By Josh Sager
The mainstream media in the United States currently prizes neutrality in their reporting over virtually all other values. The American media’s neutrality in reporting manifests as their giving equal credence, focus and criticism for all sides of an argument, without passing judgment as to the validity of the argument. While acting as the neutral reporter, the media simply reports what the different sides of a debate assert, and does not act as fact-checker; the neutral reporter trusts the different sides of an argument to present factual arguments and acts simply as a debate moderator (asking questions and ensuring that the answers are heard by the audience), rather than a journalist.
When talking about neutral reporting, it is very important to differentiate it from the idea of objective reporting. Unlike with neutral reporting, objective reporting comes from giving no side of an argument an advantage, yet holding all sides to the facts. Any misstatement of the facts or attempt to obfuscate the issues by any side of the argument is challenged by the objective reporter. The ideal media acts as objective reporters, not neutral reporters, and serve as the impartial referees which hold all politicians to the facts—ensuring that citizens are able to rationally determine accountability for their politicians.
While neutrality is sometimes a commendable and beneficial component of an unbiased media outlet, it can easily become a form of bias. In situations where an argument is between a rational individual and an irrational individual—rather than two rational actors—neutrality is heavily biased in favor of the irrational arguer. When the neutral media does not fact-check politicians who attempt to argue using nonsensical or nonfactual arguments, it allows politicians to promote arguments with no real basis in fact.
A non-factual argument, while incorrect, is often far easier to perpetuate than a rational argument; non-factual arguments are based upon fictions which are tailored to support the argument, and reject all opposing evidence. In the absence of fact-checkers, the fictional constructs of non-factual arguments can easily trick the uninformed into supporting policies which cannot work in real life, and have little basis in reality.
A neutral media, like the one in the United States, provides the perfect medium for the propagation of non-factual arguments. By endlessly repeating all sides of an argument, without checking to see if the arguments are based in reality, the neutral media gives credibility to nonsensical arguments. The neutral status of the media creates the public perception that the sides covered by the media are factual and rational. Unfortunately, the credibility given to nonsensical arguments when they are repeated by the mainstream media allows for non-fictional arguments to be mainstreamed in ways which would be impossible with an objective media.
Probably the greatest example of the distortive effect of neutrality can be found in the modern debates over tax cuts. Large segments of the Democratic Party and the entire Republican Party have argued that tax cuts are needed to bolster the failing economy and promote growth; this is a falsehood, and has been used to promote terrible economic policies. It is true that some tax cuts, in some situations, can spur economic growth, but this is not always the case. It is common knowledge among economists that tax cuts are not the economic panacea which they are portrayed as by politicians, but the media continues to perpetuate this falsehood simply because politicians claim it to be true.
Recent Examples of Situations Where Neutrality has become Biased:
If Americans wish to have a functional government which passes fact-based policy, we must demand that our media not only refuse to take sides in their political reporting but also ensure that all politicians base their policies upon factual arguments. Unless our politicians are forced to live within the facts by the media, they will be able to convince the public to support irrational policies. The media is not only the neutral mouthpiece for politicians to sell their policies, but the institution from which accountability is created.
Neutrality between the liar and the truth teller is not actually neutral (not that the sides are usually this clear-cut), but rather a form of bias which threatens to allow the liar to portray their lies as truth. The media in the United States must recognize this crucial distinction and begin to return to its role as the objective referee. Unless the media begins this return to its roots, it will likely become little better than an organization of stenographers, who are merely used to spread non-factual political propaganda.