Charges from both sides

Published March 28, 2024

By Gary Pearce

Democratic heads exploded over this story in The News & Observer last week:

“The two candidates running to lead North Carolina’s public schools are accusing each other of promoting radical agendas that would devastate public education in the state.”

Democrats call that “both-sidesism.” Some journalists call it “balanced reporting.”

It’s the practice of giving equal space or time to both sides, even though what one side said is demonstrably true and what the other side said is demonstrably false.

It’s a bad practice – bad journalism and bad for our democracy.

As an old newspaperman I know says: “You don’t give equal space to an angel and the devil.”

The angel here is Mo Green (photo), Democratic nominee for superintendent of public instruction. The N&O was reporting on a press conference where Green said GOP nominee Michele Morrow is anti-public schools and engages in violent rhetoric.

Green cited social media posts where Morrow talked about executing prominent Democrats and called public schools “socialist indoctrination centers.”

All that is true.

But then the N&O gave the devil more credence than she was due:

“Morrow called Green a ‘radical extremist.’ She’s focused on the grants that the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation gave when Green was the progressive group’s executive director from 2016 to 2023.”

The N&O story quoted Green as denying her charge. But the reporter didn’t independently check out and challenge Morrow’s assertion. That was a mistake.

Paige Masten, deputy opinion editor for the N&O’s partner paper The Charlotte Observer, righted the balance somewhat a few days later. She wrote a column that concluded Morrow’s statements about Green and the foundation were “wildly misleading.”

That context should have been in the news story.

This year, journalists face a challenge: How will they cover politicians, like Trump, who lie every time they open their mouths?

NBC News just did the worst thing possible. It hired one of the biggest liars and Trump enablers, former Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, as an on-air commentator.

NBC journalists like Chuck Todd promptly went on air criticizing her hiring as raising “credibility issues” for the network.

You have to wonder whether some journalists and news organizations are acting out of fear. Have they been intimidated by Trump-MAGA attacks on “fake media”?

The challenge comes at a time when newspapers are underfunded, overstretched and under-edited.

Years ago at the N&O, there was a legendarily tough and exacting editor named Bob Brooks. He was a mentor to me and generations of journalists.

If I had turned in that story about Green and Morrow, Brooks would have beckoned me into his office, fixed me with that withering glare and sent me back to dig deeper: “This story has a hole in it. You didn’t ask the hard questions. Is what she said true?”

Unfortunately, too few newsrooms today have a Bob Brooks.

Ferrel Guillory, who was a reporter and editor at the N&O and later a journalism professor at UNC, summed up the problem:

“Too many reporters, and their readers, think of ‘objectivity’ as a quote from one side matched by a quote from another side. The American experience from McCarthyism to Trump-MAGA shows the narrowness of that definition. Genuine objectivity is a process of pursuing the truth with independence and integrity, with credibility and context.”

This year, we readers should demand that journalists be diligently dedicated to “pursuing the truth with independence and integrity, with credibility and context.”

We deserve the truth. The future of our democracy depends on it.

And, in this case, the future of North Carolina’s public schools depends on it.