Media bothsidesism hasn't improved since 2016. Aargh!

Media bothsidesism hasn't improved since 2016.  Aargh!
How has the media not yet figured out how to deal with bad-faith liars??

4 min read

In 2016, after the election, to reassure myself things might not be that terrible, I leaned on the expectation this president would draw attention to some major problems in our public information sphere. I thought that America would finally start doing something about bothsidesism in our real media, and about confronting the strategy of lying embraced by the GOP.

By then, thoughtful people had been discussing for some time that our media was afflicted with bothsidesism.  Jim Fallows had written his book “Breaking the News: How The Media Undermine American Democracy” in 1997. Paul Krugman wrote about the problem in 2000 and called it “Flat Earth Journalism” (e.g. Democrats say the Earth is round, Republicans say it’s flat, and the media reports that “Views Differ on Shape of Planet”). A few years later, Jay Rosen explained a big cause of this both-sides journalism – that reporters see themselves as above the fray; as “savvy” narrators of a battle whose storytelling is easiest if the teller doesn’t think about the stakes. A good history of these discussions was published in Democracy Journal.

media effectively conservative
Due to bothsideism, our news media is in practice conservative-biased.

The GOP, of course, realized that media tendencies to bothsidesism provided conservatives an opportunity to hack the legitimate press – as long as they were willing to blatantly lie.  And they were willing to blatantly lie.  I won’t describe the history here, beyond saying Reagan lied for years about “welfare queens”.  I’ll defer instead to Norm Ornstein’s excellent piece, which covers much of the Republican intra-party history of lying.  But it’s worthwhile to consider one example: Rick Santorum.  Santorum started out as a autocracy-sympathetic religious conservative.  When he lost his seat in the Senate, I’m told by sources that he received extensive media training, coordinated by Republican thinktanks.  We see the result of that media training on TV regularly today: Santorum lies.  Regularly and without shame.  He interrupts, he distracts, and he deceives.  That is the modern GOP media strategy, and that is what I thought we’d now be confronting.

GOP embraces lying to exploit media bothsidesism
A party built on lies is fundamentally broken (credit: Vox)

But three years later, nothing has improved very much. The GOP has gotten worse at lying.  Much worse, in fact, as the shameful Republican pseudo-lawyering at the Senate impeachment trial has shown.  And the media shows few to no signs of improvement or self-examination. Frankly, I’m gobsmacked. I really thought the press would have fixed itself by now, when the consequences to our country and our future are so clear.

Yet, all that said, I’m an optimist.  (Optimism is a choice.)  Our society has suffered terrible damage in the last three years, and the legitimate media bears significant blame, as they’ve allowed themselves to be exploited by Republicans’ strategy of blatant lying[1]. But imagine if this same thing was happening after 4 or 8 more years of the rightwing propaganda machine doing its job; 4 or 8 more years of attacking and demonizing Hillary and Democrats; 4 or 8 more years of obstructing progress then blaming others that nothing was getting done in government.

I still think it’s at least a little better we’re dealing with this now than in Jan 2024 or Jan 2028.  Fight on.

[1] “Republicans’ strategy of blatant lying” is a natural consequence of the construction of the party.  The party’s constituents are the very wealthy, it’s funded by the very wealthy, the very wealthy build its institutions, which train the apparatchiks who in turn staff the institutions.  But the GOP needs votes somewhere.  With the policies they support, the only conceivable way to get votes is to lie to voters.  That’s what they’ve done for decades.  Modern GOP lying is just an amplification of what’s been going on there for a long, long time.


bothsidesism cartoon: don't chop the cats!
The truth. But stay positive, and keep fighting.