Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Normal Times

In "Sexist Political Criticism Finds a New Target: KellyAnne Conway" the NYT makes an interesting editorial decision - placement of this piece in the straight news section rather than as opinion. Yet the piece reads as an opinion piece with its strongly expressed views of good and bad behavior. '
The Times rates this article News because, in their view, Times readers are mostly pro-Hillary and anti-sexism as is the Times. So if they go against the grain of their own usual thinking and that of their readers in a piece, it qualifies as news rather than opinion. The piece is a hit job on "the liberals" - really men, who are misbehaving. Sort of a "you are not as liberal as you think you are" or "you are no better than they are."
So what is so bad about this?
The Times has set formulas for news articles in the realm of politics. The standard formula is, in order to prove that you are not being unfair, you need to balance pros and cons of one "side" with equal and opposite pros and cons of the other "side". You are not a reporter. You are not even an arbiter. You are more like a mother being fair to all of her children, no matter what, seeking balance at all times.
But forced balance is not a path to objective depiction of reality. Forced balance leads only to balance, not understanding. If opposing sides are not equal, that is, different in some important way, it leads to drawing false equivalence and distraction from meaningful context - what is really happening.

Forced balance would have meant looking for the good in Hitler, to take an extreme example.

The striking thing about the KellyAnne Conway/Hillary Clinton equation article is just how strongly the NYT adheres to its balance formula for the News section.  "Misogyny, it seems, remains a bipartisan exercise." is one line in the article that screams out - OK, this is news, because we are being balanced.
The arguments in the article become strained and twisted several times, usually in a moment seeking balance.

"But she noted that while Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, is portrayed as an “evil genius” who cannily promotes images of an America at risk from immigrants and foreign competitors, Ms. Conway is depicted as “crazy” for devising and promoting similar messages."

Why in the world are we comparing Bannon and Conway, who have played different roles?  Bannon is almost exclusively the strategist behind the scenes and Conway frequently a spokesperson (until recent weeks). Bannon never needing to justify the actions of this administration, but Conway on the spot, answering tough questions like "Why does the president lie all the time?" similar to Spicer (until recently).  And who exactly has been calling Breitbart "an evil genius"? For that matter, who has been calling KAC a "slut" as the article states. How about naming those sources instead of generalizing in the passive voice. Poor editing. And KAC is called "crazy" for promoting "alternative facts". Isn't that reason enough?

Maybe a more on-point article would say that Conway invites contempt to the point that her critics find themselves behaving in ways they would normally find contemptible. "But these are not normal times." as the Times likes to say in a throw-away line that leaves a better explanation up to you, the reader.

Ultimately, in order to accurately report the news in context, the NYT will need to adjust their standard formulas for reporting so that the News section (this one is in the U.S. subsection) permits fair, accurate, objective reporting which, when politics is involved, does not require forced balance as the definition of objectivity.

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