Since I began this blog in 2020, one of my obsessions has been the culpability of the press in our current political predicament. Given the stakes we face this year, I feel we all need to be reminded that these mainstream news organizations are necessary, but not sufficient. Accordingly, I am revisiting this piece, which I wrote last May, because it’s particularly illustrative of the problem, especially in its depiction of The Washington Post’s shameful spinning of the final Durham Report.
The awkward term "both-siderism" has, at long last, stepped into the limelight, thanks to the graceful gravitas of CNN icon Christiane Amanpour (full disclosure: our dog used to play with her dog).
In one brilliant commencement address, to the Columbia School of Journalism, she dope-slapped her own profession and, indeed, her own boss, both of whom richly deserved it. That takes guts, not to mention a reputation for integrity. Both of which she has in abundance.
What she said about the "both sides" problem in journalism is nothing new. But to those of us who've been screaming about it for years, it's refreshing to hear it denounced by a mainstream journalist of her stature, in a venue that serves as an incubator of mainstream journalists.
While she declined to mention names, there was no doubt about the targets of her irritation. CNN and its chairman, Chris Licht, were still licking their wounds from their treacherous but buffoonish town hall with Trump, and Amanpour was letting them know just what an appalling shitshow she thought it was — my words, not hers. What she didn't say was that Licht had inflicted significant damage on the CNN brand — a brand she helped build from nothing — because she's too polite.
But the point she was making about journalism goes far beyond CNN's foreseeable and preventable self-immolation. It's at the heart of the corrosion of political discourse in this country.
The both-sides narrative — creating a false equivalence between two political parties, despite overwhelming evidence that one of those parties is actively and openly dismantling our entire social contract — is no longer just dishonest. It's a threat to our very way of life.
Mainstream news organizations must be considered complicit in the current assault on democracy. In their ravenous pursuit of clicks and ratings, these "respectable" news outlets are ducking a social responsibility we thought they took seriously, silly us.
Their treatment of news stories inevitably favors the easy click, the cheap scandal, the partisan horse race, at the expense of what we actually need to know as an informed citizenry. So while we're all watching a slow-motion coup attempt in real time, we're not getting any sense of urgency from our main sources of news.
It's not that they're pro-right or anti-left, it's that their agendas are entirely commercial. They sell more 'papers' — a quaint word — with conflict and controversy. And since virtually all the conflict and controversy is coming from Republicans — almost all of it based on sheer fiction — they feel they have to paint a "balanced" picture of another "side."
Both-siderism is not just a simple equation. It's not just 'Republicans did something disgusting, therefore Democrats must have been just as bad.' Rather it's a journalistic mindset that tilts the playing field, mistaking outrageous public behavior for news worth knowing. And in so doing, it legitimizes lies, normalizes hateful rhetoric, and squeezes out rational discourse.
It's a narrative in which Republicans get the benefit of the doubt, and Democrats get the doubt. Often, that means taking a non-story and spinning it so it makes Republicans look serious and Democrats look feckless, even as they know full well that the reality is the exact opposite.
Examples of this can be found every day, but let's just look at one. Consider how The Washington Post handled the release, last week, of the so-called Durham Report, the final chapter of a bad investigation gone wrong — a sordid saga of legal malpractice and government malfeasance, all instigated by Bill Barr, all of which should be investigated, but no doubt won't be.
Durham's investigation left many stones unturned in its search for the truth, or at least Bill Barr's version of the truth. Durham scoured the world, on the taxpayer's dime, confident that he'd find evidence of Hillary Clinton having conspired with Putin to make sure she'd lose the 2016 election.
While that evidence seems to have eluded him, he was indeed shown evidence, courtesy of Italian intelligence, of alleged criminal activity, but that was about Donald Trump. For some reason that was ignored.
But as ugly as the backstory was, the final report itself was a snooze. It had all the makings of a non-story — a feast of synthetic red meat that only a Fox viewer could digest. If only that's how it had played out in the mainstream press.
As is so often the case, the headline and subhead took the lead in misleading us, and it's worth remembering that headlines are the editor's decision, not the reporter's:
Durham report sharply criticizes FBI’s 2016 Trump campaign probe
Special counsel says “extremely troublesome” failures appear to stem from bias that kept agents from carefully examining evidence
Now, there is nothing untrue here. Everything in these two sentences is unfailingly accurate. It's also despicably dishonest.
It is certainly what the report implied, but that's the problem. The report is all implication, no substance. The only news is that Durham found nothing, and that news was old a year ago.
But The Post decided to fan the embers of a controversy that only ever existed in the fevered minds of Fox viewers. There were better ways they could've spun the story.
They could've made it about how a once-respected prosecutor, Durham, had tanked his own career and reputation to run a corrupt errand for a corrupt attorney general.
They could've made it about how Barr had given Durham this turkey of an assignment, in a ham-handed attempt to cover up for Trump's criminality, as if such a thing were possible.
They could've even made it about how Merrick Garland had let Durham continue his work long past its sell-by date, and how Garland could have fired him but decided instead to avoid the political food fight and let Durham hang himself.
So why didn't The Post tell us that Durham's "report" was the poison fruit of a poison tree? Why wasn't that information right up front, right in the headline? Why should The Post subject us to Durham's preordained opinions, and bury the part about his assertions being largely fact-free?
The Durham investigation, from its first gleam in Bill Barr's eye, was a Trump flimflam operation, and everyone knows it. It was a smear of the FBI, designed for a smear-hungry audience on Fox, but of no interest to anyone outside that bubble.
So, hats off to The Washington Post for so deftly moving that smear into the mainstream. But before you think I'm singling out The Post, please know that a similar headline graced The New York Times at the same time, putting the same slant on the same story.
When I rant about the mainstream media, I'm usually ranting about The Times and The Post, but they are far from alone in their complicity. I single them out because I continue to read them, because they still pursue real news, and because I know that they know better.
I'm not sure I can say the same for CNN, whose professional integrity may have been fatally compromised. Christiane Amanpour certainly hopes not, but in the meantime, she has done us a service.
A lot of concerned citizens have been calling out the press for a lot of years. Once in a while, it's good to see the press call out itself.