The truth about false balance

Liz Spayd, Public Editor of The New York Times:

If Trump is unequivocally more flawed than his opponent, that should be plenty evident to the voting public come November. But it should be evident from the kinds of facts that bold and dogged reporting unearths, not from journalists being encouraged to impose their own values to tip the scale.

I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates. CNN’s Brian Stelter focused his show, “Reliable Sources,” on this subject last weekend. He asked a guest, Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine, to frame the idea of false balance. Weisberg used an analogy, saying journalists are accustomed to covering candidates who may be apples and oranges, but at least are still both fruits. In Trump, he said, we have not fruit but rancid meat. That sounds like a partisan’s explanation passed off as a factual judgment.

If you fear a Trump presidency, it’s tempting to want the media’s firepower heavily trained on one side. But a false-balance cudgel gripped mostly by liberals is not an effective way to convince undecided voters. Just more preaching to the choir.

I hope Times journalists won’t be intimidated by this argument. I hope they aren’t mindlessly tallying up their stories in a back room to ensure balance, but I also hope they won’t worry about critics who claim they are. What’s needed most is forceful, honest reporting — as The Times has produced about conflicts circling the foundation; and as The Washington Post did this past week in surfacing Trump’s violation of tax laws when he made a $25,000 political contribution to a campaign group connected to Florida’s attorney general as her office was investigating Trump University.

Fear of false balance is a creeping threat to the role of the media because it encourages journalists to pull back from their responsibility to hold power accountable. All power, not just certain individuals, however vile they might seem.

Spayd’s position appears to be that both candidates are equal and they should be investigated equally.   First, is that true?  They are equal in the sense that they are both big party nominees.   But equal in other senses?  Hillary Clinton (never mind her husband) has been exhaustively investigated (going back to Whitewater, probably before, I don’t have the energy to check).  Trump’s scandals are many and scarcely investigated.  Dave Winer’s thought experiment (Hitler vs Mother Teresa) shows the absurdity of just assuming two candidates are equal.

Next, the investigations themselves.  Investigations cost a lot of money and there is clearly a temptation to get your money’s worth of readers, sometimes to the point of er over-selling the results.  AP recently deleted a tweet that significantly mis-stated the results of an investigation into the Clinton Foundation.  So even if nothing’s found or it is a minor transgression, the equivalence position means it is still promoted and used as the scorecard with the competitor.  It is rarely, if ever, set in a historical context with others.  For example, in all the coverage of Clinton’s private email server, was George W.Bush ‘s loss of millions of emails  mentioned?  Not because it excuses Clinton’s activity but to put it in context and show that Government email management appears to be a tricky thing and, one could argue, things are getting better.

Both candidates should be investigated but to argue that they should be investigated equally is absurd.

PS I’m not sure how long Spayd has been public editor of the NYT or what contribution that role made to the NYT decision not to call torture torture if the US Government was doing it.  But for a new organisation with such high self-esteem, it is worth remembering.


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