On Thursday morning, the BBC World Service interviewed a Russian MP named Vitaly Milonov about the invasion of Ukraine. Right off, he called the invasion “a reasonable reaction to aggression.”
The far-right member of the United Russia party went on to blame Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States for “using” Ukraine for its own political purposes and said the Ukrainian people support the removal of their president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “I think that most Ukrainians are dreaming to kick out Zelensky and all your advisers sent by UK, and European Union, and United States,” Milonov said.
The interviewer pointed out that the Ukrainian people had voted for Zelensky: “Isn’t that what Russia really hates? That it is a democracy?”
Already having lobbed a few curse words during the interview, Milonov then shifted from far-right provocation to a never-never-land level of crazy. He described “people with flowers welcoming the liberators from the Ukrainian Nazi regime.” Putin, he said, is doing “a necessary and important job to clean Nazi[s] … out from Europe.” He added that because of this, “you have to make Putin the most honorable man in the world.” The invasion, he said, isn’t really an invasion. It’s actually just Russia “sending pigeons of peace” to their enemy.
Directly after Milonov, Franks welcomed Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. McFaul was furious. But not with Milonov—with the BBC.
“I want to ask a question of the BBC,” he said. “If it was September 1st, 1939, would you put on the air a member of the Nazi Party to try to explain this ridiculous, absolute falsification of history and information that we just heard from Mr. Milonov? Because this is complete, utter nonsense, what he just said, and I’m wondering if we’re doing a service to the world by giving him a voice on the BBC.”
When one side in a conflict has crazy views, are journalists exacerbating the problem by giving them airtime? When a country invades another, should we allow the invading party to rant in our pages and on our airwaves? It’s a complex debate about the role of the media, but an important one.
Franks responded by asking McFaul whether it is important for listeners to hear the justification for the incursion, even if it’s not accurate, and whether it would put some of what Milonov said to rest.
McFaul said he believes that what two-sides equivalency journalism strives for is absurd in a situation like this. “I think it’s an ethical question for those that are in the business,” he said. “You put him on and then you put me on. It’s, ‘Here’s one view; here’s another view,’ and I don’t like that. There are not flowers being thrown in front of tanks riding in Ukraine.” Instead, a journalist could paraphrase Putin’s rationale for war, make it clear why it’s based on lies, and move on from there—rather than letting a crank enjoy an open mic.
With the steady degradation of trust in the press, “both-sides-ism”—false equivalency—is one of the most important issues in journalism: Do we always need to offer both sides?
I’m firmly on the “no” side of this debate. Not everything has “another side.” When I was writing a lot about sexualized violence in war zones, I used to joke with friends, “What? Am I supposed to not say rape is bad? I should get the opposing point of view in there? The ‘pro-rape’ voice?” That’s not to say that I didn’t try to talk to alleged perpetrators. But when I did so, it was not usually in pursuit of “balance,” but often, rather, a means of getting to the truth, of giving readers insight into the minds of the men who commit such crimes. We have to keep trying to understand awful things if we’re ever going to fix them. Also, there’s no reason we have to live with horrible things that can be sorted out later and put into context.
In this case, I’m torn. As Franks said, maybe hearing the bananas stuff out of Milonov’s mouth can show how truly demented Russia’s justification of this invasion is. But should we really be giving space to the liars and nutters among us? Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU, calls it “asymmetrical polarization”—that is, not everything is 50/50, and we don’t have to contort ourselves to make it sound like it is.
Interestingly, Dan Froomkin, editor of Press Watch, tweeted in 2019, “If you’d asked [New York Times] editors five years ago whether people who deny basic facts, traffic in conspiracy theories, demonize immigrants, and otherwise fight against a pluralistic society should be given equal (or more than equal) time in their news columns, they would have said no.” His point was that, since the Donald Trump era, the media has adopted a corrupt way of presenting information.
Geneva Overholser, a former ombudsman of The Washington Post and a former member of The New York Times’seditorial board, told NeimanLab in 2019 that the Times’s “proud allegiance to presenting ‘both sides’ in a time of political breakdown renders it a handmaiden to the degradation of truth.” And, she pointed out, this is not a view only taken by the left.
Norman Ornstein, an emeritus scholar of the right-leaning America Enterprise Institute, wrote in 2014 about “a larger ingrained journalistic habit that tries mightily to avoid any hint of reporting bias … the reflexive ‘we report both sides of every story,’ even to the point that one side is given equal weight not supported by reality.”
Ornstein went on:
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.
McFaul made sense when he said that the first thing we need to do is call out “things that are right and wrong, and things that are evil—and this is evil … That, I think, is the most important thing that people in the free world, not just governments, but individuals, need to do.”