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How the GOP Bamboozled The New York Times’ Politics Desk

The paper's “both sides” approach to Donald Trump's impeachment hearings has been a disaster.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to impeachment, no one with a brain is disputing the facts of the case: Donald Trump pressured Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden, using the president’s power over American foreign policy to target a political rival and influence the 2020 election. To suggest otherwise is either to knowingly obfuscate the issue at hand or to appear brain-dead—the latter being the new default mode of the politics desk of The New York Times.

On Friday, the paper published an article by White House correspondent Michael Shear that stated that Democrats and Republicans were living in “different impeachment realities.” With neither party able to agree on “basic facts,” Shear was at a loss. Taking the GOP’s conspiracy theories and bald lies at face value, all he could say was that impeachment had devolved into an “intensely partisan” and “very divisive” fight, with “both sides” sensing that “political vandalism” had taken place.

Never mind that one of these realities is, well, reality. More to the point: The Times seems incapable of grasping that the Republican Party does, in fact, live in the same reality as everyone else but is doing everything in its power to get media outlets like the Times to turn a straightforward story of presidential wrongdoing into a story about extreme partisanship. Impeachment, in the Times’ style of both-sides reporting, becomes yet another game, a way for the red and blue teams to square off once more.

Just look at the way Shear frames the disagreements between the two sides:

Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, described Mr. Trump’s July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine one way, saying it “shows that the president tried to get President Zelensky to interfere in the upcoming presidential election.” His Republican colleague, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, saw it differently: “We saw the call transcript, and there is no conditionality.”

And after Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, said it was “clear” that Mr. Trump cared about rooting out corruption in Ukraine, Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, scoffed: “The president never brings up corruption.”

It is never mentioned that the transcript does, in fact, show the president asking Zelenskiy to do him a “favor.” Shear does not concede that Swalwell is right—corruption is not mentioned once, though Joe Biden and his son are. Instead, the facts of the case are subsumed by a “he said, he said” brawl, in which both parties are given equal weight. A story about Democratic lawmakers attempting to hold the president accountable in the face of wildly false claims from Republicans is depicted as yet another partisan scrum, a cynical shoving match between equally opportunistic foes.

This story is the latest example of how “asymmetric polarization”—the idea that Republicans have become more extreme than Democrats—has short-circuited the mainstream media’s ability to do extremely basic analytical reporting. Outlets like the Times are disposed toward neutral reporting that depends on assuming that their subjects are operating in good faith and telling the truth. The fact that the president and his party rarely do has caused a total breakdown of their political coverage, and the result is a bunch of blue-chip reporters publicly shrugging their shoulders like the dumbest guys in the room.

Shear is not wrong that the two parties cannot agree on basic facts or that the impeachment inquiry has been divisive. But that is the whole point of the GOP’s squid-ink strategy. Republicans have warped the record, told all kinds of lies, and insisted that this open-and-shut case was cooked up as a partisan witch-hunt. There is no meaningful equivalence between the way that Republicans have behaved during the inquiry and the way Democrats have. The Times has privileged performing fairness over reporting fairly.

The Times isn’t the only outlet guilty of this (though it is the most prestigious). As the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop wrote, “When it comes to much impeachment coverage, bothsidesism isn’t the beginning and end of the problem, but part of our broader reflex to frame contentious political stories around the concept of partisanship.”

Too many mainstream news outlets have oriented themselves as neutral arbiters of an endless war between Democrats and Republicans. Both parties are given equal time and credulous treatment. Having given itself over to refereeing partisan squabbles, the national press frequently loses touch with the actual story. Everything ends up in the same place, the latest example of bickering in do-nothing Washington—another story line that favors the burn-it-all-down GOP of the Trump era.