news.

There are two basic ideas of how the press is supposed to operate. One is that the system works best when reporters are free, independent and annoying, giving the public as much information as possible, so that people may sort things out for themselves.

The other is that information is inherently dangerous, and the public is too stupid to be trusted with too much of it. Throughout history there has always been a plurality of people who will believe this.

Whether it's keeping "Fuck the Police" off the airwaves or news of the collectivist famine out of Pravda, the idea is the same: People can't handle stuff.

The giveaway in this latest "false balance" debate is the language. There are people wailing about a "weaponized" media that just this once needs to be leashed a bit, given the circumstances. This is classic "information is dangerous" rhetoric.

There are even people in our business using this high-pressure situation to argue for less access and transparency, in the name of keeping future generations of politicians safe from the prying eyes of the public! Most reporters view their jobs as being basically the opposite of that.

In truth, the media landscape is massive and there's room to cover everything. It's worth noting that the exploration of Trump's iniquities and unfitness for office in the last year has been truly awesome, both in terms of raw volume and vehemence of tone.

Anyone who tries to argue that there's insufficiently vast documentation of Trump's insanity is either being willfully obtuse or not paying real attention to the news. Just follow this latest birther faceplant. The outrage is all out there, in huge quantities. It's just not having the predicted effect.

So media consumers are reduced to blaming the closeness of the race on a species they've practically made extinct with their choices over the years: investigative reporters.

The irony is, the Clinton Foundation thing is a rare example of an important story that is getting anything like the requisite attention. The nexus of elite connections that sits behind tales like Bill Clinton taking $1.5 million in speaking fees from a Swiss bank (and foundation donor) while that same bank is seeking relief from Hillary Clinton's State Department is exactly the kind of thing that requires the scrutiny of reporters.

This is particularly true since the charity is a new kind of structure, with seemingly new opportunities for conflicts, and an innovation that is likely to be replicated in the future by other politicians – perhaps even a future President Trump himself.

Such investigative reports on the mechanics of political influence are also exactly the sort of thing that media audiences routinely ignore, unless by some lucky accident they happen to be caught up in the horse-race drama of a Campaign Reality Show.

So if your complaint about these reports is, "Why now, at this crucial moment?" there's a very good answer. If these stories came out at any other time, you'd be blowing them off! And probably in favor of The Biggest Loser, or a show about people eating bugs for money. Which brings us back to the key point in all of this.

I'm as worried as anyone else about the possibility of Trump getting elected. But if it happens, it's not going to be because The New York Times allowed a few reporters to investigate the Clinton Foundation. It'll be because we're a nation of idiots, who vote the same way we choose channels: without thinking.

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi

As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi's predecessors include the likes of journalistic giants Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke. Taibbi's 2004 campaign journal Spanking the Donkey cemented his status as an incisive, irreverent, zero-bullshit reporter. His books include Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion, Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire.

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