Thanks to many readers who have sent pointers to today's column by the NYT's new public editor, Margaret Sullivan, shown in a Times photo at right. Here's the good news: she is off to a strong start with her entry on the "false equivalence" debate.
Her predecessor, Arthur Brisbane, asked in a column earlier this year whether the press should be expected to serve as a "fact vigilante." Sullivan answers Yes.
[F]alse balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side....
It ought to go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.
The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership -- and the democracy -- will be.
Two caveats and elaborations:
1) As Andrew Cohen points out on the Atlantic's site today, some of the Times staffers whom Sullivan quotes sound as if they are not yet fully on board. For instance:
[One Times editor says] "There's a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides... It's not our job to litigate it in the paper. We need to state what each side says." That's absolutely right as far as it goes. But like the original piece itself it's not nearly enough. Since [the editor] used the word "litigate" I'll start there, with some of the recent litigation that has surrounded the new laws....
The Times' piece did not mention, for example, the fact that Pennsylvania conceded during its voter ID trial that there was no in-person voter fraud in the state and that none was expected in the 2012 election....
From a political perspective, there may be a level of "equivalence" in the number of people who either support or oppose these laws... But from a legal perspective, at least so far, it has been a rout in favor of those who believe the new laws would unlawfully disenfranchise registered voters. In other words, there is no "equivalence" in the way judges so far have evaluated these laws.
Cohen's piece is very much worth reading alongside Sullivan's, because it lays out so carefully the damage that falsely equivalent coverage can do.