Part of a Series
Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger recently argued that unfavorable reporting of the war in Iraq was part of a liberal-inspired plot to bring down President Bush during the election campaign. Even such an unarguably major story as the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, Henninger argued, "obviously was intended to burn down the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. I think many people thought the over-the-top Abu Ghraib coverage, amid a war, was the media shouting fire in a crowded theater."
One wonders what role Henninger thinks the media should play during wartime. What’s more, according to the Journal editors, merely by reporting the news, the U.S. media demonstrated its "apparent compulsion to overthrow the Bush presidency." Tunnel vision of this sort brings to mind a sketch on the fake news program The Daily Show, in which Rob Corrdry complained, "Facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda."
In reality, judged by almost any remotely objective standard, the incumbent had a pretty easy time of things from the mainstream media during the election campaign, particularly given the circumstances. While sticking relentlessly to Karl Rove’s game plan in portraying Sen. Kerry as having been guilty of "flip-flop" after flip-flop, when in many of these cases the words and votes were being ripped out of context, strikingly, the president managed to escape that label despite changing his position on such central issues as the 9/11 Commission, the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, No Child Left Behind, the WMD Commission, plus many more.
But the media’s greatest failure during this past election was most certainly in what we have come to know as "false equivalence." The evidence of this method of reporting was everywhere, despite the fact that the Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk said that the practice should end up in the "trash heap of discredited journalistic shortcuts." In a nutshell, false equivalence amounts to little more than a reporter holding up the actions on both sides as equally blameworthy, when it’s obvious that no clear equivalence between the two exists. To its credit, CJR’s Campaign Desk was consistently out in front on this issue, and found a few telling examples.
In an Oct. 27 story in the Journal headlined "As a Final Gambit, Parties are Trying to Damp Turnout," the piece attempts to make the case that both parties were trying to convince voters to stay home on Election Day. The comparison? The Republican effort to forcefully and physically check the registrations of those who show up to vote, and the "Democrats’ attempts to sow doubts about Mr. Bush’s character and his fealty to social conservatives." It’s hard to see how negative campaigning – if "sowing doubts" can even be elevated to that level – is in any way comparable to physical intimidation at polling places, but to members of the press, it appears to be all a matter of interpretation.
Then there is the case of a Sept. 25 Associated Press story that tries to compare the ways in which the two candidates twist each other’s words. According to CJR, "Most of the story focuses on Bush’s distortions, for example that he said Kerry ‘would prefer the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein to the situation in Iraq today.’ As the AP notes, Kerry never said that." In fact, Kerry consistently said just the opposite. The story compares this with an e-mail sent by Kerry Campaign Manager Mary Beth Cahill that accused the president of having "no plan to get us out of Iraq," which seems unarguable. The constant struggle to find the equivalence between false statements by a candidate with the perhaps simplistic spin by a campaign worker is one which obviously comes easy to members of the press, regardless of their alleged membership in the "reality-based community."
The media’s campaign coverage is rife with examples of the false equivalence doctrine, most notably in the post-debate fact check sessions. The lies and distortions from the conservative side consistently outweighed those coming from the liberals – mostly by dint of the conservatives having to spin their record of the last four years. Yet when ABC News attempted to recognize this in an internal memo by its political director, Mark Halperin, the reaction to the notion that coverage need not be artificially "balanced" if one side was doing the lion’s share of the lying was so strong that it was quickly withdrawn—and ABC started making the same unweighed charges as the rest of the mainstream media.
Reporters, editors, and producers have done the country a gross disservice by constantly attempting to balance coverage to try to make each side appear just as culpable as the other, making it nearly impossible for their audience to draw any real distinction between the two. In the end, the inability of the media to weigh its coverage based on the facts created a morally neutral fantasy world in which all things were rendered equal, offering aid and comfort to the side with the most to hide—and the side that was willing to go the furthest to hide it.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.