WaPo and Keystone False Balance

Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel has a column in the Washington Post today (1/3/12) outlining the three important election issues to watch–and one of them is about how the press covers the process:

Third, the media’s obsession with false equivalence: How the election is covered will almost certainly have a measurable impact on its outcome.

The New York TimesPaul Krugman describes what he’s witnessing as “post-truth politics,” in which right-leaning candidates can feel free to say whatever they want without being held accountable by the press. There may be instances in which a candidate is called out for saying something outright misleading; but, as Krugman notes, “if past experience is any guide, most of the news media will feel as though their reporting must be ‘balanced.'” For too many journalists, calling out a Republican for lying requires criticizing a Democrat too, making for a media age where false equivalence–what Eric Alterman has called the mainstream media’s “deepest ideological commitment”–is confused, again and again, with objectivity.

That reminded me of a piece I read two days before in the Washington Post (1/1/12), where reporter David Nakamura discussed Barack Obama’s looming decision on the Keystone tar sands pipeline, one of “several potential political landmines littering his playing field”:

Republicans successfully added a provision to the two-month payroll tax cut extension mandating that Obama make a politically sensitive decision on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline by the end of February. He had hoped to delay a decision on the project–which Republicans have said will create jobs but environmentalists have said would harm natural resources–until after a federal environmental review is completed in 2013.

As is the convention, both sides are represented here. But does this make much sense? The problem with Republicans claims about job creation is that they are, according to many experts, wildly inflated. That would be important to note in a piece discussing the “political landmines” here.

The flipside, we’re told, is that “environmentalists” think the project might “harm natural resources.” That could mean anything–pollution from a spill, perhaps. Or it might be a reference to the greater threat from climate change. So the “natural resource” would be the planet Earth. “Balanced” journalism treats inflated jobs claims and the fate of the planet equally.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.