A False Argument on ‘False Balance’
By Bob Gaydos
Hallelujah! Praise the lord and pass the ammunition! The cavalry has arrived. Less than a week after its public editor offered a bass-ackwards interpretation of the “false balance” issue (“Here’s the Truth About ‘False Balance,’’’ Sept. 11), The New York Times ran an article at the top of its front page that perfectly demonstrated the proper way to avoid false balance in covering a political campaign: Tell the actual truth.
Saturday’s (Sept. 17) Times led with a story headlined: “Trump Gives Up a Lie But Refuses to Repent.’’ It carried a subhead: “No Apology After 5 Years of Nurturing ‘Birther’ Issue to Undermine Obama.” What followed was a carefully detailed accounting of Donald Trump’s “birther” lie, which was nothing more than a racially coded effort to delegitimize the nation’s first black president.
The piece, by Michael Barbaro, was actually a news analysis and was labeled as such, but the Times still led the paper with it, rather than the straightforward (presumably unbiased) story reporting on the big announcement by Trump. That’s because Barbaro’s piece put the whole sordid truth out there, in perspective, for readers to digest. There was no worry about whether the story was “too liberal’ (another worry of the new public editor) or too harsh. It was true. Every bit of it. What Trump said and continues to say (he claims Hillary Clinton started the birther rumors) is not.
The news analysis was, in effect, a front-page editorial leading the paper. The Times also ran an editorial inside the paper that echoed the truth that Trump has lied repeatedly about this and other issues. In my humble opinion, this is called good, aggressive, community-minded journalism that holds public figures accountable for their words and actions without worrying whether it will offend the public figure and/or his supporters. It belongs on the front page, especially when the liar wants to be president and lots of people want to believe his lies.
The public editor, Liz Spayd, might call this approach “preaching to the choir.” She’s apparently also concerned that a lot of people consider The Times to be “liberal.’’ Gambling? Here? I’m shocked, shocked!
She wrote a piece headlined “Why Readers See The Times as Liberal” (July 24), as if that’s a bad thing and as if it’s a new thing. In that article she suggested keeping editorials off the front page after a lot of people who said they were conservative objected to a front-page editorial on gun control. So the newspaper, which has argued unabashedly for gun control for decades, should timidly limit its views to the opinion page because they might offend some people whose political views probably revolve around guns and not much else, because those people might not read the paper if they think its reporting is skewed to the left.
News flash: They probably don’t read the paper anyway because: 1) It’s always been fashionable to bash the most-prestigious paper in the world, especially when its editorial views — not necessarily its reporting — don’t reflect yours; and 2) it costs too much.
In Spayd’s view, Times reporters must resist the arguments about false balance — in this case, giving political candidates’ statements, opinions and actions equal treatment (“fair” treatment) in reporting and writing, even though the truth argues otherwise — because, in their distaste for Trump the reporters might be tempted to go easy on Clinton.
Go ahead, finish laughing.
The Times, like the rest of the media, has been beating up on Clinton for years, searching for scandal and coming up short. This obviously can be frustrating when the editors and reporters also know she pretty much despises most of them, doesn’t hide it and, as a result, brings much of the negative reporting on herself.
But … if it’s only Clinton supporters now who are complaining about “false balance” in Times reporting on the campaign, that’s because virtually the entire mainstream media was guilty of this for months by treating Trump as a qualified candidate for president because the Republican Party didn’t know how to stop him. It’s also because much of The Times’ reporting on Clinton — presumably tough-minded and fair– has also been shoddy, not nearly up to the paper’s reputation. If you’re going to be fair on holding candidates’ feet to the fire, be accurate. If anything, that is what has built the newspaper’s reputation.
Besides, the Clinton supporters had no gripe with The Times during the primary campaign when Sen. Bernie Sanders was often an asterisk in the paper’s coverage of the Clinton coronation as Democratic Party nominee.
In her closing argument on “false balance,” Spayd writes, “Fear of false balance is a creeping threat to the role of the media because it encourages journalists to pull back from their responsibility to hold power accountable. All power, not just selected individuals, however vile they might seem.”
That’s a perfect example of false balance. Reporters, in other words, should not hold back on trying to find something bad to write about Hillary Clinton (again, an absurd premise to start with) just because Donald Trump has proven himself over and over to be (not “seem”) vile, deceitful, bigoted, narcissistic, misogynistic, uninformed, racist, unpredictable, volatile, immature.
After his major announcement that he had been lying about President Obama’s citizenship for years, Trump said to an audience in Miami that Clinton wants to “destroy your Second Amendment.’’ As a response to that, he suggested: “She goes around with armed bodyguards like you have never seen before. I think that her bodyguards should drop all weapons. They should disarm. Right? Right? I think they should disarm immediately. What do you think? Yes? Yes. Yeah. Take their guns away. She doesn’t want guns. … Let’s see what happens to her. Take their guns away, okay? It would be very dangerous.”
The audience, as always at Trump rallies, applauded this threat.
Go ahead, by all means, New York Times, be “fair and balanced” and don’t stop investigating the Clinton Foundation. But also, do continue to ignore your public editor and keep telling the truth about this vile man on the front page every day. Other media follow your lead. The chorus may be convinced, but others may be ready to join.
If your public editor regards that as “taking sides,” so be it. This is not a high school debate; this is about the future of our country. A major responsibility of newspapers is to inform, educate and help mold public opinion. Unlike some other media (Fox News), The Times does this without lying. At least that’s the reputation. Live up to it.
(Full disclosure: The author was editorial page editor of the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., for 23 years.)