Greta Van Susteren has given me the opportunity to write about something I’ve wanted to explore in depth for some time. She left her job as a Fox News commentator last year, and then signed onto NBC News; she now anchors an MSNBC show, For the Record with Greta. Greta recently replied to a comment I made on her Facebook page. More on that in a moment.
When her MSNBC show was announced, I remember thinking how odd it was that someone who had worked for arch-conservative, rabidly pro-Trump Fox News could be comfortable, not to mention credible, at MSNBC which, of course, is leading the anti-Trump charge among the cable networks. When I finally got around to watching her show, I thought, how vanilla. Her “on the one hand, on the other” format was non-informative and, worse, missed the entire point of journalism, which is to distinguish between truth and fiction. Still, I thought I knew what Greta was trying to do: fair and balanced journalism, the kind Fox News claims, falsely, to practice. Get both sides together and have a reasoned discussion, to see if there’s common ground.
Normally, I could respect that, but these are not normal times. With Trump, the stakes are much too high for dithering. So, a few days ago, I sent a comment to Greta. I suggested that her “cocktail-style” format is more suitable for Wolf Blitzer’s CNN — a network that is befuddled and hapless in the face of Trump’s onslaught of lies.
Greta, who seems like an enormously decent person, was kind enough to reply. “If you want to listen to someone who just takes sides…you are right…I am not your person. I look at the facts and try to figure out what is fair and right….I don’t just take sides.” To which I responded, “The two sides [i.e., lies and truth] are not intellectually or honestly equal. Surely you know that.”
Sometimes it’s appropriate for people with opposing views to sit down and work things out. Let’s say you think the Stones are better than the Beatles. I disagree. We can have a reasonable and informed conversation without, perhaps, ever coming to agreement, because, in a sense, we’re both right. Who’s to say?
But not all dialecticals lend themselves to such equal treatment. Let me make an extreme example. Imagine a debate between someone who believes the Earth is round and someone who thinks it’s flat. (I actually had this conversation with a friend.) The person who thinks it’s flat (my friend) argues that photographs of our planet taken from outer space prove that the world is flat. When the other person (me) points out that that’s crazy, that every photograph ever taken of Earth from space shows that it’s round, the flat-earther declares those photos have been faked.
Now, if you take the Greta Van Susteren point of view, both sides are entitled to equal treatment. You sit them down and give each a chance. Greta might ask the person who thinks the Earth is round, “Can you prove that the photos of round Earth have not been faked?” That would be the approach of someone who “does not take sides.”
But, obviously, that approach would be ludicrous. There is no intellectual equivalence between a flat earther and a round earther! Why would someone like Greta, with her massive power of hosting a national T.V. program, give a flat earther air time, and waste the valuable time of her viewers? Is it in the interest of “fairness,” or does it merely perpetuate disinformation?
But that’s what her “Both sides have a right to speak” results in: a debate between truth and rubbish: for example, between Kellyanne Conway defending Trump’s statement that his inaugural crowd was the biggest in history, against actual photographs proving that it was dwarfed by Obama’s. How can a T.V. news host possibly not take sides? Why would she not want to defend truth and order the truth denier off her stage?
Greta subscribes to the old newspaper ideology that both sides in a debate deserve to be listened to respectfully by us, the public. That once was true in journalism, but it’s now an anachronism. Trump neutralized it, at least for the time being, with his very first birther lie, and he and his surrogates continue their assault on truth. Networks like CNN, which lacked the courage to repudiate Trump’s lies, succeeded merely in normalizing him. There is a difference between truth and lies—a stark, epistomological difference that must be acknowledged if human reason is to rule over superstition. Pretending that truth and lies both deserve respectful treatment is deliberate, and dangerous, obfuscation.