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False Equivalence in the Age of Trump

As the election nears, genuine truth-telling—as opposed to disingenuous false equivalence—is more urgent than ever, but it's just as unlikely as ever that corporate media will be up to the challenge.

CNN anchors Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper and New York Times national editor Marc Lacey moderate the Democratic presidential debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Even in the Trump era, corporate media, forever insistent on an “objective” approach that always hears out “both sides,” continue to exhibit a dangerous blindness to their own biases.

In “In Primetime, Two Versions of Impeachment for a Divided Nation” (11/16/19), the New York Times‘ Michael Grynbaum offered “a glimpse at the country’s divided political reality” by describing the contrasting ways Fox News and MSNBC are reporting on the Trump impeachment hearings:

From her set inside MSNBC headquarters, Rachel Maddow opened her prime-time coverage of the Trump impeachment hearings by calling the first day’s testimony “a double-barreled problem for the president—triple-barreled, maybe.” President Trump, she said, had been “caught doing something illegal” at the “direct expense of the country’s national interest.”

One block south, from a Fox News studio, Sean Hannity welcomed viewers by declaring “a great day for the United States, for the country, for the president — and a lousy day for the corrupt, do-nothing-for-three-years, radical, extreme, socialist Democrats and their top allies known as the media mob.”

These distinct visions—delivered simultaneously from skyscrapers roughly 1,000 feet apart — were beamed at the 9 p.m. hour into millions of American living rooms. It was a striking reflection of today’s choose-your-own-news media environment, and a far cry from the era when Americans experienced major events through the same television hearth.

It’s true that both cable outlets are essentially partisan outlets pushing their own party’s line—though ideologically, MSNBC and Fox each represent the right wing of their respective parties (FAIR.org, 6/30/17), which means the television “choose-your-own-news” world is hardly the free-for-all Grynbaum suggests. But at a time when one party adheres to an anything-goes strategy that has taken brazen lying to a new level, denies science, and regularly attacks journalists as “the enemy of the people,” painting a “both sides do it” picture of the partisan media environment glosses over very real and important differences.

"Corporate journalists rarely see centrism as an ideology; it's not conservative or liberal, so it must not be political and therefore must not be problematic."

For Grynbaum, media outlets simply have “irreconcilable differences”—so Fox’s puerile (but strategically us vs. them) media commentary that veteran foreign service officers testifying against Trump “looked like people who sat by themselves at recess” is equated with MSNBC’s commentary that those same officers gave “a fuller picture of the corrupt abuse of power by the president of the United States.”

Grynbaum’s other main example, in which “tribal allegiances to news outlets mean that any hint of heresy can provoke an outcry,” is egregious. Here, he equated as “similar backlash” the “liberal” criticism of an NBC.com analysis (11/13/19) that found the impeachment hearings lacking in “pizazz,” and “conservative” ire that Fox‘s Bret Baier noted that Trump’s real-time attacks on an impeachment witness allowed Rep. Adam Schiff to characterize Trump as engaged in “witness tampering or intimidation.” The analogy is incomprehensible: In one case, a political reporter judges impeachment by its entertainment value—which one would hope a serious media analyst would recognize as problematic, regardless of one’s political ideology—while in the other, a political reporter makes a factual observation that his partisan viewers apparently felt shouldn’t be mentioned, because it makes Trump look bad.

It’s also not clear who in the world might have a “tribal allegiance” to NBC—but by presenting the centrist outlet as an analog to Fox News, the Times lends credence to the right-wing strategy of painting all corporate outlets besides Fox as “liberal” (and therefore untrustworthy).

In another example, “Regional Weather Patterns Are Viewed through Partisan Lenses, Poll Finds” (11/18/19), the Washington Post demonstrates how this insistence on equivalence extends throughout coverage. In the article, Scott Clement, Emily Guskin and Dan Balz report that common experiences across the United States of extreme weather events

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have not produced a political consensus on the causes. Democrats are likely to cite global warming and climate change as the force behind some of the new weather patterns. Republicans are likely to discount climate change as the culprit.

“The results highlight the degree to which regional weather patterns are now viewed through partisan lenses,” the Post explains, “just as the national debate about climate has been dominated by sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats over whether scientific evidence of climate change is valid.”

As the paper acknowledges in one easily missed line, scientists agree that climate disruption has exacerbated extreme weather events. So what the poll actually shows is that Democrats view regional weather patterns through a science-based lens, while Republicans reject the science-based view, presumably because of partisanship—and the “reality” their media of choice creates for them. That’s not a “both sides do it” story, as the paper would have readers believe; it’s a “one side does it” story. But, like Grynbaum, the Post won’t tell it that way, because it must take pains not to offend either “side” more than the other.

This is the fiction that so many corporate journalists cling to: that objectivity is possible and preferable, and that taking flak from the left and from the right means they’re doing a good job. Grynbaum’s nostalgia for an era of a single broadcast reality (the “same television hearth”), which he and the rest of the “objectivity” crowd no doubt see themselves as a part of, erases the ideology of the outlets that refuse to acknowledge any biases.

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet recently commented that he is “constantly fighting against pressure to ‘take a full-bodied side’ against the president,” and resists demands to call Trump racist or sexist because he is “not in a position to know whether he [makes comments] because he is a racist.” According to an interview with the Guardian (11/19/19), Baquet

warned junior staff and readers against pushing to embrace left-wing Democratic candidates such as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, saying the outlet would lose its status if it openly sided with particular politicians.

“They probably want a more political New York Times than I’m willing to give them. I hope they will learn over time that a New York Times that plays it straight has much more power and much more longevity.”

Instead, he insisted the organization’s lengthy investigation into the president’s taxes had more impact, because of the division between reporting and comment. “The way I look at it, that story would not have been believed had it been written by a news organization that had spent two years advocating against Donald Trump.”

It’s telling that Baquet only warns staff and readers against left-wing candidates, not centrist ones. Corporate journalists rarely see centrism as an ideology; it’s not conservative or liberal, so it must not be political and therefore must not be problematic. In the face of a no-holds-barred attack against media (and government institutions), corporate media’s response is to continue to pretend they can exist outside of the fray, looking down equally at “both sides” from their unassailable perch in the center, and imagining that lengthy investigations about the president’s taxes are going to change things. As the election nears, genuine truth-telling—as opposed to disingenuous false equivalence—is more urgent than ever, but it’s just as unlikely as ever that corporate media will be up to the challenge.

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the L.A. Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.

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