The Desperate Reach for "Both Sides Do It"

There was an article yesterday in the New York Times marveling over the utter lack of concern for truth shown in the speeches of major-party presidential and vice presidential nominees. Do me a favor and take a moment to guess which party the article is discussing.

Representative Paul D. Ryan used his convention speech on Wednesday to fault President Obama for failing to act on a deficit-reduction plan that he himself had helped kill. He chided Democrats for seeking $716 billion in Medicare cuts that he too had sought. And he lamented the nation’s credit rating — which was downgraded after a debt-ceiling standoff that he and other House Republicans helped instigate.

And Mitt Romney, in his acceptance speech on Thursday night, asserted that President Obama’s policies had “not helped create jobs” and that Mr. Obama had gone on an “apology tour” for America. He also warned that the president’s Medicare cuts would “hurt today’s seniors,” claims that have already been labeled false or misleading.

The two speeches — peppered with statements that were incorrect or incomplete — seemed to signal the arrival of a new kind of presidential campaign, one in which concerns about fact-checking have been largely set aside.

Now, you probably weren’t surprised by this, and not just because it’s being talked about here. When Fox News starts reporting that its own party’s VP pick lied his way through his acceptance speech, you know we’ve hit a watershed moment.

What is sad, however, is that this article is every bit as unexpected as the admission from Fox News. An article that comes this close to denouncing a presidential ticket as liars (note the lack of the actual words “lie” or “liar”) in anything that isn’t considered alternative press or opinion is practically unheard of. Even here, the reporter tries, very, very hard to draw some kind of equivalence between the parties.

The Obama campaign, for its part, ran a deceptive ad saying that Mitt Romney had “backed a bill that outlaws all abortion, even in case of rape and incest,” although he currently supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk.

The growing number of misrepresentations appear to reflect a calculation in both parties that shame is overrated, and that no independent arbiters command the stature or the platform to hold the campaigns to account in the increasingly polarized and balkanized media firmament.

One side continues to repeat multiply debunked claims. The other cited one position of many espoused by a candidate who has just demonstrated he will say whatever it takes to appeal to his base. These do not represent equivalent calculations on the part of both campaigns.

There are other misleading ads or statements created by or for the Obama campaign. They are collected here by journalism professor Jay Rosen, who still concludes that there is nothing like parity.

Hungry for “your both sides do it” moment? Relief has arrived. #

If you’re wondering: don’t I also recognize that the Obama forces have used deceptive, depraved and untrue claims in their attempt to stain Romney before his own message gets through? Yes. I do. These stand out: Romney didn’t say he likes firing people in the way some Democrats and TV personalities have suggested, so that counts as a kind of extended lie. The Priorities USA ad that suggested (without quite saying it) that Bain Capital was somehow responsible for the death of a steelworker’s wife: that goes in the depraved category, I think. When the White House claimed it knew nothing about the case that was clearly untrue– pathetic, really. The refusal to condemn the ad was a black mark, as well. Obama ads calling Romney “outsourcer in chief” were over the top and relied on false or overblown claims. #

In my view these are serious transgressions, full stop. And in my view they do not compare to the use of falsehood and deceptive claims in the Romney 2012 campaign. Nor is there anything coming from the Obama machine that is like the open defiance of fact-checking we have seen from Romney and his team.

Rosen sees a breaking point arriving for the press. I very much hope so, and not just because I want to see Democrats stop getting hit every time a reporter feels a need to swat a Republican. How do we create a culture in which truth matters if our watchdogs themselves continue to insist on painting a “fair” rather than true picture?

The Desperate Reach for "Both Sides Do It"
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5 thoughts on “The Desperate Reach for "Both Sides Do It"

  1. 3

    The depravity of this extends and bleeds into almost every aspect of our culture these days. As if there are only two sides to every single discussion. I suppose in the case of Republicans and Democrats this is more or less so, though it obviously leaves out multiple other sides who have different viewpoints on the same subjects. Many of them are even notable.

    I certainly see this in science reporting, where there’s a focus side and someone who disagrees. Rarely is there a presentation of a third (or fourth or fifth) option. Take any article on major breakthroughs in physics. They don’t need to do a theoretical physics 101 every time, but you’d think they would touch on a basic point or two from other frameworks.

    Hell, I even feel a lot of that is going on in the current discussions of movement atheism, as if there are only two “sides” when there are really numerous ones. It’s the same with energy policy, climate change, and on and on. I haven’t read a study on it, but my guess would be that political “both sides” reporting has influenced the use of that same ethos everywhere. After all, if professional journalists do it, others should, too, to be taken seriously. Right?

    Sometimes I almost pine for the pre-Pulitzer days of yellow journalism. I was watching The Daily Show today and wishing the news would, y’know, pick a “side.” Like the side of truth. If you lie in public, you should get called on it. There shouldn’t be tapdancing around the word lie.

    In conclusion: christ, if the world wouldn’t be atrociously boring if everything had only two sides.

  2. 4

    I think the Democrats have a key opportunity this week to clearly demonstrate that “both sides do it” is a false equivalency. The way to do that is by ensuring that nothing they say at their convention comes even close to falling into untrue territory. They need to make sure that they don’t misrepresent Mitt Romney’s words in any way (although as is shown above, even if they don’t misrepresent Romney by accurately saying that he supported a bill that would outlaw all abortion, some in the media will still view that as a lie).

    But I think the Democrats should be able to have a convention without anything close to a lie, because they have no need to lie about the Republicans and Romney/Ryan. The truth is so damaging to Romney’s campaign, that lies are counterproductive for the Democrats.

    That’s why the Republicans chose to lie during their convention. If they focused on the Democrats’ real positions, rather than the imaginary ones that Clint Eastwood can talk to, they would not be able to gain enough support to win in November. In that regard, the lies aren’t counterproductive for them, unless the media identifies them as such, and that was obviously a risk they were willing to take.

  3. 5

    Funny that this open recognition in the media that ‘balanced’ reporting isn’t necessarily fair or truthful is happening now. Almost immediately AFTER Aaron Sorkin wrote it into his new HBO show. Life imitating art, for real.

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