On October 21 the Washington Post carried two side by side front page headlines: “A quiet effort to move GOP to the middle on gay rights” and “How would McAuliffe or Cuccinelli govern? Both candidates must overcome reputations, legislative partisanship.” Clunky English but comfortable ideas: “partisanship” indeed political parties, are dirty things; the middle is whatever the middle is between equal Republican and Democratic party extremes.

As scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein from the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute told us a year ago in their book “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks,” America’s problem isn’t political polarization, it is the takeover of one party, the Republicans, by extremists. Noted journalists have weighed in. Eric Alterman has denounced false objectivity as driven by a false ideology of “balanced” reporting and equivalence of extremes, in what Paul Krugman has called “post–truth politics”. The shut down/debt limit crisis took the Ornstein and Mann conclusion to high decibel levels. That conclusion has been conveyed, however, almost exclusively though endless reporting on opinion polls, grass roots interviews and analysis of party leaders’ calculations and tactics (equal time to both sides).

The media is washing its hands of any responsibility to look at the messages they convey, and not just on the op-ed pages. They need to come out of their safety mode and whack this “balanced polarization” mole back underground. Just describing the positions of Republican’s and Democrat’s supposedly balanced “extremes” gives the game away. Some or all Republican politicians want to get rid of Social Security, abolish the Federal Reserve and Environmental Protection Agency, renege on the US sovereign debt, deny the legitimacy of laws passed by Congress and declared constitutional by the Supreme Court, suppress the vote and rig electoral districts, require an anti abortion pledge from appointed officials in the federal Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, ban not only abortion but contraception in the United States. This side – the Republican side – has demonstrated indifference to hunger in America by rejecting reauthorization of food stamp programs and urging states to reject federal financing for Medicaid. The other side – hold on! – wants to let tax rates return to pre Bush 43 levels and, along with the rest of the industrialized world, prefers a single payer system of healthcare. No Balanced polarization of extremes exists.

The idea that all reporting must be balanced goes back a long ways. I remember that after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing the PBS news hour “balanced” a report on extremist groups by offering equal time to a man who described his conviction that the UN was sending out “black helicopters” to attack America. No factual statement rejecting his “take” on the situation was offered. In 2013, of course, Washington is the black helicopter.

The balance mantra distorts everything. The brainwashed and fed up public demands that Washington compromise and work together. Finding the “center” between the two parties is said to be the solution. Even better is pushing bipartisanship and nonpartisanship. But what exactly is the “center” on gay rights; what exactly is legislative bipartisanship in the Virginia legislature? A flip of the coin to decide which Virginia women are forced to have ultrasound if they are seeking abortions?

Flowing from the balance distortion is the idea that political parties are dirty. A pejorative slush flows over not just political parties but all democratic institutions. At the same time, politicians are rock stars, especially those who want to destroy government and with it, presumably, the politicians who have a calling to respond to citizens with actions that improve their lives.

The extremist Republicans win unless we change the story line.

— Elizabeth Spiro Clark

Advertisements