There Have to Be More Sides Than This

Balance doesn't exist in a lopsided world

This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell At Me, a newsletter that explores the intersection of politics and our bodies, written by me, an author and journalist living in Iowa. If you like it, you can subscribe. If you don’t, you can still subscribe!

Last week, in Charlottesville, I reached out to the Charlottesville Clergy Collective to talk to them about how the community was doing.

As it turns out, the community was not doing fine. In 2017, white supremacists held multiple rallies across three months, in a hazy summer of hate that culminated in the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer, when James Fields hit her with his car

And it wasn’t just the violence. It was what the violence revealed about the town and about what people think about white supremacy. In America, in their everyday life, most white people don’t have to answer questions about whether they sympathize with white supremacists. Charlottesville did. Your town wouldn’t survive that unscathed, either. Trust me.

Currently, the organizers of the Unite the Right rally are being sued by members of the community who were hurt by the violence. But that summer of hate left so many other wounds. Charlottesville has lost three city managers since 2017. The police chief was fired. Community activists and other residents say everyone is exhausted and if not exhausted, adamant to move on.

One man at my hotel bar, who was there for his friend’s birthday party, looked me in the eyes and told me that whatever happened in 2017 was over, over, do I got it? Over. He doesn’t want to talk about it. 

The day before my interview with the clergy, I received an email. If I plan on talking to the defendants, the email reads, they don’t want to talk to me.

The email didn’t come out of nowhere. On October 25, the first day of the trial, activists observed a journalist talking to Richard Spencer, who was once the most prominent white nationalist in America. One activist, Molly Conger, tweeted, “local antiracist activists have asked me to issue the following statement to the press, mentioning vice news specifically: 

‘if vice sincerely wants interviews with us, maybe they should stop talking to Richard Spencer.’”

In the media room, opinions were mixed. Some people said it was media illiteracy. Journalists have to talk to everyone. Others noted that they hated having the terms of their job dictated to them. And it’s literally a courtroom; there are two sides.

But this wasn’t a new issue. Charlottesville residents have been frustrated with media coverage of their town and white supremacy for years. In 2018, Brendan Fitzgerald wrote an in-depth feature for the Columbia Journalism Review about the tensions in the community regarding systemic racism and the Unite the Right Rally.

That same year, Andy Campbell wrote for the Huffington Post about the refusal of activists to participate in both-siderism. 

Journalists are trained to seek out the two poles of any given question, as if truth could be found somewhere between them. This approach can have its virtues, but what happens when the question is about whether a class of people is fully human? Charlottesville Anti-Racist Media Liaisons members have no patience for any outlet that considers this a matter for debate.

He then quotes Mimi Arbeit, a community member, PhD, and activist, who noted: “It’s a deep betrayal to the entire community of Charlottesville. Fascism uses the press to normalize itself and recruit followers and gain social power. The press is not a neutral player in history.”

She is right. Extremists use the polite conventions of journalism to make issues that are not issues. Journalists covering school board elections this year were bombarded with candidates making claims about “Critical Race Theory”—a complicated concept that is definitely not taught in elementary school, but became a talking point, in part because if you show up at a school board as a sobbing white mom, you will get a news story out of it. The story leads with the tears. Then balances with the other side and then ends with the tears again. And it’s published. 

By weighing the fake thing (CRT) in balance with the real thing (that it doesn’t exist in schools), the fake thing becomes real by comparison. The imagined threat is now called out of the looming darkness and made manifest into life.

Of course, this phenomena is not only the fault of media conventions. Keep in mind a lot of these movements are well funded political movements that feed on white grievance as political policy. 

But as Arbeit pointed out, the press is not a neutral player.

But I wonder more about what we see as the sides in an issue. After all, early stories about white supremacists Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler most certainly didn’t quote Black or Jewish scholars and activists about how their politely violent rhetoric affected them and their communities.

When the press interviews the police about crime statistics, what’s the other side there? Who digs into those numbers? Who holds them up to the light? 

The debate about both siderism is an old one. Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Maria Bustillos traces the term “false balance” in the context of journalism to 1988. In 2016, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman blasted both siderism in the coverage of the presidential race, arguing, “As I said, bothsidesism isn’t new, and it has always been an evasion of responsibility. But taking the position that “both sides do it” now, in the face of this campaign and this candidate, is an act of mind-boggling irresponsibility.”

Here is a good article about it by Eric Ward, the head of the civil rights nonprofit Western States Center. Here it is again in the LA Times. And more, this time about climate change, and more, this time about the MMR vaccine. And there will be more about the COVID-19 vaccine and even more about Black Lives Matter protests.

In trying to get the story right, we keep getting it all wrong.

Last year, in The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wesley Lowery wrote:

Since American journalism’s pivot many decades ago from an openly partisan press to a model of professed objectivity, the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses. And those selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers. On opinion pages, the contours of acceptable public debate have largely been determined through the gaze of white editors.

The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral. When black and brown reporters and editors challenge those conventions, it’s not uncommon for them to be pushed out, reprimanded or robbed of new opportunities.

Who decides what the sides are is not a neutral and polite convention. It’s a polite erasure hiding behind convention. I noticed that in the media room at the trial, no one was Black. Some were Jewish. But whose flesh was on the line?

In August 2020, in my capacity as a member of the editorial board of my local newspaper, I objected to the publication of an op-ed that framed the shooting of unarmed Black men as a both-sides issue. In frustration, I told my boss that the right to live was not a matter of debate. I was told I was insubordinate, but the op-ed was never published. The week the op-ed would have published was the same week Kyle Rittenhouse shot unarmed protesters in Wisconsin.

This year, his trial is being framed as a both-sides issue.

The trap of the binary is hurting us in other ways. The cultural inability to conceive of gender and sexuality in more than just male or female terms contributes to homophobia and violence.

I do not know what it will take to make us stop debating the right of other people to exist, as if it’s some sort of intellectual exercise.

Every story we tell has personal stakes. Every story has human consequences.

Jury selection lasts three days, while potential juror after potential juror says things like, “both sides” had problems and that “both sides” are at fault. One juror was struck for calling white supremacists “evil.” One juror was struck because she was concerned about racism except against white people. And defendant Christopher Cantwell objected because she seemed to be very concerned about race.

The judge diligently asked jurors if they can be fair. But, as Dahlia Lithwick pointed out in Slate, “But to be open-minded about Nazis is not in fact a neutral legal position. We are all being asked to inhabit a world in which it must be.”

This is the calculus of our cruel world. One person holding up a sign that argues “Please let me live” must be calculated against another person brandishing mace and screaming Nazi slogans that call for the death of that person. 

I don’t blame Charlottesville. This isn’t, as someone will say later to me in a bar in a fake Southern accent, “about racism in the South.” This could happen anywhere. I hear the same things at home in Iowa. I hear the same things at dinner with very nice friends, who tell me they just want to make sure they hear both sides. 

It’s easy to blame the media. But I’m not sure it’s the journalists’ fault. Not entirely. Facebook. Quick-hit stories where a reporter is just rushing through because they have five stories to write in one day and they are paid $25,000 a year, maybe with benefits. White editors who insist on this balance. Politicians and activists who know how to call and scream until a newsroom relents. Editors who relent.

And also, what is balance? Balance presumes an equal weight to ideas. But the right to live does not exist in opposition to the right to kill. Those two things don’t happen in equal measure. For justice, for freedom, balance doesn’t exist. Instead, the weight of things should tip in favor of life.

I am not arguing here in favor of ending spirited and healthy debate. But the right of a Black person, a Jewish person, a trans person to exist is not a debate. And also, debates have consequences. 

I remember desperately talking to Tucker Carlson for a profile I wrote in 2018. I wanted him to see that his words had consequences. My life was falling apart. His show. His words. Were the soundtrack of my undoing. Of America’s undoing. He dodged and dodged. People still tell me he seems nice in person. Writers still write that. As if table manners matter one bit when you are committing arson.

And well, honestly, he doesn’t have to care, does he? He has enough money to insulate himself from consequences. Never trust the person who treats journalism like a fun little game. They’re too insulated to see the humanity at stake.

And after all, words matter. Words carry weight. What is allowed to remain unsaid in a story is just as powerful as what is said. In fact, it’s more powerful, because what’s worse than being denied on the page is being ignored. It’s being erased from a narrative that refuses to see you. That refuses to see the violence done to you. 

Felicia Sonmez, a reporter for the Washington Post, is suing the paper, claiming gender discrimination after she was barred from covering news stories about sexual harassment and assault. Sonmez is a survivor of assault, and her editors saw that as a conflict of interest.

As if sexual assault was something you should see both sides on. 

But it’s a reality reporters face. I once told a classroom of journalists that someone close to me was a survivor of domestic violence and that helped me when I wrote my profile of Richard Spencer’s wife. “Wasn’t that a conflict?” a student asked.

As if living is a conflict. As if being human is a conflict. As if I should ever be impartial on domestic violence.

And yet, I sat in that jury voir dire for three days. Our very American idea of fairness is based on being neutral about Nazism.

Lowery, in his op-ed, argues for bluntness in our descriptions of bad actors and diversity in our newsrooms. And yes, but also, I wonder if we don’t also need new words all together. Balance. All sides. Neutrality. What do they even mean? They presuppose that balance can be attained in a world that is inherently unjust and unbalanced. Neutrality assumes that one can in fact be neutral about issues like Nazism and genocide. Those words rest on the very premise of fairness that simply doesn’t exist. 

I do finally meet with the Clergy Collective. They tell me about the affordable-housing crisis, the stress of the pandemic, the loss of jobs, the frustration in the community. And at one point, as we discuss the pandemic and the way it’s affected their congregations, Pastor Brenda Brown Grooms looks at me through the Zoom window and says, “What you report in the media matters. You will have to answer for it.”

Note: This newsletter was updated to add a link to Maria Bustillos article on “false balance” in journalism.

Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, sent on Wednesdays, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks, and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics, food, dogs, our bodies, and more.