Staying Above the Fray by Avoiding the Facts Is Not a Neutral Position

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that the editorial boards of over a dozen newspapers have called for the impeachment of Donald Trump.

Following a brief summary of where things stand, the New York Times editorial board wrote this about congressional Republicans.

So far, Republican legislators have shown little sign of treating this constitutional process with the seriousness it demands.

Instead, they have been working overtime to abet the president’s wrongdoing. They have spread toxic misinformation and conspiracy theories to try to justify his actions and raged about the unfairness of the inquiry, complaining that Democrats have been trying to impeach Mr. Trump since he took office…

The Republicans’ most common defenses of Mr. Trump’s behavior fall flat in the face of the evidence.

They go on to summarize the evidence of the president’s impeachable offenses.

That is in stark contrast to how the news division of the same publication handled their coverage of the impeachment vote in the House Judiciary Committee. Jay Rosen noted the language that was employed.

In the article Rosen linked to, reporter Michael Shear highlighted several exchanges like this.

Even for members of a profession who are used to talking past each other, it was striking how unwilling both Republicans and Democrats on the committee were to concede even an inch to the other side.

“Ukraine was not aware of the aid,” Mr. Johnson insisted Thursday, referring to the $391 million in security assistance that Mr. Trump had ordered withheld. If they didn’t know the money had been frozen, he explained, Ukraine couldn’t have been on the receiving end of a pressure campaign by the president.

When it was his turn, Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, asserted exactly the opposite, alluding to email evidence and testimony that disproved Mr. Johnson’s argument. “They knew it on July the 25,” Mr. Cohen said of the Ukranians. “There were communications from the embassy that have been released that they knew the aid was being held up. They knew it was being held up.”

Shear could have referred to other reporting in the New York Times to demonstrate that it was Representative Cohen who was being factual.

As deputy foreign minister, it was Olena Zerkal’s job to read incoming diplomatic cables from embassies around the world. One from Washington caught her eye back in July, she recalled: It said the Trump administration had frozen military aid for Ukraine.

“We had this information,” Ms. Zerkal said in an interview. “It was definitely mentioned there were some issues.”

Instead, Shear went on to relay several other instances where Democrats said one thing and Republicans the opposite. He assumes that there is some value in reporting that there were “disputes over basic facts” without informing his readers what the evidence tells us about those facts. That is how he reaches the conclusion that “both sides engaged in a kind of mutually assured destruction.” Nowhere in his reporting does Shear acknowledge what the New York Times editorial board stated so clearly: that Republicans “have spread toxic misinformation and conspiracy theories to try to justify [Trump’s] actions.”

What is most revealing about these two pieces from the New York Times is that the editorial board of the publication is providing facts in support of their opinion, while the news division is trafficking in bothsiderism and ignoring the facts.

At a time in our history when one of the greatest dangers we face is an assault on the truth, the kind of bothsiderism promulgated by reporters like Shear plays right into the hands of the attempt by congressional Republicans to be the “merchants of doubt.” Their goal is to muddy the evidence and promote the idea that there is an “unresolved controversy with two sides.” It is an insidious form of propaganda that undermines facts and evidence.

As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote back in 2012 when political polarization had become obviously asymmetrical, “a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” In 2014, Ornstein went on the make a remarkably prescient prediction.

Saying both sides are equally responsible, insisting on equivalence as the mantra of mainstream journalism, leaves the average voter at sea, unable to identify and vote against those perpetrating the problem. The public is left with a deeper disdain for all politics and all politicians, and voters become more receptive to demagogues and those whose main qualification for office is that they have never served, won’t compromise, and see everything in stark black-and-white terms.

Ornstein wrote that five years ago when a lot of media outlets were taking a “both sides do it” approach to the Republican strategy of total obstruction. He was right to suggest that it left the average voter unable to “identify and vote against those perpetuating the problem.” As a result, we wound up with a demagogue in the White House and one of his chief enablers in charge of the Senate trial for his removal from office.

If ever there was a time for journalists to prioritize truth over balance, this is it. Pretending to stay above the fray by avoiding the facts is not a neutral position. The news room at the New York Times could learn a thing or two about that from their editorial board.

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Nancy LeTourneau

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