As the Republican Party has shifted dramatically rightward over the past two decades, journalists have been presented with a dilemna which has reached a breaking point in the insane shitshow we call the GOP 2016 primary process, now being dominated by a narcissist and a grifter. On the one hand, journalists value accuracy. On the other hand, there is the “cherished trope of balance.” Which often is described with the cliched “both sides do it.”
But what if they don’t? What if, as is more clear in 2016 than ever before, the prion disease eating away at one of this country’s two major political party has reached a critical stage? I’m a partisan, but look at the conversations being had in the two primary races. Think about what happened Friday night - a series of more or less rational and intelligent conversations with the candidates. You think that’s what you’re going to see tonight? Good luck finding that.
So journalists have a problem. They can’t accurately describe the insanity of the GOP process - where Trump and Carson now rule like feral children - without pairing it with some similar lunacy in the Democratic primaries. Because everyone knows that Both Sides Do It.
But they don’t - it’s one party that has lost its mind, not both. It’s one set of candidates that lies, and then looks the media in the eye and says “I never said that.” And then attacks the biased media for asking unfair questions. As in any at all.
Accuracy and balance can only both be accommodated when there is some rough agreement on the parameters of acceptable behavior by the two parties. When that consensus breaks down, and one party collectively loses its mind, journalists have to choose. Accuracy or balance? This isn’t a hard question, but the media can’t seem to figure that out.
Hence, articles like this one on the front page of the New York Times, in which all the recent GOP whoppers are on one side, and on the other is Hillary Clinton’s claim - since corrected - that all of her grandparents were immigrants. Turns out one grandfather was born here. Michael Barabaro’s conclusion: “The tendency to bend facts is bipartisan.”
No, it’s not. There’s not even a remotely similar amount of bullshit. But there is a perceived need for journalists to make the claim, because it inoculates them from criticism. But flinching at the prospect of a bully’s rage is not good journalism and it does a grave disservice to the public.
So I was pleased to see this thoughtful response to Barbaro from Nathan Pippenger of Democracy. After assessing the Barbaro article, he concludes:
The more obvious conclusion is that we are facing a particularly bold form of indifference to the truth, a surprising rejection of deference to the press’s traditional role, and an alarming acceptance of these trends among voters—and that these extreme trends are pretty much confined to the right. This point deserves to be repeated: The tactical and ideological extremism of the contemporary GOP is enabled by the media’s refusal to admit that this is not a bipartisan problem. The Republican Party has gotten away with its drift towards extremism in large part because political reporters are loath to admit that not all pathologies are bipartisan. In this case, the evidence’s stubborn refusal to fit that familiar trope should have been a signal that the old formula doesn’t apply here. You could call this a reluctance to admit the sad truth, but it actually reads more like a refusal—one born of a misguided worry that the appearance of one-sidedness represents a more dangerous threat to journalism than simple inaccuracy.
Journalists who persist with the Both Sides Do It trope are failing both their core mission of providing accurate information as well as the goal of creating an informed citizenry. Only one side benefits from this yawning information chasm - the newly insane and deranged Republican Party. This is neither good journalism nor balance.