The New York Times has created quite the backlash by hiring a climate change columnist who likes to pretend climate change isn’t real. Prominent political figures have announced that they’re canceling their subscriptions in protest. It’s merely the latest instance of a news outlet falling into the trap of worrying so much about the appearance of bias that it’s caused them to become biased.
It’s not biased to state that climate change is real and manmade; those are the facts of the story. If a news outlet wants to provide differing views on the matter, a legitimate approach might be for one columnist to focus on the need to correct climate change, and for the other columnist to focus on the negative impact that correcting climate change might have on businesses. Those would both be valid opinions, whether you agree with them or not, because they’re both based on the fact that climate change is real.
In contrast, if a news outlet tries to give a voice to “both sides” where one side is the factual truth and the other side is the disproven fiction that some people merely wish were true, that’s not being balanced. In fact, when a news outlet allows one of its writers to pretend that something disprovably false is true, that represents conscious bias in favor of the false position. It’s pandering instead of reporting. And while the New York Times is being punished in this instance because it’s been caught pandering to falsehood so blatantly, this kind of thing goes on all the time at many, if not most, political news outlets.
And on some level I don’t blame them for taking the easy route. It’s not merely a matter of appeasing those in your potential audience who insist on believing false and disproven things. There is also the matter of those out there whose definition of “unbiased” means reporting both sides of any issue as if they were exactly the same. These types typically settle on that definition because they can’t figure out which side of any given issue has more merit, or they can’t be bothered to do their homework. But nonetheless, these know-nothings use social media and word of mouth to loudly and often obsessively punish any news outlet whose coverage isn’t arbitrarily split down the middle on any given day.
It’s damaging enough to the public discourse that so many news outlets chase the appearance of being unbiased at the expense of being unbiased. But it’s far from the only display of cowardice that haunts the legitimacy of news reporting. Now more than ever, major news outlets are often afraid to report solid stories with solid sourcing for fear of almost childlike backlash from all sides.
When a news outlet reports a political story that’s full of evidence but doesn’t represent absolute proof, the peanut gallery on social media will begin inappropriately yelling “fake news” at the report. It’s not even necessarily that they don’t want the report to be true; they just want to look judicious by making the accusation. These days, where everyone thinks they’re a reporter, even the anonymous voices on Twitter with twelve followers are worrying about appearances. Reporters from other news outlets who didn’t have the guts to report the story will also often chime in by attacking their competitor as being “fake news” or worse. And this kind of backbiting has been going on since long before Donald Trump began invoking those two words.
On top of it all, we now have the rise of tabloid clickbait style “fact checking” sites that do no fact checking and provide no valuable information, and whose sole purpose is to slap an ominous sounding “unverified” or “unproven” rating on the perfectly legitimate reporting coming from respected news outlets. In 2016 we had to legitimately worry about fake news. In 2017 we have to worry about fake fact checkers trying to make a dishonest buck by convincing us that real news is somehow fake.
So news outlets sit on valid stories for months, waiting like cowards for the umpteenth redundant “verification” to fall into their lap on a story they already know is solid, just to avoid taking the slings and barbs from the social media bottom feeders and their most viciously infantile of competitors. It’s the same reason news outlets hire a throwaway columnist here and there to promote disprovably false positions on the issues. They’re just that afraid of how the worst elements out there will try to controversialize them for daring to do their jobs properly. These days everyone is desperate to play it safe, for fear of falling victim to a dishonest feeding frenzy.
But if we keep pushing back against news outlets like the New York Times when they decide they care more about appearances than they do about legitimate reporting, and if we keep supporting news outlets that are willing to report what needs to be reported, no matter the backlash from the bottom feeders, perhaps we can finally reverse that trend. And in so doing, we might finally get the media we deserve. Contribute to Palmer Report
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report