On the surface, hearing both sides of any story is good. It’s better than good even. It’s necessary. The United States is a democracy, after all, and our capacity for spirited debate and disagreement goes part-in-parcel with the idea of unabridged free speech enshrined in our Bill of Rights. To deny said discussion would not only be a dereliction of duty but an affront to our national values.
But what if one side is wrong? Not the sort of ‘wrong’ that implies disagreement, but a demonstrably false wrong. If someone were to argue that the sky is green, or two-plus-two equals five, would those views warrant a full-throated discussion? An ‘agree-to-disagree’ moment?
No. Of course not. There is no Point A and Point B. There is simply a fact, and nothing else. In cases like these, we can easily see the absurdity of these fabrications and dismiss them at the outset.
The mad genius of the dubious news stories that occupy today’s media ecosystem is that they cannot be effortlessly discredited. If a story rings true enough – wrapped up in so many asterisks, hidden behind such thick pettifog – then removing the facade of truthfulness takes time and resources. By the time the theoretical referee calls a foul, the dog-pile of political punditry is already a mile high. By that point, the hearsay has occupied our airwaves and television screens for far too long. The damage is done.
The scandal surrounding Hunter Biden is a perfect case study of this phenomenon. Since the New York Post published its front-page story two weeks ago, the media ecosystem has devolved into frantic commentary and finger-pointing. While time will tell what aspects of the story warrant criticism, the chain of events preceding its publication reek of partisan hackery. Journalist Ben Smith reported that Trump surrogates initially aimed to get the story to The Wall Street Journal. However, while The Journal was taking its time to verify the story, Rudy Giuliani came out of left-field to deliver a tabloid version to the New York Post. Then came Twitter’s ham-handed media blackout, accusations of social media bias, Tony Bobulinski, and everything else we see today.
“Bothsidism,” as a theory of media studies, is defined as a media bias in which journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence supports. In other words, by giving credence to any and all sides of a debate, the media presents evidence and arguments out of proportion to the actual evidence – a false balance.
The sheer size and nature of today’s media market offerings allow bothsidism to run rampant. In the case of Hunter Biden, when reputable journalists and media organizations tried to pump the brakes and verify its credibility, it was published in another. Then, once the news was out, there was an immediate call for publications to weigh in on the issue. Trump surrogates who had a vested interest in amplifying the story branded more-cautious media outlets as politically biased instead of rightfully cautious. To save face, these media outlets had to provide some level of commentary or syndication, which gave the unvetted narrative more oxygen. The demand for hearing the other side became a curse.
What is lost is the ability to come to a nuanced conclusion – to separate the wheat from the chaff. As Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, aptly notes: “It should be possible to cover revelations about the Biden family that are neither disinformation nor the greatest scandal of our time.” That is not possible given the way the media ecosystem exists right now. Instead of waiting for due diligence, we are flooded with opinions. As such, the public resigns to projection – mentally filling in the gaps with their preferred outcome.
Rather than letting outrage take the wheel, we need to take a step back and allow time to play out. The answers will come in due course.