MLive false-balance headline provokes clapback from Biden campaign, others

November 05, 2020, 3:08 PM

Once upon a different time, political journalists held this truth to be self-evident: Cover "both sides" with careful balance by giving roughly equal space, time and visibility to opposing parties, candidates and views.

Many news professionals and consumers now recognize that as a disservice and an opening for exploitation -- a trap Michigan critics say fell into Thursday.

But first, quick context on the "the ritual of balance," as author-columnist James Fallows of The Atlantic puts it. He also calls it one of his industry's "most destructive habits."

At Columbia Journalism Review, columnist Jon Allsop writes:

”In the Trump era, 'both sides' (or 'bothsidesism') has become shorthand for a journalistic philosophy that many media critics consider to be broken. Its rules, critics say, make things that aren’t the same seem the same, and allow bad actors to launder disinformation. ... 

Democrats, for the most part, are engaging with the factual record; Republicans, for the most part, are not. These positions are manifestly not equivalent. Treating them as such does not serve any useful concept of fairness; instead, it rebounds clearly to the advantage of the one side (Republicans) for whom nonsense being taken seriously is a victory in itself.

MLive, an eight-city Michigan newspaper group, stumbles into "bothsidesism" with the headline at right. It's atop a paywalled post on "stop the count" chants Wednesday afternoon outside TCF Center in Detroit and "Detroit voices count" signs at a march "four miles away [by] protesters on the opposite end of the political spectrum."

Other media, including Deadline Detroit, reported separately on each event or avoided equating them.

Reactions to MLive's conflation come from (in order below) the Biden campaign's state communications director, a Dearborn congresswoman, the state Democratic Party's rapid response director and a Flint congressman's chief of staff:

MLive owns the online-only Ann Arbor News and newspapers in these cities: Bay City, Flint, Grand Rapids, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Muskegon and Saginaw.

-- Alan Stamm

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