What is the media’s responsibility to share both sides of one-sided issues?
This is the question Cleveland, Ohio’s newspaper — The Plain Dealer — has been wrestling with. Its editor, Chris Quinn, recently explained why GOP U.S. Senate hopeful Josh Mandel does not merit the “traditional” coverage usually afforded to candidates for elected office. It’s not just that Mandel “has been prone to repeat talking points and make incendiary comments that are longer on rhetoric than fact.” According to Quinn, Mandel’s “irresponsible and potentially dangerous statements” are disqualifiers.
A former Ohio treasurer and member of the Ohio House of Representatives, Mandel has wrongly insisted there’s “no science or math” demonstrating that masks help stem the spread of COVID-19. He also has incorrectly insisted that Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE would have won the 2020 election if it hadn’t been “stolen.”
But his anti-mask rhetoric appears to have been a bridge too far for The Plain Dealer. As Quinn pointed out, “If a candidate makes statements that endanger the lives of Ohioans, as Mandel did here, that’s the story. That’s the news.”
This bold decision by Cleveland’s major newspaper could be a mere blip — a rare heroic stance against a politician’s serial self-serving deceit. It is somewhat reminiscent of The Huffington Post’s decision in 2015 to feature Trump’s presidential campaign news not in its Politics section, but in its Entertainment section — a rebellion against a campaign it deemed to be a “sideshow” and a candidate it viewed (with a mountain of evidence) as racist and sexist.
However, most media outlets covered Trump largely as they would any other candidate, for in the pursuit of viewers and clicks and shares, too often news organizations sacrifice fact checking and truth-based rebuttals for what they deem to be the more compelling story.
So, The Plain Dealer might have to go it alone.
But suppose it doesn’t. Suppose the media recalibrates its reporting so that perpetrators of lies — not the lies themselves — are the “news.”
We would not accept a Sunday morning television program inviting a white supremacist to share his or her white-centric views — so why is Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDomestic extremists return to the Capitol GOP senator: Buying Treasury bonds 'foolish' amid standoff over debt ceiling, taxes Internal poll shows Barnes with 29-point lead in Wisconsin Democratic Senate primary MORE (R-Wis.) handed multiple platforms to heap praise on the Jan. 6 right-wing attackers while in the same breath damning opponents of white-on-Black police brutality? We would not condone a radio show inviting a guest who promotes insurrection — so why must there be two sides to Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertRepublicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally Security forces under pressure to prevent repeat of Jan. 6 Washington ramps up security ahead of Sept. 18 rally MORE (R-Texas) encouraging Trump supporters to mount a “revolution” to remedy a “cheated election”?
When the amplification of the lie is the story, the liar is granted the status of truth teller — or at the very least, opinion sharer.
The media can learn something from The Plain Dealer. While most issues are debatable, when truth is mixed with fiction, truth melts.
While the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, the amplification of speech is not guaranteed. And when that speech threatens people’s lives, or seeks to dehumanize whole segments of our population, or endeavors to unravel our democracy, the messenger’s ill will merits primacy over his or her toxic message.
The Josh Mandels of the world can say what they want, but the media should stop being accessories.
B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.