Bothsidesism, Whataboutism, and Perilous False Equivalencies

Sierra Lloyd, Editor

On a warm day at an unspecified elementary school, Jimmy punched Nolan on the playground. Nolan had called Jimmy’s shoes “silly” and Jimmy didn’t take it very well. Nolan’s nose started to bleed and, tattletale wimp that Nolan is, he went running to the teacher. The teacher, overworked, underpaid, and through with children as she is, decided both boys would be given detention and lectured about the ills of violence. Both boys’ parents would be called and encouraged to reprimand their children for fighting. Both boys, it was concluded, had done wrong and deserved equal punishment. But is this fair? Nolan had simply commented on Jimmy’s shoes. He never touched the other child. Jimmy, on the other hand, didn’t bother with words or a measured response. He escalated the situation right to fist-on-face. 

Let’s explore a second scenario in which the teacher sees Jimmy punch Nolan in the face firsthand. While she is exhausted and feels like ignoring the situation, Nolan’s nose is bleeding and she knows avoidance is impossible. She walks over to the two boys to scold Jimmy and determine further punishment when Jimmy points to the Yankees baseball cap on Nolan’s head. The teacher hates the Yankees and children aren’t allowed to wear hats at school. Jimmy claims he was only trying to knock the hat off Nolan’s head (to enforce the school rules, of course) but his hand hit a few inches lower than he meant. 

In the first situation, in which the wrongs committed by Jimmy and Nolan are punished equally, their teacher is practicing “bothsidesism”. Described by Merriam Webster, bothsidesing tries to minimize what would be deemed objectionable by heightening actions of opposing groups so that they will be deemed comparably objectionable. Most often criticized when found in journalism and reporting, bothsidesism can mislead the public when it comes to the actions of politicians or other opposing groups in power. While everyone is taught in school that “there are two sides to every story”, most of the time both sides don’t have equal moral or factual evidence supporting their argument. In an often-debated modern situation, for example, the illegal sale of loose cigarettes is not an equal wrong to excessive, fatal force used by a police officer, despite how many news organizations portray it as so to account for the actions of said officer. 

In our second playground scenario, Jimmy’s act of drawing attention to Nolan’s hat and violation of school wardrobe restrictions is an example of “whataboutism”. Whataboutism is the defense against an accusation by alerting others to a different accusation against an opponent. The teacher, distracted by her hatred of the Yankees, Nolan’s breaking of the hat ban, and her internal debate over the merits of arbitrary dress code rules, is less likely to focus on Jimmy’s act of violence. Whataboutism is a diversion tactic, and can be seen in modern news when, for example, President Trump points to the Obama administration’s response to the 2009 swine flu to distract from his faulty handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Both whataboutism and bothsidesism rely on false equivalencies. Both are also common critiques made of the media, referring to the attempt at appearing “fair” to each side and in the process lending credibility to an idea that has none. The terms have been seen most often in criticisms of media sources including the New York Times and National Public Radio, and such criticisms are published in the articles of those very media sources. James Fallows, a former NPR commentator, is interviewed in an NPR article critiquing the platform’s reporting on politics, citing the first 2020 Presidential Debate as an instance in which the platform inaccurately placed equal blame on both candidates for the debate’s chaotic quality. Norm Ornstein of Nieman Lab wrote a criticism of the NY Times, arguing that, “Saying both sides are equally responsible, insisting on equivalence as the mantra of mainstream journalism, leaves the average voter at sea, unable to identify and vote against those perpetrating the problem. The public is left with a deeper disdain for all politics and all politicians, and voters become more receptive to demagogues and those whose main qualification for office is that they have never served, won’t compromise, and see everything in stark black-and-white terms.” Ornstein’s position is that the press has a responsibility to bring the nation together when norms are changing rather than pretending outdated, inaccurate ideas are acceptable to hold. In a separate article on the issue, columnist Dan Rodricks explains the argument effectively, writing for the Baltimore Sun, “When one side is clearly wrong, or its actions more egregious than the other, engaging in bothsidesism is pretty lame.”

Bothsidesism specifically exposes the journalism paradox that when both sides are treated fairly and equally, neither ends up shown in a true light. It can be just as dangerous and influential as biased reporting, convincing the public that two political candidates are just as credible, that a plaintiff and defendant have been wronged to the same extent, or that two interest groups have equally moral motivations. In a 2016 article (published before election day), Paul Krugman writes for the NY Times that the media is to blame for widespread Trump support. He argues papers and television news downplayed Trump’s “awfulness” in order to place him on a pedestal even with Clinton. Asserting that such media platforms might as well publish stories titled “Shape of the Planet- Both Sides Have a Point”, he points to news sources giving equal if not more time to Clinton’s emails and misstatements as Trump’s scandals and lies. 

I hope we all can agree that Jimmy’s response to teasing on the playground was an overreaction to the situation, and that the boys, while both lacking developed social skills, were not equally in the wrong. While there are no easy or black-and-white answers to life’s more difficult questions, from the political issues of abortion and gun control to the path forward in the face of a global pandemic, one side of the debate often has more evidence, logic, or honest motivations than the other. A media default to “both sides are to blame” or “there were good people on both sides” is a fallacy that only benefits those on the dishonest, inaccurate, or prejudiced end of the argument. While “whataboutism” and “bothsidesism” are usually used with good intentions, they are a cop-out of holding people in power accountable. And holding powerful people accountable is exactly what journalism is here to do.

To use Dan Rodrick’s words, the media’s use of confusing false equivalencies in the effort to remain neutral is pretty lame. It’s hurting public understanding of politics and controversy, and it’s time for it to end.