US Media Consumers Trapped in Both-Sides Multiverse [updated]

Jerry: I’m open. There’s just nothing in there.

SEINFELD S9 E3THE SERENITY NOW

If you want to fully understand mainstream journalism in the U.S., Twitter provided a few excellent examples recently.

The examples often come from the New York Times, a publication either viewed as the paper of record or a liberal rag, but mainstream journalism is consistently equally hollow regardless of outlet.

In a post from December 23, 2021, Twitter exposed the NYT’s use of passive voice, shading the public’s view of police killings by focusing on bullets:

That’s a magical agent-less bullet [1], much like the raging SUVs killing people as well:

Burying the agent, passive construction, is a common practice of mainstream media; for example, not saying aloud a key aspect of a story:

Refusing to acknowledge that the Critical Race Theory attacks are driven by white parents and white politics is distorting the public’s perception of this manufactured crisis in a similar way to the NYT’s coverage of police shootings.

But the primary go-to of the NYT and most mainstream journalism is reducing all coverage to “both sides” false equivalence:

In Enid, both sides in the mask debate believed they were standing up for what was right. Both cared deeply for their city — and their country — and believed that, in their own way, they were working to save it. And it all started as an argument over a simple piece of cloth.

First They Fought About Masks. Then Over the Soul of the City.

Of course, advocating for health and safety based on medical evidence is exactly the same as advocating for endangering people based on nonsense—as long as “both sides” are passionate.

Just like during the Holocaust, we might imagine the NYT’s coverage framing Nazi’s and Jews “believ[ing] they were [both] standing up for what was right.”

While, as I noted above, people tend either to oversell the NYT as having the “best” journalism or to demonize the NYT as absurdly “liberal,” the truth is that the NYT and most mainstream journalism are consistently hollow; “[t]here’s just nothing in there.”

If you pay attention to mainstream journalism, for example, you discover U.S. public schools suck, teachers don’t know what they are doing because teacher educators are clueless (especially when teaching reading), and , of course, poor people are incredibly lazy and horrible with money (notable is the NYT apparently cribbing from The Onion).

Why such baseless and hollow criticism of education and people trapped in poverty? My guess is the mainstream journalism is using deflection to cover for the essential hollowness of mainstream journalism.

And coincidentally, since my fields of experience and expertise include both education and writing (I taught and have written journalism), I believe journalism suffers a similar fate to education, especially elementary education.

Let me emphasize here that I strongly believe journalism and education are robust and credible fields of study, worthy of scholarship and suitable as majors for undergraduate and graduate students. However, when journalism and education are reduced to skills only, the problems noted above occur.

Being well versed in how to conduct journalism or how to teach is important, but not adequate.

Having been a so-called serious writer for about 40 years, I am certain I have the rhetorical skills to write authoritatively about any topic. But those skills would prove to be a mirage, a veneer with quite a few subjects about which I have no expertise.

As I have noted repeatedly about the “science of reading” movement, media coverage of how to teach reading is reductive and worst of all lacking historical context. The SoR problems are examples of Christopher Columbus journalism, a journalist approaching a topic as if they are the first to discover the topic while running roughshod over an existing field.

Being an experienced journalist and having a degree in journalism are of little real value if the journalist doesn’t also have the extensive knowledge of a topic that scholars have.

Ironically, the “both sides” approach, I think, comes in part from admitting a lack of knowledge by the journalist, who then reaches out to people who know the field. The mistake comes when the journalist has no knowledge that would allow them to evaluate who they cite—resulting in far too often journalism that is nothing more than false equivalence.

I was invited once to debate corporal punishment, and the people organizing the debate were perplexed they couldn’t find anyone who was pro-corporal punishment to participate, to which I noted that some topics do not have two sides. The person I was interacting with, a journalist, was completely disoriented by that concept.

People who are anti-racist are not morally or ethically equal to white nationalists or people who oppose anti-racism education; that “both sides” are passionate is a silly equivalence, a hollow equivalence.

Finally, let’s circle back to the Todd/Hannah-Jones exchange. Journalism and education have something else in common—disproportionate whiteness. Journalists are about 70% white (and incredibly under-representative of Black journalists at just over 5%), and educators are about 80% white (also under-representing Black educators at 7%).

Just as mainstream journalism defaults to passive constructions around police shootings, mainstream journalism rarely utters “white” because most journalists cannot see whiteness; whiteness perpetuates itself because it blinds white people to the facts of race.

The manufactured attacks on CRT as a subset of Trumpism are reinforced by mainstream media’s refusal to delineate for readers between credible and false claims. In the early days of Trump, we watched mainstream journalism struggle to call Trump’s lies “lies.”

The simplistic “objective/neutral” pose of journalists is one of the foundational flawed skills of journalism that stands in place of actual expertise.

Mainstream journalism does not suffer from a liberal bias, but mainstream journalism does suffer from a hollowness that is reflected in journalists defaulting to passive constructions and erasing the most essential elements of the topics they are covering.

Unlike Jerry on Seinfeld, journalists have yet to come to the awareness that when you confront their reporting “[t]here’s just nothing in there,” like, as the many Black folk I follow on Twitter noted, the meals white folk prepared at Thanksgiving.


[1] Updated coverage; note the passive voice in the subtitle:

Key information from the coverage:

Surveillance video showed the suspect attacking two women, including one who fell to the floor before he dragged her by her feet through the store’s aisles as she tried to crawl away.

Multiple people including store employees called police to report a man striking customers with a bike lock at the store in the North Hollywood area of the San Fernando Valley. One caller told a 911 dispatcher that the man had a gun. No firearm — only the bike lock — was recovered at the scene….

In bodycam video, armed officers entered the store and approached the suspect. The victim was seen on the blood-stained floor and the suspect was on the other side of the aisle. At least one officer opened fire, striking the man.

The 24-year-old suspect, Daniel Elena Lopez, died at the scene. Also killed was Valentina Orellana-Peralta, 14, who was hiding with her mother inside a dressing room….

LAPD officers have shot […] 38 people — 18 of them fatally, including the shooting Sunday of a man with a knife — in 2021, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Those figures mark a dramatic rise in cases where officers shot or killed people in either of the last two years — 27 people were shot and 7 of them killed by LA police in all of 2020. In 2019, officers shot 26 people, killing 12.

Los Angeles Police Video Shows Officer Shooting That Killed 14-Year-Old Girl