How the media encourages dishonesty

The Washington Post's Greg Sargent has been calling on his fellow journalists to make clear that there's really no comparison between the tactics employed by right-wing “media” like Fox News and Andrew Breitbart and liberal journalists:

As I've been noting here, the real takeaway from the Shirley Sherrod mess is this: Not all partisan media are created equal. Right wing media are willing to engage in tactics that simply have no equivalent on the left -- even if mainstream news orgs and commentators keep taking refuge behind the notion that “both sides do it.”

To make this point one more time, it's true that “both sides,” to one degree or another, let their ideological and political preferences dictate some editorial decisions, such as what stories to pursue, how to approach them, who to interview, etc. But what's underappreciated is the degree to which the Breitbart-Fox axis goes far beyond this, openly employing techniques of political opposition researchers and operatives to drive the media narrative.

This is an important difference that's critical to understanding the rapidly shifting landscape in the new-media age. If I ran the universe more media figures would come right out and say what the Times hinted at today: No, both sides don't do it.

Sargent is, of course, completely right: The media should stop drawing false equivalencies and make clear that both sides don't do it. But I think it's worth spelling out why. The first reason is, I hope, rather obvious: Journalists shouldn't be in the business of misleading their audience. The second is that drawing such false equivalencies incentivizes bad behavior.

When the media blames both sides equally for a flaw that is significantly more prevalent in one side, that encourages the bad actors to continue doing what they're doing: They get the benefit of lobbing false allegations, and they don't get any more blame for it than their victims do. This is a form of privileging the lie.

It does something else, too: It gives the people who aren't bad actors incentive to become bad actors. If you're getting equal blame for your counterpart's dishonest behavior, anyway, you might decide -- consciously or not -- that it's time to level the playing field by spreading some lies yourself. (I do not endorse this reaction. I am merely pointing out that it is an obvious consequence of an environment in which the media stacks the deck in favor of liars at every turn.)

The perverse result of all of this is that by falsely insisting that both sides engage in the same kind of dishonest behavior, the media actually encourage both sides to do so. And if, instead, they blasted the guilty -- and only the guilty -- and refused to let dishonest claims drive their coverage, they would discourage dishonest behavior.

It's a simple choice, really: Journalists can be accurate and discourage dishonesty, or they can be inaccurate and encourage dishonesty.