Imagine turning on your TV on July 20, 2019 and seeing a well-known news anchor introduce two guests to discuss the 50th anniversary of the moon landing: the first is a NASA historian who will argue that the moon landing was a real event, and the second is a conspiracy theorist who will argue that the moon landing was faked.
At best, the encounter might be a mildly amusing waste of time; at worst, everybody involved is lending the authority of both journalism and science to a meaningless perspective that utilizes the rationality and peer evaluation systems of neither discipline. No one benefits from this kind of “debate” except the side that would otherwise have zero credibility and respect.
The problem is that modern journalism has “built-in blind spots” located in its middle-of-the-road, “View From Nowhere” perspective. Many reporters are trying so hard to present the views of “both sides” without comment or bias that they neglect to report the fact that one (or both!) of those sides is fraudulent, false, or at the very least utterly unsupported by facts. As Paul Krugman noted way back in 2000, “If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ‘Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.’”
We don’t have to jump ahead to 2019 to witness journalists bending over backward to present advocates of fact-free views alongside members of the reality-based community as if their points of view held equal merit:
• The Sunday talk shows recently pretended that global warming deniers have something valuable to contribute to the discussion about climate change
• In 2010, Fox News treated a vaccine-autism “truther” as if her claims had actual merit, allowing her to “rebut” a doctor and using “Autism Correlation Coverup?” as an onscreen graphic
When it comes to political issues or other matters of opinion/analysis, the news media certainly has an obligation to present not just both sides but every side. For example, on topics where Democrats and Republicans experience near unanimity—such as national security—journalists should go out of their way to give voice to other political perspectives on those matters.
But when it comes to matters of fact, reporters should not pretend that all sides’ arguments are of equal merit. Journalists should definitely “challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” If journalists do not fulfill their watchdog duty, then we are simply left with dozens of competing self-interested voices, with the most powerful ones drowning out all the rest.
As editor and critic Jim Emerson wrote:
There’s a misconception that “objectivity” means reporting “both sides” of an issue (and perhaps the worst misconception is that there can be only two sides — black or white). “Objectivity” does not mean he said/she said reporting without good, old-fashioned fact-checking — which is where the major news organizations have failed us so badly in recent years. If somebody says, “It’s 72 degrees Fahrenheit in this room,” and his opponent says, “No, it’s 43 degrees Fahrenheit in this room,” you don’t just report each statement and leave it at that. You check a thermometer.
Journalists are not stenographers in the business of uncritically reporting claims made in the public sphere; dispelling rumors and disproving lies ought not to be considered evidence of bias. During the Ham-Nye debate, WFPL’s Phillip M. Bailey tweeted (and the Society of Professional Journalists agrees) that the pursuit of truth is a central tenet of journalism. Reporters should go beyond mere “he said, she said” stories and investigate the truth claims made by powerful people, including those whose museums have obtained millions of dollars in tax breaks from the state of Kentucky.
James Miller is WFPL’s media critic and a journalism teacher at duPont Manual High School. You can find his past work here.