The fact that ‘both sides’ criticize you does not mean you are neutral

Mainstream media journalists and editors like to pride themselves on their ‘political neutrality’, that they do not take sides. Some even claim they do not vote in elections because of their commitment to this neutrality. Thoughtful media analyses have long since debunked that idea, pointing out that though some journalists might not consciously bias their reporting (though others of course do), the institutional filters that exist in media institutions ensure that only people who have a certain limited range of views can survive in the media institutions. These people are then given the freedom to say and write what they want without explicit orders from the top because the media entity is confident that they will stay within the boundaries. If on occasion a journalist goes rogue and challenges the consensus, they are taken to task or dismissed, thus warning any other journalists of the dangers of straying from their assigned path

But the media are always sensitive to charges of bias and seek to find ways to support the claim that are neutral. And one of the common defenses is that if they get criticized ‘from both sides’ of the political spectrum (which in the US is already very limited to begin with), that must mean that they are unbiased. In fact, recently Donald Trump criticized Fox News because they did not support some of his more brazen lies and one has to think that Fox was delighted because it enables them to claim that they are not the right-wing propaganda outlet they actually are.

This is also the defense put forward by the editor of the Washington Post after the criticism it received for some of the absurd characterizations made by its Fact Checker team as false of statements of Bernie Sanders when they were in fact true. Ryan Grim looks at how this ‘both sides criticize us’ defense serves the establishment media narrative.

The mainstream media has been proud of their ability to break with tradition and begin to occasionally use the word “lie” or “racist” to describe lies or racism, and in many cases, reporters and editors have taken a genuinely adversarial approach to this White House. Kessler’s team has doggedly tracked Trump’s infidelity to the truth, tallying more than 10,000 “false or misleading claims” by now.

But breaking with tradition is uncomfortable, and it’s nice to have a cushion of “both sides” in the face of potential accusations of liberal bias. The anger pouring forth, particularly from Sen. Bernie Sanders and his backers, serves that purpose nicely.

At the Post, that errand belongs institutionally to Kessler and his team of two deputies, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly, whose favorite punching bag has clearly become Sanders. Sanders is the perfect foil because his online defenders are the most rambunctious in the Democratic primary, and Kessler is so blatant at what he does that he has managed to rally hardcore Sanders detractors to Sanders’s defense.

Kessler has discovered that the more ideologically driven the fact-check, the more fury — and the more hate-clicks — it draws. And the more that people savage Kessler’s fact-checks of Sanders, the easier it is for Kessler and the Post to justify his focus on Trump.

Earlier that month, Kessler had protested Sanders’s assertion that “three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America.” Kessler acknowledged that “this snappy talking point is based on numbers that add up,” but, as usual, Kessler wasn’t finished. The statement compared “apples to oranges,” he argued, because “people in the bottom half have essentially no wealth, as debts cancel out whatever assets they might have.” Kessler is smart enough to know that the explicit suggestion that rich people and poor people simply can’t be compared to each other is wildly offensive, especially in a nation that fancies itself not to have rigid class distinctions. But such an outrageous claim is good for business and led to the expected outcry.

It’s part of Kessler’s pattern: Sanders makes a claim, Kessler finds it to be factual but still condemns it, in many cases simply because he doesn’t find it meaningful. Wind and solar aren’t big enough to count; a few hundred thousand jobs lost is just meh; yes, “millions” is correct, but it’s not really that big a number.

This pattern has become so brazen that even within that newspaper, other journalists are uncomfortable with the Fact Check team’s work but the editor Marty Baron nominated this team for a Pulitzer prize (though they did not become finalists), signaling his support for them..

Kessler’s critics are not confined to Twitter or the Sanders campaign, but are legion — if much more private — within the Post newsroom, where his work is seen by many young reporters and editors as an embarrassment.

The media, meanwhile, continues to struggle to strike the right balance in reporting on Trump. At the same time that Trump made up trade talks in order to artificially boost the stock market, he also appears to have taken a Sharpie to a meteorological map of Hurricane Dorian and altered it to fit something else he made up. Guess which lie took up a week of cable news time?

Grim goes into quite great detail about the many instances where the newspaper seems grateful to get criticisms from progressives (and may even actively court them) in order to burnish their neutrality credentials.


  1. Mark Dowd says

    @Marcus: In other words, “If you dont have an opinion, your too ignorant to report about it.”

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