Both-sideism presents more than jour­nal­is­tic prob­lem

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - BALANCED VIEWS - Leonard Pitts Jr.

A pre­dic­tion. When the his­tory of this era is writ­ten, when fu­ture gen­er­a­tions won­der how a mostly ed­u­cated and largely lit­er­ate na­tion be­came mired in “truthi­ness,” when they ask how we be­came so men­tally mud­dled that we lost the abil­ity to iden­tify facts and the ca­pac­ity to care, they’ll find many cul­prits.

They’ll blame Fox “News” for feed­ing the fear­ful a steady diet of hog­wash de­signed to make them feel be­set, en­cir­cled and put upon.

They’ll blame Alex Jones for spin­ning webs of con­spir­acy so bizarre and con­vo­luted as to shame Fox Mul­der.

They’ll blame schools for fail­ing to teach young peo­ple to think crit­i­cally.

They’ll blame Don­ald Trump for be­ing Don­ald Trump.

But they will also blame many of us in the non-Fox news me­dia for our fail­ure to be en­er­getic ad­vo­cates for, and de­fend­ers of, the ac­tual, fac­tual truth. They will blame us for sur­ren­der­ing to a bone­less “both-sideism” that sim­u­lates pro­fes­sional im­par­tial­ity at the cost of clar­ity and fact.

Which is what makes a new memo from the BBC such brac­ing read­ing. The sub­ject is rel­a­tively nar­row — cli­mate change — and the in­tended au­di­ence is only the com­pany’s own troops. But the point the memo makes should give pause to all of us who con­sume or re­port the news.

“Be aware of ‘false bal­ance,’” it warns. “... To achieve im­par­tial­ity, you do not need to in­clude out­right de­niers of cli­mate change, in the same way you would not have some­one deny­ing that Manch­ester United won 2-0 last Satur­day.”

And isn’t that a novel idea? BBC re­porters are hence­forth free to re­port on cli­mate change with­out feel­ing bound to in­clude those who in­sist it doesn’t ex­ist. They are free to treat facts as fac­tual.

Sadly, that no­tion would be re­sisted here. In the first place, cli­mate change de­niers would raise a squall. But jour­nal­ists, ad­dicted to con­flict and con­fronta­tion and to a mis­guided idea of what it takes to be “fair and bal­anced,” would likely also be up in arms.

Never mind that nei­ther fair­ness nor bal­ance re­quires us to re­port dis­cred­ited and dis­rep­utable in­for­ma­tion. Never mind, ei­ther, that win­ning the de­bate is not the point for cli­mate change de­niers any­way. No, they win sim­ply by be­ing in­cluded, thus wring­ing from us an im­plicit con­ces­sion that they rep­re­sent a point of view worth hear­ing. Even when they do not.

As de­niers of tragedies from the Holo­caust to the Civil War to the Park­land shoot­ing prove, both-sideism isn’t just a jour­nal­is­tic prob­lem. But it is in jour­nal­ism that it is ar­guably most con­se­quen­tial. One re­calls with a gri­mace how re­porters treated Hil­lary Clin­ton’s sloppy han­dling of emails as an ob­ject of con­cern equiv­a­lent to the racism, misog­yny, men­dac­ity, in­ep­ti­tude, ig­no­rance and cor­rup­tion that trail Trump like an odor. In­deed, a sur­vey by the Har­vard Kennedy School’s Shoren­stein Cen­ter found that over the course of the full cam­paign, Clin­ton ac­tu­ally re­ceived more neg­a­tive me­dia cov­er­age than he did.

Two years later, most of us would likely agree there was no com­par­i­son be­tween the two. Too bad more of us did not come to that ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion back when it mat­tered.

Yes, re­porters should strive for im­par­tial­ity. They should strive to be open-minded. But they should also strive to cover the world as fully and fac­tu­ally as they can.

The be­gin­ning of an­other aca­demic year brings the cer­tainty of cam­pus episodes il­lus­trat­ing what Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han, dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor and ven­er­ated politi­cian, called “the leak­age of re­al­ity from Amer­i­can life.” Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are in­creas­ingly sus­cep­ti­ble to in­tel­lec­tual fads and po­lit­i­cal hys­te­ria, partly be­cause the in­sti­tu­tions em­ploy so many peo­ple whose tal­ents, such as they are, are ex­tra­ne­ous to the in­sti­tu­tions’ core mis­sion: schol­ar­ship.

Writ­ing last April in the Chron­i­cle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, Lyell Asher, pro­fes­sor of English at Lewis & Clark Col­lege, noted that “the kudzu-like growth of the ad­min­is­tra­tive bureaucracy Do you have a sub­mis­sion for View­points? Have some­thing to say about pol­i­tics, his­tory, arts, tech­nol­ogy, busi­ness, de­vel­op­ment, pop­u­lar cul­ture, sci­ence or other is­sues af­fect­ing Cen­tral Texas? Please send it to views@states­ along with a photo of your­self and a short bio. Sub­mis­sions should not ex­ceed 650 words.

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