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American Journalism Review
Bias In The Press: "Both Sides Are...."  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   December 1991

Bias In The Press: "Both Sides Are...."   

It is often an easy and phony ploy for a reporter who wants sanctuary.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


The most powerful bias in American journalism, which permeates local and national reporting of government and politics, is already warping and trivializing coverage of the 1992 election campaign. It is the "both sides are" phenomenon: an easy reductionism in which two (sometimes more) sides in a dispute are equated in their irresponsibility. This is often an easy and phony ploy for a reporter who wants sanctuary from charges of partisanship, even if it means shading the truth.

It comes from some of the very best reporters, as if they were answering a mandate of the trade. The general rule in this use of Journalistic Teflon: Make it clear that you think Democrats and Republicans – those people in particular, but also organized parties of other kinds – are equally contemptible, flawed or stupid on any given matter at any given time.

This is a constant knee jerk in print and broadcast news as well as in opinion pieces. (I see editorials that twist like tornadoes to avoid affixing blame to a political party, lest, God forbid, the newspaper appear to be partisan in its editorials.)

A codicil of the rule: The stronger the opinions expressed (well, of course they are not opinions, really, but analyses based solely upon careful consideration of all the facts by an unprejudiced professional), the greater the need for a disguise in the form of a pox-on-both-or-all-your-houses disclaimer.

I now cite words from one of the country's best reporters, E. J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post, who wrote in an otherwise excellent Sunday perspective piece immediately after the Clarence Thomas hearings:

"The visible drama was the televised conflict between Thomas and Anita Hill. But the real struggle, of which this was merely the most transfixing engagement, was going on below the surface: the nation's extended moral civil war over issues involving race relations, gender rights, ethnicity and the cultural soul of America.

"It is a fight in which the various sides are so

utterly convinced of their moral righteousness that they are willing to flout all the rules in order to win. When winning is the only thing, the rights of individuals don't matter, words and what they mean don't matter."

Well, now, is this really true? Or isn't it a partisan view of another kind? Granted there are abuses on both or various sides of these issues. But are these advocates equally guilty, believing that winning is the only thing? And are the terrorists out there no worse than ardent and sometimes unruly advocates on the other side?

Okay, I get the statesmanlike point, about how the nation is torn fundamentally on some of these matters, and things are getting pretty raw. But in the context of the Thomas hearings, I wonder. Was it victory at any price on the part of the two principal sides? I had the distinct impression that the sleazier, tougher, to-hell-with-anything-else side, the side that was more resourcefully cynical in manipulating racial issues, was the one that won.

Some journalists told it straight, usually under the cover of analysis, or "think pieces." But journalists mostly were confounded by the moral dimensions of the story and reached for the safety of "both sides are," bobbing and weaving, and dancing right out the door to avoid the story. l

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