The noun bothsidesism, also bothsideism, denotes the news media’s practice of giving credence to the other side of an opinion or action in order to seem fair, even though that other side is objectionable.
The noun bothsidesism, also bothsideism, also denotes the practice by public figures of minimising an objectionable action by heightening actions of other groups so that they will be deemed comparably objectionable.
—Cf. also the nouns whataboutery and whataboutism, denoting the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counteraccusation or raising a different issue.
The noun bothsideism occurs, for example, in the following from the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture that Emily Maitlis delivered on Wednesday 24th August 2022 at the Edinburgh TV Festival 1:
—as transcribed by the Edinburgh TV Festival:
Let me take you this time to early 2016. The UK is beginning to debate the big questions around Britain’s potential exit from the EU. It is complicated stuff: We are trying to offer our viewers both sides of a fiendishly difficult debate. And that intention was right. But we still got it wrong. We fell into what we might call “the Patrick Minford 2 paradigm”. In other words, it might take our producers five minutes to find sixty economists who feared Brexit and five hours to find a sole voice who espoused it. But by the time we went on air we simply had one of each; we presented this unequal effort to our audience as balance. It wasn’t.
I would later learn the ungainly name for this myopic style of journalism: “bothsideism”, which talks to the way it reaches a superficial balance whilst obscuring a deeper truth.
1 In this lecture, the British journalist Emily Maitlis (born 1970) talked about the BBC, from which she resigned in February 2022.
2 Patrick Minford (born 1943) is a British economist. He was, in 2016, a member of the lobbying group called Economists for Brexit.
The earliest occurrences of the noun bothsidesism, also bothsideism, that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:
1-: From the column Minority Retort, by Jim Dance, published in The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) of Monday 7th October 1974:
Nincompoop’s Law […] insists there are two sides to every question, not to mention every politician or public figure.
Nincompoopers, flexible by nature, want all newspapers to print “both sides” and be free of all bias, especially if it is their politician or philosophy that has been caught bad side up. They do not mind bias if it matches their own. Who does? Not editorial writers, certainly.
There are not, of course, simply two sides. Fifty, maybe. A hundred-and-43-and-a-half perhaps. But two—equal and square and in balance? No way. Both-side-ism says whatever peccadilloes Mr. Nixon may have innocently overlooked, he deserves equal credit for buddying-up with Red China. It says as well that despite Mr. Kennedy’s shortcomings at Chappaquiddick, if any, he’s for a national health plan and from a good family to boot. All’s square. Fifty-Fifty. Fair’s fair. Both sides.
2-: From an essay by Joseph Sobran, of the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California), published in several U.S. newspapers on Tuesday 29th January 1980—for example in The Tampa Times (Tampa, Florida):
WASHINGTON—Henry Kissinger has been warning us against what he calls the current American mood of “self-flagellation.” He has a point. Since the late ’60s America’s favorite subject has been the sins of America. […]
[…] Lately our embassy in Iran was seized, along with 50 hostages. A clear-cut case in our favor? No, we had brought it on ourselves!
And soon the letters to the editor were arguing that it never would have happened if only we hadn’t supported the shah.
The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, in a fit of what Meg Greenfield 3 has described as “both-side-ism,” began exhorting us to approach the Iranian captors with “humility.” To Coffin’s mind, neither side was in the right—especially ours. “Both sides” had to compromise—especially the side of the victims, who continue to languish.
3 Meg Greenfield (Mary Ellen Greenfield – 1930-1999) was a U.S. editorial writer.
3-: From After the handshake: The rewrite begins, by Rabbi Robert L. Wolkoff, published in the St. Louis Jewish Light (St. Louis, Missouri) of Wednesday 29th September 1993:
Already it begins. In the wake of the Israel-PLO agreement, the battle for the past has begun. New realities created by the Agreement are being read retroactively into the history of the conflict. The temptation to distort the past in order to settle old scores, or simply to say “I told you so,” appears irresistible.
For Carol Morello of Knight-Ridder, the conflict has been “a blood feud,” creating a “psychological prison.” Once again, we sense the implicit assertion that both sides (as in Mary McGrory’s 4 wonderful phrase “both-side-ism”) were somehow blinded by rage—it’s a “psychological” problem—but now finally have come to their senses.
4 Mary McGrory (1918-2004) was a U.S. political journalist.
4-: From the review of Blacks and Jews (New York: Delacorte Press, 1994), by Paul Berman—review by Rabbi Robert L. Wolkoff, published in the St. Louis Jewish Light (St. Louis, Missouri) of Wednesday 1st February 1995:
Blacks and Jews is a book about the dialogue which, as editor Paul Berman writes, “has itself become part of the cityscape social reality.” The problem with a dialogue in 19 voices is that after a while it turns into a cacophony. One is left with confusion, rather than clarity. This problem is enhanced by the fact that many of the authors make sweeping claims (“All white people…”, “all blacks…”); contradictory claims (“black anti-Semitism is as old as the hills” vs “black anti-Semitism is a new phenomenon”); and suffer from “both-sides-ism,” the tendency to see parallels and shared responsibility where none exist.
5-: From Charen’s Corner, by the U.S. political columnist Mona Charen (born 1957), published in The Southern Illinoisan (Carbondale, Illinois) of Saturday 11th September 2010:
We’ve made a figure of a flyspeck
For once, I’m with Hillary Clinton. Regarding the Rev. Terry Jones 5, would-be Quran igniter, the secretary of state said, “It is regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, with a church of no more than 50 people can make this outrageous and … disgraceful plan and get the world’s attention, but that’s the world we live in right now.”
“Get the world’s attention” is putting it mildly. The until-recently justifiably obscure Jones is now famous on seven continents. […]
[…] How did the Gainesville pastor become such a world-bestriding figure?
He became news because he fulfilled a need for the press. They had to have another side to the ground zero mosque 6 story. Why? Because members of the press are total suckers for “both sidesism.” There is nothing they like better in a news story than to present two conflicting views and to pronounce that “both sides” are guilty of provocation, mistrust, violence or bad faith. They are confident that truth nearly always lies between two extremes.
5 Terry Jones (born 1951) is a U.S. anti-Islamic right-wing activist, and the pastor of Dove World Outreach Center, a small nondenominational Christian church based in Gainesville, Florida.
6 Ground Zero mosque was the nickname given to an Islamic cultural centre (including a mosque) that was to be built in New York City, near the site where the World Trade Center stood until the events of Tuesday 11th September 2001.
6 & 7-: From the column that the U.S. economist Paul Krugman (born 1953) published in The New York Times (New York City, New York):
6-: On Monday 18th July 2016:
Both Sides Now?
When Donald Trump began his run for the White House, many people treated it as a joke. Nothing he has done or said since makes him look better. On the contrary, his policy ignorance has become even more striking, his positions more extreme, the flaws in his character more obvious, and he has repeatedly demonstrated a level of contempt for the truth that is unprecedented in American politics.
Yet while most polls suggest that he’s running behind in the general election, the margin isn’t overwhelming, and there’s still a real chance that he might win. How is that possible? Part of the answer, I’d argue, is that voters don’t fully appreciate his awfulness. And the reason is that too much of the news media still can’t break with bothsidesism—the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.
[…] In the last few days we’ve seen a spectacular demonstration of bothsidesism in action: an op-ed article from the incoming and outgoing heads of the White House Correspondents’ Association, with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” How so? Well, Mr. Trump has selectively banned news organizations he considers hostile; he has also, although the op-ed didn’t mention it, attacked both those organizations and individual reporters, and refused to condemn supporters who, for example, have harassed reporters with anti-Semitic insults.
Meanwhile, while Mrs. Clinton hasn’t done any of these things, and has a staff that readily responds to fact-checking questions, she doesn’t like to hold press conferences. Equivalence!
Stung by criticism, the authors of the op-ed issued a statement denying that they had engaged in “false equivalency”—I guess saying that the candidates are acting “similarly” doesn’t mean saying that they are acting similarly. And they once again refused to indicate which candidate was behaving worse.
As I said, bothsidesism isn’t new, and it has always been an evasion of responsibility. But taking the position that “both sides do it” now, in the face of this campaign and this candidate, is an act of mind-boggling irresponsibility.
7-: On Tuesday 4th October 2016:
The King of False Equivalence
[…] [Paul] Ryan 7 is not […] a serious, honest man of principle who has tainted his brand by supporting Donald Trump. He has been an obvious fraud all along […].
Yet he poses as an icon of fiscal probity. That is, he is, in his own way, every bit as much a fraud as The Donald.
So how has he been able to get away with this? The main answer is that he has been a huge beneficiary of false balance. The media narrative requires that there be serious, principled policy wonks on both sides of the aisle; Ryan has become the designated symbol of that supposed equivalence, even though actual budget experts have torn his proposals to shreds on repeated occasions.
And my guess is that the media will quickly forgive him for the Trump episode too. They need him for their bothsidesism. After all, it’s not as if there are any genuine honest policy wonks left in the party that nominated Donald Trump.
7 The U.S. Republican politician Paul Ryan (born 1970) represented Wisconsin in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1999 to 2019.