More than a century ago, way back in 1906, Mark Twain said, “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe — only two — the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.”
For the rest of the 20th century, the AP was America’s — even the world’s — most unbiased news source. If the agency quoted a top House Democrat saying one thing, they’d quote a top Republican a few paragraphs down saying just the opposite. For every point, there was a counterpoint.
That’s how the world is. Of course there are “facts,” but many can be interpreted in myriad ways. The AP, like a lot of news agencies at the time, simply sought to lay out the two sides — or sometimes 12 sides — and let the reader decide.
All that changed in the 21st century. The Internet was beginning to bloom and afternoon newspapers across the U.S. — often a city’s conservative alternative to the liberal morning paper — began to wither and die. The AP, which provides content to news outlets, soon found that its clients wanted more liberal content (and were willing to pay handsomely for it).
I remember in the early ’00s, a top AP reporter covering the White House told me that the news service would no longer present the two sides as if they were equal. Citing climate change, the reporter said one side is “settled science,” which means that any other side doesn’t hold water.
The coverage of President George W. Bush quickly became heavily skewed. Following the AP’s lead, a slew of newspapers across the country abandoned any pretense of balanced coverage and embraced the side that their readers most wanted to hear. Activist journalism became the rage — and it’s only gotten worse since.
The state of journalism became clear when Barack Obama took over the White House. The coverage morphed into a defense of the Democrat and his liberal policies, but then just as quickly returned to nonstop naysaying when Republican Donald Trump became president. And now, President Joe Biden is enjoying a compliant media, intent on keeping their man in office.
Last week, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt finally said out loud what journalists have said for years sotto voce: “Fairness is overrated.”
Mr. Holt, who was accepting the Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from Washington State University (cue the irony siren), said the news media no longer needs to present both sides of a given story.
“The idea that we should always give two sides equal weight and merit does not reflect the world we find ourselves in. That the sun sets in the west is a fact. Any contrary view does not deserve our time or attention,” he said.
That is, obviously, an overly simplistic approach. Of course the sun sets in the west, and 1+1=2. But is abortion wrong? Is taxing corporations at a high rate good for the economy? Should Americans embrace hormone therapy for children who decide to be transsexual? Thorny subjects.
For Mr. Holt, though, there is only one answer (in the old days, we called that an “opinion,” but nowadays that’s called “news”).
“Decisions to not give unsupported arguments equal time are not a dereliction of journalistic responsibility or some kind of agenda. In fact, it’s just the opposite,” Mr. Holt said. “Providing an open platform for misinformation, for anyone to come say whatever they want, especially when issues of public health and safety are at stake, can be quite dangerous.
“Our duty is to be fair to the truth. Holding those in power accountable is at the core of our function and responsibility. We need to hear our leader’s views, their policies, and reasoning. It’s really important. But we have to stand ready to push back and call out falsehoods,” Mr. Holt said.
But here’s the problem: That means Mr. Holt and his team of elders will decide what constitutes “unsupported arguments.” They — and they alone — will decide what is “fair to the truth.”
Mr. Holt went so far as to say departing from the objectivity once represented in journalism could “reinforce negative sentiment some hold to journalists.” But he added that the media — now almost entirely liberal — will be the arbiters of fact.
“That we have had to be more direct in our language in recent times only speaks to the volume and gravity of particular statements and claims,” Mr. Holt said. “Fact-checking is not a vendetta or attack. We all have a stake in us getting it right.”
But Brit Hume, the longtime and well-respected journalist who helped create the “fair and balanced” formula at Fox News, summed up the whole argument in a single post on Twitter.
“Obviously if one side says the White House is made of powdered milk, and the other disagrees, we can safely ignore the milk claim,” Mr. Hume wrote. “But political disputes are rarely so cut and dried. So we report what both sides are saying and let viewers and readers make up their own minds.”
Sadly, those days are gone and “facts” are becoming ever more elusive. Now, Americans will have to search far and wide for the truth. But at least they now know that the “news” media no longer has any intention of presenting both sides of a story.
Caveat emptor indeed.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @josephcurl.