“This might help explain why Trump doesn’t like to wear a mask in public. Biden today,” tweeted Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume. Attached to Hume’s tweet was a photo of presidential candidate Joe Biden earlier that day at a wreath-laying ceremony at a Delaware veterans memorial. Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, both wore black masks to the Memorial Day event.
Hume’s tweet was clearly meant as a jab at Biden, as he later tweeted, “The video showed no one within six feet of him beside his wife. So what was the mask for, other than to virtue signal?” What Hume dismisses as virtue signaling can easily be characterized as modeling responsible behavior. Naturally, President Donald Trump shared Hume’s tweet, illustrating how the right can make anything, even something as simple as the decision of whether to wear face mask, a bizarrely political action. ABC News’ Senior National Correspondent Terry Moran took Hume’s framing at face value, presenting Biden’s mask as a question of whether it was a “good look” or a “bad look” for Biden to wear a mask.
Biden was promoting guidance put in place by state officials. A journalist wouldn’t ask whether it was a good thing or a bad thing for a candidate to drive the speed limit instead of roaring down the highway blindfolded at 110 miles per hour, so why is mask wearing being given that treatment? In short, it’s an effort to maintain the appearance of objectivity in a situation that doesn’t warrant it.
Masks are pretty popular across the political spectrum, but you might not know it thanks to mainstream media’s insistence on maintaining a “view from nowhere.”
“The View from Nowhere” comes from the title of a 1986 book by philosopher Thomas Nagel. But as it applies to journalism, it was New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen who popularized it, dating back to a 2003 blog post in which he criticizes the notion. The view from nowhere is reporting that strives for the appearance of objectivity. One logical outcome of this is that journalists end up presenting issues as though there are always two equally valid sides supported by two equally sized groups, even if this isn’t the case.
A late April report from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health Tracking Poll found that 80% of Americans (including 94% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans) were in favor of strict shelter-in-place measures in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Even so, mainstream media outlets rushed to cover protests against orders on a scale that could lead audiences to believe that they represented half of a 50/50 split in public opinion.
On April 24, Poynter’s Tom Jones criticized the massive coverage those protests received, writing that while journalists have an obligation to attend events in case violence or something genuinely newsworthy happens, “the right to protest doesn’t guarantee you a spot on the 6 o’clock news or the front page of the newspaper.”
By this point, the protests have been covered. The message has been heard. The protesters have been given a voice -- perhaps a more prominent one than they deserve.
News outlets should resist the urge to cover the protests further for the time being. It’s lazy coverage because it rarely puts the protests into context or perspective. Frankly, covering such protests is easy. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean new organizations should do it. Especially because the news at these protests doesn’t appear to be news at all.
By framing every issue as having two balanced and competing points of view, you end up creating the appearance of more division than actually exists. This may be fine if the primary goal of a news organization is to entertain its audience, but it probably isn’t a good way to go about informing the public during a deadly pandemic. Even so, this is how many mainstream news outlets have chosen to cover face mask stories.
CNN ran a story with the headline “Donald Trump's anti-mask campaign picks up steam.” The Associated Press hyped, “Face masks make a political statement in era of coronavirus,” and The New York Times called masks a “Flash Point in the Virus Culture Wars.” By adopting the position that wearing a protective mask is a “political statement” or part of the “culture wars,” those news outlets ceded their ability to credibly act as an authority on the subject.
Conservative media play mainstream outlets for fools, driving agendas and demanding unearned balance for their spin.
In practice, forcing a “both sides” narrative will nearly always result in conservatives being able to control the broader mainstream media narrative. A sobering study in the Columbia Journalism Review of more than 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015, and November 8, 2016, illustrates exactly why this is so. The report details how the right-wing media ecosystem successfully set the agenda for mainstream news outlets throughout the 2016 campaign.
Researchers found that asymmetric polarization, in which pro-Trump audiences were predisposed to far-right media and pro-Hillary Clinton audiences were much more likely to pay attention to traditional media outlets, created the false impression that mainstream outlets were biased in favor of the political left. Conservative outlets like Breitbart, Fox News, Gateway Pundit, Infowars, and The Daily Caller relentlessly produced stories that would make Trump appear in a positive light and Clinton negatively. This left mainstream outlets in the unenviable position of deciding whether to let right-wing media dictate what traditional media would cover during the campaign, or to risk the appearance that they were trying to cover for Clinton. Ever trying to avoid the appearance of bias, many outlets simply followed the right’s lead.
There were important lessons from the failures of mainstream media outlets in 2016, but few seem to have been learned. Moran’s tweet illustrates just how easy it is for mainstream journalists to fall for the right’s attempts to inject controversy into even the most mundane issues. Time is running out for journalists to reflect on the mistakes of their 2016 coverage. If they’re not careful, many will again be duped into overemphasizing stories right-wing outlets promote and downplaying stories that don’t match the right’s agenda.