Some days, you have to ask why the gosh-darned lame-stream media can’t just present the facts, ditch the opinions and give us what we’re entitled to: the two sides that make up every story.
It’s a constant complaint about the news: journalists fail to provide equal treatment to the “two sides to every story,” as though doing that would create perfect balance in the news.
Except it doesn’t. If every story only had two sides, all issues could be explained satisfactorily by piling up two equal-sized stacks of facts. This would miraculously produce coverage that is indisputably fair to all because “both sides” would be presented and “journalistic objectivity” achieved.
In the real world, the news rarely embodies two equally valid “sides” which can be presented with uniform weight by journalists or anyone else. I’d argue that in the current environment, the two-sides axiom has worked against the public interest, not protected it.
I waded into this last week by tweeting criticism of CTV Power Play’s coverage of the impeachment crisis in Washington. The show, hosted by Evan Solomon, offered up Conrad Black in defence of President Donald Trump, who had just avoided removal from office in a close vote in the U.S. Senate.
The show had presented guests critical of Trump’s obvious corruption. Some criticized cowardly Senate Republicans for acquitting Trump in an obvious show trial without witnesses.
Black, whose 2007 fraud and obstruction convictions Trump pardoned, hailed the president’s supposed vindication while vilifying Sen. Mitt Romney, the sole Republican to vote in favour of removing Trump from office for his role in the Ukraine bribery and extortion scandal.
Given Black’s personal debt to Trump, he clearly can’t be a detached observer who had dispassionately weighed the issues and ended up taking Trump’s side. With Black, it’s personal. Trump is his saviour.
Solomon responded that in the interests of fairness, his show had to hear from Trump’s supporters. People do expect that, and in the resulting online crossfire, many people trashed Black for his felonious ways, but others insisted that “both sides” must be heard in political coverage.
The thing is, balancing both sides doesn’t guarantee fairness. Unless the facts of a situation are naturally equally weighted, a vanishing rarity, playing the "both sides" game actually creates more distortions than it clarifies.
For example, few candidates have ever been more demonstrably unfit for office than Trump, given his proven dishonesty and obvious incompetence. Yet the media felt obliged to seek comparable damaging information about Trump’s opponents, in the interests of supposed impartiality.
But that’s a false equivalency: Hillary Clinton’s misleading statements or email habits were not equal in effect to Trump’s criminality. By sticking to “on the one hand and on the other hand” thinking, the coverage failed to warn of Trump’s clear threat to democracy.
Or take climate change, where egregious false equivalencies thrive worldwide. Science has determined that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are changing the Earth’s climate. But media get boxed into noting the empty claims of the denial caucus, in the interests of supposed fairness.
Not every situation consists of two legitimate and equal sides. Sensible people don’t argue the “pros and cons” of child abuse because there is no legitimate positive side. It’s just wrong.
Legitimate conflicting views must still be sought and heard out. But that doesn’t mean “both-sides-ism” must reign. In the oil sands debate, there are the Alberta and federal sides, numerous Aboriginal sides, corporate and provincial interests, citizen advocacy and multiple political parties, all with positions to promote. Try sorting through that every time the subject comes up.
Fairness can be hard work, and nowadays journalists have to be more careful than ever before to weigh their content choices carefully.
That doesn’t mean hearing only from one side.It also doesn’t mean arranging facts in equal-sized piles in order to create the appearance of balance while failing to create the fact of it.