Let’s try a little thought experiment. Imagine you are a journalist. A real journalist — not a hack for Fox “News” or OANN or Breitbart, but someone who actually has an interest in keeping the public reasonably informed. Say you’re writing a story about a particular development and you want to, or feel obliged to, report what several public figures say about it. At least one of these public figures is blatantly lying. Now here’s the question: do you identify the blatant lies as lies, or do you simply report faithfully what everyone said and hope (naively, one must say) that the public can sort it all out? Does your journalistic commitment to impartiality require you to avoid fact-checking? Or does your journalistic commitment to truth require you to fact-check?
This is more than just a hypothetical scenario. It’s become the day-to-day reality in our era of alternative facts. And very often, journalists are opting for the first course of action: they are giving truth and falsehood equal time, and not distinguishing between the two. This has been the new norm for several years now, but it has become glaringly apparent during the media coverage of the impeachment.
The front page of the New York Times, reproduced above, is a prime example. It declares that “Democrats assert” there was skulduggery, as if there were any doubt about it; and even puts the word ‘cheat’ in quotes, suggesting that maybe those nasty Dems could have used a more euphemius term rather than opting for harsh reality.
In case you’ve had your head buried in the Sahara during the past few months, here’s what’s been happening. The Forty-Fifth White House Occupant was impeached by the House Of Representatives for serious offenses relating to the presidential election. His guilt has been established without question; in fact, he admitted to his crimes — not once, but several times — and during the course of the investigation, he openly committed additional acts of impeachable obstruction, blocking witnesses and evidence and colluding with members of the GOP who were supposed to be investigating him.
Throughout the House investigation and the Senate trial, Democrats conducted themselves impeccably, presenting their case in a calm, rational and professional manner. Republicans, almost without exception, did just the opposite: they stonewalled, derailed, shouted, threatened and bullied their way through the proceedings like spoiled brats. They repeated, over and over and over, the baseless claims that the impeachment was motivated purely by partisan politics — that Democrats undertook the procedure just because they “don’t like the president”, and were trying to “undo the election”. (It didn’t seem to occur to any of them that the Democrats were actually trying to hand us President Pence.) But as painfully obvious as these differences were, the mainstream media seemed not to notice them at all.
Other headlines at the redoubtable New York Times proclaimed that the impeachment trial opened in “utter acrimony” as “Senators Clash in Partisan Debate”. What the headlines did not note is that the acrimony and partisanship were all created — deliberately, systematically, and relentlessly — by the GOP. Unfortunately, the Times coverage is all too typical of what’s been happening in mainstream (supposedly neutral) media. While the alternate universe of Fox “News”, OANN, et al, turns reality totally on its head by portraying Democrats as partisan fiends bent on taking down a “democratically” (!) elected president with absolutely no grounds for doing so, the more mainstream and previously respectable media outlets are enabling that narrative by playing the “both sides” game.
These outlets performed grotesque contortions in an effort to make their stories fit this absurd narrative, as in this caption from Yahoo News:
And even, alas, NPR and PBS. Just when you thought it was safe to take a stroll down Sesame Street. Indeed, NPR has repeatedly been caught trying to normalize comments by the White House Occupant and indulging in he said-she said “journalism”.
And, of course, CNN, which we all know is hopelessly, deliriously left-wing, eh what?
Yo, Chris. Anybody home? The Democrats did absolutely everything they could to get Republicans to present the “other side”, and Republicans absolutely refused, spending their time instead just bitching and moaning about having to be there in the first place. What more do you expect the Democrats to do?
Okay, okay. In a perfect world, treating everyone on equal terms is a desirable practice. But in such a world, everyone behaves with reasonably equal honor and dignity. That, as I surely don’t have to tell you, is not the world we live in. In our particular world, we have a “president” of the United States who lies nonstop and displays absolutely no redeeming graces whatsoever (unless you count spending so much time playing golf that he has a little less time to do damage in Washington) — and his supporters have absolutely no interest in calling him out for it. So somebody has to. And if the media simply report uncritically what he says, they are not acting as journalists, but as his PR team.
Suppose you’re about to eat in a cafeteria, and you see that the food bar offers two types of mushrooms. The server says, “well, the supplier of this variety says that variety over there is toxic, but the supplier of that variety says the same thing about this one. So we thought the fair thing to do was to serve both, and let the customers decide which is right.” Would you really believe that such a philosophy is in the best interests of the public?
This kind of bothsidesism has bequeathed us Kafkaesque occurrences like this:
Never mind that Gaetz himself consistently behaves beneath the (former) dignity of the House, and himself has committed serious breaches of ethics if not of law; or that he is one of the GOP collaborators who definitively demonstrated that in fact, some people are absolutely above the law. The ultimate silliness is his claim that Pelosi’s shredding of a copy of the State Of The Union address — her own copy — is a federal offense, and is comparable to destroying official documents — something the White House Occupant himself has done repeatedly.
Even Laura Ingraham of Fox “News”, who normally never meets a kooky conspiracy theory, rumor or allegation she can’t embrace wholeheartedly, scoffed at this one. Yet it was drummed up by many other media outlets, not only Fox itself, but supposedly more respectable sources. (Kudos, however to The Hill, for showing some uncommon decency and responsibility on this matter.)
This is the same kind of astounding indulgence they’ve been giving the White House Occupant himself. Because of his position, they feel the need to report everything he says — no matter how dishonest, inane, insane, hateful or incoherent. And because of his position, they feel the need to sanitize it and try to make it sound significant somehow. When foreign journalists have a chance to hear him speak unfiltered, they are dumbfounded by what they hear. He is, in real time, far worse than the watered-down version of him being presented to the world –including to the American public.
Under present circumstances, it is absolutely impossible to be neutral, at least with regard to facts. Sure, you can be neutral on ideology or factions or laws or politicians. But when it comes to facts, there is no middle ground. It’s not certain there ever was, but there absolutely isn’t now. You either promote the facts, or by default you are promoting propaganda.