The High Cost of Press Neutrality

September 8th, 2017

A free and vigorous press is an essential feature of any vibrant democracy. Everybody knows that. But with liberty comes responsibility.

In an attempt to navigate the maelstrom of conflicting perspectives that constitute the modern media landscape, many traditional media outlets stick to the tired trope of “fair and balanced.” But is neutrality even a thing? And what does it cost us?

Is there a neutral stance between racist oppression and social justice? Is there middle ground between the Nazism and universal human dignity? Is a little bit of Nazism OK? If so, how much?

A year ago, on September 7, 2016, candidate Clinton and candidate Trump held a town hall forum where they took questions from military members. The event was supposed to spotlight each candidate’s foreign policy positions. But, as you might guess, something else happened.

The next morning, my local paper the San Diego Union-Tribune covered the story with this headline: “Clinton, Trump Lay Out Security Plans at Forum.” Fair and balanced, right? Objective, right? But there’s one small problem with that headline – it is factually, demonstrably, and utterly false.

A more truthful headline might have read: “Clinton Lays Out Security Plan at Forum While Trump Rambles Incoherently, Repeating Talking Points From Sixteen Months of Stump Speeches While Abundantly Demonstrating His Profound Ignorance of Military Culture, Foreign Policy, World History, the English Language, and Basic Geography.”

Yeah, it’s a little long, but you get my point.

You want to be objective? Objectivity means something. It means factually stating events as they actually happened. It means characterizing candidate statements as accurately as possible. It means telling the truth.

The first headline, the one the San Diego Union-Tribune and papers all across America ran, does us a tremendous disservice by falsely implying that the two candidates simply presented competing worldviews. But that’s not what happened. What happened was this – one candidate made sense, (whether you agreed with her or not), and the other candidate served up a word salad devoid of anything even remotely resembling “policy.” We all saw it. We all heard it. We all shook our heads. When the mainstream media pretended otherwise, they eroded their credibility. And without a cogent and rational mainstream media, we’re left to our own devices to cruise the backwaters of the internet and find wack-job websites that conform to whatever biases we hold dear.

Objectivity, true objectivity, is essential. Because truth matters. Giving competing points of view a fair hearing is of course an essential element of the free press. But giving all opinions the right to exist is different than saying that all opinions have equal merit. Evidence, reason, logic, and truthfulness matter. So when the media hides behind buzz-phrases like “fair and balanced,” and “objectivity” simply because they’re afraid to state the obvious, they abdicate their duty. Neutrality in the face of evil is complicity. As Desmond Tutu reminded us, “If you are neutral in times of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” There is too much at stake to pretend that everything’s OK.

The barrier between hard news and editorial opinion has always been diaphanous. We have to move past our squeamishness when it comes to truth-telling. My beef with the media is not that they’re too biased – it’s that they’ve lost their nerve. Timidity has no place in the free press. False equivalency is killing us. In many ways, this phony “balance” made possible the Trump presidency. Wimpy headlines like the one in the San Diego Union-Tribune normalized Trump and raised him to the level of presidential caliber, a quality he neither demonstrates nor understands. We so desperately wanted him to be presidential – we needed him to be presidential – but alas, it was not to be.

Maybe the commercial realities of traditional media are insurmountable. To remain profitable in a mass market, the traditional thinking goes, you have to take the middle road so as to not alienate any of your viewers, listeners, or readers. It’s all about pleasing everybody. Or to put a finer point on it, it’s all about having a big enough audience to keep your sponsors in business. But that model is breaking down. The internet changed all of that. We’re getting quite used to the fact that journalists are inherently advocates, and they probably always have been – advocates for rational discourse, measured assessment of competing claims, and plain old truth telling. Fox News Network and MSNBC have their take on things, and massive audiences to boot. Some lament this shift. Others celebrate it. It doesn’t matter how we feel – here we are.

But the bottom line is this – when you choose a career in journalism you take on a solemn duty to tell the truth, as best you understand it, and as best as you know how to say it. So do it already. And let the chips fall where they may.

Peter Bolland

Peter Bolland is the philosophy and humanities department chair at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California where he teaches world religions, Asian philosophy, world mythology, and ethics. Bolland is also a columnist for both Unity Magazine and the San Diego Troubadour. An award winning singer-songwriter and poet, Bolland draws on the world’s wisdom traditions as a frequent lecturer and performer throughout the San Diego region.
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