Both-siderism has infected our media and we pay the price.
I read something the other day that got me thinking. It’s a topic that I’ve talked a lot about, thought a lot about, and have written on, but I wish it was something more people would address. The issue? Opinions. Most of my adult life, one of my pet peeves was the phrase “In my opinion…” or “I’m entitled to my opinion.” In my opinion, you are not. Facts are ignored in favor of opinions and as long as we hear from both sides of an issue, we have been given everything we need. We report, you decide. Unfortunately, most of us are not in the position to know the truth unless someone—a reporter for instance—gives us the evidence we need to decide whose opinion on an issue is worthy. As long as the facts remain static, when presented with two or more options for resolving the problem, we can then decide which position, whose opinion is the right way to go
Many, many people are confused about what opinion is. I see it everyday when I turn on the tv to watch the news. I see it in print media and internet postings. This campaign season, it is becoming more and more an issue because people assume that people they like are truthful and those they do not, are not. Supporters of Donald Trump are quite open about the fact that they don’t care whether he speaks the truth. They care that he’s going to fix every one of their problems. A top campaign official even said during an interview that it wasn’t fair to Trump to fact-check him because nobody cared anyway and what was important was what he said. We have as a people, lost sight of what is in fact opinion, and what isn’t. Even worse, we apparently don’t care.
Here’s the thing. Most of what people refer to as opinion, is to be blunt, ignorance. Or misinformation, or misconception. We have been trained and conditioned to this over time as we lose sight of what reporting is, what commentary is, and why it matters.
Opinion is preference. I like blue, and dark chocolate over light. Those are tastes, what I like and what I dislike. My mother’s favorite phrase as I grew up was Non disputandum est. Latin for “there is no disputing taste.” Our tastes then, are opinion.
Information, however, is data: facts and evidence. I might say grass is orange, but we know it’s green. I might want it to be orange, but it’s not. I learned about photosynthesis and also about rods and cones that determine how we see color and learned that there is a scientific reason why the grass is green. I learned to answer “why is the sky blue?” with information about light and refraction and what happens when the sun’s rays hit the atmosphere and at what angle. Two plus two always equals four, no matter how much we might like it to add up to more. Graphs and charts show the slow but steady increase in temperatures over time, yet corporations more interested in extracting every resource available spend millions if not billions to ensure that we doubt the existence of climate change. Snow is evidence of it’s falsity and yet, I have never seen a commentator explain the difference between weather (what we see when we look out the window) and climate (long-term, usually 30 year, patterns of weather.
Misconceptions are an absence of evidence and reflect what we would like to be true. The Anti-vaccine movement, for example, is a glaring example of someone globalizing a single experience as the evidence to explain their own personal experience. We like answers, explanations, and when something tragic or serious happens, we look for reasons. Cause and correlation are different and yet, when one thing happens after another thing, we often link the two together. Sometimes, there is not even a correlation; simply a coioncidence. We forget that everything that occurs happens somewhere in time; and other events will happen either before, after, or simultaneously. The fact that one thing follows another rarely means that the first caused the second.
So how have we come to this point? I could write a book on the amazingly successful propaganda campaign of the Republican Party. Over the past forty years it has conditioned us to accept opinion as fact and to ignore sensationalism, marketing principles, and ulterior motives.
Journalism is a case in point. Somehow over the past couple of decades, there has been a significant blurring of the line between reporting and commentary, or opinion. Used to be, the “Opinon Page” was just that. It was where the editorial board opined on the issue of the day – where columnists gave their perspectives on various things – and Letters to the Editor were a, sometimes, humorous feature.
We could assume, then, that everything else in the paper was news. Who, what, when, where, and if possible, why. It was the job of the reporter to gather facts and present them in a cohesive manner to help us make sense of the world. Surprising to many today, reporters were required to have evidence before presenting something as fact. If they were reporting on a campaign event, or a school board hearing, and someone presented information that was wrong—and all good papers had fact checkers—it was the job of the reporter to present that information. Both what was said, and then the truth.
Talk shows were for commentary. Over time, the talk show format grew. Today we have shows with panels and commentators and others who are there only to present one side or another of an issue. I remember David Gregory, who took over Meet the Press from Tim Russert, when he famously said that it wasn’t his job to present the facts, but rather to present both sides. Having a Republican and a Democrat was sufficient to “balance” the show. The fact that many of his guests — to be fair, on both sides — often misstated the facts was, to Gregory, not the point. His job, as he saw it, was to make sure each side of an issue was heard.
Unfortunately, this perspective in journalism, frequently referred to as “both-siderism,” is no longer the exception, but the rule. The line between reporting and commentary is virtually non-existent. Often, the panels gathered to discuss politics include big name journalists on there to present their opinion. Prior experience reporting on a subject or a politician then serves to credential that opinion. The electorate then, has little understanding of what they are hearing. Is it fact? Is it opinion? What bias might the person speaking hold? Why aren’t we hearing from actual experts rather than those who have developed an opinion from those experts?
In the past, journalism had standards and practices that were held by all media. Reporters lost their jobs and reputations if in-depth reporting turned out later to be fabricated. If there was any conflict of interest, it was announced up front, so that the listener or viewer could factor that into what weight they gave to the information they received. Today? Not so much.
Insider reporters state publicly that they have to ensure “access” to politicians so they do not ask difficult questions, or follow-up vague or contradictory statements with more pointed queries. When reporting on Washington, a popular journalist neglects to inform us that her husband, Alan Greenspan, was Chairman of the Federal Reserve and remains active as a consultant.
Reporters, just like most of us, like to mingle with the power players. To ensure they keep this access, they make sure that their reporting is such that we are left with a positive reaction. Or negative. Surely if Hillary Clinton had actually done all the things that she is said to have done, some sort of evidence would have turned up. The fact that it has not is then proof that she is corrupt and pays off those who could give us that evidence.
Politicians are universally assumed to be paid by corporate interests and so we assume that “both sides do it” whether catering to corporate interests, their donors, or their own ideology. The fact that both sides don’t do it — or at least not to the same extent — is ignored.
Reporters talk about an electorate angry with Washington, neglecting to point out which party is responsible for the things people are angry about. Sure, Democrats take corporate money and are responsive to their donors. The difference? Democrats become Democrats because they have an interest in promoting social welfare.
Ideology to ideology, the people most harmed by the actions of the Republican Party invariably vote Republican. Why? Because they have been taught over the years that the Republicans are the party of Christians, family values, and personal responsibility. “And anyway, both sides do it.” They’re all the same, so just vote for the person you like the best, the one that “speaks” to you.
The 2008 election was remarkable in that, for the first time, we had a national candidate in Sarah Palin who not only contradicted statements she had made in the past, but often, contradicted statements she had made in the previous paragraph. She confidently presented her opinion as fact and plucked data out of the air to “prove” her point. Remarkable because the media, after Katie Couric was roundly criticized for being to hard on her, calmly listened to her obvious lies and then turned to the Democrat and listened to theirs. A watershed moment occurred when Gwen Ifell of NPR moderated a presidential debate and pointed out an error of fact; an event that ensured that she would never again moderate an important debate or, even have equal access to politicians.
So what do we do? Educate ourselves. We live in an amazing time of access to information if we but use it. Libraries are online. Research studies are online. If we gather information from a variety of sources, over time we will begin to learn which are trustworthy. We will learn how to distinguish fact from opinion. We will learn about the relationships between journalists and their sponsors; between politicians and corporate interests. Learn who is married to whom if it can tell us if there might be some bias in their reporting, especially if the information might help the person to whom they married.
We can turn off the TV, or watch a variety of sources. We can turn up the skepticism and listen for the bias. After awhile, even the most even-handed journalists and talk show hosts will show us which candidate they prefer; which ideology they support. There is no problem with that, as long as we understand how to filter what we hear.
And finally, we accept that politics is messy and complex. We can understand that in a country of over 300 million individuals; from every country on earth, embracing a variety of ethnicities, religions, races, and creeds; we are never going to agree on everything. Being a successful politician means compromise. It means forming alliances and coalitions and knowing when to give up. We do them no service demanding ideological or religious purity. We do ourselves a greater disservice.
This is not heaven or hell. It is not Utopia. It is reality and as adults, we learn that, much as we might like to have it all our way, grownups know we cannot.