The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The media feel safest in the middle lane. Just ask Jeff Flake, John Kasich and Howard Schultz.

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One of the supposed golden rules of journalism goes like this: “If everybody’s mad at your coverage, you must be doing a good job.”

That’s ridiculous, of course, though it seems comforting. If everybody’s mad, it may just mean you’re getting everything wrong.

But it’s the kind of muddled thinking that feels right to media people who practice what I’ll call the middle-lane approach to journalism — the smarmy centrism that often benefits nobody, but promises that you won’t offend anyone.

Who is the media’s middle-lane approach actually good for?

Not the public, certainly, since readers and viewers would benefit from strong viewpoints across the full spectrum of political thought, not just minor variations of the same old stuff.

But it is great for politicians and pundits who bill themselves as centrists.

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz won big when he got a super-cushy red carpet for his possible 2020 presidential run as a “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” candidate who thinks his centrism can knit up the nation’s torn fabric. He got this despite his lack of political experience.

The Schultz rollout started Sunday evening on perhaps TV’s most prestigious platform — the “60 Minutes” interview — and picked up speed from there. There were naysayers, of course, but the up-by-his-bootstraps billionaire couldn’t complain about the exposure; he became a household name in two days flat.

Former Ohio governor John Kasich, a moderate Republican, benefited this week, too, when he joined CNN as a “senior political commentator.” The cable network’s announcement called the appointment “notable” because he is one of the most prominent critics of President Trump within the Republican Party. The idea that cable news is lacking commentary from anti-Trump Republicans is notable only in its lack of self-awareness.

And there’s more: Jeff Flake, the ineffectual — but square-jawed — former Republican senator, who was the occasional darling of the Trump resistance, benefited when he signed on with CBS as a contributor this week.

No surprise that Flake, who will be part of a series, “Common Ground,” tweeted a euphoric photo with the comment, “Post-senate life? So far, SOOO good . . . .”

What crucial views do these guys represent, anyway? Kasich was blown out of the water by Donald Trump in 2016, and Flake was a weak-willed resister — all eloquence and no spine.

But on it goes, with the middle of the road exerting its pull as if a powerful magnet were dragging news organizations away from underrepresented edges where they might fall into a ditch — or be more interesting.

You see it, too, in the supposedly daring, supposedly against-the-grain hires made by magazines and by newspaper op-ed pages. In their quest to run the full gamut from center-left to center-right, they are already well-equipped with anti-Trump conservatives.

And it’s there in both-sides news coverage, too.

My colleague Greg Sargent points out what he sees as the ongoing blight of media reports that bend over backward to appear evenhanded.

“When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) initially let it be known that President Trump would not be invited to Congress to deliver his State of the Union speech until he reopened the government, the widespread media take was that Pelosi had sunk to Trump’s level,” Sargent wrote.

That narrative seemed to hold both sides accountable for the standoff, but “it put the thumb on the scales for Trump in an insidious way,” he pointed out, because it didn’t allow for a reasonable judgment about whether one side was actually being “more legitimate, mature and considered under the circumstances than the other.”

Even the cable news panels that purport to express opposing views are part of the damaging both-sides syndrome. A view from the left, a view from the right, and repeat. But take the average, and you’re right back in the comfortable, unilluminating middle.

Impartiality is still a value worth defending in mainstream news coverage. But you don’t get there by walking down the center line with a blindfold on.

Why do journalists and news organizations insist on doing this? I think the answer is pretty clear.

It’s because they want to appear fair without taking any chances.

They want not to offend. Maybe being a little “provocative” is okay on occasion, but let’s not go too far.

It’s a shame, because a lot of Americans actually seem to appreciate having their minds stretched by unfamiliar ideas, as freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist from New York, has shown in her discussions of hiking marginal tax rates on the super-rich to benefit ordinary Americans.

That her views draw tough criticism — prompting opposing arguments like that of Brian Riedl of the conservative Manhattan Institute in his Daily Beast piece,“The ‘Tax the Rich’ Delusion of the American Left” — is fine, too.

But this is rare. Mostly, we have the irresistible pull to the center: centripetal journalism.

It’s safe. It will never cause a consumer boycott. It feels fair without really being fair.

And it’s boringly predictable.

In the end, the media’s center-lane fixation puts us all to sleep. And that’s no way to drive a democracy.

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