Neutrality isn’t objective

How US journalists are getting played

“Neutrality in the teeth of asymmetric propaganda ==> complicity” — Yochai Benkler

A massive analysis of over two million stories related to the 2016 election from 70,000 media sources documented what many of us suspected: Journalists were manipulated by relatively small number of right-wing media actors into producing coverage that was ultimately favorable to Donald Trump.

Forget the endless hand-wringing over journalists’ supposed inattention to the disgruntled white male rural voter. This exhaustive data set tells a different and disturbing story.

In December, Yochai Benkler, the Faculty Co-Director at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School came to the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism to talk to us about this research and its implications for journalists. I wanted to share what I learned from him.

Interviewing Benkler at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY

To get a full understanding of his findings, read the report or the book, Network Propaganda. But in brief:

“We document that the majority of mainstream media coverage was negative for both candidates, but largely followed Donald Trump’s agenda: when reporting on Hillary Clinton, coverage primarily focused on the various scandals related to the Clinton Foundation and emails. When focused on Trump, major substantive issues, primarily immigration, were prominent. Indeed, immigration emerged as a central issue in the campaign and served as a defining issue for the Trump campaign.”

A detailed case study also shows how the false story about how Hillary Clinton supposedly changed U.S. State Department policies in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation made its way from right wing media sites into the mainstream, helping to not only fire up Trump’s base but to generally establish widespread suspicion of Clinton’s corruption.

The Clinton Foundation “scandal” originated in a book by a Breitbart editor. The author, Peter Schweizer, co-founded the organization that funded the book with Steve Bannon. Where did those funds come from, you may ask? Robert Mercer, super PAC donor to the Trump campaign.

The NYT published an extensive piece on the book. As the report by Benkler and his colleagues points out:

“it was the clear insinuation of corruption in the headline, not the buried admission that no evidence of corruption was in fact uncovered, that made the April 2015 story one of the Times’ most tweeted stories during the summer of 2016.”

Mainstream pieces of this type then also feed back into the right wing media ecosystem, allowing the likes of Fox News, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller to later reference the NYT story to give added credence to related articles with little factual basis. And this is just one example.

“By developing plausible narratives and documentation susceptible to negative coverage, parallel to the more paranoid narrative lines intended for internal consumption within the right-wing media ecosystem, and by “working the refs,” demanding mainstream coverage of anti-Clinton stories, right-wing media played a key role in setting the agenda of mainstream, center-left media..”

How did this happen?

Savvy political players like Bannon are only too aware of journalists’ value systems and how to use what ultimately are the good intentions and human foibles of reporters and editors against them.

Political journalists in the United States, as we know, strive to be nonpartisan and fair to “both sides.” But when it turns out the preponderance of the evidence shows that one side is either outright lying or simply wrong, they start to get uncomfortable. Regardless of their veracity, charges of bias make them nervous. So in an effort to balance out the negativity piling up about a particular candidate or party, journalists become vulnerable to propaganda. In other words, the understandable desire to avoid criticism gets us into trouble.

This is certainly not a new problem. Jay Rosen has been writing about problems with the “view from nowhere” for a long time. And while we are getting better about covering climate change with accuracy, for a long time, stories about climate change got the “both sides” treatment despite growing scientific consensus.

Confusing neutrality with objectivity is dangerous. We may think we are doing what we have to do to retain trust from a large and polarized audience, but transparency about our methods of verifying information would, I’d argue, be better and more true to our belief in the pursuit of truth than setting up a false equivalence. And as Benkler said in his talk, being aware of and constantly alert to possible manipulation can go a long way toward not getting played next time.