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It’s Only Monday, and We’ve Got a Contender For Worst Virginia Newspaper Editorial of the Week…Or Hell, Maybe the Year!

Painfully Bad Virginia Mercury Piece Epitomizes False Equivalence, "Both Sidesism," etc.


A common criticism you’ll hear from smart media critics like Jay Rosen of NYU is that the media, far too often – or even as its standard operating procedure! – engages in the damaging practice of “bothsides”:

verb: the act of distorting a news report by taking an asymmetrical situation and putting it in symmetrical terms, falsely suggesting there are two equal and opposing sides in normal conflict with one another. “The AP bothsides it.”

If this were the only problem with vast swaths of the media, it would be bad enough. But it isn’t, sadly. There’s also, as Garry Kasparov points out, the problem whereby:

“In a failing democracy, the free press tells you that one candidate says the sky is blue and the other candidate says the sky is green, without mentioning which is correct…when there are blatant lies, stating the truth is a responsibility of the press. How can you reliably inform the public otherwise?”

And then there’s the disastrous-and-widespread media failing known as “false equivalency,” in which – despite the fact that “no reasonable comparison can be made between the two parties’ ideological shifts,” with Democrats a center-left party while Republicans “lurch to the extreme right over the past several decades and, more recently, by the rise of Donald Trump” – the media keeps acting like the two “sides” are basically equivalent in some way. As Jay Rosen explains, this is related to reporters’ “production of innocence,” in which reporter “feel compelled” to demonstrate to readers that “they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of — and here we enter the realm of dread — political bias.” The result?

“You are a propagandist for a personal conceit. The conceit is that you can report and comment on politics truthfully while always and forever splitting the difference between the two sides so as to advertise your own status as perpetually non-aligned.”

Unfortunately, this is a VERY widespread style of journalism, and also a VERY damaging one. It should have, by all rights, died many years ago, but certainly after the disastrous media coverage of the 2016 presidential election (and the rise of Tea Party in 2009-2010), which helped to give us the Trump disaster in the first place. As Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote back in August 2017, Trump is in many ways “the false-equivalency president,” elected to a large degree due to the media’s “misguided sense of fairness help[ing] equate the serious flaws of Hillary Clinton with the disqualifying evils of Donald Trump.”

“In a devastating post-election report, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center concluded that media treatment was rife with false equivalency: ‘On topics relating to the candidates’ fitness for office, Clinton and Trump’s coverage was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone.’

That was a factor — one of many — that helped to put Trump in the Oval Office.

Elected with the help of false equivalency, Trump is now creating some of his own.

In the aftermath of last weekend’s disaster in Charlottesville, he is being widely criticized for treating white supremacists and those who protest them as roughly equal.

His phrases are all too memorable. There were ‘some very fine people’ on both sides, he said, backing up his initial condemnation of the violence ‘on many sides.’”

With all that in mind, check out this morning’s column by Virginia Mercury editor Robert Zullo, which basically makes every mistake listed above, in almost an unintentional self-parody of “objective,” both sides” “journalism.” Thus, according to Zullo (followed by my comments in blue/bold):

  • “[T]he United States’ as a governmental enterprise of the people, by the people and for the people and the concept of ‘E Pluribus Unum’ has never looked more precarious in my four decades on the planet.” – OK, fine, no argument here. The question is WHY that is the case.
  • “It seemed inevitable that confrontations between the people tearing up liberal cities in the name of fighting fascism and those playing paramilitary G.I. JOE — both of whom’s growing public presence during the Trump years has been derided and minimized as ‘LARPing’ by too many — would eventually escalate from fistic flailing to major bloodshed.” – And with that, the piece goes completely off the rails. First off, “liberal cities?” What on earth is *that* all about? Or “in the name of fighting fascism?” In fact, as a friend pointed out to me after bringing this piece to my attention this morning, the United States right now actually IS in the midst of – at the minimum – troubling signs of rising bigotry, authoritarianism, even fascism, that is, as my friend wrote, “encouraged from the highest levels of the United States government.” And yes, there are millions of Americans who oppose this, as all Americans *should*, but that doesn’t make them in any way/shape/form *equivalent* to the authoritarians, bigots, and even fascists who they’re opposing! Yet in Zullo’s opinion piece, he frames it as “people tearing up liberal cities” (note: it’s very, very revealing that he calls them “liberal cities” and claims they’re being torn up) consisting of “both sides,” essentially. Except Zullo manages to belittle those on the side of democracy, by claiming that they’re actually just “tearing up” the cities “in the name of fighting fascicm.”  What on earth? And then to put them into the same sentence, in a Trumpian manner, as some sort of equivalence? It’s almost beyond parody, really, but it’s certainly not any form of journalism that’s worth preserving, that’s for sure.
  • The fact is, as a progressive friend put it, is that we have white supremacists and other anti-democrats (small “d”) on one “side,” while “on the ‘other side,’ you have a mass peaceful social justice movement, in the grandest tradition of mass peaceful movements across history in our country and elsewhere.  A few knuckleheads, without any support from that movement, the government, the media echo chamber or any political party, engage in stupid behavior that is caught on video.   For what it’s worth, it is entirely likely that at least some of that activity is from agent provocateurs, as has been well documented.  But aside from that, it is a small, tiny fraction of what is actually going on. In any case, there is no equivalence between these two things.  There are not ‘bad people on both sides,’ to paraphrase Trump.  There is a bad side and a good side.  And no, there is not mass violence in ‘liberal’ cities or anywhere else. The false equivalence not only is false as a matter of fact, but plays right into the hands of those who would do and are doing actual violence to all of our political institutions.”
  • Another friend, who is a Democratic political professional, read the opinion piece and responded as follows: “It’s a really annoying, almost Trumpian approach to what is massive social upheaval being driven by anti-democratic moods on the right. Every real Democratic leader that I’ve seen has condemned bad behavior on ‘our’ side. But that isn’t the case with Republicans. They encourage armed militias and are seeding a post-election coup against the result and actively trying to erode our democratic norms and institutions. ‘The left’ is not.”
  • Finally, check out this sentence from the Virginia Mercury opinion piece, which basically makes every fundamental journalistic error one can possibly make: “But the largely silent majority who abhor the idea of civil discord leaving bodies on American streets need to speak out against what appears to be growing acceptance on left and right of violent confrontation as an acceptable means to an end.” In fact, there’s essentially no “acceptance,” let alone “growing acceptance,” by the *vast* majority of Democrats that “violent confrontation” is “an acceptable means to an end.” Who, specifically, is the author of this opinion piece referring to? Here in Virginia, Democratic leaders have roundly *condemned* violence, rioting, mob behavior, etc., as well they should have. So where is this “growing acceptance” coming from? Actually, if you click on that link, it takes to you…wait for it…yep, a FOX “NEWS” story. WTF? As for the story, its headline is about an “apparent Antifa member in Portland” (and yes, check out the Washington Post’s “Five myths about antifa,” which basically demonstrates that everything the right-wing says about this subject is complete bullshit) who was supposedly “overheard saying” something bad. Seriously, that’s the “story,” and that’s what the Virginia Mercury editor uses to draw his conclusion that there “appears to be growing acceptance on left and right of violent confrontation.” It’s utterly iinfuriating, as all this type of “journalism” does is help elect Trump and others of his ilk, while helping hasten the demise of democracy and the very freedoms that allow a free press to exist in the first place. 

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