Both sides!

Interesting piece from Erik Wemple with Jeffrey Toobin apologizing for his part in the false equivalnce of Trump and HRC scandals.  So much of modern political journalism’s pathologies is captured in this “but, both sides!” without any larger context or sense of proportion.  Wemple:

So long as President Trump continues disgracing the Oval Office, thoughtful people will probe their own role in helping him get there.

Such appeared to be the motivation behind a mea culpa issued by CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin on comedian Larry Wilmore’s “Black on the Air” podcast. In a discussion of presidential politics, Wilmore argued that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, was the victim of a “coordinated attack” coming from Republicans. “Benghazi was … the expression of that attack. In fact, what’s his name, was it [former Rep. Jason] Chaffetz who actually kind of agreed that that’s what they were doing, was weakening her as a candidate.” (Wilmore may have been referring to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who said in 2015, ““Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”)

“And I hold myself somewhat responsible for that,” continued Toobin, a steady presence on CNN since 2002. “I think there was a lot of false equivalence in the 2016 campaign. That every time we said something, pointed out something about Donald Trump — whether it was his business interests, or grab ’em by the p–––y, we felt like, ‘Oh, we gotta, like, talk about — we gotta say something bad about Hillary.’ And I think it led to a sense of false equivalence that was misleading, and I regret my role in doing that.”

Those comments drive at one of the great media brain-busters of all time. On the one hand, media organizations in the run-up to November 2016 exposed and covered the hard-to-count scandals and outrages that Trump had generated over decades as a self-absorbed real-estate mogul: the thousands of lawsuits, the mistreatment of women, the ambient lies, the racism, the stiffing of contractors, Trump University, the false promises of charity and much, much more. On the other hand, those same media organizations pounded away at Hillary Clinton’s email story. And many of them — CNN prominently included — gave Trump generous helpings of airtime for the rallies early in his campaign.

A study by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that in the campaign’s final months, the media’s aggregate coverage performed pretty much as Toobin described to Wilmore. “When journalists can’t, or won’t, distinguish between allegations directed at the Trump Foundation and those directed at the Clinton Foundation, there’s something seriously amiss. And false equivalencies are developing on a grand scale as a result of relentlessly negative news. If everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans,” wrote Thomas Patterson in the Shorenstein study. [emphasis mine]

To some degree, I think this is a result of Republicans effectively “working the refs” all these years.  Given all the accusations of “liberal media bias!” a simple way for reporters to prove to themselves otherwise is to always have a “but, both sides” take.  I still remember back in the 2000 campaign when GWB would lie/distort things by orders of magnitude and Al Gore is off by a few millions dollars in some giant budget item and it was all about “both sides” lying to the public about the policy.  Of course, reporting that actually does a service to the public lets the public know when one side is lying shamelessly, while the other is engaged in fairly typical political spin by putting the best face on things.  Alas, it’s also easier to simply report “both sides” than know an issue well enough to render a reasoned judgment.  This does happen (and increasingly with Trump, due to the shamelessness and extent of his lies), but not damn well near enough.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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