In her second full column on the job, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan this weekend jumped into the newsroom debate over false balance and looked into how far reporters should go to provide evenhanded views, even when balance isn't justified.
"Particularly in this intensely political season, readers and media critics are calling for journalists to take more responsibility for what is true and what is not," Sullivan wrote.
The habit of false balance, or false equivalency, has been gaining momentum in recent years, and so has the pushback from news consumers (including President Obama) and media watchers who suggest reporters shouldn't be in the business of transcribing he-said-she-said debates when one side of the debate isn't supported by the facts.
As Sullivan mentioned in her welcomed column, the debate swirls around the old line from Daniel Patrick Moynihan that you're entitled to your opinion but not your own set of facts. Today, more and more Republican partisans insist they are entitled, and want the mainstream media to confirm that privilege.
Sullivan's piece serves as a reminder that readers are in search of the truth. But here's what was missing from Sullivan's exploration: The specific acknowledgement that the false balance conundrum journalists face stems from the conservative movement, and especially the conservative media, which have embraced misinformation as a central tenet.
In other words, false balance is the intended byproduct of the Right-Wing Noise Machine, which was built to misinform followers and to intimidate the press into accepting, or legitimizing, that partisan misinformation. This is not a liberal-conservative or Republican-Democratic problem that journalists must wrestle with. It is without question a problem hoisted on the press by the far right. And that point is salient to this media debate.
All of those topics germinated from the conservative movement and the conservative media, which have aggressively moved in recent years to construct their own parallel universe (or echo chamber) where their distinct set of 'facts' rule. Those so-called facts are then endlessly reinforced on right-wing blogs, AM talk radio and, of course, Fox News. (Voter fraud is rampant!)
Reporters are under no obligation to treat bogus 'facts' as legitimate, though. As Sullivan wrote:
Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.
The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership -- and the democracy -- will be.
Well said. But journalists shouldn't shy away from pointing out that the truth is being habitually, and purposefully, bent by conservatives for partisan gain. And by conservatives banking on reporters not having the nerve to say so.