If you’ve paid any attention to press retrospectives on the 2016 election, you’ve seen the term false equivalence. It refers to the mismatch between a long-standing procedural instinct of the press and the current realities of the Era of Trump.
Under normal circumstances, the press’s strong preference is for procedural balance. The program’s supporters say this, its critics say that, so we’ll quote both sides and leave it to you, the public, to decide who is right.
This approach has the obvious virtue of seeming fair, as a judge is fair in letting the prosecution and defense each make its case. It has a less obvious but very important advantage for news organizations, that of sparing reporters the burden of having to say, “Actually, we think this particular side is right.” By definition, most reporters most of the time are covering subjects in which we’re not expert. Is the latest prime-rate move by the Fed a good idea? Or a bad one? I personally couldn’t tell you. So if I am covering the story, especially on a deadline, I’ll want to give you quotes from people “on both sides,” and leave it there.
For as long as the press has existed, people have pointed out the limits and loopholes of “let’s hear from both sides” thinking. Back in the 1970s, I read a parody somewhere of how stately D.C.-based discussion shows might have covered the 1930s: “And now, for a contrasting view, we turn to Heinrich Himmler.” (In The Washington Monthly of that era, Art Levine did a famous parody of a Woodward-and-Bernstein approach to that same story: “ ‘The Jews, Mein Fuhrer, what’s happened to all the Jews?’ Goering asked. ‘There used to be so many of them.’… Himmler and Goering were beset with fresh doubts. But they were committed to serve, and they would do their best.”)