John F. Harris is about as mainstream as the mainstream media gets. He spent 21 years at The Washington Post, including as its political editor. Then he became the founding editor of Politico, where he is now a columnist.
Last month, Harris wrote a column that I can’t get out of my head. In it, he argued that political journalism suffers from “centrist bias.” As he explained, “This bias is marked by an instinctual suspicion of anything suggesting ideological zealotry, an admiration for difference-splitting, a conviction that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it usually is.”
The bias caused much of the media to underestimate Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Donald Trump in 2016. It also helps explain the negative tone running through a lot of the coverage of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders this year.
Centrist bias, as I see it, confuses the idea of centrism (which is very much an ideology) with objectivity and fairness. It’s an understandable confusion, because American politics is dominated by the two major parties, one on the left and one on the right. And the overwhelming majority of journalists at so-called mainstream outlets — national magazines, newspapers, public radio, the non-Fox television networks — really are doing their best to treat both parties fairly.
In doing so, however, they often make an honest mistake: They equate balance with the midpoint between the two parties’ ideologies. Over the years, many press critics have pointed out one weakness of this approach: false equivalence, the refusal to consider the possibility that one side of an argument is simply (or mostly) right.
But that’s not the only problem. There’s also the possibility that both political parties have been wrong about something and that the solution, rather than being roughly halfway between their answers, is different from what either has been proposing.
This seemingly radical possibility turns out to be quite common, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — author of the classic book “The Vital Center,” no less — pointed out. The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, the New Deal, civil rights for black Americans, Reagan’s laissez-faire revolution and same-sex marriage all started outside the boundaries of what either party favored. “The most consequential history,” Harris wrote, “is usually not driven by the center.”
Political and economic journalism too often assumes otherwise and treats the center as inherently sensible. This year’s Democratic presidential campaign has been a good case study. The skeptical questions posed to the more moderate Democrats are frequently about style or tactics: Are you too old? Too young? Too rich? Too far behind in the polls?
The skeptical questions for the more progressive candidates, Sanders and Warren, often challenge the substance of their ideas: Are you too radical? Are you being realistic? And, by golly, how would you pay for it all?
I recently took a detailed look through the coverage of the wealth tax, favored by both Sanders and Warren, and centrist bias seeps through much of it. The coverage has slanted negative, filled with the worries that centrists have — that the tax wouldn’t work in practice or would slow economic growth.
Experts who favor a wealth tax, like Gene Sperling, Felicia Wong and Heather Boushey, or whose academic research suggests it would work, like Lily Batchelder and David Kamin, have received less attention than experts who don’t like the idea. For that matter, the complaints of obscure billionaires have gotten more attention than the arguments of sympathetic experts. “Billionaire whining about a wealth tax,” as Ilyana Kuziemko, a Princeton economist who’s sympathetic to a wealth tax, told me, mostly isn’t newsworthy.
I’m not suggesting that journalists lather the wealth tax with praise. There are real questions about it, and journalists are supposed to be skeptical. I’m also not suggesting that Sanders or Warren is necessarily the best nominee. As regular readers know, I’m a moderate on Medicare, immigration and college debt, among other subjects. John Harris, for his part, confesses to “a pretty strong bout” of centrist bias.
But maybe that’s why we recognize it and pine for more objective coverage. Not every policy question posed to Democrats needs to have a conservative assumption, and not every question posed to Republicans needs to have a liberal one. If Warren and Sanders are going to be asked whether their solutions go too far, Joe Biden should be asked whether his solutions are too timid: Mr. Vice President, many economists believe that inequality is bad for an economy, so are you doing enough to attack inequality?
Once you start thinking about centrist bias, you recognize a lot of it. It helps explain why the 2016 presidential debates focused more on the budget deficit, a topic of centrist zealotry, than climate change, almost certainly a bigger threat. (Well-funded deficit advocacy plays a role too.) Centrist bias also helps explain the credulousness of early coverage during the Iraq and Vietnam wars. Both Democrats and Republicans, after all, largely supported each war.
The world is more surprising and complicated than centrist bias imagines it to be. Sometimes, people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are right. Even when they’re not, they deserve the same skepticism that other politicians do — no less, no more.
David Leonhardt is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.