President Trump’s governance by lies and insults has shocked and distressed many Americans. But his extremes are not an aberration. They are the culmination of a long and sorry trend. Politicians have been undermining the rationality of public debate with lies since the days of the Vietnam War. That has left reporters wrestling with how to do their jobs effectively—especially in the face of officials lying and attacking journalists.
Professor Thomas E. Patterson, of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, has studied and documented the struggles of journalists in covering politics from the Vietnam era to the present. Patterson’s new book, How America Lost Its Mind, written just before the Ukraine scandal broke, is a concise “must-read” for those interested in the challenges political journalists face in 2020.
Patterson’s foundational premise is the centrality of journalism to democracy. He quotes Walter Lippman: “The newspaper in all its literalness is the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct. …It is the only book that they read every day.” Today the news media is still the bible of democracy, with people attending to it every day. But as a result of the decline in newspaper readership, and because people are increasingly getting their news from TV, cable and digital sources, the “bible,” Patterson says, has been adulterated. Those who follow the news are now faced with “an ungodly blend of the silly and the serious, the reliable and the deceptive, the extraneous and the noteworthy.” Most journalists share Patterson’s concern. He cites a survey of journalists, which found that 60 percent think that journalism is headed in the wrong direction.
Patterson identifies three patterns of failure in the media—and one of success. The first he calls the entertainment virus, in which “infotainment and sensationalism” dominate. Patterson castigates entertainment-driven media for pushing aside journalism’s core responsibility: to identify what is important and to write about it in an interesting way.
The second pattern of journalistic failure is an obsession with the political game. A key feature of this pattern is the dominance of horse race coverage of elections—a focus on who is ahead, rather than on the merits of candidates and policies. One result, Patterson notes, is more cynicism about politicians, for as a result of one-dimensional coverage, they seem to be concerned only with winning power.
Infotainment and an obsession with the political game now crowd out more important coverage of public policy issues and of the candidates’ fitness for office. As Patterson documented in his work on the 2016 election at the Shorenstein Center, nearly 60 percent of coverage was of the horse race and controversies, while only 10 percent was of the policy issues; reports on the candidates’ fitness for office made up a mere seven percent of coverage. What voters need to know for the voting booth is not who will win, but who should win, and why.
The third pattern of journalistic failure is what Patterson calls attack journalism. Patterson has found that journalists in the current era are overwhelmingly negative in covering elections, with the shift to negativity beginning after the Vietnam War. Reporters tend to write hostile stories about all rival politicians, as well as their actions in and out of government.
In 2016, for example, Patterson found that the coverage of Clinton’s and Trump’s fitness for office was equally and overwhelmingly negative: 87 percent negative to 13 percent positive. This kind of negative “bothsidesism” has a hugely damaging effect on rational discourse. The person whose behavior is actually worse is immunized by equal attacks on the rival.
Patterson currently sees this form of both-sides negativity as the most pervasive failing in journalism. At the same time, he expresses his ideal of a world in which journalists can say something equally good and bad about rival sides, both of whom he hopes are “moderate.” Therefore, he defines a pattern of journalistic success as: “News that is balanced, relevant, and trustworthy.”
The astuteness of the rest of his analysis notwithstanding, Patterson’s idealization of “balance” is a big disappointment. Ironically, he falls into the same trap of “bothsidesism” he laments. He points to a high percentage of false statements made by extreme right- and left-wing news outlets, but fails to note that the right-wing outlets spewed false claims at double the rate of the left-wing ones. Indeed, the Buzzfeed article he cites concludes that right-wing lying on Facebook “helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump.” The elephant in the room Patterson avoids mentioning in his desire to be “balanced” is a new and terrifying assault on reason: the repeated insistence that obvious falsehoods are true. This assault is indeed an “elephant”—it is a creation of Trump’s Republican party.
The “both sides” approach leads to such errors because the very idea of balance is muddled. The political center is always changing. Supporting gay marriage, for instance, was once considered an extreme position. Further, there are situations in which one candidate is unfit for office—say, because of a record of corruption—while the other is clearly more fit. The truth is often one-sided, and when it is, insisting on “balance” will mean failure to provide voters with vital information.
Perhaps an even deeper question: Why is the tug of “balance” and “bothsidesism” so strong that even Patterson gets pulled in? It probably comes somewhere from the impulse to give each side a chance to tell their side of the story. But, by and large, there are two different kinds of claims in politics, and they require different methods for journalists to handle them effectively.
The first kind of claim is about specific events: what happened at a specific place and time. Reporters can establish the facts on specific events in the same way that facts about events are established in courts of law and in science: corroboration by multiple, credible witnesses. And indeed, talking to people who are eyewitnesses to events is rightly the journalistic standard.
The second kind of claim is essentially the expression of a theory, i.e. “this policy will work better,” or this “candidate will perform better in office.” The philosopher Karl Popper has noted that, within science, even the best-tested theories are never certain, and always might be refuted by new evidence. This uncertainty is even greater for social theories and policies. In the face of such difficulties, many journalists tend to avoid reporting on policy, and when they do, they. report simply on what “both sides” say, without scrutinizing the truth or validity of their claims.
But it is possible for reporters to assess the veracity of theoretical claims without biasing themselves. As Popper has also pointed out, scientists do this through the refutation of claims affecting the future. For instance, there is often contrary evidence when a politician makes an unfounded claim about the promise of a flawed policy idea.
Indeed, a powerful alternative to “bothsidesism” is to identify crucial evidence—evidence that confirms one view, provisionally, while decisively contradicting a rival view. Take economic policy. Republicans have claimed that cutting taxes and domestic spending will best grow the economy, and the resulting prosperity will “trickle down’” to all. Democrats have argued that increased taxes and wise public investments would both grow the economic pie and slice it more equally.
When we sum up the evidence from Federal Reserve and Census Bureau numbers from 1982 to 2018, it tells a story of stark Republican failure and modest Democratic success. Under Republican administrations, middle incomes stagnated almost completely, rising only 0.1 percent on average annually, while poverty increased an average of 2.6 percent per year. Under Democratic administrations, by contrast, middle incomes rose annually on average 1.3 percent and poverty declined 1.6 percent.
To be sure, most of Patterson’s proposed solutions—minimizing infotainment reporting, attack journalism, and the obsession with the political game—would lead to better journalism in America. Journalists should also stick to a simple prescription: Stop seeking balance at the expense of the truth.