Even After an Insurrection, Corporate Media Can't Let Go of False Balance

Rioters clash with police trying to enter Capitol building through the front doors. Rioters broke windows and breached the Capitol building in an attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. Police used batons and tear gas grenades to eventually disperse the crowd. Rioters used metal bars and tear gas as well against the police. (Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Even After an Insurrection, Corporate Media Can't Let Go of False Balance

If editors learn anything from the events of the last four years, it should be that "balance" is a dangerous substitute for fairness and accuracy.

In the wake of the unprecedented events of January 6, many in corporate media--on both the editorial and reporting sides--have displayed a new and refreshing ability to apply accurate labels to people and their behaviors ("sedition," "incitement," "white nationalists," etc.) and to apportion blame based on reality, not a wished-for fantasy of balance.

That false concept of balance, which FAIR has criticized for years (e.g., FAIR.org, 9/30/04, 9/17/20), is finally coming under greater scrutiny. As Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan (1/17/21) recently wrote: "When one side consistently engages in bad-faith falsehoods, it's downright destructive to give them equal time."

And many of her colleagues appear to have finally absorbed that lesson as they cover this month's events. Where previous coverage of Trump and his followers often strained to balance the positive and the negative (e.g., FAIR.org, 6/1/17, 7/24/19), reporting and analysis of the insurrection and its aftermath have largely cast aside attempts at false balance. At CNN.com (1/12/21), a news headline unequivocally announced, "Defiant Trump Denounces Violence but Takes No Responsibility for Inciting Deadly Riot," using language corporate media in the past would typically have reserved for opinion pieces. In the New York Times (1/6/21), after quoting several of Trump's statements to the crowd, Rudolph Giuliani's call for "trial by combat" against the Democrats and Donald Trump Jr.'s "we're coming for you" threat to Republicans who wouldn't back Trump's efforts to overturn the democratic election, reporter Maggie Haberman wrote directly, "Mr. Trump helped set in motion hours of violence and chaos that continued as darkness fell on Wednesday."

NYT: A Preordained Coda to a Presidency

Considering that Trump has few allies left within the establishment--even many big businesses have publicly turned against him--perhaps it's easier for journalists to cast off their commitment to false balance. But it's far from inevitable. At the New York Times, longtime White House correspondent Peter Baker (1/13/21) proved incapable of escaping the magnetic pull of both sides-ism as he described the second impeachment of Donald Trump :

With less than a week to go, President Trump's term is climaxing in violence and recrimination at a time when the country has fractured deeply and lost a sense of itself. Notions of truth and reality have been atomized. Faith in the system has eroded. Anger is the one common ground.

As if it were not enough that Mr. Trump became the only president impeached twice or that lawmakers were trying to remove him with days left in his term, Washington devolved into a miasma of suspicion and conflict. A Democratic member of Congress accused Republican colleagues of helping the mob last week scout the building in advance. Some Republican members sidestepped magnetometers intended to keep guns off the House floor or kept going even after setting them off.

Ah yes, the miasma of suspicion and conflict that envelops all in Washington without distinction, as each side gets their dander up over actions they find offensive. It's all equivalent, isn't it? But let's be frank: The country has not lost a sense of itself here. One faction of the country has been encouraged and enabled by Trump and his GOP supporters to embrace an increasingly vocal and emboldened fascism. That the New York Times' senior White House scribe cannot bring himself to distinguish between these things seems reason enough to disqualify him from his job.

But he continued, describing the impeachment debate:

Most lawmakers quickly retreated back to their partisan corners.

As Democrats demanded accountability, many Republicans pushed back and assailed them for a rush to judgment without hearings or evidence or even much debate. Mr. Trump's accusers cited his inflammatory words at a rally just before the attack. His defenders cited provocative words by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representative Maxine Waters and even Robert De Niro and Madonna to maintain there was a double standard.

That the comparisons were apples and oranges did not matter so much as the prisms through which they were reflected. Mr. Trump sought to overturn a democratic election that he lost with false claims of widespread fraud, pressuring other Republicans and even his vice president to go along with him and dispatching an unruly crowd of supporters to march on the Capitol and "fight like hell." But his allies complained that he had long been the target of what they considered unfair partisan attacks and investigations.

"Donald Trump is the most dangerous man to ever occupy the Oval Office," declared Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas.

"The left in America has incited far more political violence than the right," declared Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida.

The starkly disparate views encapsulated America in the Trump era.

That the comparisons are apples and oranges in fact matters immensely, but Baker, a journalist whose very job is to seek truth, appears to have resigned himself (and consigned his readers) to a world in which truth is relative.

'Above partisanship'

POLITICO Playbook: The real reason most Republicans opposed impeachment

So, too, has Politico. The day after Trump's second impeachment, readers of Politico's popular Beltway newsletter, Playbook (1/14/21), were treated to the musings of the day's guest editor--racist right-wing Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro--such as:

Opposition to impeachment comes from a deep and abiding conservative belief that members of the opposing political tribe want their destruction, not simply to punish Trump for his behavior. Republicans believe that Democrats and the overwhelmingly liberal media see impeachment as an attempt to cudgel them collectively by lumping them in with the Capitol rioters thanks to their support for Trump.

Shapiro's turn at the wheel was replete with false equivalence itself, equating Republicans who voted to overturn a democratic election with Democrats who "winked and nodded--and sometimes more--at civil unrest around the nation emerging from Black Lives Matter protests and antifa violence over the summer," and to Stacey Abrams, who "never accepted her election loss" (but who had actual evidence of massive voter suppression, in contrast to Trump, who actively tried to throw out valid votes). Shapiro also downplayed Trump's January 6 speech, finding it

unfortunately, commonplace in today's day and age, and sometimes even end[ing] with violence (see, e.g., a Bernie Sanders supporter shooting up a congressional softball game).

Editor in chief Matt Kaminski defended giving a platform to this whataboutism, calling it part of Politico's tradition of "mischief-making" (WaPo, 1/15/21) and noting that MSNBC's Chris Hayes had served as guest editor the day before--"as an example," according to a writeup in the Washington Post (1/14/21), "of how Politico had sought varying perspectives." Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the site released a statement arguing that "we rise above partisanship and ideological warfare--even as many seek to drag us into it."

Bigotry and providing cover for officials seeking to overturn democratic elections are not "mischief," and "mischief-making" is not a journalistic value. Suggesting that Chris Hayes balances out Ben Shapiro is the epitome of false balance; as press critic Eric Boehlert (1/15/21) observed, while one is indeed on the left and the other on the right, Hayes is "an honest and insightful analyst, while Shapiro is a congenital liar who delights in hate speech." The trouble is, honest and insightful analysts who support Trump are virtually impossible to come by, since Trumpism is founded on the rejection of truth, honesty and even coherence.

It's this fanciful idea that the two balance each other that undergirds the otherwise absurd argument that publishing Shapiro rises above partisanship and ideological warfare. If both left and right are equally valid perspectives, and Politico offers space to both, then it hasn't taken sides, and has adhered to the journalistic virtue of fairness. The right has learned it can endlessly game this system, pulling the center ever-rightward to the point that white nationalism and authoritarianism have entered the mainstream.

The good news is that most of Politico's staff revolted, as did many in the mediasphere (Washington Post, 1/14/21). Not everyone did, though, it's important to note. Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple (1/15/21), for example, called Politico's decision "a crummy, one-off guest-hosting gig that merits neither an apology nor a retraction from Kaminski. If editors live in fear of going too far, chances are good that they won't go far enough." Wemple predicted that one fallout of this will be that "mainstream-media editors will proceed with ever-greater caution in publishing conservative voices."

Wemple's fear is overblown, to say the least. For the past 35 years, FAIR has been documenting the consistent bias toward GOP sources across the country's leading outlets (FAIR.org, 6/1/17; Extra!, 5-6/04, 11-12/05), while framing progressive voices as beyond the pale. (Remember when Wemple's paper published 16 negative Bernie Sanders stories in 16 hours?) Wemple frames editorial "caution" as a bad thing. But if editors learn anything from the events of the last four years, it should be that "balance" is a dangerous substitute for fairness and accuracy. And if they can begin to distinguish "conservatives" from "bigoted liars," that would be a step in the right direction.

© 2023 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)