The Fox News business model was based on the proposition that objective reality was inherently liberal and they were prepared to present the other side. That’s how we ended up with the kind of both siderism in which a near-total consensus of scientists are relegated to one side of the climate change debate while deniers are given equal time. That framework became so normalized in the media that for eight years of the Obama administration we heard about “Washington gridlock” rather than Republican obstruction. The asymmetric polarization that was documented by centrists like Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann became verboten as a framework for describing our politics.
In that context, Leonard Pitts asks a critical question. In a recent column he noted that an op-ed by Jerome Corsi supporting Trump’s idea about arming teachers was published at USA Today. In case you haven’t heard of Corsi, he is a birther who peddles almost entirely in conspiracy theories as head of the Washington bureau of Alex Jones’s InfoWars. The cause Pitts takes up isn’t his disagreement with the content of the op-ed, but the author.
Take a look at how USA Today’s editorial page editor Bill Sternberg defended his decision:
USA Today’s Opposing View shows readers more than one point of view on an issue. Our signature debate format reinforces our reputation for fairness, which is one of our core values.
Do you see how far down the rabbit hole we’ve traveled from the original Fox News business model? It is now the view of a major publication that printing the opinions of a conspiracy theorist is just another “point of view.” Here’s the question this raises for Pitts: “Should crazy have a place in the public square?”
That struck me as one of the most critical questions facing all of us in the Trump era. I hesitate to use the word “crazy” to describe the president himself because it’s such a loaded term. But is it not appropriate to call a lot of his statements/ideas “crazy?” And yet, due to the positional power of the presidency, that puts crazy in the public square. Once that happens, it becomes normalized and we see “balanced” news outlets printing the opinions of conspiracy theorists. Who else is going to be willing to go out there and defend Trump?
Here’s how Pitts sums up the issue:
This is not an abstract argument. Mainstream news media have been frustratingly slow to realize that we are under attack. A recent Washington Post story documents how, just 47 minutes after news broke of the shooting in Parkland, online conspirators were already building their “crisis actors” narrative. Forty-seven minutes. There were bodies still on the floor.
“There’s a war going on outside,” one anonymous poster wrote, “… and it is only partially being fought with guns. The real weapon is information and the attack is on the mind.”
I don’t have any easy answers about how to combat the normalization of crazy. But I do know that the first step of any response is to recognize what’s going on and call it out.