An Age of Adversarial Journalism: To Reach the Truth, You Need to Hear Both Sides

The adversarial system of litigation—in which attorneys with opposed interests present their respective cases to a jury—is now the best paradigm through which to understand modern-day journalism. We must assume the role of jurors, making sure to hear from all sides before reaching our verdict.

The Mueller Report utterly and totally exonerates President Trump and shows him to be the most spotlessly innocent president in American history, a victim of vengeful persecution by dastardly media and deep-state elites still bitter from the results of the 2016 election. Break up CNN! 

The Mueller Report definitively proves that President Trump is a dangerous and sinister criminal, whose attempts to collude with the Russians to steal the 2016 election and then to obstruct justice were foiled only by his own incompetence and his subordinates’ defiance of his insane directives. This guy, along with his cover-up-facilitating Attorney General William Barr, must be impeached!

Depending on what you’ve been reading and watching in the aftermath of the release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report, you have probably encountered one of these two narratives. But unless you have gone out of your way to expose yourself to a different perspective, it’s likely that you have not encountered full-throated versions of both.

This is unfortunate. As is often the case with such things, the truth might well lie somewhere in the middle. In our contemporary, polarized media landscape, that murky middle is rather sparsely occupied. Whether the topic is the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation circus, the larger saga of #MeToo, race and racism, Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony, or such polarizing figures as President Trump or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I often find that the truth is somewhere in between the two extremes. You might say that I only think so because I am—or am trying to position myself as—some sort of “reasonable moderate.” But I think this has nothing to do with my own political perspective.

This is not about opinions. It is about facts: facts that never come your way if you only hear from one side. If you get all your information from Fox or from CNN, you are being propagandized rather than informed. You are simply not getting all the basic information you need to make up your mind.

The Adversarial Approach to Litigation . . . and to Journalism

Most American attorneys like me are comfortable with an adversarial model of truth. In this model, two sides go at it until they tire each other out and settle the case or get a theoretically impartial judge or jury to see things their way and rule in their favor. Judges know, and jurors are instructed, not to take what either side says at face value. In fact, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, most judges will refuse to speak to one side when the other isn’t in attendance. The judge and jury sit as neutral arbiters, listening to the arguments and the evidence. They do their best to discern truth from falsehood, reality from fiction, and sincerity from spin. Sometimes (rarely) the truth is all on one side, but most often it isn’t.

The process has its flaws, but it has the distinct advantage of being transparent as to the motivations of the litigants: everyone understands that the lawyers involved are going to be doing their best to win the case for their side. They are going to marshal the most compelling evidence and arguments they can, not present some pristine, Olympian account of the way things are.

It is important to understand that the adversarial system is by no means the only way to get the job done. Most European common-law systems employ some variant of the “inquisitory” approach, in which the ultimate decision-maker doesn’t sit passively listening to the evidence roll in. Rather, a judge in this kind of system serves a more active role, investigating the matter, questioning witnesses, asking to see certain evidence, and the like. The judge must be not just a passive arbiter of truth but a dedicated seeker of truth, at once proactive and impartial.

Our system of media used to steer closer to the inquisitory model. We trusted our journalists to act like European judges, to investigate stories while remaining objective and agnostic as to what they might find. The lofty goal of objectivity might always have been unattainable, but there was something to be said for the mere duty to make the effort and play the part. It resulted in professionalism and inspired confidence. We could then read or hear stories and—except when they were clearly labeled and consigned to the Op-Ed section—trust that we would climbed higher on the up-sloping path toward the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

This, of course, is no longer the case. Every news source today all too clearly has an editorial perspective embodied in every aspect of its coverage of the issues that matter. Why that has happened and why it is not a good thing are questions beyond my present scope. What I hope most of us can agree upon is that it has happened. Today, there is no more “mainstream” media, if by “mainstream” we mean something akin to an objective, trustworthy center. The question is what we—each of us working on an individual level—can do about it. The answer is actually quite simple.

Just as in our system of criminal justice, truth in our political life has become an adversarial process. What that means is that if you only get one side of the story, you are like a juror who reaches a verdict as soon as the plaintiff rests and before the defense even has a chance to put on its first witness. We must abandon the whole paradigm premised on “trust.” If you’re still talking about “trusting” certain media outlets, you just don’t get what an adversarial system is all about. “Trusting” The New York Times to give you all the news that’s fit to print is like trusting the plaintiff’s attorney to fill you in on the whole picture. Recall the main advantage of an adversarial system: motivations are transparent. In an adversarial system, The New York Times, like the plaintiff’s attorney, isn’t doing anything wrong by giving you its corporate-neoliberal-with-an-ample-helping-of-regressive-leftist-identity-politics side of the case. It’s just doing its job.

Your Responsibility

But now, like a good juror, you need to do your job. In an adversarial system, you’ve got more work to do, I’m afraid. Alas, there isn’t just one other side. This is multi-party litigation. You need to check out the corporate-neocon views of The Wall Street Journal and the fusionist outlook at National Review. Check out the populist right side of the case at the American Conservative. See what the libertarian Trumpers at The Federalist and the socialists at Mother Jones, Jacobin, Dissent, or The Nation think. And so on.

If this sounds like a lot of work, at least do yourself this favor: if there’s a major story you’re following, make a regular habit of clicking on the homepages of a few of your favorite publications (including, of course, Public Discourse), representing a diversity of viewpoints, and scan the headlines. Even those might give you a sense of what it is you might otherwise be missing.

This is my advice to you, but it’s also what I regularly do. I can’t guarantee that I always get it right any more than I can guarantee that, at the end of a hard-fought trial, the jury always reaches the right verdict. But I can say this: if your goal is to drown out the fake news, the only hope you have is by realizing that every publication today is an inextricable mixture of real, fake, and everything in between. The only path to reality is to throw all the worthy contenders into the crucible, letting the sparks fly and the flames consume what they will consume. Truth is the shiny thing left gleaming among the ashes.

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