Media discourse keeps the "both sides" illusion alive

As the full horror of Donald Trump's attempt to seize power and dump democracy fades in the public mind, the mainstream media -- which collectively had been pointing out the difference between facts and lies -- have slumped back into he said-she said vanilla coverage. Take the word "strict," analyst Sean Dobson suggests -- a word with a lot of positive connotations for most readers. Does it make sense to describe as "strict" scuh recent state-level atrocities as Mississippi's or Texas's draconian new abortion laws, or the blatant voter-suppression laws being passed by Republican legislators in a dozen-plus states where they have control? Or is the press slipping back to its old duck-and-cover strategy to avoid being tagged as "liberal"?


The Case of the Term “Strict”

For decades, “false equivalence” was the leading occupational hazard of American political journalism. It was a self-induced phenomenon in that most journalists lean liberal in their own political worldview, but in their reporting tried to prove themselves “objective” by painting the two political parties as equally error-prone, thus positing (explicitly or implicitly) an idealized midpoint of “non-partisan” or “bi-partisan” as “objective”. Since 1980, no matter how far to the right the GOP lurched, most mainstream media coverage continued to portray the commensurately rightward-moving partisan midpoint as the objective standard to which policymakers should aspire. Only the election of Donald Trump finally induced journalists to break the old habit and use their own common sense when describing and assessing the parties and their proposals. Not accidentally, the Trump years stand as a golden age of American journalistic truth-telling.

But old habits die hard. For now that Trump is gone (for the moment), false equivalence seems to be making a comeback. We certainly see it in the creeping (and creepy) journalistic use of the generally positive term “strict” to describe new Republican laws to limit abortion (for example, here, here, and here) and voting (here, here, and here).

Of Merriam-Webster’s five top definitions of “strict”, the fourth and fifth are not germane to this discussion. The top three definitions, all of which are germane, have more positive than negative connotations, especially the first and third. If you need further proof, consider Merriam-Webster’s list of synonyms of “strict” (almost all of which are positive) and antonyms (almost all of which are negative).

Yet experts (and anybody with common sense) agree that recent GOP state-level laws restricting voting and abortion are not positive at all. Instead, the voting restrictions clearly intend to suppress turnout of Democratic (and especially of-color) voters, while most leading jurists agree the new abortion restrictions violate Roe v. Wade and fray the rule of law and judicial review by delegating enforcement to de facto vigilantes.


Thus, rather than “strict”, these new Republican measures would be more accurately described as “restrictive”, “suppressive”, “discriminatory”, and “deterrent” (in its adjectival sense).

So why do too many journalists, most of whom probably personally oppose the new restrictions, use the positive term “strict” to describe them? Are they bending over backwards to prove a “non-partisan” orientation? If so, are we witnessing the initial stage of journalistic relapse into a false equivalence interrupted only temporarily by the Trump years?

Posted Sept. 30 on Sean Dobson is chair of the Progressive Maryland board.