When a Journalist Choses Truth Over Balance

Chuck Todd has often been criticized as a journalist for his adherence to bothsiderism. The most egregious example was when he blamed Democrats for the unpopularity of Obamacare and proclaimed that it wasn’t the media’s job to call out Republican lies. But here’s a more recent example.

That struck me as a form of gaslighting. But as Jay Rosen notes, something recently changed.

I would suggest that the change actually happened a few days before that interview with Senator Johnson.

It was Trump’s statement that both Ukraine and China should investigate his potential political opponent that finally flipped a switch for Todd, leading him to announce that, “a national nightmare is upon us.”

The change in Todd hasn’t gone unnoticed by right wing media. After the interview with Senator Johnson, Mark Hemingway wrote about “Chuck Todd and the demise of true journalism.”

Chuck Todd’s first question to Johnson was about the Wisconsin senator’s statement that he “winced” at the suggestion that military aid to Ukraine was potentially linked to investigations into Biden family dealings in that country. Johnson pivoted to attacks on President Trump by the media and intelligence agencies over the last two years…

What Todd is telling viewers is that official investigations from Johnson’s committee, the Justice Department, and the attorney general are actually just outgrowths of a conspiracy theory.

After sighing loudly, Todd said, “I have no idea why Fox News conspiracy propaganda stuff is popping up on here.”

While Todd’s dismissal of Johnson was met with applause from fellow journalists, was this an appropriate stance from a newsman purportedly concerned with facts?

The Trump campaign and administration were investigated for several years both by an internal counterintelligence probe at the FBI and a powerful special counsel. Many apparent abuses of power at the FBI during that probe have been found and are being officially investigated.

The critical word from Hemingway comes in the last sentence of the first paragraph when he says that Johnson “pivoted” from the question Todd asked about his reaction to the news that military aid to Ukraine had been linked to the president’s demand for an investigation into his political opponent. The senator didn’t want to answer that question, so he “pivoted” to conspiracy theories about attacks on the president by our intelligence services. And yes, calling them “conspiracy theories” is an appropriate stance for a newsman concerned with the facts. To give them credence is to chose balance over truth, which is what the conspiracy theorists are counting on. It was because Todd didn’t comply that he is now being pilloried by the right.

Just to be clear, Senator Johnson is no stranger to conspiracy theories. For example, he warned about ISIS militants intentionally infecting themselves with Ebola and then traveling to the United States. He suggested that there was a “secret society” of FBI managers meeting offsite to plot their strategies to take down the president. Finally, he actually held a hearing to suggest that Medicaid expansion fueled the opioid crisis.

What Hemingway and Trump’s enablers want is for mainstream journalists to give as much credence to their conspiracy theories as they do to the truth. But as Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein wrote back in 2012, “a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” It appears that Chuck Todd has finally grasped that, when it comes to Republicans and Democrats, we are dealing with an “unbalanced phenomenon.” He’ll certainly pay a price for that awareness when it comes to Trump’s enablers and supporters, but he is standing squarely on the ground of good journalism.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.