The nonpartisan model of journalism is built around the norm of covering politics as though both parties are equally guilty of all offenses. The 2016 campaign stressed that model to the breaking point with one candidate – Donald Trump – who lied at an astonishing level. PolitiFact rates 51 percent of his statements as “false” or “pants on fire,” with another 18 percent rated as “mostly false.” His presidency will continue to make nonpartisan journalistic norms difficult to follow.
As a political scientist focused on game theory, I approach the media from the perspective of strategic choice. Media outlets make decisions about how to position themselves within a market and how to signal to news consumers what kinds outlets they are in ideological terms. But they also interact strategically with politicians, who use journalists’ ideological leanings and accusations of leanings to undermine the credibility of even the most valid criticisms.
While Republican politicians have decried liberal media bias for decades, none has done so as vehemently as Trump, who polarizes the media in a way that may not leave an escape.
The development of a nonpartisan press
In the 20th and 21st centuries, news outlets have made their money through subscriptions, sales and advertisements. However, before these economic models developed, newspapers had a tough time turning a profit.
In the 19th century, many newspapers were produced and distributed by institutions that weren’t in it for the money. Political parties, therefore, were a primary source of news. Horace Greeley’s Jeffersonian – an outlet for the Whig Party – had a decidedly partisan point of view. Others, like The Bay State Democrat, had names that told you exactly what they were doing. When Henry Raymond founded The New York Times in 1851 as a somewhat more independent outlet despite his Whig and Republican affiliations, it was an anomaly. Nonetheless, partisan newspapers, for economic and political reasons, were common throughout the 19th century, particularly during the early 19th century.
The information in partisan newspapers was hardly unbiased. But nobody expected anything else because the concept of a neutral press didn’t really exist. The development of a neutral press on a large scale required both a different economic production and distribution model and the recognition that there was a market for it.
The muckraking era that began in the early 20th century brought such journalism into the forefront. Muckraking, the forebear of investigative journalism, traces back to Upton Sinclair and fellow writers who uncovered corruption and scandal. Its success demonstrated demand for papers that weren’t partisan, and production and distribution models developed that allowed more nonpartisan papers to turn a profit by filling a gap within the market.
The economic principles at work are always the same. There is a balancing act between the costs of entry and the size of the audience that can be reached which determines when new media outlets can form, just as in any other market. The trick is that costs and benefits change over time.
Neutrality norms in a complex media environment
Just as market incentives supported the development of a neutral press, market incentives, combined with technology, have allowed institutions like Fox News and MSNBC to provide news coverage from decidedly conservative and liberal perspectives, with internet sources further fragmenting the media environment into narrow ideological niches.
These media outlets, though, muddy the signals: A nonpartisan journalist strives to levy valid criticism, but a partisan journalist will always criticize the opposing party. Thus a weakly informed voter will have a difficult time distinguishing between, say, a valid accusation from a nonpartisan journalist that a Republican is lying and partisan bias from a left-wing journalist who fails to acknowledge that bias.
The current media landscape is a hybrid, combining opinion-based outlets that resemble the party-affiliated newspapers of the 19th century and journalistic outlets that attempt to follow the muckraking model that developed in the 20th century. The way the latter attempt to distinguish themselves from the former is by following norms of neutrality and asserting that both parties are equally guilty of all political sins. This model breaks down when the parties are no longer equally guilty.
Consider the first presidential debate of 2016. Hillary Clinton mentioned Trump’s 2012 claim that global warming was a Chinese hoax. Trump interrupted to deny having made the claim. Not only had Trump engaged in an outlandish conspiracy theory, but he also lied during a debate about having done so.
“Both sides do it” is not a valid response to this level of dishonesty because both sides do not always engage in this level of dishonesty. Yet it was relatively normal behavior for Trump, who rose to the top of the Republican Party by gradually taking leadership of the “birther” movement and eventually even tried to switch the blame for that to Clinton.
The strategic problem in this type of situation is more complex than it appears, and it is what I call “the journalist’s dilemma.” The nonpartisan press can let the lie go unremarked. But to do so is to enable Trump’s lies. On the other hand, if they point out how much he lies, Trump can respond with accusations of liberal media bias. Trump, in fact, goes further than past Republicans, even directing crowd hostility toward specific journalists at rallies.
The media landscape, though, is populated by outlets with liberal leanings, like MSNBC, so uninformed news consumers who lack the time to do thorough investigations of every Trump and Clinton claim must decide: If a media outlet says that Trump lies more than Clinton, does that mean he is more dishonest or that the media outlet is a liberal one? The rational inference, given the media landscape, is actually the latter, making it self-defeating for the nonpartisan press to attempt to call out Trump’s lies. This might explain why a plurality of voters thought that Trump was more honest than Clinton, despite a record of more dishonesty from Trump at fact-checking sites like PolitiFact.
Nonpartisan journalism in a Trump presidency?
Is there a way for the neutral press to point out when Trump lies and not have that information get discounted as partisan bias?
The basic problem is that the norms that have guided the nonpartisan press are built around the assumption that the parties are mirror images of each other. They may disagree on policy, but they abide by the same rules. The nonpartisan press as we know it, then, cannot function when one party systematically stops abiding those norms.
The 2016 campaign was an example of what happens when the parties are out of balance. Trump simply lied far more than Clinton, but the nonpartisan press was unable to convey that information to the public because even trying to point that out violates the “both sides do it” journalistic norm, thereby signaling bias to a weakly informed but rational audience, which invalidates the criticism.
Unfortunately, then, the nonpartisan press is essentially stuck, at least until Donald Trump is out of office. While there is no longer a “he said, she said” campaign, the fact that Trump is not only the president but the head of the Republican Party makes his statements informal positions of the Republican Party. For the press to attack those statements as lies is to place themselves in opposition to the Republican Party, making them de facto Democratic partisans.
Because Trump is an entertainer rather than a policymaker, it is difficult for the press to even interview him as a normal political figure since he does not respond to facts in conventional ways. Each time he lies, any media outlet that aspires to objectivity must decide whether to point it out – which would make it indistinguishable from the Democratic-aligned press – or to allow the lie to go unremarked, thereby remaining complicit in the lie, tacitly aiding the Republican Party. Neither is likely to inform anyone in any meaningful way, which renders the model of the neutral press nearly inoperable.