The New York Times’ public editor defended the paper’s coverage of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton from criticism by arguing journalists should try to treat controversies involving Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump equally. It’s a defense that highlights the real danger posed by “false balance” in campaign journalism during the 2016 election.
In a September 10 piece titled “The Truth About ‘False Balance,’” New York Times public editor Liz Spayd defended her paper’s extensive reporting on the controversies surrounding the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Critics say the Times’ coverage has hyped minor scandals and contributed to a perception that Clinton and Trump are equally flawed candidates. That coverage, critics argue, perpetuates a “false balance” that fails to reflect the uniquely dangerous and divisive nature of Trump's campaign.
In her response, Spayd accused critics of trying to force newspapers to insert “moral and ideological judgments” into their campaign coverage, warning of a “slippery slope” if journalists are asked to decide which campaign controversies are worth prioritizing:
The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers — remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope. [emphasis added]
The problem with Spayd’s argument is that one of the basic functions of a newsroom is to make judgment calls about which stories deserve attention and which don’t.
When a local TV station interrupts a weather report to cover a deadly terrorist attack, it’s making a judgment about which story should be more important to the public. When a newspaper puts a major oil spill on the front page rather than a story about a low-level crime, it’s making a similar judgment.
Conversely, if CNN spent the same amount of time covering a celebrity’s stint in rehab as it did on a terrorist attack, it would be rightly mocked. Not because the celebrity rehab story isn’t true, but because one story obviously deserves more attention than the other.
Those types of editorial decisions don’t create a “slippery slope” -- they define the actions of respectable news sources. Even the Times’ masthead -- “All The News That’s Fit To Print” -- asks the reader to trust the paper’s editorial judgment when deciding what news qualifies as “fit to print.”
Every journalist in every newsroom in America already makes those decisions. They’re not machines, and they’re not blank slates. Part of their job is exercising their judgment to figure out which stories are worth telling, and how to tell them.
But Spayd’s argument suggests that journalists should withhold judgment and pretend voters should fixate just as much on emails as they do on mass deportations, or a Muslim ban, or any of the dozens of other unprecedented controversies that would have ended a normal candidate’s campaign but haven’t derailed Trump.
Spayd suggests that critics of “false balance” are likely liberals hoping to pass off “partisan” judgments as objective facts:
I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates. CNN’s Brian Stelter focused his show, “Reliable Sources,” on this subject last weekend. He asked a guest, Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine, to frame the idea of false balance. Weisberg used an analogy, saying journalists are accustomed to covering candidates who may be apples and oranges, but at least are still both fruits. In Trump, he said, we have not fruit but rancid meat. That sounds like a partisan’s explanation passed off as a factual judgment.
That Spayd can’t bring herself to admit that Trump and Clinton are categorically different, that Trump is a uniquely dangerous and unqualified candidate, should make any reader wary of the Times’ coverage.
Listing all of the reasons that Trump deserves to be treated differently -- his ties to white nationalists, his ties to Russia, his calls for an unconstitutional Muslim ban, his racist attacks on Mexican immigrants -- feels silly at this point. The differences between the two candidates are not merely “partisan,” which is why so many high-profile Republicans have come out against their party’s candidate.
Spayd acknowledges that Trump’s behavior has led many Republicans to reject Trump, but she claims that “If Trump is unequivocally more flawed than his opponent, that should be plenty evident to the voting public come November. But it should be evident from the kinds of facts that bold and dogged reporting unearths, not from journalists being encouraged to impose their own values to tip the scale.”
This argument ignores how the editorial judgments that journalists make help shape how the voting public weighs those facts and reports. If the Times publishes 16 front page articles on the Clinton Foundation before it gets around to reporting on the Trump Foundation, readers will be left with the impression that the former is more important, no matter how damning the latter story may be.
Spayd points to the fact that neither candidate is well-liked or trusted, arguing that “if ever there was a time to shine light in all directions, this is it.” It’s a bizarrely self-fulfilling argument. Breathless media coverage about Clinton’s email server and ties to the Clinton Foundation have undoubtedly contributed to voters’ perceptions that Clinton isn’t trustworthy. But Spayd cites that perception to justify yet more breathless media coverage of those controversies, even as she acknowledges it was “not good journalism” when some of the paper’s reports have “revealed relatively little bad behavior, yet were written as if they did.”
But the more important point is that voters’ biases or perceptions of the candidates shouldn’t dictate what stories news organizations prioritize. If voters are equally suspicious of both candidates, but one is dramatically more dangerous or untrustworthy than the other, good editorial judgment should challenge that suspicion, not merely echo it.
The truth is no candidate, Clinton or otherwise, can run a campaign without controversies. Journalists will always be able to find a gaffe on which to fixate. But not all campaign controversies are created equally. Part of a journalist’s job is to help readers cut through the noise of a presidential campaign and focus on what really matters.
And that’s the real problem with Spayd’s argument: Refusing to treat campaign stories differently is a judgment call. It communicates to readers that Clinton’s email server is as shocking and newsworthy as, for example, Trump’s pledge to ban Muslims from entering the country.
And any newspaper that’s afraid to make that judgment call -- that’s afraid of telling readers what’s really at stake in November -- is shirking one of the most basic and important functions of a free press during election season.