Russ Nielsen, a great Nevada wire service reporter, once told me that if a journalist is being attacked by both sides, it’s a sign the journalist is doing the job right.
That’s a common view in my line of work, but I’ve always considered it flawed. For one thing, sometimes there are more than two sides and we are far too willing to project the two-party framework onto public policy generally. In addition, a reporter can get a story dead wrong and be attacked by both sides as a result. But worst of all, the paradigm assigns a value to centrism that it doesn’t deserve.
Journalists for mainstream news outlets who slant their news coverage toward left or right soon find themselves with serious professional problems. But slanting coverage toward the middle is an accepted part of government coverage.
Last week, Columbia Journalism Review writer Brendan Nyhan posted an essay that set the news community buzzing. “Under the norm of objectivity that dominates mainstream political journalism in the United States, reporters are supposed to avoid endorsing competing political viewpoints or proposals. In practice, however, journalists often treat centrist policy priorities — especially on fiscal policy — as value-neutral. … That’s why it’s not accepted for reporters to explicitly advocate, say, abortion bans or recognition of gay marriage, but criticism of the president for not advocating entitlement cuts with sufficient fervor can run in a ‘fact-check’ column.”
Nyhan gave, as an example, the budget debate in Congress: “How should the United States choose among the difficult trade-offs it faces in setting the federal budget? There’s no one correct answer, but you wouldn’t know it from coverage of the budget deal between Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan. … While it’s widely accepted that the federal government faces limits on what it can borrow in the financial markets, there is significant disagreement, including among experts, over the priority that should be given to reducing current deficit and debt levels relative to other possible policy objectives. It is, in other words, a political issue. Reporters often ignore this conflict, treating deficit cutting as a nonideological objective while portraying other points of view as partisan or political.”
There has been criticism of centrist-slanted reporting for years. In 2012, Arkansas journalist Gene Lyons wrote that “among judicious Washington pundits … the ‘centrist’ position is always safest, marking one as what passes in journalism for a serious thinker.”
Moreover, the whole notion of centrism is difficult to negotiate in a nation where, unlike most of the rest of the world, mainstream politics starts in the middle and moves right. In the United States, viewpoints like social democracy that are dynamic and influential elsewhere are outside our allowable circles of discourse. There is no legitimate left — centrism is treated as leftism in the U.S. because of the press’s need to have a left-right model for analysis.
In 1994, University of Maryland journalism dean Reese Cleghorn wrote, “The politically centrist nature of the country leads to centrist language in reporting: not neutral language, but centrist as defined by the political winds. Reporters put on blinders in order to avoid ‘hot’ words such as ‘radical’ and ‘reactionary.’ They tilt the news so they can appear to be neutral, even though they may just be centrist in a sea of radicalism or reaction.”
Texas politician Jim Hightower has popularized the saying that there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos, but journalists have been perpetually unwilling to question our orientation and its effect on public policy. In the past week, dozens of commentators and journalists have been writing about the meaning of a centrist slant. Brendan Nyhan did us all a favor.
Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.