The mainstream media, in the closing days of 2020, have largely embraced their role as truth-tellers, not merchants of false balance. Consider the following recent headlines: “Trump assembles a ragtag crew of conspiracy-minded allies in flailing bid to reverse election loss”; “Trump campaign, GOP raised at least $170 million since Election Day pushing baseless election fraud claims”; and “Rallies Are the Core of Trump’s Campaign, and a Font of Lies and Misinformation.” They are precise and informative, and they show an evolution in the media’s willingness to provide unequivocal judgment about objectively false assertions. The president’s lies are “lies.” His baseless claims are “baseless.”

Still, there is reason for caution and concern. Old habits of false equivalency and vagueness die slowly.

For example, “Congress” did not hold up a coronavirus stimulus bill for nine months; the Republican Senate did, refusing to even consider bringing a bill to the floor and insisting on a “pause.” Nor did “Congress” fail to pass legislation during the last four years ranging from voting and ethics reform to infrastructure; the Republican Senate did. It is not “Congress” that is dysfunctional; the House operates smoothly and productively. It is the Republican Senate that stopped legislating and has devoted itself almost entirely to judicial confirmations over the last year or so.

It is likewise wrong to declare that “our politics” have become polarized. A middle-of-the-road Democratic president with a batch of centrist Cabinet nominees will take office in January. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lost the presidential primary (twice); Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is a backbencher (and nothing she or Sanders says compares to the lunacy spouted by a good many Republican leaders, including the president).

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Republican senators refused to acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden’s victory for six weeks, and blatantly mouthed false Russian propaganda during President Trump’s impeachment. More than half of House Republicans — including their leadership — signed on to a brief seeking to overthrow the election. Polarized? One side certainly has progressive adherents; the other is in the grips of an authoritarian, anti-democratic and racist demagogue. If Democrats are a notch or two left of center, Republicans have raced to the right end of the spectrum and taken a flying leap into nihilism.

The media also need a new vocabulary. A party that attempts to thwart elections, tolerates toadyism to Russian President Vladimir Putin and overlooks evidence of rampant executive-branch lawlessness is not “conservative” in any sense of the word. Republicans are right-wing nationalists or authoritarian populists or nihilists, but they are not “conservative” in the way that modern Republican presidents were before Trump. Their refusal to adhere to limited government, fiscal responsibility, free trade, the rule of law, American international leadership and the belief in objective truth rules out “conservatism” as their defining ideology.

Finally, proportion and context matter. When a reporter claims a soon-to-be White House aide is “under fire,” it is not enough to find a single disgruntled donor whining about something she said. And when referring to the “Republicans in the Senate,” are we talking about all of them? The ones whom Democrats need for a majority? Likewise, in analyzing the prospect of Cabinet confirmations, “Democrats worry” or “progressives fear” is unhelpful and misleading. Which Democrats? How many? What kind of Democrats? The bias for conflict tends to create conflagrations and standoffs out of the gripes of a shockingly small group of people.

Fairness comes not in serving up equal portions of lies and truth, but in accurately separating, as best the media can at that moment, what is true and what is false. Instead of “balance,” which denotes an artificial leveling of the scales, reporters should aim for perspective, context and completeness. And, most critically, notions about moral equivalency between the parties and the assumption of sincerity and honesty from Republicans must be rethought in an era in which so many Republicans are indifferent, if not hostile, to truth and democracy.

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