CBS This Morning and NBC’s Today Show embraced “both sides-ism” in their reporting on President Donald Trump’s misleading Oval Office address and the Democratic rebuttal. The networks attempted to paint Trump and Democratic leaders as equally responsible for the prolonged government shutdown and implied that both sides were lying to the American people.
On January 9, CBS This Morning host Norah O’Donnell lamented that while Trump “did not offer any new proposals last night, … neither did the Democratic leaders.” She also complained to her co-hosts that “all that time that was spent preparing for these speeches, if they had actually spent time talking to each other and working out a deal, that would have served the people that put them in office a lot better.”
This framing suggests that Democrats and Republicans are equally at fault for the shutdown and that both sides should be condemned for failing to reach a compromise. In reality, however, the shutdown is a direct result of Trump’s insistence that Democrats offer up billions of dollars to build a structure that even some Republicans say would be useless. Democrats have repeatedly demonstrated their desire to reopen the government and discuss funding for border security, and they even agreed to a deal that would have kept the government open until February 8 and provided more than $1 billion for border security -- a compromise the president walked away from. Trump, not Democratic leaders, is responsible for holding the government hostage over a border wall -- a role he embraced happily just last month when he said, "I am proud to shut down the government for border security.”
NBC’s Today Show began its coverage of Trump’s speech and the Democratic response by promising to “fact-check the claims on both sides” suggesting the possibility of similar dishonesty by Trump, a famous and prolific liar, and Democratic leaders. But while NBC’s Peter Alexander listed several specific lies in Trump’s address, NBC’s Kristen Welker mentioned only two points: that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats voted for a bill in 2006 that authorized fencing at the border, and that Democrats “were well aware” that the recent spending bill passed by the Democratic House had no chance in the Senate without border wall funding. Directly and repeatedly lying to the country is clearly not the same thing as voting for a bill more than a decade ago -- nor is it comparable to pushing legislation without wall funds -- yet NBC’s framing suggested that both sides’ claims were similarly dishonest.
Welker also commented that, “like the president, [Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi] offered no new ideas, instead making it clear they’re still deeply dug in.” This suggested, like CBS’ report did, that Democrats are at fault for a lack of compromise -- even as Trump continues to stonewall negotiations over his unpopular and unrealistic proposal.
While CBS and NBC dropped the ball, ABC’s Good Morning America did a better job covering Trump’s address without giving in to the temptation to present both sides “equally.”
Both sides-ism has been a plague on political news and analysis for years, and it played an especially sinister role in the 2016 election. News outlets pretending that both sides have equally legitimate points and faults in every disagreement is both intellectually and morally dishonest -- and that dishonesty is bad for journalism and the country.