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(50,964 posts)
Fri Sep 2, 2022, 07:04 PM Sep 2022

Thomas Zimmer: The norm of valuing "neutrality" over factual accuracy [View all]

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I have seen so many variations of “How dare president Biden politicize the authoritarian assault on democracy! So partisan!” - and not a single one of these takes deserves to be taken seriously. A predictable fog of bad-faith, pseudo-“neutral” nonsense.

Conservatives do it because it’s an opportunistic attack line that builds on the tradition of deriding “politics” as a silly quarrel among factionalists who have no regard for the common good - an idea that only ever helps those who want to obstruct public policy solutions.

Centrist pundits and self-proclaimed moderates do it because it allows them to present themselves as nonpartisan arbiters of the truth - “Look how above the fray I am, so different from all those alarmists who get swept away by partisan emotions!”

And why do mainstream journalists engage in this kind of ridiculous pontificating? They’re doubling down on the established tropes of “neutrality” journalism – based on a paradigm that defines “neutrality” as keeping equidistance from either side, mistaking it for objectivity.

If political journalists actually engaged with the substance of what Biden said, they would have to admit that every allegation was factual, that everything he said about Trumpism and the Republican Party was rather indisputable empirically.

Why won’t they do that? Because for many political journalists, the overriding concern is not to be seen as “partisan.” Siding with the Democratic president in what is obviously a highly contentious issue is therefore not an option. Even if the president simply states the facts.

Journalists can’t simply ignore an event like Biden’s speech either, of course. So, instead of engaging with the substance, they will emphasize optics, or resort to horse race coverage (“How will this play with the voters?”) – or they simply decry “politicization.”

Empirically speaking, there is no equivalent on the Left to the Right’s increasingly open embrace of authoritarianism, nothing the Democratic Party is doing equals the GOP’s anti-democratic radicalization and commitment to impose the will of a reactionary minority on the country.

But if journalists were to cover, assess, and interpret this situation as objectively, accurately, and adequately as possible (which they should!), they would be criticized as “partisan” – there it is, that typical liberal media bias! – and risk losing credibility and access.

The “solution” is to create “balance” by playing up bad-faith criticism of Biden’s speech. Anti-democratic radicalization on the Right – outrageous “politicization” of the presidential bully pulpit for “partisan” reasons on the Left. Neutral media right in the middle. “Balance.”

Following a “neutrality” dogma might sound fine in a vacuum - but we’re not in a vacuum. The fundamental reality of American politics is that democracy itself has become a partisan issue, in the sense that there is currently only one major (small-d) democratic party in the U.S.

In this situation, if anyone sets out to describe accurately and precisely what is happening, it will indeed make the Republican Party look bad, as the GOP is fully committed to preventing multiracial, pluralistic democracy, and increasingly willing to embrace authoritarianism.

The norm of valuing “neutrality” over factual accuracy produces coverage that privileges the radicalizing Right. The principle becomes: “We’re not going to say anything that has the appearance of taking sides, even if it’s just factually accurate and precise.” That’s a disaster.
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