Centrist bias

Because I really liked it, I’m reaching back from before Christmas to highlight David Leonhardt’s excellent column on “centrism” bias in the media.  This is so damn true:

John F. Harris is about as mainstream as the mainstream media gets. He spent 21 years at The Washington Post, including as its political editor. Then he became the founding editor of Politico, where he is now a columnist.

Last month, Harris wrote a column that I can’t get out of my head. In it, he argued that political journalism suffers from “centrist bias.” As he explained, “This bias is marked by an instinctual suspicion of anything suggesting ideological zealotry, an admiration for difference-splitting, a conviction that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it usually is.” [emphases mine]

The bias caused much of the media to underestimate Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Donald Trump in 2016. It also helps explain the negative tone running through a lot of the coverage of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders this year.

Centrist bias, as I see it, confuses the idea of centrism (which is very much an ideology) with objectivity and fairness. It’s an understandable confusion, because American politics is dominated by the two major parties, one on the left and one on the right. And the overwhelming majority of journalists at so-called mainstream outlets — national magazines, newspapers, public radio, the non-Fox television networks — really are doing their best to treat both parties fairly.

In doing so, however, they often make an honest mistake: They equate balance with the midpoint between the two parties’ ideologies. Over the years, many press critics have pointed out one weakness of this approach: false equivalence, the refusal to consider the possibility that one side of an argument is simply (or mostly) right

“The most consequential history,” Harris wrote, “is usually not driven by the center.”

Political and economic journalism too often assumes otherwise and treats the center as inherently sensible. This year’s Democratic presidential campaign has been a good case study. The skeptical questions posed to the more moderate Democrats are frequently about style or tactics: Are you too old? Too young? Too rich? Too far behind in the polls?

The skeptical questions for the more progressive candidates, Sanders and Warren, often challenge the substance of their ideas: Are you too radical? Are you being realistic? And, by golly, how would you pay for it all?

I recently took a detailed look through the coverage of the wealth tax, favored by both Sanders and Warren, and centrist bias seeps through much of it…

But maybe that’s why we recognize it and pine for more objective coverage. Not every policy question posed to Democrats needs to have a conservative assumption, and not every question posed to Republicans needs to have a liberal one. If Warren and Sanders are going to be asked whether their solutions go too far, Joe Biden should be asked whether his solutions are too timid: Mr. Vice President, many economists believe that inequality is bad for an economy, so are you doing enough to attack inequality?

Once you start thinking about centrist bias, you recognize a lot of it…

The world is more surprising and complicated than centrist bias imagines it to be. Sometimes, people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are right. Even when they’re not, they deserve the same skepticism that other politicians do — no less, no more.

Damn that was good.  And if I were teaching media and politics this semester, you better believe that would be required reading.  A closely related bias is the “both sides!” bias.  The unfortunate truth that so much mainstream political journalism is motivated by a strong, but incredibly shallow, desire to not appear biased, which is generally accomplished through this bias for centrism and reflexive “both sides!” reporting more so than a motivation to actually explain political reality to Americans.  The reason I love Vox is that when it is doing it’s straight-up political reporting (don’t get me started on their culture and identity politics stuff), they do this as well as anyone.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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