is a media critic, writer, and a professor of journalism at New York University. Rosen is a contributor to De Correspondent and a member of the George Foster Peabody Awards board of directors.
The Media Today
As impeachment has progressed, attacks on the “both sides” approach—and the Times, in particular—have intensified. Over the weekend, critics trained their ire on an article in the paper, headlined “The Breach Widens as Congress Nears a Partisan Impeachment,” about a debate in the Judiciary Committee. Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, noted that the actual words “both sides” appeared four times in the piece. (One of these was in a quotation.)
As impeachment has progressed, attacks on the “both sides” approach—and the Times, in particular—have intensified. Over the weekend, critics trained their ire on an article in the paper, headlined “The Breach Widens as Congress Nears a Partisan Impeachment,” about a debate in the Judiciary Committee. Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, noted that the actual words “both sides” appeared four times in the piece. (One of these was in a quotation.) Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, listed 12 more snippets from the article as evidence of the Times’s inability to handle what he calls “asymmetrical polarization.” They included “the different impeachment realities that the two parties are living in,” “both sides engaged in a kind of mutually assured destruction,” and “the two parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts in front of them.”
Rosen is right that this sort of language is inadequate: Democrats, for the most part, are engaging with the factual record; Republicans, for the most part, are not. These positions are manifestly not equivalent. Treating them as such does not serve any useful concept of fairness; instead, it rebounds clearly to the advantage of the one side (Republicans) for whom nonsense being taken seriously is a victory in itself. The Times is far from the only culprit. The structure of some TV news shows, in particular, has bothsidesism hardwired into it: a Democrat and a Republican are given equal time to make their unequal impeachment cases, and both face hard questions, to contrive a sense of balance. The questions lobbed at Democrats are often fair, but often pale into triviality when a Republican follows them on and starts sowing conspiracy theories.
When it comes to much impeachment coverage, bothsidesism isn’t the beginning and end of the problem, but part of our broader reflex to frame contentious political stories around the concept of partisanship. In parts of the press, a set of party-oriented impeachment narratives has taken hold that contains some truth, but also rests on a selective interpretation of available evidence. Entrenched partisanship—in Congress and the country—is real, and newsworthy, as is the role that our fragmented information ecosystem has played in stoking and reinforcing division. And yet it does not follow, as some journalists and pundits seem to have surmised, that impeachment has been a waste of time. At the beginning of his show yesterday, Todd said the “national response” to impeachment has been “whatever.” And yet, as I wrote earlier this month, support for impeaching DT, while recently static, is historically high. (A Fox News poll out yesterday reinforced that finding.) Six Republicans in Michigan are not the country.
The media’s job, done properly, is multidirectional: it holds power to account, and communicates matters of public interest to news consumers. On impeachment, too much coverage seems to have got stuck in a feedback loop: we’re telling the public that politicians aren’t budging from their partisan siloes, and vice versa, with the facts of what Trump actually did getting lost somewhere in the cycle. The cult of “both sides” is integral to this dynamic, and it’s serving the impeachment story poorly. Now, more than ever, our top duty should be to fight for the truth.
The Breach Widens as Congress Nears a Partisan Impeachment
Fleeting efforts at persuasion by members of the Judiciary Committee gave way to disputes over basic facts during a marathon debate over articles of impeachment.