Cosman: Fear of bias stifles truthful, responsible journalism

Under a constant fear of being branded part of the “liberal media” establishment, there is an apparent effort by mainstream media outlets to cover stories as evenly as possible, which usually entails attributing equal blame to both sides of the political fighting and gridlock that plagues Washington, D.C. But their aspirations for fairness only end up creating false equivalences where both sides are equally deserving of blame, instead of the reality that is so often the case. 

Political journalism and punditry has reached the point where the facts of the matter are ignored so that two sides of an issue can be given equal weight, regardless of the validity of each side. The emphasis is on “fair” coverage rather than accurate reporting. This blatant representation that grows more and more common as Washington grows more dysfunctional does a disservice to the American public and democracy.

The most recent example of this sort of irresponsible journalism came during the sequester debate that stole attention during the first quarter of 2013. There was an obvious attempt by most media outlets to blame both sides equally. Both Democrats and Republicans, they said, were at equal fault for the political mess the country found itself; anything else would’ve been liberal bias. Even New York Times columnists were quick to lay fault on the president. 

But the reality is that both sides weren’t equally to blame. In actuality, the Republican Party’s dedication to ideologically extreme positions and refusal to compromise was the driving force behind the budget gridlock. Had any mainstream media outlets attempted to cover the story in this way, however, they would have been discredited as biased. It’s an unfortunate situation when the facts are skewed as biased.

How could equal blame be placed on the president and Republican leaders when many Republican legislators weren’t even aware of what the president was offering during sequester negotiations? How could equal blame be a responsible framing of the story when according to the Congressional Budget Office the president was proposing exactly what Republicans were demanding – deficit reduction – and yet still they were unwilling to compromise?

It is inaccurate to report ideological shifts by both parties at fault for continuing political gridlock when political science research, like the ideological charting done by Keith Poole of the University of Georgia, shows that “it is true that the Republicans have moved further to the right than the Democrats have moved to the left.” But pointing blame toward one side would be deemed biased so again the facts are ignored. 

Even President Barack Obama realizes the fight he is up against. Speaking at an Associated Press luncheon in April 2012 the president said, “There is oftentimes the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and an equivalence is presented … This is not one of those situations where there’s an equivalence.”

The need to appear unbiased, to present both sides fairly, has itself spurred bias. No longer can the media designate one individual or party at fault. But sometimes, fault is clear. It isn’t biased to point out that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was flat-out wrong when he said that “there’s considerable disagreement among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not.” He was wrong; reporting anything else would be a purposeful misrepresentation of the facts. But in today’s journalistic climate, that isn’t accurate reporting – it’s bias.