Bad journalism led to the worst president in US history, but thanks to him, journalists are rethinking journalism.
|Apr 16, 2018||Public post|
As American journalism faces hard times, so does American democracy.
I’m neither the first nor the last to observe that Donald Trump came to power as the business of journalism was undergoing transformative structural change.
Not all the news is bad, however. As the president brings up to the brink of a constitutional crisis, journalists are rethinking how they understand what they do.
Specifically, I’m thinking of David Leonhardt’s important column in the New York Times over the weekend in which he made the empirical case that the Democrats are the party of fiscal conservatism, not the Republicans. The assumption among political reporters, hence among the American voters, has been that the reverse was true. The data, however, tell a different story, Leonhardt reports.
Since 1977, conservative policies have led to big deficits and big government programs. Liberal policies, however, have found ways to pay for programs while decreasing deficits. “If you want to know whether a post-1976 president increased or reduced the deficit,” he writes, “the only thing you need to know is his party.”
More important is that Leonhardt explains journalism’s role in creating that enduring myth. He doesn’t name it, but Leonhardt points the finger at “false equivalence,” James Fallows’ coinage for “the almost irresistible instinct in mainstream journalism to present differing views as being equally valid ‘sides’ of an argument, even if one of them is objectively true and the rest are not.” Fallows demonstrated in 2015:
· False equivalence: “President Obama claims that he was born in the United States and thus is eligible to serve as president; his critics disagree on both counts.”
· Actual truth: “Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961; a persistent ‘birther’ movement denies this fact.”
Why is false equivalence relevant? Because of something that (some) political scientists call “elite cuing.” Most people do not have the means or patience to understand politics fully (nor should they), so they rely on short cuts to guide decision making. They often take cues from politicians, interest groups and the media.
Elite cuing is what Leonhardt means when he says that “the country’s political impressions are heavily influenced by people who are supposed to be neutral observers — reporters, television anchors, think-tank experts and the like.”
But Leonhardt takes the problem one step further. False equivalence is one of a few generally applied false narratives that drive journalism. He notes three: “Both sides are hypocritical. The parties care more about scoring partisan points than getting anything done. The extremists have taken over, and there are no moderates left.”
You’ll notice these describe the Republicans to a T but less so the Democrats. This not to say the Democrats are angels but instead that the parties are not in fact equivalent. Indeed, if the Democrats take the House in November, the party will get more moderate, not more extreme. Meanwhile, the GOP will move the opposite way.
The irony of these conventions—false equivalence and other false narratives—is that they encumber truth-telling even as truth-tellers have relied on them to inform the citizenry’s decision-making. If journalists were more focused on the truth-telling, as opposed to appearing politically neutral, the citizenry might have better information to work with, and hence our democracy might be stronger and healthier.
Leonhardt isn’t the first to point this out, but he might be the most elite voice. And that’s why I think there’s reason to be hopeful. Journalism changed fundamentally after the Vietnam War and after Watergate. It will change again after Trump.
And we’ll all be better for it.
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