Whose Air Time? On False Equivalency and Disproportionality

Jason Kessler, the hapless white nationalist, being shielded from hordes of counterprotesters in D.C. on Aug. 12, 2018. (Tess Owen via Twitter)

By Sanford J. Ungar

In the summer of 2018, many of us looked at the calendar and suddenly became obsessed with the question of whether recent history was going to repeat itself: Would the “alt-right” — that messy stew of racists, anti-Semites, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis who tore up Charlottesville, Virginia, with their violent rally in August 2017 — succeed in returning to Thomas Jefferson’s town and university or hit the jackpot in Washington, D.C., with an anniversary celebration?

Our memory of the 2017 events in Charlottesville is utterly traumatic, what with the three deaths and many injuries, a torchlight parade starkly reminiscent of terrible times in 1930s Europe, and President Donald Trump’s declaration that there were “many fine people” on “both sides” of the confrontation there. The entire episode was all the more shocking because it seemingly caught us all by surprise: Who knew or predicted that these fringe elements could create so much trouble and stir overt support from the White House?

Not surprisingly, mainstream media outlets were determined to be ready this time, come what may. In a burst of know-the-enemy enthusiasm, they set out to tell us more about the president’s “fine people” — who they are, where they come from, what motivates them, and what they believe.

Somehow unaware that the best-known, big-league haters like David Duke and Richard Spencer were sitting this one out, they focused in on the hapless Jason Kessler, the unemployed University of Virginia grad and born-again bigot who ended up with the task, this year as last year, of applying for permits and arguing the case in court when the permits were opposed.

In what has come to be seen as an emblematic howler, NPR, for example, aired seven minutes of an interview with Kessler, in which he had an opportunity to speak for what he called the “underrepresented Caucasian demographic” and to spell out long-discredited, pseudo-scientific rankings of racial and ethnic groups on the basis of their intelligence.

The reaction was immediate and vitriolic. Some critics felt that NPR had given Kessler free promotion that he never could have bought at any price. Others expressed shock that public radio’s vast and loyal audience was subjected to a mindless recitation of racist theories that, even if challenged (as they were) by interviewer Noel King, could have a troubling impact at a turbulent moment in American life. Indeed, by giving Kessler so much airtime, NPR seemed to set up a false equivalency between his movement (if any there be) and Black Lives Matter, one of whose leaders had been the subject of a shorter interview a few days earlier. NPR’s own internal ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, in a widely read column, acknowledged that the Kessler interview could have been handled much more adeptly.

Let’s get one thing straight: unless he seemed to be fomenting violence — which he insisted he was not — Kessler’s words, however hateful, are entitled to protection under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. And so, of course, is NPR’s decision to broadcast its interview of him.

What NPR, and countless other media outlets, were guilty of in this case was a naive overestimation of Kessler’s significance and over-anticipation of a nonevent.

Having been prevented in federal court from gathering the faithful again in Charlottesville, Kessler convinced fewer than three dozen people to turn out in D.C. to celebrate the anniversary of the 2017 episode. By contrast, there were thousands of counterprotesters on the scene, and by all accounts, it was the more radical among them — “antifa,” or anti-fascist, elements — who clashed with the police and members of the media.

These decisions about what to cover and how to do it are far more complex than the average consumer of the news may imagine. As a former co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” myself, I can understand how easily such misjudgments are made. Having been caught pathetically off-guard in Charlottesville a year earlier, reporters, editors, and producers were not about to let it happen again — so they overdid it. In retrospect, it might have been useful to do more advance investigation of schisms within the racist right, which could have led to an understanding that Kessler himself represents no one, has virtually no followers, and may not deserve much attention.

This is hardly the first such instance of disproportionality in the attention the media sometimes give to fringe figures promoting discredited, marginal theories, and the reaction it has provoked. I recall, in particular, the moment in 2005 — simpler times, to be sure — when C-SPAN proposed to air the tape of a speech in an Atlanta diner by the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving and pair it with an interview with Deborah Lipstadt, the scholar from Emory University who had just defended herself successfully in a British court against a libel suit by Irving.

At the time, I was president of a liberal arts college, and I joined many of my peers in signing a petition, published in major newspapers, asking C-SPAN not to create an impression of false equivalency — as if these were just two ostensibly worthy points of view contending for followers — by giving so much attention to Irving. The truth was clear, we argued, so why stir up feelings that could be hurtful and harmful to many viewers? The public affairs cable network had a constitutional right to do this, of course, but at the time we thought it was wrong to do so.

One of the best analyses I’ve ever read of such issues was by Margaret Sullivan, the wise and seasoned media columnist for The Washington Post. In June 2017, she published a useful explanation of the difference between fairness and balance in media coverage. In that instance, she was focusing on politicians, and especially Trump, who was complaining bitterly about his “negative” coverage. “Politicians have no right to expect equally balanced positive and negative coverage, or anything close to it,” Sullivan wrote.

To extend her argument, lies, whether rooted in history, bigotry, or politics, simply do not have the same standing as the truth. The First Amendment, for better or worse, may protect the telling of lies — even notorious ones dressed up as “theories” — but it also guarantees our right to expose and correct those lies, and to shame those who tell them, rather than build them up as if they were important voices.

Sanford J. Ungar, former co-host of “All Things Considered” on NPR and president emeritus of Goucher College, is director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University. He teaches undergraduate seminars on Free Speech at Georgetown and Harvard.