Confusion About False Balance at the Paper of Record

What the New York Times’s public editor is getting wrong about biased coverage.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged media

When Liz Spayd took over as public editor of the New York Times this summer, she got off to an inauspicious start, calling (somewhat faddishly) for the paper’s journalists to “produce a product that consumers have a greater say in creating,” displaying misplaced concern for the success of its marketing strategy (which does not fall under her job description), and making confusing recommendations that seemed irrelevant to the Times’s particular strengths and role (“Think of pioneering comedians like Jon Stewart”). These and many other problems were noted at the time by Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, who concluded that the piece suggested “Spayd’s confusion about the point of her own role as a representative for readers.” Part of that confusion involved an excessively deferential attitude toward readers, marked above all by the persistent suggestion that journalists have no particular expertise when it comes to judgments of what is newsworthy. Spayd’s latest column suggests that these attitudes haven’t changed, and that they inform her position on the most important debate facing journalism today.

Spayd’s topic is the controversy over both-sides-do-it journalism, and she initially describes the debate this way: “False balance, sometimes called ‘false equivalency,’ refers disparagingly to the practice of journalists who, in their zeal to be fair, present each side of a debate as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side.”

So far, so good. The discussion begins to unravel, though, when Spayd takes the example of readers who are angry that the Times is “too harsh on Clinton, given the dangers of her opponent.” But there are two distinct issues here: one is whether the Times gives such extensive coverage to (say) questions about the Clinton Foundation that it misleadingly creates the perception of serious wrongdoing on the level of what the Washington Post actually has uncovered about Trump’s charity outfit. The other is whether the Times should not chase Clinton stories that its journalists believe to be important because they have decided in advance to not endanger the country by elevating Trump’s chances. The first is a serious journalistic failing. The second would be, if there were any evidence that it was happening. By conflating the two, Spayd is able to recast routine—even essential—journalistic judgments of newsworthiness as dangerous ideological meddling:

The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers — remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope.


There are plenty of times when the media does a sloppy job of making coverage decisions. It overplays stories, reaches unfounded conclusions and publishes pieces that ought to be killed. But these calls should be based on the individual merits of the stories, not a guiding philosophy that encourages value judgments.

This gets things entirely backwards. Critics of false balance are not asking “for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates”; they are asking journalists to make considered judgments about the newsworthiness of events, rather than assuming as a matter of course that two candidates or two sides of a debate must always be roughly equivalent. This isn’t “paternalistic,” and it doesn’t imply that journalists should entirely avoid covering certain stories based on what they think will confuse readers.

Indeed, if journalists deem the Clinton email story less important than Trump’s request for Russia to hack his opponent, then they should cover the stories accordingly. That’s their job. Why would we ask for anything different? Journalists, especially at the Times, are professionals, and it is possible (despite Spayd’s dark insinuations) for them to act within their area of competence, making informed judgments about stories that are not simply the product of their moral or ideological views.

Toward the end of the column, Spayd writes: “I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates.” In a piece that shrugs off concerns about false balance, this is unintentionally revealing: Spayd doesn’t actually provide any solid reasons to doubt the truth of the liberal claim; the mere observation that one side is making it is sufficient reason to believe that it’s probably not true. There must, after all, be balance.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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