News reporting in an age of rampant mendacity
I’m betting the Republican majority on the Supreme Court will okay the restrictive Mississippi anti-abortion law, after throwing out the even more radical Texas law, while maintaining they’re not overturning the Roe v Wade basic protections for women.
My concern here is the media will play this as a more moderate result, when in reality it would be a political calculation that would end the right to an abortion for many poor women.
Walter Dellinger, a former acting U.S. Solicitor General and Dean of the Duke Law School with a reverence for the court, worries about how a politically-motivated decision would be covered. “I hate the cynicism in me that says that the key justices will realize that to say the magic words ‘Roe is overruled’ would produce a pro-choice backlash.” Then “many in the press, partly due to an instinct to normalize the court will praise this set of outcomes as ‘extremism is rejected, the court is reasonable.’”
This would be another variation of supposedly even-handed journalism treating both sides of an argument equally with less regard to the merits. This has been a far more severe problem in reporting on the now Trump-dominated Republican party.
While conservatives consistently rail about a “liberal” bias in the mainstream media — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal’s news pages, the television networks are all criticized — this is not only exaggerated, but the tendency to two-side-isms works to the GOP’s advantage.
Many Republicans continue to embrace — or refuse to disown — the lie that widespread fraud affected the 2020 election.
Many Republicans continue to refuse to acknowledge — or carefully downplay — that the Trump-inspired Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol was a moment of infamy that needs to be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted.
There are no “two sides” to these stories. Every time they’re raised by any candidate, it should be labeled for what it is.
This isn’t about social media or the disinformation racket, where there are countless forums and endless discussions that seem to have little impact.
For those still highly influential mainstream outlets, the overused term “objectivity” is a misnomer. The news business is subjective, what stories to choose and prioritize, what to lead with, what experts and data to cite. Good journalists strive not for an elusive objectivity but for fairness to reflect good reporting not personal views.
It isn’t about coverage of President Biden’s legislative agenda, taxes or spending or inflation. I think there’s more merit on one side; I write an opinion column. News stories should — and usually do — reflect the legitimacy, the factual basis, of the debate. It’s the same with the end of the Afghanistan War, relations with China, entitlements or abortion.
The Republican party, however, has moved so far right that even-handed coverage on a number of issues is actually a distortion. The validity of the 2020 election has been overwhelmingly proven in dozens of court cases, some decided by Trump-appointed judges, state Republican officials, audits and media analysis. You don’t need these to understand the Jan. 6 attack; you saw it.
Some years ago, one of our most thoughtful journalists, James Fallows, a sometimes media critic, worried about the “powerful journalistic instinct to treat political disagreements as 50/50 by definition with ‘blame enough to go around’ in all cases, a solution that lies in splitting the differences.”
If it was a problem then, it’s far worse today.
To be sure, there are left-wing limits on speech and some crazy rhetoric, to take two examples, that also don’t merit an “on the one hand and on the other” coverage.
But it’s a false equivalency to suggest that’s the same as Republican Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) tweeting an anime-style video depicting him killing a Congressional colleague, or of GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) suggesting another member, a Democrat who’s a Muslim, is a jihad terrorist — or most anything that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) does or says. These are violence inciters.
Yet when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) says they’ll all be fine in the next Congress — rewarded even — if he’s the Speaker, it’s treated as a political story rather than what it is: the House Republican leader pandering to hate.
Neither are there two sides to the story of Mitch McConnell’s duplicitous and dangerous game of vowing to block any necessary increase in the debt ceiling which is to cover debts run up under Trump.
Whatever the Supreme Court does will not rise to the level of Trump’s lies. If they affirm the Mississippi restrictions while pretending they aren’t undercutting Roe, it’ll be disingenuous.
The court modified Roe 30 years ago to set fetal viability as the standard before which abortions couldn’t be prohibited. A fetus is considered viable generally at about 24 weeks of pregnancy; at 22 weeks the prospect of viability is only 5 percent to 6 percent. The Mississippi law not only forbids abortions after 15 weeks — with no exceptions for rape or incest — but creates difficult hurdles, especially for poor women, before that time.
If that’s the decision, no matter what the court says, the media should report that it gutted the Roe abortion protections.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.
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