"Both sides" journalism isn't even journalism — at this point, it's Republican propaganda

Journalists who present the GOP's attack on democracy as normal politics have no excuse. They're complicit

Published July 31, 2021 12:15PM (EDT)

Abstract freedom of speech illustration (Getty Images/Sean Gladwell)
Abstract freedom of speech illustration (Getty Images/Sean Gladwell)

The first witnesses in the House select committee's investigation of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack last week were clear about what its goals ought to be. Officer Harry Dunn put it most bluntly: "Get to the bottom of what happened. "If a hit man is hired and he kills somebody, [the] hitman goes to jail. But not only does the hitman go to jail, but the person who hired him does. There was an attack carried out on Jan. 6, and a hitman sent them. I want you to get to the bottom of that."

The others agreed. "We do need to get to the bottom of it," Sgt. Aquilino Gonell echoed. "Who incited, who brought those people here."  

"That is what I am looking for, is an investigation into those actions and activities which may have resulted in the events of Jan. 6," said Officer Michael Fanone. "And also whether there was collaboration between those members, their staff and these terrorists." 

"Fanone hit the nail on the head there," Officer Daniel Hodges followed up. "I need you guys to address if anyone in power had a role in this. If anyone in power coordinated or aided or abetted or tried to downplay, tried to prevent the investigation of this terrorist attack."

These were not partisan witnesses with a partisan agenda. They were law enforcement officers with a patriotic agenda. What they asked for was precisely analogous to what was asked for from the 9/11 Commission, whose example Democrats had originally hoped and tried to follow, only to be thwarted by Republican opposition, organized by House Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. What they asked for was a full accounting, to ensure that it would never happen again. 

This ought to be utterly uncontroversial, especially for journalists, whose job it is to get to the bottom of things. But not anymore, it seems. Instead, the very existence of the hearings was treated as a partisan exercise of power, utterly contradicting the fact that Republicans had scuttled the balanced 9/11-style model Democrats had initially tried to advance. And much of this came from journalists who obviously knew better. 

CNN's Chris Cillizza first excoriated McCarthy for his committee picks, correctly observing, "He has zero interest in getting to the bottom of what really happened (and why) when the US Capitol was stormed by rioters," and noting that Rep. Jim Jordan's proposed "presence on the committee ensures then is that it will be a circus." But the next day Cillizza turned amnesiac, with a piece headlined, "Nancy Pelosi just doomed the already tiny chances of the 1/6 committee actually mattering." Not only would the committee would be seen as partisan, Cillizza argued, but "you should give up on" any hope that it "might produce a report that would help us understand what happened in the lead-up to that day," without noting that this new claim directly contradicted what he'd written just the day before, about Jordan in particular.

With reactions like this, journalists violate something even more fundamental than getting to the truth — that is, getting the truth to the people. Seeking the truth just to know it for oneself isn't journalism. Journalism is a public profession, a civic profession. Its purpose is to make the world legible, so that citizens can make democracy work. It's about the making of common sense. That's why autocrats the world around throw journalists in jail. Or shut down news outlets altogether, like Apple Daily in Hong Kong. When it happens abroad, we have little trouble seeing it. In contrast, the purpose of propaganda is to make the world illegible, making it impossible for people to be effective citizens. We have little trouble seeing this when it happens abroad, particularly in such perceived global adversaries as Russia and China. 

Yet this is what much of mainstream "journalism" is doing right now here at home: making the world illegible so citizens throw their hands up in despair. It couldn't come at a worse time. The GOP is trying to normalize Jan. 6, normalize Donald Trump's pathological destruction of democratic norms and institutions, and move toward the establishment of a competitive authoritarian system in place of electoral democracy. And the press, for its own muddled reasons, is helping them do this. Prominent media figures and institutions are normalizing the attempted slow-rolling overthrow of American democracy, and de facto allying themselves with Republicans by misreporting their fundamental hostility to democracy as just another bout of partisan warfare, in which both sides make equally serious, facially valid claims.

It's not easy to see this as propaganda, because we assume that propaganda comes from one side or another, whereas this "journalism" goes out of its way to "balance" both sides. But when both sides have been so profoundly different for so long, pretending otherwise can only make the world illegible, whether the issue is infrastructure, voting rights or the future of democracy itself. Critics have complained about such practices for decades, offering alternatives as well — see James Fallows' 1997 "Breaking the News" or Jay Rosen's 1999 "What Are Journalists For?" as classic examples. 

But the widespread misreporting of McCarthy's attempted sabotage of the 1/6 investigation starkly casts things in a harsher light. This isn't simply "flawed" journalism. It isn't journalism at all. It's the opposite: It's propaganda. It actively undermines the capacity for understanding, and thus, for self-governance. It was aptly described as "The absurd coverage of the January 6 committee" in a particularly perceptive piece by Jon Allsop for the Columbia Journalism Review.   

"Both sides" metastasized 

"This is, indeed, bothsidesism as we've come to understand the term, insofar as it bent over backward to find Democratic culpability in a problem that Republicans created," Allsop writes, saying it represented "a slippage from a clear-cut understanding of the term" as previously understood, "the idea of false equivalence."  

There was that, of course — coverage "casting it as part of a 'partisan brawl,' or juxtaposing soundbites from Pelosi and McCarthy without adding much context" — but there was also coverage that "committed far graver sins; arguably, the worst of it was so bothsidesy that it approached onesideism, scolding Democrats while letting Republicans off the hook."  

Allsop goes on to note three particular problems, starting with Brian Beutler's observation of a perverse inequivalence: "the commonplace journalistic assumption that 'Republican bad faith … is just a feature of the landscape,' whereas a given Democrat is 'an actor with agency, and subject to scrutiny.'" Along the same lines, Beutler earlier wrote, "Baking the presumption of GOP bad faith into everything, rather than treating it as a series of choices by human agents, creates a kind of impunity (through exhaustion or savviness or whatever else) where it isn't even worth pressing them on their conduct."

Second, Mehdi Hasan's observation on "Pod Save America" that "in the eyes of many pundits, a given political development is often framed as being Bad News for Democrats, but not for Republicans." Third, there's the particular kind of what I'd call brain-dead analysis that, "taken on its own terms, [gets] lost down a series of empirical and logical dead ends." 

Allsop cites a couple of examples: One was the claim that Pelosi set a dangerous precedent, when in reality, Republicans have repeatedly been willing to break precedent whenever it suited them, so the idea that "they need the cover of Democrats doing it first is absurd." The other was the discussion of "credibility," linked either to accepting insurrectionists onto the committee, or to criticizing Pelosi for destroying its bipartisan nature. This either ignores renegade Republicans like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger or discounts them based on "Alice in Wonderland" logic:  "Such an analysis implies that, to satisfy the demands of bipartisanship, Republicans aren't Republican enough if they take seriously the thing the committee was created to take seriously. This, clearly, is circular, and self-defeating."

Allsop doesn't tie these different problems together, but that part is easy. It starts with "both sides" journalism treating both parties symmetrically, when they're fundamentally different in important ways. One way they differ is in terms of bad-faith politicking, which has grown especially pronounced since Newt Gingrich's speakership. Once the press accepted and normalized Gingrich's tactics, Democrats were at a perpetual disadvantage, so much so that framing anything "as being Bad News for Democrats, but not for Republicans" was simply a way of reflecting how much the game had been rigged in advance. Finally, the brain-dead analysis reflects the media's tendency to record and accept Republican descriptions of their fantasy world, and then to pretend it reflects reality. 

Another feature or bug of the "both sides" approach is what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls "the savvy style," which he has described this way:

When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to "win." Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can … well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders' game invites the public to become "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement," which is strange. Or it lavishes attention on media performances, because the insiders are supposed to be good at that: manipulating the media. 

This was always a bad idea, including when Rosen wrote that in 2011. But consider the last few decades, when the celebrated media performances go from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Gingrich to George W. Bush — and then to Trump and his eager sycophants.  

By trying to be "balanced" and savvy — and maintaining the relationships on which insider-sourced journalism depends — the dominant media response has obscured what's obviously going on: Republicans are deeply complicit with Trump (even more so after Jan. 6) and adamantly opposed to a truth-seeking investigation. 

All this happens, mind you, while the majority of journalists are Democrats. But it's not their party affiliation that most intimately impacts how they do their jobs. That comes predominantly from their professional ethics, which are misunderstood and under-scrutinized, as described in Jeremy Iggers' 1999 book, "Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Good," and from peer group pressures and expectations. Generations of right-wing attacks have taken their toll, resulting in deep-seated tendencies to bend over backward in order not to seem biased. Conservatives get to rail against the liberal media whenever they want, and the media responds by normalizing it — well, that's just what conservatives do! — while bristling at any criticism from the left. 

"Both sides" rooted in asymmetric politics

The ethos of "both sides" "journalism" requires treating both parties symmetrically, but the two parties have never been symmetrical, as Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins showed in their 2016 book, "Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats" (Salon review here). 

"The Democratic Party is focused on producing concrete solutions for citizens whereas the Republican Party is obsessed with conservative ideological purity," I wrote at the time. "This is useful for understanding how the nation got to a point of contemplating a possible Donald Trump presidency. (In the authors' view, Trump is the unintended product of a Republican Party purification process.)" 

One key factor underlying this asymmetry was first fully documented in  Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril's 1967 book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans." As I summarized in 2018, "At the level of individual opinion, more people identify as conservatives than liberals, and conservative ideology ('free markets,' 'limited government,' etc.) is more popular. But on the other side of the ledger, support for specific liberal policies like Medicare, Social Security and so on is even more lopsided." It was a disconnect the authors called "almost schizoid." 

This fundamental difference explains a great deal, including the contrast between the Trump infrastructure train wreck and Biden's (so far) low-key success. Trump saw infrastructure as a symbolic signature issue, and reveled in staging a series of "infrastructure weeks," but couldn't marshal the technical know-how to get a functional deal done, and never even really tried. Biden and the Democrats, on the other hand, have been working on so-called "human infrastructure" issues for decades. The term itself is new for most, but the thinking behind it isn't. (Rosa DeLauro's almost 20-year campaign to advance the expanded child tax credit is a particularly striking example.) So they're better prepared for this legislative task than Republicans ever could be.

This basic reality is not just ignored, but actively obscured by "both sides" coverage. Take, for example, this short, telling passage from CNBC:

Republicans have so far refused to raise any corporate or individual taxes to offset the new funding, which will be added to an existing transportation bill for a total of $1.2 trillion. The White House, in turn, has refused to impose user fees on the improved highways and rails.

Nice, neat, symmetrical and factual, at least on the surface. But beneath the surface it's profoundly deceptive. User fees are regressive taxes, falling disproportionately on the poor and the working class, whose incomes have stagnated for decades now, with only brief periods of respite. Corporate and high-income individual taxes are progressive taxes, which were cut sharply under Trump, and are far below historical averages.

So that symmetrical formulation fails to describe an asymmetrical reality, which is reflected in public opinion as well. A mid-June survey conducted by Invest in America and Data for Progress (memo here) found that huge majorities of likely voters support "paying for new investments in infrastructure by making corporate taxes fairer" and "increasing taxes on individuals who earn more than $1 million a year on income from stocks and bonds and on individuals who earn more than $400,000 a year." by margins of 45-points and 38-points, respectively." That was no fluke; a mid-July AP/NORC poll had similar results.

Furthermore, "likely voters overwhelmingly oppose increasing user fees (like highway tolls) or the gas tax in order to fund infrastructure investments." So on both alternatives, the public overwhelmingly supports the Democratic position. But how many members of the public understand that, and what impact does that widespread consensus have, when the practitioners of "both sides" journalism do their utmost to obscure it, making it seem that the public must be evenly divided, aligned with whichever party they voted for in the last election?

The AP/NORC poll mentioned above also revealed remarkably strong support for all kinds of specific infrastructure spending, which is significantly at odds with the picture painted by media coverage of supposedly deadlocked Senate negotiations. Results range from 83% support for "roads, bridges and ports" to a low of 45% support (but only 29% opposition) for electric vehicle charging stations. Notably, funding for local public transit — which Republicans generally oppose — is supported by 61% to 14%, and funding for caregivers for the elderly — which Republicans also want to drop — is overwhelmingly popular, with 75% support. How different would American politics be if journalists made the will of the American people clear, rather than obscuring their substantial agreement on matters of fundamental public policy?

The asymmetry of bad faith

That's only the beginning. Let's return to "The Political Beliefs of Americans," whose authors called for an end to the "almost schizoid" disconnect they observed between broad ideology and specific policies: 

There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people's wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.

That restatement never happened. Instead, the racist backlash to advancing civil rights provided a framework for sharply increased attacks on "big government," which liberals became increasingly reluctant to defend. At the same time, as explained in "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon interview here), the GOP focused on fragile, threatened identities — first around race, but then about gender and religion as well. Bad faith was central to this strategy—not just because these three identities were deeply rooted in the bad-faith mythology of the Lost Cause, but also because it depended on constantly raising the level of perceived threat.

Asymmetric bad faith took a quantum leap under Reagan, who slashed taxes dramatically while railing against deficits, a core GOP bad-faith dynamic ever since. It took another quantum leap under Gingrich, culminating in the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about an affair at the same time that Gingrich himself was covertly cheating on his second wife.

Bad faith has long since become pervasive throughout the GOP, and completely normalized by the press. Commenting on a recent Punchbowl News article about McConnell "taking a very hard line on the debt ceiling," Brian Beutler noted, "The bad-faith GOP strategy of threatening to tank the economy while Dems are in charge, based on pretexts Republicans plainly don't believe, and even though the Dems don't engage in the same kind of nihilism, is just presumed and unexamined (and, of course a problem for Dems)." 

Bad faith can be found in Republican claims to be "the party of life" as they cheerfully spread COVID disinformation. Bad faith can be found in their claims to be "the party of law and order," while they heap contempt on the officers who defended the Capitol and want them to get to the bottom of that attack Bad faith can be found in their claims to be the party of patriotism, as they defend Confederate monuments and defending the Jan. 6 insurrectionists from scrutiny or consequences, paving the way for the next attempted overthrow of government. 

When journalists cannot honestly report what is happening, when they normalize the ongoing destruction of democracy, they become complicit in it. When their posture of balance makes the world more illegible, so that democratic self-governance becomes all but impossible, they're no longer journalists. They have become propagandists, and cannot be allowed to define the standards of a profession they no longer practice.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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