Spielberg’s Film The Post : Epic Tale of Press Freedoms Prevailing Over Government Censorship

Permission to reprint this blog post is granted by Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University.

By David Rudenstine, author of The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case

Not many Hollywood films are made immediately in response to the outcome of a presidential election.  But that is what Steven Spielberg and Amy Pascal have done. They made the film The Post in response to President Donald Trump’s intense, repetitive, and vicious attacks on the legitimacy of the American press.

Indeed, perhaps unique in modern American political history, Trump has used the powerful pulpit of the presidency to insult, denigrate, and bully reporters. He has done so in an effort to convince the American public that reports from such media institutions as The New York TimesThe Washington PostCNNMSNBC are nothing more than “fake news” to which the public must turn both a deaf ear and a blind eye.

In savaging the American press, Trump wants to turn Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s magisterial vision of the press upside down. Black wrote that the purpose of the press was “to serve the governed, not the governors,” and that it had to be protected from government censorship so that “it could bare the secrets of government,” “inform the people,” and “expose deception in government.” For Black, a free press was mandatory if it were “to fulfill its essential role in our democracy.”

This president marches to the beat of a different drummer. Although Trump took an oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the constitution, he seems to have very little regard for the meaning of this basic charter. The sad fact is that the political and legal inclinations of this president often seem to tilt more towards those of repressive authoritarian rulers than they do towards the impulses of great American presidents.

This timely film dramatically portrays the enduring conflict between government control of information, and, the right of the people to know what its government is doing in its name, and in so doing it offers the American public an important lesson in democracy.

The Pentagon Study

A summary of the facts underpinning the film underscores the lessons of the Pentagon Papers legal case. That historic 1971 confrontation concerns a Top-Secret 7000-page Pentagon sponsored history of America’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1968. This history was prepared by some three-dozen Pentagon “historians” from 1967-1969, and was based mainly on Pentagon documents. Its purpose was to map the decisions made over nearly a quarter century that resulted in the United States having over 500,000 land troops fighting a land war in Southeast Asia. When completed, only 15 copies of the study were made and they were all labeled “Top Secret-Sensitive.”

In the late winter of 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, one of the so-called Pentagon historians, made most of the top-secret study available to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times. He did so because he believed that the history, as told by the government’s own words, established that American political leaders had misled, if not lied, to the American public about the war for many years. And he hoped that once the American public understood the scope of the government’s deceit it would demand an end to the war.

The New York Times Decision to Publish

The Times took three months to study the secret history and to prepare its reports. During those weeks, the editors and the newspaper lawyers argued over whether the newspaper could responsibly publish reports based on top-secret material.

Abe Rosenthal, the Times Executive editor, and others, including Max Frankel, argued that the newspaper had a duty to publish the reports so long as publication did not immediately and irreparably harm vital national security matters.

But the lawyers for the Times, and they included former attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr., took an extreme position at the opposite end of the spectrum and told the publisher and editors that they had a patriotic duty to return the secret study to the government and to forgo all public reports. The lawyers warned the publisher and editors that publication might constitute treason.

The fierce and lengthy internal argument ended with the publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, making the courageous decision to publish the planned 10-part series.

And that is what the Times began to do two days later on Sunday, June 13. The next day Attorney General John Mitchell sent a telegram to the Times demanding that the newspaper cease publication forthwith or be sued by the government for a prior restraint. The newspaper declined to cease publication. That decision set the stage for what became a seminal Supreme Court decision defending the critical role of the press in a democratic society.

The Times Long-Standing Lawyers Quit, Floyd Abrams Gets Tapped, and a Rookie Judge Hears the Case

Once the Times informed Attorney General Mitchell that it would not stop publishing its Pentagon Papers series, the newspaper’s lawyers informed their client that they would not defend the Times against the Nixon administration’s effort to enjoin publication. That decision in turn caused the Times to scramble in the middle of the night to retain new lawyers – and the lawyers turned out to be Yale Law Professor Alexander Bickle and a young lawyer named Floyd Abrams who in time became the de facto dean of the national press bar – to represent the newspaper the next morning in the federal district court.

After the newspaper refused to consent to an injunction, District Judge Murray I. Gurfein – and he was a Nixon appointee and this was his first case – granted the United States government a temporary restraining order enjoining the Times from further publication pending a hearing set for that Friday. The next day, Saturday, Judge Gurfein ruled that the government failed to produce evidence that the Times Pentagon Papers series would injure national security and thus he denied the government a preliminary injunction.

The Washington Post Joins the Legal Confrontation

Two days before Judge Gurfein ruled, on Thursday of that week, Ellsberg managed to make available a substantial portion of the papers to The Washington Post. That afternoon and evening an intense debate raged within The Post over whether to publish excerpts from the papers the next day.

The Post’s business leaders and lawyers counseled delay. Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks in the film, and other editors and reporters insisted that the newspaper publish the report forthwith, as if to say to the Nixon administration on behalf of the nation’s press: you will not silence us.

It fell to Katherine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, to make the decision, and the film presents this decision as if it were her coming of age decision as a business leader. Graham’s decision to publish not only helped establish her as independent, resourceful and committed to press freedoms, but it helped sustain the investigations in 1972 and 1973 by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Watergate Scandals at a time when few thought that The Washington Post’s reporting on Nixon’s so-called “dirty-tricks” was sound.

The Landmark Decision

It was a mere 15 days between the government’s filing of its action against the Times and the Supreme Court’s 6 to 3 decision upholding the right of the newspapers to publish the Pentagon Papers reports. The result was that the Times and the Post continued to publish their series, and no credible evidence has ever been produced that these reports injured the national security.

Since this was the first time in the nation’s history that the government had tried to restrain a newspaper from publishing reports on the ground of national security, the press’s victory reverberated not only throughout press circles, but around the nation making the paperback version of the Pentagon Papers a must-have book.

The Film, American Democracy, the Supreme Court

Although the film gives a bow to The New York Times for its historic and magisterial role in defining press rights in this seminal clash, the fact that the film is focused on Graham and Bradlee necessarily robs the Times of its center-stage role in this landmark case.

No film can save the American press from Trump’s vicious onslaught. Only the American people can do that. The people will have to decide whether there are such things as facts, whether facts matter in the discussion of public issues, and how much they cherish the concept of “truth” in journalism. If too many Americans continue to swoon under Trump’s spell and turn his mendacity into the new “normal” of American politics, the nation will quickly head towards a serious crackup. And no film can rescue the nation from that fate.

The Post is not just timely, it is an important film because President Trump’s assault on the press is eating away at the legitimacy of the press, and the nation’s political system requires a responsible press in which the people trust. By dramatically portraying a constitutional crisis that occurred nearly a half century ago when there was no guarantee that the Supreme Court would respect the nation’s most basic tenets and strengthen its democracy, it offers lessons for today. As it turned out, the court in that seminal case did the right thing, and the right of the people to know what its government does because of an uncensored press was immeasurably strengthened.

Hopefully, the members on the Supreme Court today will absorb the lessons of that historic case. The press is critical to holding the government accountable and to do that, it must be free. So, if President Trump tries to utilize the immense power of the national government to gag the press, it will fall to the nine members of the Supreme Court to be the guardians of democratic values, and hopefully we can count on them to do just that.

Professor David Rudenstine is the author of The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case, and The Age of Deference: The Supreme Court, National Security, and the Constitutional Order.


Why Comedy, and Why Now?

Professors and scholars are in a unique position to guide the next generation in reshaping our values to be more equitable and just. During the National Communication Association conference last week in Dallas, it was clear that social justice communication is not simply a topic for a course but an overarching educational goal that shapes how students, scholars, and citizens communicate. #NCA17 

We spoke with Caty Borum Chattoo and Lauren Feldman, authors of the forthcoming A Comedian and An Activist Walk Into a Bar: The (Serious) Role of Comedy in Social Justice, part of the Communication for Social Justice Activism Series. Here, Caty and Lauren share how they hope students, scholars, and citizens will learn how comedy encourages activism for social justice.

What inspired you both to write the book?

Caty Borum Chattoo

Unquestionably, mediated comedy is a powerful contemporary source of influence and information. In the still-evolving digital era, the opportunity to consume and share comedy has never been as available – both in the United States and around the world. At the same time, socioeconomic and other inequities continue to widen. The need for public engagement in social justice issues is crucial, and it can be challenging to encourage audiences to pay attention to dire problems. Humor, by offering frames of hope and optimism, may help encourage participation in social problems.

And yet, despite its vast cultural imprint and potential for public engagement, mediated comedy is a little-understood – and perhaps under-appreciated – vehicle for social change.

Our book addresses this challenge and timely opportunity, asking and answering new questions about the intersection of mediated comedy and social justice: What works, what doesn’t, and why, when it comes to leveraging comedy for social justice efforts? When can comedy effectively challenge problematic norms, and when does it merely reinforce them? How do social change comedy projects balance key tensions between creative processes and strategic goals?

What is the role of comedy in social justice and activism?

Lauren Feldman

Around the world – in places that face daunting social challenges, including gender-based violence, institutional racism, extremism, and political corruption – comedians are speaking truth to power and reaching millions. Intentional social-change and public engagement campaigns from humanitarian and advocacy organizations, such as global poverty group Comic Relief, increasingly leverage comedy to raise awareness, encourage public donations and more.

Here in the U.S., the present-day comedy ecology includes a heavy dose of social-issue consciousness, ranging from TV comedy sketch programs that delve into topics like gender politics, gun control, and social class, such as the Peabody-Award-winning Inside Amy Schumer, to scripted entertainment shows like Modern Family, Black-ish, and Master of None that take on gay rights, race relations, and gender equality. Satirical news programs like The Daily Show and HBO’s Last Week Tonight continue their dominance as media agenda-setters and sources of viral social commentary – and, in some cases, fuel for policy change. Online, comedy sites like Funny or Die churn out short-form sketches, faux public service announcements, and other humorous treatments of the news and social issues of the day.

Across these distinct forms, mediated comedy can engage audiences on serious issues by attracting attention, reducing cognitive resistance to persuasion, offering a way into complex social issues, re-framing issues, breaking down social barriers, and encouraging sharing. But fostering intentional efforts between comedians and social justice advocates is its own creative and strategic proposition, and one we plan to unpack in the book.

What do you hope audiences—from communication professionals and advocates to scholars and students—will learn?

Our book will include a rich synthesis of existing theory and research across disciplines, along with dynamic case studies and interviews with comedians and social justice leaders around the country and the world. We hope that by highlighting the opportunities and challenges inherent in using comedy for social change – and by doing so through a joint scholarly, practical, and creative lens – our book can facilitate engaged teaching, research, and social justice strategy, and help to foster synergies between the scholarly, creative, and activist communities in the service of social justice.

Caty Borum Chattoo is Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), an innovation lab and academic research center at American University and Executive in Residence at the American University School of Communication.

Lauren Feldman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University.

Must-Read Issues for the National Women’s Studies Association Conference

This week, the National Women’s Studies Association is convening in Baltimore for its 40th annual conference. The theme for this year’s conference is “40 YEARS AFTER COMBAHEE: Feminist Scholars and Activists Engage the Movement for Black Lives.” Whether or not you are attending #NWSA17, we invite you to read the following recent issues of DCQR and a virtual issue of FMH, all free for a limited time.


DCQR’s Black Feminist Thought Issue
Vol. 5 No. 3, Fall 2016

DCQR’s Black Girlhood Issue
Vol. 6 No. 3, Fall 2017



Departures in Critical Qualitative Research (formerly Qualitative Communication Research) publishes innovative, experimental, aesthetic, and provocative works on the theories, practices, and possibilities of critical qualitative research. Departures is a forum for scholars in diverse disciplines to converse on, contest, and creatively reimagine the form, purpose, and mission of their work. The journal seeks works charting scholarly and theoretical developments in critical qualitative research, exemplars of methodological innovation, and inventive demonstrations of research as an aesthetic intervention and mode of critique. To subscribe to and/or learn more about the journal, visit http://dcqr.ucpress.edu/.

Special Virtual Issue: Race and Women of Color Feminism in Media Histories

We are pleased to offer this selection of articles from Feminist Media Histories to celebrate the National Women’s Studies Association’s 40th anniversary conference, “40 Years after Combahee: Feminist Scholars and Activists Engage the Movement for Black Lives.”  These articles represent some of the best new work on race and women of color feminism in media histories. Scholars in this special suite of articles examine a variety of media across a range of global contexts to demonstrate the central role that gender plays in media histories and cultures.


The Time is Right. The Time is Now: Communication for Social Justice Activism

By Lyn Uhl, Executive Editor of Communication

Last spring I announced our new series in Communication for Social Justice Activism co-edited by Pat Parker and Larry Frey. Now we are on to the exciting phase of receiving proposals and we encourage authors to come to us with their ideas.

During the National Communication Association conference in Dallas (November 16 – 19), Pat Parker, Larry Frey, and I will be leading a panel session—The Time is Right. The Time is Now—along with several of our wonderful advisory board members, Kevin Carragee, Katherine Grace Hendrix, and Omi Joni Jones.

During the session we plan to talk about why we created the series, the topics and books ideas we are looking for, and we will be delighted to hear about any specific proposal ideas that people want to open up for discussion.

In addition to encouraging proposal submissions, we also hope to use the panel to learn more about how people are teaching using social justice themes and how students are responding to these ideas and teaching techniques.

Please come and share your book ideas and classroom experiences!

Panel Session: The Time is Right. The Time is Now.  

Friday, November 17, 8:00-9:15 AM, Sheraton, City View 6 – 8th Floor

Let’s Meet at NCA

I will be at NCA from the morning of Thursday, November 17 through Sunday morning and I am happy to meet with anyone who wants to discuss a book idea (for the Communication in Social Justice Activism Series and other topic areas within communication studies). Feel free to contact me in advance to set up a meeting or just call or email during the conference. I can be reached at luhl@ucpress.edu or (617) 905-3681.


Copyediting Challenge

It’s no secret that copyediting jobs are changing. Just this past June, The New York Times dismantled its 100-plus-person copyediting staff, merging some of the job functions with other editorial duties. As traditional copyediting positions realign and hybrid roles grow, copyediting skills are needed more than ever to adapt to new platforms and in new venues.

To keep up with the times, UC Press is developing a fourth edition of our bestselling Copyeditor’s Handbook, scheduled to publish in April 2019, along with a companion Copyeditor’s Workbook, which will feature extensive exercises, answer keys, and commentary. Until then, this set of questions by the much-missed Amy Einsohn will test your mettle.

Are your copyediting skills up to snuff? Take the copyediting challenge below! Find the answer key and sample exercises here.

1. Fill in each blank with “into” or “in to.”
(a) She went ____ his office in order to check ____ the facts about the two men who turned
themselves ____ the police.
(b) When he wanted to stay up far ____ the night to stare ____ the sky, he got ____ an argument
with his mother.
(c) As he turned _____ the driveway, he misjudged his location and ran ____ the mailbox.
(d) They entered _____ a pact to jump ____ the lake and mysteriously turned ____ frogs.

2. Select the preferred form.
(a) The Department of ______ Affairs will hold hearings next week.
[Veteran, Veteran’s, Veterans, Veterans’]
(b) Large corporations—the Apples, the ______, and the Intels—can achieve significant
economies of scale.
[McDonalds, McDonald’s, McDonald’s’, McDonalds’es]
(c) In the book of Exodus, we read about ______ wrath.
[Moses’s, Moses’]
(d) She is five _____ pregnant; he took three ______vacation.
[months, month’s, months’]; [weeks, week’s, weeks’]

3. What is a resident of each of the following states called?
(a) Connecticut.
(b) Maine.
(c) Massachusetts.
(d) Wyoming.

4. In which of the following are the page ranges treated inconsistently?
(a) See pages 22–25, 100–102, and 105–109.
(b) See pages 22–5, 100–2, and 105–9.
(c) See pages 22–25, 100–102, and 105–9.
(d) See pages 22-25, 100-02, and 105-09.

5. Which of the following are trademarks?
(a) Dumpster
(b) Mace
(c) Styrofoam
(d) Tabasco
(e) Taser

6. The asterisk-dagger system is used to
(a) flag queries in a manuscript.
(b) order nonnumerical footnotes.
(c) indicate levels of confidence in statistics tables.
(d) alphabetize nonnumerical characters in an index.

7. When a numbered list is “cleared for 10s,” the numerals that precede the items
(a) are indented ten spaces.
(b) align on the first digit.
(c) align on the last digit.
(d) are deleted and replaced by bullets or another nonnumerical character.

8. The incorrect use of it’s is one of those errors that ______ many editors.

9. In Jefferson County one in five children ____ not covered by health insurance.

10. His proposals were routinely ignored by his _____ .
[co-workers, coworkers]

11. We have submitted _____ FOIA request.
[a, an]

12. _____ than one in six households in Mayberry will receive a tax rebate.
[Less, Fewer]

13. Let’s give a copy of The Copyeditor’s Handbook to _____ will be training the new editors.
[whoever, whomever]

How’d you do? Share your score with us on social media: #copyeditingchallenge @UCPress

Calling All Copyeditors!

With the recent release of the seventeenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, the Press is developing a fourth edition of its best-selling Copyeditor’s Handbook, scheduled to publish in April 2019, along with a companion Copyeditor’s Workbook, which will feature extensive exercises, answer keys, and commentary. Marilyn Schwartz, the Press’s former managing editor, has taken over revisions for the much-missed Amy Einsohn; below Marilyn reflects on the book’s legacy and its future.

The Copyeditor’s Handbook began, like numerous books, in a conversation many years ago. At the time, Amy Einsohn was running a freelance editing business; I was supervising a staff of production editors at the University of California Press. We both also moonlighted as instructors of copyediting for UC Berkeley’s Extension program and the local freelance cooperative Editcetera. Whenever our paths crossed, we would stop to chat about our work and to commiserate over the dearth of instructional material for our students. Someone, we agreed, should write a book for aspiring copyeditors. Eventually, Amy wrote that book, and in 2000 UC Press published her now-indispensible introduction to professional editing. As Amy’s editor, I steered the Handbook through its initial publication and the production of two subsequent editions.

Amy’s book was unstuffy, hip, and often funny—traits not normally associated with copyediting. It demolished zombie rules of grammar and usage (those undead hordes of proscriptions against split infinitives and other imaginary faults) by advocating the counsel of professional linguists and lexicographers. It described the emerging procedures for on-screen editing at the end of the era when editors marked copy with No. 1 Ticonderoga pencils. It also offered technical tips, introduced new digital resources for editors, and adjudicated transformations in language and in the formal conventions for written English that were being accelerated by the internet, email, and social media.

With each fresh edition Amy refined, amplified, and updated content to keep pace with changes in editorial practice, but over time, we started to plan a more substantial revision of the Handbook, along with the creation of a new Copyeditor’s Workbook, a complementary volume of student exercises, in both print and digital form, that would greatly expand upon the fifteen assignments originally bound into the Handbook. Regrettably, Amy’s declining health prevented her from completing these projects, but she bequeathed extensive notes for this retooling. In revising the Handbook, I have followed Amy’s own tracks—her more than 100,000 words of marginalia and scores of saved computer files—and have incorporated the latest advice from language authorities, usage guides, and new editions of major style manuals, including The Chicago Manual of Style.

Tectonic shifts in the publishing industry have affected twenty-first-century copyediting in ways that Amy could not have foreseen when she wrote the Handbook, and I have tried to address these changes as well. No longer do editors merely groom manuscripts for print production: they often prepare text for several formats, including e-book publication, print-on-demand (POD) distribution, PDF output, and a concurrent existence or an afterlife on the web. Editors are also using, sometimes improvising, new tools, such as PDF markup, collaborative writing software, videoconferencing, and institutional clients’ proprietary production systems. They are expected to know how to emend text for global audiences; to conform manuscripts to governmental mandates for “plain language” (which is actually a thing); and sometimes to comply with accessibility requirements.

With the disappearance of many staff copyediting positions, more editors are plying their trade as freelancers. The new Handbook anticipates the demands of their increasingly diversified clientele, which includes soaring numbers of independent (self-publishing) authors, international scholars writing in English as a second language, and the intermediaries who have sprung up to serve such constituencies. In this new Wild West of publishing, editors must forge a professional code of ethics, establish independent standards, and undertake continuous self-education. And they must be prepared to negotiate the inevitable mission creep—the expectation that “copyediting” encompasses the full suite of services once provided by an entire team of specialists or the staff of a traditional publisher—while never abandoning the copyeditor’s prime directive: Remember that words matter.

After receiving a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Davis, in 1976, Marilyn Schwartz joined the editorial staff of the University of California Press, where she served as Managing Editor for twenty-eight years. From 1979 through 2004 she taught Editorial Workshop, an introductory class in the Professional Sequence in Editing, for UC Berkeley Extension. She is the author of Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), prepared for the Association of American University Presses with the members of the Task Force on Bias-Free Language. Since her retirement from UC Press in 2011, she has reenrolled in university classes and devotes her spare time to long-deferred writing projects and clandestine editing assignments.

Discussing Terrorism, After 9/11

It has been sixteen years since the Twin Towers collapsed, forever changing the physical and emotional landscape of those who call the United States their home, and those worldwide who stand in solidarity. Today, we remember those we’ve lost. But we also consider the changes that 9/11 has brought, such as it’s impact on democracy, and how we can remind future generations of students and people about what this day means.

Since 9/11, how have our discussions about terrorism, whether it be by individuals or groups, changed? And how do we view other people worldwide in light of what has happened since that day?

Below, we’ve included some recommended reading to help share the continuing conversation on terrorism and its impact on our global society. #neverforget #Sept11th #Remember911

The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11 edited by Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman

“Over its 109 years of existence, these historians [of this edited volume] and their colleagues argue, the Bureau has shaped American religious history through targeted investigations and religiously tinged rhetoric about national security.”—The Atlantic

Hear more about timely lessons for the FBI in the age of Trump. And read a sample chapter from the book.

Terror in the Mind of God, Fourth Edition: The Global Rise of Religious Violence by Mark Juergensmeyer. 

“Juergensmeyer’s work is a sensitive, comparative study of terrorist movements and the religious beliefs that motivate them.”—Washington Post

Read an excerpt regarding Burmese Buddhists and the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. And read a sample chapter from the book.


Constructions of Terrorism: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Research and Policy edited by Michael Stohl, Richard Burchill, and Scott Howard Englund

“Counter-terrorism would be less counterproductive if policymakers would take heed of their advice.” —Alex P. Schmid, Research Fellow and Director of the Terrorism Research Initiative at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, The Hague

And read the introduction from the book.


The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to ISIS, Updated Edition with a New Preface and Final Chapter edited by Gérard Chaliand and Arnaud Blin

“Provides a useful and levelheaded survey of a subject that is regularly misunderstood and often manipulated.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“A recommendable book for sociologists, anthropologists and social scientists who are interested by these types of hot topics.”—International Journal of Human Rights and Constitutional Studies

Read a sample chapter from the book.

Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan by David B. Edwards 

“Such a beautifully written and imaginative work comes along rarely—at once a deeply felt personal memoir about the author’s anthropological encounters with Afghanistan and a highly original theory about suicide bombing as sacrifice.”—Steven C. Caton, Khalid Bin Abdullah Bin Abdulrahman Al Saud Professor of Contemporary Arab Studies, Harvard University

Read a sample chapter from the book.

A Culture of Conspiracy, 2nd Edition: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America by Michael Barkun

“Ideas, even bizarre and marginalized ideas, do have consequences, and we ignore them at our peril. Barkun’s explorations, like the canary in the coal mine, warn us of what may lie ahead.”—Paul Boyer Christian Century

Read an interview with the author. And read an excerpt from the book.


The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays by Richard Taruskin

“This is one of the most important books about music you’ll read this year. . . . No one has bridged the gap between music scholarship and mainstream media as virtuosically as Taruskin.”—Tom Service The Guardian

Read a sample chapter from the book.

False Balance, Binary Discourse, and Critical Thinking

This guest post is published as part of a series related to the American Sociological Association conference from August 12 – 15 in Montreal, Quebec. #ASA17

By Peter M. Nardi, author of Critical Thinking: Tools for Evaluating Research

Just because two sides of a story are presented does not necessarily mean the truth is somewhere in the middle. Nor does it mean there are only two sides and each side is equally balanced. Most social behaviors and attitudes exist for complex reasons. When people argue from a “two-sides-of-the-coin” perspective, we fail to realize that there are in fact multiple sides, perhaps even a continuum with viewpoints all along the way.

Humans have a tendency to dichotomize reality: male and female, life and death, religious and nonreligious, tall and short, body and soul, pro and con, Republican and Democrat. How simplistic to think of reality in such limited ways with such minimal binary conceptualizations.

As anyone who has ever watched television news knows, endless debates about controversial topics characterize cable shows. Partly due to journalistic ethics of demonstrating fairness by providing balance, viewers get to experience shouting matches and unintelligent debates among competing perspectives.

Despite engaging with alternative ideas and hearing varied views, we tend to listen selectively and employ confirmation bias in reinforcing our already-held opinions. What should be presentations of facts and scientifically-derived evidence typically turn out to be shouting contests of personal opinions. A critical thinker needs to discern these opinions, attend to the wide-range of claims and data, and decide what a fair and balanced approach to the issues should be. Not all topics require a range of positions, of course; you wouldn’t have a member of the Ku Klux Klan as a balance to someone highlighting hate crimes against ethnic and racial minorities. Or would you, as presidential comments about recent news events from Charlottesville suggest?

When engaging with news stories, research, and media reports, it’s important to critically think about the ways fairness and balance may actually be misused. Objectivity in gathering information is almost always affected by some subjective elements of those people collecting, interpreting, and disseminating the facts. Often just the choice of what to report or research is reflective of someone’s preferences and biases.

Notice also that when established views or facts are questioned by an activist group or individual protesting the status quo, media often then seek out commentary from “the other side” composed of established leaders and officials, thereby reinforcing the conventional wisdom and power positions.

Reporting of controversial events with balance may seem fair unless the language, visuals, and commentary used in introducing various positions are loaded with consciously chosen or inadvertent bias. Look for such labels as “the so-called leader” or defining the murderer as a “thug” or a “terrorist” or a “loner.” What impact do these loaded words have on the public when a claim is made in this manner?

One of the problems with balance in the media is that it can distort the proportion of opposing views. When two sides are given equal treatment, viewers might assume a 50-50 split on important topics, thereby creating a false impression. False balance occurs when “both sides” are presented despite one perspective being overwhelmingly agreed upon by scientific consensus. Research confirms that this kind of two-sided balancing creates uncertainty about the topic in the public eye. Consider that while there is 97% agreement among scientists (in published peer-reviewed articles taking a position) that human activity causes global warming and climate changes, less than half of respondents in a Pew Research study thought scientists agreed on this subject.

When the media highlight an “other side of the coin” skeptical view to balance a scientifically agreed upon position, it creates an impression that these 3% represent half of the experts. Critical thinking skills demand we look more closely at these public presentations of complex issues. Such false balance and belief in a limited binary approach perpetuates the divisions in public discourse, social policy, and presidential pronouncements. False balance and simplistic “sides of the coin” arguments are no way to address the needs of a society and its citizens seeking leadership and intelligent responses to the complexities facing us today.

Peter M. Nardi is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Pitzer College. He is the author of Doing Survey Research: A Guide to Quantitative Methods.

For Critical Thinking: Tools for Evaluation Research, visit the  companion website, which includes links to articles and books mentioned in the chapters, illustrative items, videos, and current news and research that elaborate on each chapter’s key concepts.

From the Editor: Meet Me at ICA to Chat about Two New Book Series

By Lyn Uhl, Executive Editor of Communication

It’s been a busy year at the Press for Communication.

Introducing: Communication for Social Justice Activism Series

First off, we’re proud to announce our new series in Communication for Social Justice Activism. This series has been in development for months and now the call for proposals has been announced on CRTNET. Our wonderful co-editors Patricia S. Parker and Lawrence R. Frey are available via email to answer any questions and to help potential authors to shape their proposals. And I will be at the ICA conference later this week to meet with anyone who wants to discuss a book idea for the series.

Upcoming: Identity Complexities, Intersectionality, and Communication Series

Another series, to be edited by Cindy Griffin, is in development. The series title is Identity Complexities, Intersectionality, and Communication. The series encourages scholars to develop and explore intersectional approaches and orientations to understanding the ways we communicate about and within our social, cultural, political, ideological, and lived positions. Grounded in communication, the goals of this series are to stimulate and support scholarship and texts that

  • increase our understanding of the complexities of identities, their interlocking natures, and the ways those interlocking complexities make themselves known
  • develop a more complex and robust vocabulary around these understandings and the roles communication might play in this vocabulary and understanding
  • offer instructors accessible, contemporary, interesting, and provocative material for their classrooms.

Expect a call for proposals soon for this series!

Media Scholars

Are you a media scholar? I will be on a media listening tour during ICA. Please be in touch if you would like to discuss a book idea or if you would be willing to participate in a focus group for a new book series in media and technology.

Meet Me at ICA!

Again, I will be on site at ICA from May 25 -29. I’d would be happy to speak with you about any of the above book series or other book ideas you might have. You can reach me at luhl@ucpress.edu or (617)905-3681. Schedule an appointment in advance or call when you have a free moment.

Looking forward to seeing you at ICA!

Introducing Communication for Social Justice Activism Series

The Time is Right, The Time is Now

Communication professors and scholars are in a unique position to guide the next generation in reshaping the values of our society to be more equitable and just.

To this end, we are proud to introduce the Communication for Social Justice Activism Series with series editors Patricia S. Parker of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Lawrence R. Frey of the University of Colorado Boulder. Communication for social justice activism involves people using communication theories, methods, pedagogies, and other practices to work with and for oppressed, marginalized, and under-resourced groups, as well as with activist groups and organizations, to intervene into inequitable systems and make their structures and practices more just.





Praise for the Series

“The time is right if not overdue for such a series. The three types of books each with their own series, is visionary. An array of resources, allowing teachers and students to select volumes that connect closely to their work is what is needed.”Spoma Jovanovic, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

“It stands to fill a significant gap in current literature in its integration of activism and social justice into core communication curricula. The series will offer a much-needed forum for a growing area of interest in the field, and one of deep urgency for communication pedagogy and scholarship.”Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz, The University of Iowa

Join Us—Become an Author!

Proposals for the series should be submitted to Executive Editor Lyn Uhl at luhl@ucpress.edu. Manuscripts will then go through the University of California Press’ standard review and approval process.

Learn more at: www.ucpress.edu/go/commsocialjustice.