How ‘Both-Sides’ In The Media Helps the Far Right

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

Media coverage matters, and it matters when it plays every side in reporting stories. This was never more true than during the Alberta 2019 election. It matters when it’s complicit while it covers for discriminatory and prejudicial behaviours of political candidates, and it matters when it utterly fails to critically challenge political parties that seek to protect and include those very candidates. How did it come to this?

“Divisive” “polarised” and “controversial,” were used throughout, amongst a variety of others. These terms display a traditional media privilege, which overwhelmingly dilutes objectivity and fails to deliver depth, needed context, and is a practice, or an attempt, of having no moral judgement.

These terms are part of the “both sides” narrative. A bogus tactic that draws a “false balance,” a subset of false equivalence, on opposing views and makes them the same. The use of terms like “controversial” and “divisive” in reporting seek to apply neutrality and objectivity to issues. This is a severe failure, intended or not, of local and national media that inadequately addresses parties, groups, and individuals who hold abhorrent and violent views versus another (or others) that do not.

|Alberta UCP candidate removed over racism controversy (iPolitics, October 11, 2018)

|Controversial UCP candidates prove victorious (CTV News Calgary, April 12, 2019)

|Alberta’s polarizing and unprecedented election reaches its peak (The Star, April 15, 2019)

By “both sides-ing” issues, two sides which are not at all equal, become so. This tactic helps to provide cover and boost legitimacy for bigotry and racist views like white supremacy — which is an animating force of violence that is currently becoming more emboldened throughout the world, with Canadian links.

It is those very views that are by definition “divisive” and seek to “polarise” Albertans — or any intended group. Opposing those views is not what is “divisive” — which is what those phrases seek to imply. The “both sides” narrative is gaslighting by the right. And we are falling for it.

Often the context is left out of this reporting, leaving no explanation as to why or how extremist rhetoric mobilises hate crimes and violence. By failing to do this, readers are left unequipped to draw meaningful distinctions between those who are deploying that rhetoric and the violence that results. The most recent Christchurch, New Zealand massacre, the Quebec City Mosque shooting, the Charleston, South Carolina shooting, are all attacks mobilised through the lens of these racist views.

A “controversial” view is having a preference on whether or not you like jam on your eggs; it’s not whether you ascribe to “the great replacement” theory — a white supremacist conspiratorial view on birth-rates of non-whites that seek to “overrun” a countries dominant white population. That is political language, and it contains within it, intent. It’s not “controversial,” it’s understood to be an ideological vehicle that animates and mobilises violence. This is the conspiratorial view of the Christchurch, Quebec City, and Charleston shooters. It’s these conspiracies and hateful views that the shooters used to rationalise their violence, they were influenced and mobilised by them. These very same views are being “echoed” by UCP candidates, and reporting during the election did very little to inform readers as to what impact those views have and what they represent.

|Calgary UCP candidate pulls out of campaign amid controversy over online comments (CTV, March 19, 2019)

Caylan Ford, UCP candidate for Calgary-Mountian View, said in Facebook messages that she was, “somewhat saddened by the demographic replacement of white peoples in their homelands.” This is direct white supremacist language, “the great replacement.”

Following the Charlottesville attack by neo-nazis, Caylan Ford lamented about how white supremacist terrorists face double-standards compared to Islamic terrorists. Media describing these statements as “controversial” is employing “both sides”, and in the article, her response is to step down “after allegations” to “avoid becoming a distraction to the campaign.” The language used by Caylan Ford is the very same as what the New Zealand shooter used in his manifesto. This is almost absent in media reporting.

Ford was a guest on the Danielle Smith podcast to “tell her side of the story.” Smith allowed Ford to platform her white supremacy with zero pushback. Throughout the interview, the pair joked and laughed, no tough questions and nothing even close to resembling critical journalism. In fact, it’s worse. Smith stated that demographic replacement is a “genuine issue;” not only is Smith allowing Ford to proclaim her white nationalism openly, but Smith does as well.

To put this in context, a popular mainstream media outlet, Global News, openly platformed white supremacy.

|Caylan Ford resigns as UCP candidate after report claims she ‘echoed white nationalist rhetoric (Global News, March 20, 2019)

In this particularly bad article, also from Global, it barely even stated Ford’s own words and did so without any context. The title is classic “both sides” by stating, “after report claims.” Claims? Why not just report on her words? A media outlet uncritically reporting on an electoral candidate supporting white supremacy serves only one side.

The first two paragraphs talk more about the publisher than of Ford’s white supremacist comments. Stating, it “published a story alleging that Ford echoed that rhetoric.” “Alleging.” When the article chose to emphasise Ford’s words it was done so in a freestanding block of text — which wasn’t her white supremacist comments but her non-apology.

With almost zero major media follow-up to challenge Danielle Smith, let alone Caylan Ford, only tepid social media backlash arose. In addition to the above boilerplate article covering for Ford, another was also published, written by Smith explaining her actions. Here she lamented about an “alt-left” outlet publishing Fords comments and stated, “Ford’s demeanour and answers to my questions persuaded me she was not a white supremacist. She did not repeat any comments that could be construed as extreme or intolerant.”

Not only did Smith allow Ford an opportunity to publically exonerate herself further, but she also echoed her own white supremacy and trafficked in right-wing conspiracy theories. Attempting to smear the outlet as “alt-left,” which is Danielle Smith’s attempt to “both sides” by disingenuously comparing that outlet to the “alt-right” movement, that openly preaches white supremacy.

Smith added further, “I think it is vitally important that we continue to discuss contentious social issues on a mainstream platform.”

In other words, Smith hopes that white supremacy can remain in public discourse to be debated. Which is to say she believes that the threat against a white homeland is a legitimate issue and bears “discussion.”

The whole Caylan Ford “disaster” is riddled with white supremacist apologia and centrist media hackery. As Albertan’s faced a significant voting decision, they search for news-media for trusted sourcing and reporting. Instead, they are met with various news articles that protect and dismiss these extreme far-right views; which further reinforces the idea that social conservative ideology is somehow separate.

Ford resigned but is still a UCP member.

In response to Caylan Ford and Eva Kiryakos — another UCP candidate resigning, Kiryakos for her anti-Muslim comments — Jason Kenney stated members could remain in the party despite holding extremist views as long as they aren’t in groups that are “actively promoting hatred.”

The Canadian media landscape displays an attempt to remain neutral and unbiased. This isn’t the case as the business of media is often driven by ideology. The Alberta 2019 provincial election was no exception, and it provides us with an opportunity to examine how media often covers and protects ideas and views that are antithetical to a democratic and free society.



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