Media centrism

Damn do I love this column from Margaret Sullivan on the media’s ridiculous, knee-jerk, “centrism.”  So good:

One of supposed golden rules of journalism goes like this: “If everybody’s mad at your coverage, you must be doing a good job.”

That’s ridiculous, of course, though it seems comforting. If everybody’s mad, it may just mean you’re getting everything wrong.

But it’s the kind of muddled thinking that feels right to media people who practice what I’ll call the middle-lane approach to journalism — the smarmy centrism that often benefits nobody, but promises that you won’t offend anyone.

Who is the media’s middle-lane approach actually good for?

Not the public, certainly, since readers and viewers would benefit from strong viewpoints across the full spectrum of political thought, not just minor variations of the same old stuff.

But it is great for politicians and pundits who bill themselves as centrists…

Even the cable news panels that purport to express opposing views are part of the damaging both-sides syndrome. A view from the left, a view from the right, and repeat. But take the average, and you’re right back in the comfortable, unilluminating middle.

Impartiality is still a value worth defending in mainstream news coverage. But you don’t get there by walking down the center line with a blindfold on.

Why do journalists and news organizations insist on doing this? I think the answer is pretty clear.

It’s because they want to appear fair without taking any chances.

They want not to offend. Maybe being a little “provocative” is okay on occasion, but let’s not go too far.

It’s a shame, because a lot of Americans actually seem to appreciate having their minds stretched by unfamiliar ideas, as freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist from New York, has shown in her discussions of hiking marginal tax rates on the super-rich to benefit ordinary Americans.

That her views draw tough criticism — prompting opposing arguments like that of Brian Riedl of the conservative Manhattan Institute in his Daily Beast piece,“The ‘Tax the Rich’ Delusion of the American Left” — is fine, too.

But this is rare. Mostly, we have the irresistible pull to the center: centripetal journalism.

It’s safe. It will never cause a consumer boycott. It feels fair without really being fair.

And it’s boringly predictable.

In the end, the media’s center-lane fixation puts us all to sleep. And that’s no way to drive a democracy.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Media centrism

  1. itchy says:

    The problem with centrism isn’t that it’s boring or predictable. Boring and predictable are neutral terms regarding the validity of a position.

    The problem with centrism is that if one person is, say, for torturing all innocent puppies and another person is against it, the correct answer is *not* “torture only half of all innocent puppies.”

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