I had a chance to read New York Times public editor Liz Spayd’s much discussed column on “false balance.” I’ve seen many ‘false balance’ critics attacking it and countless national news reporters embracing it. Spayd locks in on some real shortcomings of this media critique. But they are largely clumsy versions of the argument which allow Spayd to ignore the actual criticism. And she concludes with what amounts to a generalized, all good, Times reporters!, please don’t be “intimidated” by these arguments.
The reality is that the contemporary journalistic concept of ‘balance’ is inevitably in tension with accuracy. How to resolve that tension is a point of debate. To essentially deny the tension, as Spayd does, shows you’re just not engaging the question.
Let me start by saying that it is easy to allow ‘false balance’ or ‘false equivalence’ critiques to devolve into, “You’re not covering what I’m seeing? My side isn’t as bad as the other side. But you’re not making that clear.” I’ve definitely seen that happen. But disputing this reasoning hardly addresses the actual critique or debate.
Spayd also addresses a different argument which I have also heard, which is basically: “There’s so much at stake in this election, the media needs to make sure to people know how bad Trump is.” People say lots of things. That’s not the argument about ‘false balance’. It’s a different, not terribly well-thought-out argument that the news media should essentially weaponize itself to save the republic from Donald Trump. The republic does need saving. But the best way for the media to do that is simply to do its actual job, which is to separate facts from non-facts and provide clarity and context to the flurry of information and misinformation that political campaigns inevitably combine and spew in equal measure.
Very little of Spayd’s column actually addresses how some critics, myself included, say much of the establishment mainstream media is failing its charge. I would say there are two separate but related arguments. And the issue is not rooted only in journalism but in the business models of many news organizations starting in the mid-late 20th century until now.
First is what I’d call factual balance. Is anthropogenic climate change real? We’ve all seen news packages (though less over the last couple years) where one ‘side’ says yes, climate change is real and it’s a big problem and another ‘side’ that says the evidence isn’t in yet or its a hoax. We live in a heterogenous polity and shape our society around empirically based scientific investigations. Neither trucks in absolute truths. All truth is contingent and subject to new data. But we govern numerous aspects of our society around the consensus of scientific or expert opinion. By that reasoning, one of these things is true, valid and one is not. It is perhaps the most essential journalistic responsibility to distinguish one from the other. Indeed, over the weekend I saw a former TPM reporter say that informing readers about what is true and not true is journalists’ first and most important responsibility. He’s right. It’s troubling that this should require stating or that even I found it a bit bracing when I read it. Some arguments don’t have two sides, which means, properly speaking, they’re not even arguments.
The more complicated question comes when you are judging things that are not scientific fact, but things that are much more subjective and multifaceted.
That’s what Spayd gets into in this paragraph which is the crux of her argument.
The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers — remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope.
Spayd’s first point is simply wrong – whether she knows it or not, I don’t know. Her claim is that what critics are asking is for reporters to editorialize. So a reporter knows in her heart that Trump is bad, wrong, etc. so you pour on the hits just a bit harder or just try to hammer and damage him because he’s bad. That’s not what I’m saying. And it’s not what I’ve heard any prominent critic who makes these arguments say either. It’s a classic strawman and where it gets Spayd is to suggest that news judgment or evaluation of facts amounts to ‘editorializing.’ The point is significantly different.
There’s a lot going on in that paragraph I just quoted. But let me note a few of them. Spayd ignores the possibility that there may be factual or contextual judgments that journalists can and may need to make to distinguish one thing from another. She’s then drawn into adopting the language of faux-populism about a ‘paternalistic’ media keeping some news from readers so that they’re not “confused.” No one is saying anything like this. Spayd is speaking so generally here that she is at once claiming people are saying things no one is saying – refusing to cover some stories because readers won’t understand they’re not important – and attacking the very idea of news judgment itself. How much attention does one story deserve? Is it a big deal or not a big deal? Reporters and editors do and must make these judgments all the time. Every day. Indeed, every political journalist is more or less constantly inundated with interested parties claiming that they’ve got some new angle or story that is the biggest thing out there. It seldom is. Reporters are constantly making these kinds of judgments.
If ‘balance’ is interpreted in the wrong way that can lead to the assumption that at the end of the day both candidates need to get the same number of hits. But that can lead to something akin to deskewing polls – reweighting the facts for balance. I spoke to a fellow journalist the other day who said, in response to this debate, that it’s hard to think of any candidate who’s ever had more damaging press than Trump. In comparison to Hillary Clinton that’s at least debatable. But I think there’s a pretty decent argument that my friend is right. But it also reveals a key blindspot. While there have been a number of extremely good and hard hitting investigative exposes on various parts of Trump’s professional background, I think it’s fair to say that the overwhelming amount of the damaging press he’s gotten has been simply publishing or airing things he’s said publicly or chronicling the back and forth between Trump and the Khans or Trump and Judge Curiel. This hardly counts in some notional balancing of scrutiny on a scale since it is little more than running a camera in front of Trump and letting people watch. There’s little doubt that the scrutiny of The Clinton Foundation and Clinton’s emails has had a repetitive, hyper-skeptical and saturation coverage that hasn’t been close to matched by any investigative story about Donald Trump. It’s not remotely close. Whether the Trump scandal coverage or the Clinton scandal coverage is the proper standard I can’t say. But they’re unquestionably different.
At one point Spayd seems to concede that Times reporters have been so wedded to the Clinton/Foundation/Email apocalypse storyline that they’ve published major front page stories that actually contained nothing damaging or even newsworthy but presented it as though it were some damaging new revelation. But she dismisses the importance of this as simply the result of inevitable journalistic misfires or shortcomings as opposed to evidence of a deeper, structural problem – either with the canons of contemporary journalism or Times’ reporters’ biases.
At some level it’s true that journalism has been, especially in this campaign, forced to choose sides between an empirical, factual orientation and what we might call a post-factual, notionally anti-elitist mentality which rejects expertise and such a thing as facts existing separate from opinion and desire. We can chortle over how this mindset on the right is actually at least broadly similar to ideologies of radical subjectivity in the world of the academic left these people detest. But that’s not terribly relevant beyond being funny. Journalism isn’t being asked to choose sides. Its craft is part of the Enlightenment framework whether it likes it or not. It can only become something different if that ceases to be the case.
A good, though rather parodic and extreme example of the kind of both-sides-ism we’re talking about was the spate of headlines which said some version of “Trump, Clinton Trade Charges of Racism” a couple weeks ago. Well, one candidate has openly identified with avowed racists, made racially incendiary remarks and made racism the single most salient theme of his campaign. The other … well, there’s really nothing like that besides Trump saying ‘No, you’re racist.’ This isn’t a moral or ideological judgment. It is, as far as we can ever have it, a factual statement of what’s actually happening. Those are precisely the judgments we rely on reporters to make. These are not scientific, purely objective judgments. But neither are they moral or ideological. They are factual, or factual well within the scope of the kinds of judgements we expect reporters to make.
This is simply one example. But it’s emblematic.
Now why is this? The key to understanding this phenomenon is to see that it is as much tied to publishing and business models as journalistic conventions. This is not meant in the sense that journalists strive for faux balance out of some hunt for clicks or dollars. It’s not nearly so direct or mercenary. The contemporary journalistic concept of objectivity is not only rooted in professional and ideological developments of the early 20th century. It is also rooted in changes in the newspaper publishing industry in the middle and late 20th century. As an increasing number of American cities became single newspaper or de facto single newspaper towns, their financial footing became increasingly based on monopoly ad pricing. This made well-known newspapers very lucrative and consistently profitable businesses since they had de facto monopolies over commercial advertising in specific geographic areas. But it also made their business model rest on being the default news source for all news consumers in their geographic domain. Obviously there were boutique publications and TV. But before the Internet, this major city and even regional newspaper dominance was a huge fact of the journalism profession and the news business – and one many assumed was the normal state of things.
This monopoly or near monopoly framework made reporters – and particularly political campaign reporters – into something more akin to moderators of debates between candidates rather than arbiters of fact, what was happening and what wasn’t. There are many roots of the phenomenon we’re discussing here. I don’t mean to say this is the only one. But a critical and under-appreciated factor is that need for publications to be relevant to all news consumers in a geographical region, whether a major city, a region or the country at large. Of course, that monopoly power – both financial and journalistic – made an institution like the LA Times in its heyday incredibly powerful. But its organizational premise and business model also made it vulnerable to opponents’ accusations of bias, valid or not. That leverage only grew as elements of the monopoly power slipped away. And this distorting prism only became more intense as the country became increasingly polarized along partisan lines.
Thus a complex set of contingent historical circumstances produced a certain concept of journalism and journalistic ‘balance’ or objectivity. But over time, as it became entrenched in news rooms and propagated out into journalism schools, it came to be seen as simply what proper journalism, particularly political journalism, was, ever had been or ever should be.
The upshot was that because of this interwoven mix of journalistic and publishing imperatives reporters were no longer able to treat one candidate as fundamentally different from the other, if that treatment was merited by what was actually happening. Not for ideological reasons. Not for moral reasons. But for factual reasons. Reasons of basic judgment and understanding of context. Trump’s campaign has been so different, so indifferent to clear factual claims, so unbridled that he has frequently put this whole edifice under strain to a breaking point.
In a minor, almost comical example, we’ve seen the television innovation of “chyron fact checks”, where at least CNN and MSNBC have taken to chyroning Trump’s latest statements with an embedded fact-check. “Trump Says He Never Supported Iraq War (Not True).” These little moments were funny and close to unprecedented. But they showed how Trump’s repeated false statements were so brazen and repetitive that he put the whole edifice under strain. But the big point is contemporary mainstream journalism has this key structural weakness: it can’t level fundamental criticisms of one side in the political debate that it doesn’t apply to the other because it risks losing access to that side and relevance and legitimacy to that side’s supporters.
Readers should realize this isn’t as easy a matter to get around as it sounds. That weakness and the threats surrounding it are real. Mainstream media journalists simply lack the tool set to deal with a candidate like Trump. It is as much structural as tied to the individual shortcomings of any reporter. But it’s no less damaging and real because it’s driven by factors that are out of the hands of most individual reporters. I’ve heard people note that, ironically, some of the best coverage of Trump’s ties to white supremacists come from anti-Trump bastions of the conservative media. They know the players and they’re unbound by these rules. It’s fair to say most are hostile to Trump and that yields a particularly intense scrutiny. But the upshot is what it is: they’ve produced better reporting on the topic than really any of the mainstream press.
What this debate all comes down to is that the imperative for balance and the imperative for accuracy and completeness, clarifying and explaining what’s true and what’s not are inevitably in tension. Precisely how it’s solved or how that tension is dealt with is a very good debate to be having. (I would suggest the goal is not balance but fairness, fundamental honesty with readers and a constant effort to interrogate one’s own biases.) But not to recognize the tension and not to see how some candidates push that tension to the point of crisis simply shows you’re in denial or have a monumental lack of self-awareness about the journalistic craft. That pretty much captures Spayd’s column.