How the Media Manufacture Moderates

By Mark Jacob 

The mainstream media think the safest place to stand is in the middle of the road.

Being middle-of-the-road, or centrist, is the way to bridge the nation’s ideological chasm and reach the bipartisan promised land. At least some journalists seem to think so, and that’s why they adore moderates. And if they can’t find enough real moderates, they invent them.

Take Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. They’re both “moderates,” according to CNN, even though Manchin is clearly a radical on climate change and Sinema’s first term has been one long string of Christmas mornings for private equity fund managers.

Sometimes the people who get the “moderate” tag embarrass the people who gave them that. For a few years Rep. Nancy Mace was one of the media’s favorite “moderates.” Now she’s a guest on convicted criminal Steve Bannon’s show.  

Last month the New York Times said Mace was “a fiscal conservative but leans toward the center on some social issues.” This month, Mace accused the left of a “war on women,” an interesting choice of words as we marked the first anniversary of the right wing’s destruction of abortion rights. Mace also sized up Trump’s stolen-documents indictment with a repudiation of our justice system, tweeting: “The President of the United States had his political opponent arrested today.” Pretty darn radical.

Nikki Haley is another politician whom some news outlets want desperately to make into a centrist icon. CNN recently called her “a moderate, at least in the current context of the Republican Party.” (Talk about moving the goalposts.) Haley recently argued that the Confederate battle flag was a symbol of “service, sacrifice and heritage” before Dylann Roof “hijacked” its meaning by massacring nine Black churchgoers in Charleston. Sure, Nikki, there was no problem with the rebel flag before 2015.

Then there are the wingnuts who make terms like “moderate” and “centrist” completely meaningless. Elon Musk has described Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as “sensible and centrist.” Yes, DeSantis, the book-banning, university-trashing, migrant-snatching, Disney-bashing modern-day Mussolini.

The term “moderate” is often a “tell” revealing media bias. In Chicago’s mayoral election this spring, Paul Vallas welcomed the endorsement of a radical police union whose president warned of “blood in the streets” if Vallas lost. Yet the New York Times and the Associated Press thought Vallas was “more moderate” than the guy who got elected, Brandon Johnson, who was supported by left-leaning unions.

So why do news outlets favor moderates? Do they think centrism is good for American democracy – or is it a media marketing strategy? Is it just a safe space where news organizations can triangulate between the left and right to keep their customers?

The posture of many journalists seems rooted in the idea that the best democratic outcome is a mathematical formula: left plus right divided by two equals consensus. This might have some validity if we’re talking about policy issues in which compromise is practical. But what if we’re talking about truth vs. lies or decency vs. hate? Does bipartisanship mean it’s OK to lie half the time? To spread hoaxes about half of our vaccines? To torment half of LGBTQ people? To paint half of immigrants as criminals?

Yes, moderation is a way to bring political peace, at least temporarily. And it’s important for all partisans to act with the welfare of the American people in mind. But there’s no golden rule that says moderation is the correct policy. Sometimes a radical solution – such as abolishing slavery – is the only acceptable option. And let’s recognize that centrism is not objective. It’s a subjective political position, just like being right-wing or leftist is.

But beyond the question of whether moderation is the right position, we need to ask whether people who claim to be moderates really are. A supposedly centrist group called No Labels may be pushing a supposedly centrist presidential candidate next year, and some political analysts are skeptical. Would a No Labels candidate be a way to take votes from Joe Biden and help a Republican win? Some people think so, and No Labels has done nothing to allay those concerns by refusing to release its donor list.  

But the group has at least one positive spin: skepticism about partisan labels. Let’s not lazily accept the news media’s declarations that someone is conservative or progressive or centrist. Let’s be more thoughtful than that. Let’s judge politicians by their actions. Let’s be issues-oriented, not tribal.

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.