Whenever White House adviser Kellyanne Conway appears on a TV news or talk show, I switch the channel to more useful programming, such as the Home Shopping Network selling something in which I have no interest. Conway, who traffics in distortion and lies, is among the media circuit regulars who has spawned industry debate as to whether some people deserve an interview and appearance ban. A combative December appearance by Conway on Chris Cuomo’s CNN news talk show, for instance, produced a live, long and lively argument between Cuomo and CNN news anchor Don Lemon.
A more recent repeat of the same issue, but involving a more offensive individual, occurred two weeks ago when conservative commentator and author Ben Shapiro, who could less politely be described as a hateful troll, was aggressively questioned by an interviewer on a BBC politics show. Shapiro, who unlike Conway does not advise a national decision maker (but who is popular enough that he filled the lecture room at a February appearance at the University of Alabama), abruptly walked out of the interview on live TV. Nesrine Malik, a columnist for The Guardian, wrote: “No matter how much those with regressive, prejudiced or simply dishonest views are challenged, it is pointless if they are constantly provided a venue. It is the platform that legitimizes them, not how they perform when they are on that platform.”
People worse than Shapiro sometimes get big platforms, too. Megyn Kelly controversially chose to begin her now-defunct primetime talk show on NBC in 2017 by interviewing InfoWars’ odious Alex Jones, who was recently banned from Facebook. It’s not just an issue for TV, either. The New York Times was heavily criticized for its 2017 feature story on an Ohio white nationalist following the infamous white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Much of the criticism was about how the story was done, but much was that the story even existed at all. NYT national editor Marc Lacey responded: “The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”
There is no question that effective civics requires a wide range of social and political viewpoints in public discourse. Hate speech is constitutionally protected. But that is a restriction on government action. Media are able to do mostly as they please in sharing or not sharing extreme opinions, and these days the range of opinions that some segments of the public are willing to receive and espouse is growing wider, including public airing of viewpoints that once were confined to corners and shadows.
The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists says an ethical journalist or organization will “support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.” But SPJ also demands consideration of the potential harm done when repugnant views get aired, and when some politicians or commentators leave the realm of merely controversial statements and enter the realm of hate ideology or documentable falsehoods (which often go together), harm does occur. The harm of hate is evident, at least to people with a sense of empathy for demographic groups that are not like them. The harm of exposure for provable falsehoods is that too many people take such statements as truth, especially if the information squares with their existing beliefs. And then these statements go for a speed ride on social media, where they find more people who are gullible or looking for validation.
But media outlets continue to give attention to speakers with track records of vitriol or inaccuracy. They do so in part because most journalists still worship the traditional industry values of balance (“both sideism”) and objectivity. Further, they see great benefit to presenting the reality of the world: That politicians distort and lie, that society is not free of hate. All the better to enable skepticism and resistance among the audience, and perhaps as the first step toward solutions. This view is bolstered by the ideal that a good interviewer can reveal truth by challenging and counterarguing with facts. That is noble and necessary (and can be good for ratings too), but it is not easy to do, as interviewers face constraints of time and format, and some don’t prepare well enough to pull it off.
How to handle this journalistic dilemma may come down to one’s conception of the literacy and will of the audience. Public exposure for extremism and unethical persuasion may help to kill them, or may help to breed them. A lot of the evidence about large segments of media consumers today is disheartening in this regard. But an open marketplace of ideas can resist a few bad vendors. We need to know who they are and what they sell. And then we each can make our own choice of where to buy.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog. About News is a new BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.