As expected, the super-committee failed. And as expected, major news organizations are dutifully telling the public that “both sides” are to blame, as must always be the case in all instances.
In an online discussion yesterday, Washington Post reporter Paul Kane was asked to justify this kind of coverage, given that “there is no factual basis for blaming both parties equally.” Kane didn’t seem pleased with the question, responding:
“I think this point is just absurd and ridiculous. This is a big thing among folks calling it ‘moral equivalence’ (Fallows, Ornstein) and others calling it the ‘cult of balance’ (Krugman).
“It’s just stupid. If you want someone to tell you that Republicans stink, read opinion pages. Read blogs. Also, the underlying sentiment on the left is that this is the real reason why things went wrong in 2010: That the mainstream media is to blame. Sorry, I think that’s the sorta head-in-sand outlook that leads to longer term problems for a movement.
“Greg [Sargent] is a fine writer. He’s an opinion writer, in the opinion section of the web site. I encourage you to keep reading him. And I encourage you to keep reading the news coverage, which should always strive to present both sides of the story. If you really don’t want to hear anything about the other side of the story, I really do encourage you to stop reading the news section.”
My point is not to pick on Kane exclusively, because I’ve seen plenty of reporters offer similarly defensive responses to the same question. Kane’s response only stands out because it happened yesterday.
Regardless, his is a rather remarkable perspective. News consumers who want to know what both sides of a fight are saying should rely on the news section. Those who want to know which arguments have merit and who’s telling the truth should go elsewhere. To criticize this media dynamic is, in Kane’s words, “just stupid.”
It should be obvious why this is misguided. I can get press releases from politicians and parties, and see what “both sides” of a fight are saying. I’d like to rely on media professionals to go further — offering context, scrutiny, and analysis that helps make sense of the arguments, giving me a sense, not only of what the arguments are, but whether the arguments are accurate.
The failure of the super-committee offers a terrific example. The objective facts are not especially elusive, and even Republican members of the panel have admitted publicly that the GOP wouldn’t compromise on taxes, which is why the committee couldn’t reach an agreement.
But reporters don’t want to say this, because to tell the public that Republicans wouldn’t accept meaningful concessions — in other words, to tell the public what actually happened — would somehow be inappropriate.
Eugene Robinson understands the problem: “No, the sun didn’t rise in the west this morning. No, Republicans on the congressional supercommittee didn’t offer meaningful concessions on raising new tax revenue. And no, ‘both sides’ are not equally responsible for the failure to compromise.”
I’m not looking for news organizations to tell me “Republicans stink”; I’m looking for news organizations to tell me the truth. If the truth happens to be, in this instance, that Republicans stink, then so be it. If there’s an objective truth, it’s not evidence of bias for reporters to tell news consumers what that truth is.
Kane would have us believe that we shouldn’t look to professional journalists to help separate fact from fiction — trained media professionals, who know full well how to help their audience understand the truth — because it’s not their job. Want the talking points? Read the newspaper story. Want the truth? Read something else.
Newspapers, as an industry, are struggling badly right now. This kind of attitude won’t help.