The Myth of Media Neutrality

WHEN THE POLITICS IS SO DISTORTED

Hitler Gandhi

I have a problem. You see, since I started this blog eight years ago, during an historic election year no less, it has always been the policy that the Mad Sociologist Blog was not a platform for endorsing candidates. For eight years I’ve been faithful to this policy. Yes, I’ve written positive pieces about President Obama, but I’ve also been very critical. The closest I’ve ever been to endorsing a candidate was 2012 when I explained why I was voting to re-elect the president. I defend this because the post saying, in essence, ‘Obama is a disappointment, but I’m voting for him anyway because he saved my house and Republicans should not be rewarded for obstructionism,’ is hardly an endorsement.

It is my goal to continue this policy. I favored Bernie Sanders, but never endorsed and even criticized his campaign and supporters. I have no intention of endorsing Hillary Clinton. My goal is to remain objective, to maintain my legitimacy, avoiding the pressures to post only the positive about my preferred candidate while pushing the negatives of the opposition.

However, I’ve never experienced an election campaign quite like this one in which the qualifications of the candidates are so skewed that it is almost impossible for an honest observer to avoid saying, “Hillary Clinton is the obvious choice. There really is no other option!” That sounds an awful lot like an endorsement. But it’s really not. It really is as close to an objective assessment as one can make in politics. The objective truth is that there is no universe in which  Hillary Clinton as a candidate, with all of her recognized flaws, is anywhere near the possible catastrophe as Donald Trump.

So this brings me to a conundrum that, ironically,  I’ve posed to my sociology classes for years without actually thinking we may be living a real live version. We start with a premise that journalists should be objective in their reporting. But what does that really mean? Does it mean that journalists should approach two candidates as equally viable despite their own personal opinions? Or does it mean the journalist should report the facts about both candidates and let the readers decide? If the latter, then what if the facts clearly favor one candidate over the other?

To illustrate, I offer a fictitious election between Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi¹. How can the media report accurately on these two candidates without showing a preference for Gandhi over Hitler? There’s a bit of a catch-22. Any honest reporting on these two candidates would show a clear bias for Gandhi over Hitler. Objectively, Gandhi is the better candidate by any metric assuming the reader is invested in a free society respectful of fundamental rights and human dignity. Yet, if the journalist is expected to be unbiased, then she’s in a tough spot. Any attempt at “balanced” reporting must result in false equivalence. On the other hand, any attempt on the part of the journalist to describe political reality must include some statement or statements along the lines of…this candidate is freaking Hitler!

This kind of reporting was clearest when looking at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. The Republican convention was a mess. And this is not a criticism of the showmanship inherent in such spectacle. The press loves reporting on the spectacle especially when reporting on the substance can cause a loss in advertising revenue. No. The Republican Convention was a mess in substance, openly embracing the Trump paradigm. The underlying theme of the Convention was “it’s us against them. Only Donald Trump can protect you from them. Hillary Clinton hates you, and loves them.” That’s it. Almost every speaker played on this theme.

The press offered little analysis of the content. The approved platform was barely covered except to briefly point out that Trump representatives forced the committee to remove a hard stance against Russian incursions into Ukraine, a point that was most especially reported on in the context of the DNC’s hacked e-mails. The press also made it a point to report on the dissension and divisiveness in the Republican Party between so called “establishment Republicans” and the “pro-Trump base.” The high point of this reporting was Ted Cruz’s cryptically anti-pro-Trump speech, notable not because he openly criticized the presumptive nominee, but because he failed to openly embrace him. For this position, by the way, Cruz was soundly rebuked.

Now the press loves this kind of conflict, because conflict sells advertising space. Yet the press avoids taking sides in conflict, not because doing so would be against some journalistic standards, but because doing so may cost them revenue from one side or the other. So the press plays it safe. They knew that everyone was predicting a calamitous dissent at the Republican Convention (myself included, I might add) so nobody would be disappointed about such reports. But calamity didn’t happen. Yes, the Bushes didn’t show up…nobody missed them…but Republicans almost universally accepted their nominee. What conflict did exist at the convention was nothing out of the ordinary for conventions in general.

That was the real story–the unity of the party rather than the disunity. But reporting on the overwhelming support that the so-called anti-establishment Trump is receiving from the establishment…despite the bigotry…despite the insults…despite the fact that the Trump campaign will likely result in a nihilistic implosion of hate filled vitriol, ignorance an bad hair. John McCain, the guy who is only a hero because he was captured, continues to endorse his party’s candidate, who only likes guys who weren’t captured, despite openly stating the Trump does not represent him or his principles. There’s a story that would involve an exploration of Republican values, the Republican record and just how deeply the party is committed to their beliefs as opposed to their access to power.

The media, however, had its angle and was sticking to it. Furthermore, in order to remain “balanced” the press had to find an equivalent narrative applicable to the Democratic Convention about a week later. There it was, the establishment Clinton against the stalwart, anti-establishment Bernie Sanders. Surely the Bernie Bros would do to the Democrats what the anti-Trump folks did to the Republicans…um…well. It turned out, that’s exactly what happened, but not with the narrative that the press liked. Yes, there was some dissent in the Democratic ranks, especially when the hacked e-mails were revealed. But the e-mails revealed nothing surprising–the Party preferred Hillary and wanted to undercut Bernie…yeah…no kidding. The party diffused the non-scandal quickly by firing Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, then offering her a job with the Clinton campaign that will most likely end with a White House position for the Congresswoman (I’m thinking Chief of Staff).

As conventions go, the 2016 Democratic Convention was nothing out of the ordinary. There was some yelling and protesting from various corners. Nothing new. But the press had to have its anti-establishment uprising story much as it wanted, but couldn’t get, from the Republican Convention. And again, they couldn’t get it. The real story was in how the Democratic Party successfully negotiated the different influences within the caucus. Bernie Sanders did not win the nomination, but won on platform construction. He and his supporters were lauded for their contribution to the debate. Sure, there was disappointment, but nothing outside of the normal political narrative. If anything, the party did, for the most part, agree that they were “stronger together.” The party offered a multi-cultural and multi-perspective spectacle to satisfy the entirety of the coalition. Despite dissension, the Democratic Convention was not a mess.

That’s the real story. On the one hand, the Republican Party unified around the “us against them” narrative while the Democratic Party embraced diversity with the message “stronger together.” This was not just political rhetoric. The accepted platforms of the Republican Party and of the Democratic Party fully represent the underlying themes of their respective conventions. Yes, there is a place for discussing the dissent among both parties. The bigger story, however, is in the positions adopted by each party and each candidate, an elaboration of which in the media may prove invaluable to the public debate.

…Yeah! That’s not going to happen!

On the one hand, you have a candidate who has no public service record, no electoral experience, a checkered history of business failure and chicanery, and yet he is openly running on a platform of antagonism and violence. He is flat out saying that he, as our elected president, is going to intentionally hurt, even kill, millions of people. But it’s millions of “those people” who really deserve it anyway. This is not some revolutionary new idea for the Republican Party. The only innovation is the fact that Trump refuses to use the usual coded language.

He is telling us he is going to order not only the resumption of torture, but an escalation. He will shatter international law by targeting the families of presumed “terrorists.” Trump endeavors to turn American foreign policy into a global protection racket, abandoning long time allies if they are unwilling to “pay up” for American help. He even thinks it’s a good idea to let any nation just build nuclear weapons at whim, and wonders “why we are making…” nuclear weapons if we can’t at least reasonably threaten to use them. His expressed intent in nuclear policy is to be unpredictable. Um…what?

That’s just foreign policy. Trump is most famous for the wall that he will somehow coerce Mexico into building. That would be bad enough, but he wants to create a virtual white supremacist police state (presumably legitimizing and expanding what we already have) by submitting brown people and Muslims to increased surveillance and policing. At the same time he plans on slashing taxes for the wealthiest–in other words his own taxes and the future probability of his own children paying an inheritance tax. He has stated that he believes women should be punished for seeking an abortion. I mean…this post will be unconscionably long if I reported on every messed up thing Trump wants to do to our country, from squelching freedom to ending birthright citizenship.

On the other hand, we have a candidate with deep experience in public service who, despite her obvious faults from a left perspective, isn’t suggesting that we do any of these things! Yes, she has a hawkish voting record, but nuclear proliferation? Torture? Targeting families? Yes, she has a checkered domestic record, but punishing women? Targeted surveillance on minorities? Come on. Yes, she has a history of supporting pro-corporate policies, but her tax plan is actually pretty reasonable.²

There simply is no equivalence.

Yet, with few exceptions, there’s been very little critical analysis. That is quite the feat considering that they are so imbalanced in their qualifications and and policy prescriptions. The press has done everything it can to construct a world in which Clinton v. Trump is a contest between two different, but equally viable candidates.

To do this, the press must practice some creative selectivity. So expect to see more lid dropping reporting on the latest Clinton e-mail…thing, what ever it is. It’s not much, but it’s what they’ve got. The fact that the only people who care about Hillary’s e-mails are the people who have already decided that Hillary is a Manchurian Candidate walking hand-in-hand with the Bilderberg Group to establish a satanic, fasci-socialistic one-world government based on Sharia Law anyway. Everyone else, meh. We’ve all sent some e-mails we wish we could have unsent.

In the meantime, don’t expect to see much in the press about actual charges that have been leveled at the Republican candidate ranging from elder abuse at Trump University to rape and sexual assault charges, from campaign corruption to RICO violations, never mind his long history with legal scandals. This would be tipping the scales too much in the eyes of the press. Better to just focus on Clinton’s never-ending e-mail story and let the much more significant Trump scandals trickle through the on-line news abyss.

Now that being said, there is one element that I believe could alter the normal media milquetoast strategy. Media as an institution, and its associated organizations, seek to perpetuate themselves and to secure their status in their given society. Trump, however, has made it clear that he is and will remain hostile to the media, what he refers to as the “lowest form of life.” It’s one thing to insult reporters and news agencies. After all, at the very least, that sells advertising space. But Trump has gone beyond this, openly attacking the media where it hurts most–Money and Access. Trump has banned news outlets from direct coverage of his campaign and maintains a blacklist on organizations that he feels provide biased coverage. In other words, they have in some way criticized The Donald. Even more dangerous to the media is Trump’s open declaration to loosen libel laws to make it easier to sue news sources.

Trump takes no direct electoral hit for these positions. His supporters already hate the so-called liberal media and have no problem with government control of the news…so long as it’s a conservative government. Media houses, however, have an interest in protecting their access as well as their bottom line.

 Hillary, on the other hand, has been fairly warm to the media, despite this being a largely one-sided relationship. Despite the fact that anti-Hillary journalism is one of the safest ways to sell advertising space, Clinton offers no indication that she intends to declare war on the First Amendment’s “freedom of the press” provision.

If the press does wake up to the potential catastrophe of a President Trump, it will not be because principled journalists willing to take on entrenched power for the public good; nor will it be due to some renewed vigor in journalistic standards and values. No. Such a stand will be based on pure institutional self-preservation.

Good luck with that.

Now, like never before, we need to open the debate as to what we expect from our media. Is it really possible to have a media that is unbiased, reporting only on the facts, or is it better to have a media that is open about its biases but responsible about the validity and reliability of its reporting? Is it acceptable that we have a press that is so cowed by the prospects of being accused of bias, specifically “liberal” bias, that it feels obliged to balance its Hitler-Gandhi coverage in such a way to make them both seem viable? Can we afford to perpetuate a corporate media that is afraid to actually articulate real issues for fear that it might lose advertising revenue?

In the meantime, I’m faced with the prospects of coming up with a new hypothetical conversation starter for my class on media.

____________________________________

  1. I know, I know. Look, I’m not comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, though I wouldn’t be the first if I did. I’m certainly not comparing Hillary Clinton to Gandhi. I’m describing a classroom conversation starter that I’ve used for almost ten years that is now especially relevant. When I first created this poser, I did not know that there would ever be a viable Donald Trump presidential campaign.
  2. Reality check! I’m sure President Clinton II will support and promote some pretty awful and deadly policies. President Obama’s kill list and flying killer robot policy come to mind. Many of the policies Clinton has supported, from the Iraq War to tough on crime legislation and welfare reform have been devastating for millions of people. It’s likely at least some of this will creep quietly into her presidency and we will have to fight her on these as we do President Obama. But Trump is openly running on a promise of violence and antagonism. If elected, there will be few checks against his implementing such policies as there would be on a Clinton presidency.

 

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