Donald Trump’s antipathy towards the press is notorious. And he is not alone—Republicans have long criticised the “lamestream media” for its supposed liberal bias. As journalist Lawrence Light wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, for many conservatives, “The existence of a liberal media bias is an established fact, like the temperature at which water freezes.”
It is certainly true that the press is biased. However, intentionally or not, its coverage actually tends to benefit Republicans. As ostensibly nonpartisan media organizations attempt to respond to conservative critics and remain “balanced,” many have adopted an approach that is both harmful and dangerous.
Bothsidesism is the media’s attempt to treat both sides of an issue equally, even if one side is completely lacking in merit. Often the consequences include amplifying misinformation and validating bad actors by giving them equal airtime and consideration as actual experts. Crucially, by creating false equivalencies between the minor transgressions of Democrats and the major illegal and offensive actions of Donald Trump, media organizations played a significant role in his election as president.
Coverage of the 2016 presidential election was fraught with bothsidesism, which legitimized Donald Trump as a candidate in the eyes of many voters. The Trump campaign seemed to be a never ending controversy machine, with new horror stories emerging every day. He went on a racist tirade against a judge, mocked a disabled reporter and was accused of sexual assault by over 20 women, among countless other reprehensible occurrences.
Trump’s common response when confronted about his actions during the campaign was some form of “But her emails,” referring to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state (which an F.B.I. investigation described as careless, but not criminal). Media organizations followed his lead. A study conducted by Harvard University found that media organizations actually spent more time covering Clinton’s email controversy than all of Trump’s scandals combined.
This skewed coverage of Trump was unfortunately not isolated to his campaign, remaining present throughout his presidency. Even worse, it reared its head in a particularly ugly way during Trump’s impeachment proceedings.
Take, for example, an article by The New York Times entitled “The Breach Widens as Congress Nears a Partisan Impeachment.” The article contains such gems as “The different impeachment realities that the two parties are living in” and “The very divisive impeachment debate.” The article was widely mocked for its blatant bothsidesism, with journalist Mehdi Hasan calling it “One of the worst ‘both sides’ pieces I have ever read.” Unfortunately, however, it was just one of many flawed articles about the proceedings.
Jon Allsup of the Columbia Journalism Review argues that this sort of language is dangerous and does not contribute to any standard of fairness. “Democrats, for the most part, are engaging with the factual record; Republicans, for the most part, are not. These positions are manifestly not equivalent.”
The accusations made by Democrats during impeachment proceedings were accurate and simply not the same as the Republicans’ clearly partisan defenses of Trump, yet the media insisted on pursuing a narrative that this was just another partisan fight in which both sides had valid arguments.
As Trump has disregarded every norm about how a president is supposed to act and drifted dangerously towards authoritarianism, it is clearly necessary for the media to alter its coverage of his presidency. Unfortunately, in many cases, news organizations have not recognized the need to adapt their language and, in doing so, continue to validate Trump’s actions. In their bid to cover “both sides,” they end up obscuring reality and enabling bad-faith actors.
If you recognize that treating the possible mismanagement of an email server the same as dozens of sexual assault accusations, racist comments, lies and dangerous authoritarian rhetoric is wrong, you’d be considered a rational person. But you may not be cut out for the media.