We have entered a period of profound dislocation, where each day brings something new and shocking: White supremacists Sieg-Heiling in the nation's capital; a conspiracy-theorist assuming the post of national security adviser; a gunman showing up a D.C. pizza place to investigate a nonexistent Clinton-led pedophilia ring he'd read about online. There are high-profile politicians and analysts debating a Muslim registry and the value of Japanese internment. Oh, and a president-elect who uses his Twitter account to tank company stocks, target citizens and spread lies about the election.That means journalists and media outlets now have to make judgment calls about all sorts of topics: when to call a lie a lie; how to talk about white supremacist groups without promoting them; how to discuss conspiracy theories without advancing them. Given the stakes, they are positioned to play a crucial role in protecting democratic norms and civil society.So far, it's not going well.Consider the following stories from just the last three weeks:
- CNN ran a chyron that read: "Alt-right founder questions if Jews are people."
- The Los Angeles Times ran two reader letters that defended Japanese internment. The letters relied on racist notions of blood loyalty and a grotesque paternalism that excused internment as "for their own good."
- The New York Times ran an op-ed that whitewashed the alt-right, arguing that white nationalism was only a fringe part of the movement, rather than a core component. (My full breakdown of the piece is here.)
- The AP tweeted out to its nine million followers: "In today's racially charged environment, there's a label that even the KKK disavows: white supremacy." The tweet failed to acknowledge that the KKK may disavow the label, but is still fundamentally a white supremacist group.
- The Washington Post noted that major media outlets were on the hunt for pro-Trump columnists and commentators.
These snapshots show the bankruptcy of balance as the main measure of fair reporting. It has led news media to treat the personhood of Jews or the supremacy of white people as open to debate. It has led them to provide platforms for white nationalists who are trying to clean up their image.
The Trump campaign has turned a fundamental problem with political journalism into a genuine crisis. For the past 30 or 40 years, political journalists have pursued objectivity through ideological balance, someone from the right versus someone from the left.
That habit of balance soon devolved into a lazy sort of he-said-she-said coverage on most major questions. When both sides agree of basic values of factuality, decency and common humanity, the pursuit of balance results, at worst, in narrow and facile coverage. But when one side dispenses of all those values, balance journalism becomes a weapon to sow confusion and hate.
And that's where we are now.
In order to deal with this problem, political journalists have to return to fundamentals. In a democracy, the most important service news media can provide is to advance public knowledge. Balance journalism rarely does that anymore. By giving a platform to people who lie, mislead and spin, news media are actually producing confusion, not understanding.
One step to fixing this problem is to purge all the surrogates. Want a pro-Trump voice in your story? Interview someone from the Trump team. But don't hire them. Don't hire any surrogates! Instead, hire more columnists and commentators who bring particular expertise to the table: policymakers, historians, political scientists, campaign veterans. Bring in people who will help develop context rather than propagandize.
Another important principle: Don't provide a platform for falsehoods and hate. If odious ideas and policies become newsworthy, explain why they have gained influence rather than simply amplifying them. Imagine if, instead of running letters defending internment, the LA Times had run a piece that brought in historians and legal experts to explain why support for internment persist. Experts who could point out that the book cited in one letter, Bill O'Reilly's "Killing the Rising Sun," was not exactly a legitimate source. Experts who could explain how racist ideas about Japan shaped U.S. policy throughout the first half of the 20th century.
That is the kind of journalism that deepens public knowledge about issues, that helps to build the informed citizenry necessary for a functioning democracy. Yes, it requires judgment calls, drawing the boundaries around which ideas are legitimate in an open society and which are not. But journalists have to assume that role – and in the process, explain and defend why they draw the lines where they do.
Both journalists and citizens have a tremendous amount of work to do rebuilding civil society. News media cannot rebuild public trust or advance public knowledge on their own. But political journalists can take the first step by recognizing that balance journalism is well and truly broken, and that something new must take its place.
Originally published in U.S. News & World Report.